The Altiplano by John A. Barrett

We descend from Machu Picchu – the spectacular lost city of the Incas, encouraged by the spirited mastery of youths racing down the luxuriant grassy mountain, splitting multiple hairpin-bends to meet appreciative mini-buses’ occupants, before the train returns to Cusco. An occurrence mentioned in travel guidebooks when I first explored South America’s Altiplano between Peru and Bolivia. An overland adventure from  Cusco to LaPaz, that traversed the 4,000-meter Andean plateau, steeped with an abundance of Inca history, insightful deviations and multifarious challenges for me and partner Sue.

We stay in a third-floor budget hotel room, amongst Cusco row houses. A refuge after galloping around at high altitude. I feel ready for the knacker’s yard, my energy sapped, with the pounding head of a New Year’s hangover. A day’s rest, somewhat acclimatized, appetite returns and my stomach growls like a hungry wolf.

San Pedro Market dispenses its spicy aromatic presence, amongst the buzz of vociferous chatter and luring smiles. Lavish eye-catching displays of rainbow-colouredAlpaca sweaters, ponchos, woollenscarfs and tuques. Arrayed side-by-side, vendors compete to sell similar goods in a medley of cooked foods, fruits and vegetables, clothing, hardware, and souvenirs. Leary, I pass on the Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef) and Pollo Frito (fried chicken), settling for Buffifaras (a ham sandwich on French bread), fruity nectarines and lucuma (looks like a mix of avocado and mango, with the taste of sweet potato and caramel). Fascinated, we delve deeper into this Aladdin’s Cave of culinary and cultural enticement.

Cusco railway station abuzz with lesser versions of the market fare, but just as lively. Ruddy-red-faced Indigenous women in long skirts and woollen sweaters, don hats with wide-brim bowlers, trilbys, and flat round hats with yellow Alpaca images woven into the black fabric periphery.

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A younger native woman with a body bundle straggling her backsells bunches of long-stem yellow trumpet flowers that spill-out around her baby, dominating the centre piece like a chosen angel.

The Puno-bound train departs with the mix of nationalities and oversize knapsacks. Aussies I recognize from Machu Picchu and a British group we rubbed shoulders with at Sacsayhuaman, the enormous block stones so evenly sculptured and layered, a razor-blade could not be placed between them.

After eleven-hours of lively gossip and mind-boggling travel tales, the train nears Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, covering an area of 8,000 square kilometres, same as the largest Greek island of Crete.

The train crawls through a dilapidated village flooded with water around the railway tracks, debris discarded outside single-room mud houses. A still, black dog lays in a pool of water? A woman washes herself and baby from a drainage trough running down a street. Other women with taller trilby and bowler hats wear long full green-sack skirts and shuffle in fine-weave sandals. Barefoot children, with runny noses, stare with widened eyes. A group of men sit on crates, smoking ekekos- cocoa leaves, shoulders drooped, faces downcast. Peddlers perilously cling to both sides of the train offering a meagre assortment of souvenirs. Their clothes, worn and torn badges of toil and deprivation, eyes begging for a few Sol coins. The Andean natives spread alongside the track in the daily train ritual of expectation and hope. The warts of want undisguised reality, instead of the pristine beauty I’d imagined in the rarified air.

We find a cheap but clean closet-sized hotel room for the night and venture out for a dinner of fried lake trout smothered in dense oil for me, Anticuchos – skewers of grilled marinated beef for Sue, believing the heart isn’t part of this celebratory dish.

A commotion breaks out along the main drag as indigenous youths march and chant with angry cries demanding justice. Placards protesting high inflation and fraudulent agrarian reforms on cultivated lands. The cacophony swells, and the spring-loaded atmosphere forces our exit. The hotel, an inescapable sounding board, until the rebellious chants finally melt into the night.

A cloud-veiled sunrise greets Puno with a subdued orange reflection shimmering upon Lake Titicaca. Arturo, a Bolivian taxi driver, corrals us outside the hotel in search of five passengers for his eight-hour return leg to La Paz. He asks $14 each, to make it worthwhile. More expensive than the bus, but quicker and more comfortable, we believe. We team up with another couple, Judy and Rick from Toronto, and Oregonian Meg, whose Spanish betters mine.

Squashed like sardines with our gear stowed wherever it fits. Arturo, with his curly dark hair with matching moustache, high cheekbones and narrow nose flashes an easy smile, and fingers the crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror. The starter motor grudgingly fires, exhaust-pipe clanging against the rear bumper, as we set off under increasingly cloudy skies, without seatbelts. Body language secreting a whiff of apprehension, along with the hint of Rick’s pipe tobacco.

