Driving the pan american

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On the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, in the town of Copacabana (nope not that one), resides La Virgen de Copacabana who provides blessing and protection to vehicles.  If your car is in need of blessing this is the place to get it done.

Ready for a blessing!

The Benedicion de Movilidades (Blessing of vehicles) takes places twice everyday, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Thinking that it would be crazy to pass up the opportunity to have Marlin blessed by a priest of the church of the Virgen who protects cars, we rolled up on a Saturday morning eager to take part.

How to get your car blessed:

  1. Pull up in front of the church, park where the attendant tells you to.
  2. Hire car washer.  Cost: 10 Bolivianos ($1.50 USD)
  3. Buy your blessing ticket in the church. Cost: 10 Bolivianos ($1.50 USD)
  4. Head to the stalls in front of the church to purchase the decorations for your car.  You can mix and match but a completa (a complete set which includes an arrangement of fresh flowers for the front of the car, two bouquets for the side mirrors, and a garland). Cost: 20 Bolivianos (under $3USD)
  5. Don’t forget to buy a bag of flower petals and fireworks and some drinks for after the blessing. Cost: 15 Bolivianos ($2.25 USD)
  6. Wait for the priest.
  7. Once the priest has blessed your car, the village women to come around and give the car a second blessing this time to the pagan gods. Cost: 10 Bolivianos ($1.50)
  8. Light the fireworks, throw some petals and have a drink.

Total Cost: $9.75 USD for one heavenly blessed vehicle.

Car Blessing in Copacabana from Kels M on Vimeo.

Ironically enough we experienced our first car incident three hours later in La Paz.  Nothing major just a minor scrape.
Cost: 20 Bolivianos ($3 USD)
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Dragging ourselves out the hotel door at 6am we clambered, sleepily, onto the van waiting to take us to the start of 3 day/4 night Lares trek.  The Lares Trek is an alternative route to the famous and insanely crowded Inca Trail.  Hearing good things from a couple we met in Quito we thought it sounded about our speed: between 3 to 6 hours of hiking a day, all meals included, the highest pass was 4400m above sea level and we only had to carry our daypacks.  Wanting to do out best to promote sustainable and fair tourism we looked around at a few tour companies and settled on Qente, a long-standing tour operator in Cusco.

We weren’t disappointed.

Craggy hills and low-lying clouds marked our ascent into the Andean highlands.  Our tour guide, Kari, introduced us to the native plants, explaining how the land is farmed as well as sharing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Inca history and mythology.  Dedicated to her job and intuitively aware of the trek and it’s impact on the locals Kari encouraged us to buy a big bag of bread explaining that bread is like cake to the highland kids. Unused to sugar the bread is less harsh on their teeth than packaged treats, and with the lack of dental care, fresh bread is the best option.  Personally I am still unsure about foreigners offering treats to the local kids as I think it encourages begging and the expectation that foreigners will always have something to give.  However when little kids started popping out behind rocks bellowing “GRINGOS!” and running down hills to meet us along our hike it was pretty nice to have something suitable for them.

We spent two nights camping, our first site at 3800m above sea level and the other at 4200m.  My god, was it ever cold. So cold that I think all of us had every imaginable layer of clothing on. So cold that were dreaming of hot showers, extra blankets and those long johns we didn’t buy.  Bed was right after dinner as the sun had long since disappeared taking the heat with it.  Curling up in our sleeping bags we waited, through bouts of icy sleep, for morning and the warm rays of the sun.

Lucky for us our last night was spent in a lux hotel in Aguas Calientes, complete with hot shower, before heading to Machu Picchu.  We rose the last day at 4am to get in line for the bus by 4:45am with hopes of getting a fairly exclusive ticket to climb the mountain directly across from Machu Picchu. Only 400 people per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, where you can see the ruins from a bird’s eye view.  Stunned by the amount of tourists ahead of us we anxiously got on our bus and prepared ourselves to run to the ticket booth as soon as we got into the grounds.  Tickets and passports checked we followed Kari as she expertly wound her way  through the ruins to the ticket booth.  Coming in at numbers 385 and 386 we made it by the skin of our teeth.  Word to the wise, if you want to climb Huayna Picchu and if you are going to get up at 4am anyway you might as well get to the Machu Picchu bus line-up at 4:20am

Machu Picchu is truly amazing.  However by about 1pm the ruins are swarming with tourists, taking away a little of the specialness and making clean photo ops few and far between.  But it was quite a sight from Huayna Picchu and we were left uncertain about what this place really was… a city, a refuge, a place of chosen women?  It’s secretive location and lack of definitive explanation makes Machu Picchu a very mysterious, albeit heavily touristed, locale indeed.

We were warned:  “There are parades everyday all day.”

Sure, we thought, there will be some madness since Cusco’s main festival is coming up.. it’ll be fine.  Ummm, right.

It was Incansanity with hourly parades, fireworks, rainbow flags, and whole lot of dancing. Based on a religious ceremony honouring Inti, the sun god, June 24 also marks the winter solstice and according to the Peruvians it is time to party.

The days leading up to Inti Raymi were awash with bright colours and the vast array of different traditional costumes kept my finger on my camera’s shoot button at all times.  Smiles and laughter surrounded the festival, it was pretty hard not to get caught up in all the excitement.

Around 10am on the morning of June 24, along with locals and tourists we trudged up to Sacsayhuamán (pronounced close enough to ’sexy woman’ for gringo amusement) to find a place to sit to watch the day’s events.  Chairs can be purchased in the stands closer to the ceremonies for $90 USD … up on the rocks, with the locals, it’s free.  Tom scouted out a good place to sit and we settled in to wait until 1pm.  Normally what would have been a long boring wait turned out to be an entertaining show in Andean crowd antics.  People, giddy and perhaps a bit sauced, were ready for anything.  In the time we sat waiting at least three fights broke out and cheers, jeers and general excitement almost created full scale battles.  Finally the ceremony began and although we couldn’t hear what was going on we had a fairly clear view.  Everything was going okay until people started standing up vying for better viewing positions and greatly displeasing the hoards of people sitting behind them.  Starting with disgruntled yells of “Siéntense!!!” (sit down!) then escalating to throwing water bottles and then garbage, we began to get a bit concerned when the guy beside us picked up a fist-sized rock and lined up the man who had pelted his wife with a bag of half-eaten fruit. The sitters rained all sorts of debris on the unyielding standers to no avail.  We tried to hold our ground but when my head became someone’s armrest and the woman directly behind us crouched down because of the lack of ‘facilities’ we decided we had seen enough.

Barren

The Pan-American in Peru is in relatively good condition, not too may potholes and it it’s actually paved, but the oddest thing about the drive was the desolate and eerie landscape.  Perhaps it had to do with the lack of sun, it was overcast the whole time we drove, it felt like driving in a twilight zone version of Egypt.  Miles of sand lined the highway with rough-hewn hills dotting the background and very few vehicles on the road… very otherworldly.

Oasis

The Peruvians have made the most of this odd landscape turning it into a tourist attraction at Huacachina, a small oasis in the midst of miles of sandy dunes.  Here you can experience this unusual setting in the back of a dune buggy or, for the more athletic, try your hand at sandboarding.  Needing a break from the drive we decided to go for both.  Little did we know how hard sandboarding actually is!

Sandy times in Peru from Kels M on Vimeo.

(Vimeo has been having some issues as of late, please allow video to fully load before playing.)

After the disappointingly flat coastline, Cuenca was a pleasant surprise and we settled in at Posada Todos Santos, home to South America’s best hot shower (according to Joydrive!).

Panama Hats in Ecuador

We wandered the cute streets and came across more than a few Panama Hat shops.  I know…isn’t the Panama Hat from Panama?

Old school hat sizer

Actually, the Panama Hat is and has always been from Ecuador.  Here it is known as a sombrero de paja toquilla to Ecuadorians. This rather large misnomer all started back in the 1800s when the Spanish realized the exceptional quality of these hats and started exporting them via Panama. Then, in the early 19th century the workers on the Panama Canal started to use the same hats as protection from the powerful sun and, lo and behold, the hat quickly became known as the “Panama Hat”.

Hats drying

The Panama Hat can take anywhere from a week to three months to make depending on the quality.  Hats are graded into four categories depending on their weave: standard, superior, fino (fine) and superfino (superfine).  You can buy a standard hat between $10 to $15USD but if you are in the market for a superfino expect to pay upwards of $400 USD.  The best quality hats can hold water and be rolled up to fit through a man’s wedding ring, bouncing back to their original shape!

A hat for Kels... nope

Even cooler, the locals get their hats cleaned and repaired at shops around the city and seeing walls of white hats, each with a name tag attached, it was easy to see how important the Panama Hat is to the Ecuadorian community.

How do they keep them straight?

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