The road south snakes the widening lake. On the mountain side, mud-brick farm houses scatter the wet montane grasslands, rolling skywards in an unfolding carpet of grey-green tundra. Herds of Alpaca and Llama dot the hillsides. Raised for their wool by hardy farmers, supported by Arturo as he grips his faded-green woollen sweater, elbows worn like strung out spider-webs.

Near Chucuito, we stretch our legs at the Uro village, where clumps of forest-green reeds populate the lakeshore. Cut and dried totora reeds weaved into beige raft decks and floating island houses pepper the lake, along with reed boats. Harvested reeds also supplement Uro food diets of lake trout and hunted birds. Descendants of the Inca dynasty, the Uro culture and language are preserved through the intermix of Aymara and Quechua-speaking natives, spanning the lake and tundra communities.

Eyes focus on the charcoal skies ahead and two policemen trotting towards us on horseback, each with a rope tied to a man’s hands. His face bruised and the blood smeared on his clothes bespeak his captured ordeal. Allegedly, he stabbed and killed a man, but probably won’t be executed, just left to rot in prison. His only food source family or friends – if he has any.

Dark skies move over us, unleashing torrents, hammering the roof, blinding the windscreen, forcing the wagon to submission. Water flows from the mountains, turning the gravelled road into flash river crossings. When the downpour eases to a steady downpour, Arturo ventures on the muddy conundrum until the car ahead blocks the single-pass road.

We pile out. One side of the road washed away, the hole, at least a wheel’s depth to the water level. A narrow strip of muddied-grass verge on one side, barely enough for vehicles to pass. We help align the blocked car, its spinning wheels spraying Sue’s fair hair with red-brown flecks, while Rick’s wide mouth catches a muddy appetizer. We ignore appearances and push, trying to maintain the car on the grass verge.

Drenched to the skin, the cold rain snatches precious warmth from my shivering body, feet soaked, mud plastered to squelching shoes. We struggle to pack enough grass tufts to gain traction until perseverance wins and enables the driver to inch to the other side. Arturo does the same.

We come upon a wider river crossing the road, but partway across the wagon stalls. In seconds the water surges, seeping through the wagon’s door seals. Stuck in this raging river, water creeps up my legs towards the seat. Stranded with no way out? Unphased, as if driving to a picnic, Arturo shifts into second gear and turns-over his suspect starter motor to gain a slight movement, renewed optimism. After multiple attempts, he’s able to limp the beleaguered wagon across the river of rain.

Relief and mud plastered over our faces, we wield tin-cups to drain the wagon’s substantial water bath. After most of the retrievable water is removed, our soaked, shivering bodies still cannot erase the odorous interior, akin to a pack of wet dogs.

The rising landscape treeless, only low-lying shrubs and soaked grassy tundra strewn with herds of sheep and llama. Then another lessintense flood experience, traversing a wider grass verge.

At Desaguadero border crossing between Peru and Bolivia we vacate the wagon, walk up a couple of long streets to a shack labelled ‘Patrulla Fronteriza’ –  border patrol. Closed! The street curb occupied by indigenous women huddled under sacking cloth. As misery deserves company, we join the line with others on our tails, until a fellow wearing a sombrero and poncho arrives to open-up shop. He processes the natives first, as each unfolds official papers, a quick glance and he waves them off, before beckoning our miserably soaked lot. He shakes his head, clenching his teeth and scrutinizes our passports, complicated by Meg’s entrance visa from Colombia and Judy’s dark hair colouring, differing from her photograph. Arturo, known to the officer, sways any doubt, and the officer stamps our passports. A few more checks and we’re in Bolivia.

Arturo insists on a short detour to the ruins of Tihunaca, but due to the flooding, it’s all locked up. Only distant glimpses present a fraction of this excavated ancient city, believed to have attracted settlers about 4,000 years ago, dating backto Pre-Inca civilizations. Surrounded by the mountainous Andean terrain, vast stone-faced structures rise from the earth, depicting monuments for cultural performances, and at equinox celebrations of the sun, shining into a Monolith. The remaining bases of earthen dwellings, embracing the sunken temple, and more. We’ll save Tihunaca for another trip. Arturo motors on to clearing skies, passing the world’s highest airport at 4,100 meters.

Within reach of La Paz, sat a clearing atop a view point overlooking a city plunged inside a large bowl, surrounded by 6,000-meter snow-capped mountains. A Shangri-La of epic proportions, reaching out with a magical embrace that leaves me breathless.

 

BIO: Educated in England, John is an immigrant to Canada. His travel stories have appeared in Wanderlust Postcards, Our Canada Magazine and the Vancouver Sun newspaper. His fiction publications include Sentinel, Burningword, Meat for Tea, The Poetry Institute of Canada and Polar Expressions.

Photos by John Barrett.

Instagram: john.a.barrett

 

 

 

 

 

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