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Rosario, Argentina

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Day 162 and I am still roving the land like a troubadour. The open road has brought me many things to contemplate, digest and consider. My travel partner Eric and I have agreed to take some time apart to experience the sensation of solo travel. Traveling alone is a feeling I have experienced before and continue to have profound respect for. No man knows his own potential, or the expanse of his own horizons, until he goes it alone.

For the last three days I’ve been lurking around Mendoza. I spend my mornings in the cafes along Sarmiento Avenue. Tight curls of steam rise off my tiny espresso and a frost of crema clings to my mustache. My afternoons are spent wandering beneath the gnarled branches of ancient sycamores and staring at the bruised, overcast sky.

One of my dorm mates here is an introspective Frenchman who lives in Paris. He is traveling alone and “buscando para esposa de Argentina” (looking for an Argentinian wife.) He can tell I’ve been brooding, so he strikes up a conversation. We start out in Spanish but after a few minutes I figure we might fair better in English. I eventually shatter the balance of the conversation by switching languages abruptly. He rolls with the punch and we continue to chat. He mentions he was recently divorced from his Brazilian wife.

“And now you’re looking for an Argentinian wife?” I comment with candor, “Do you not like the women in France?”

He laughs heartily.

I stare out the window and wonder if the skies are overcast where Eric is, in Cordoba. A bluster of wind slaps the fingers of a sycamore branch across the window pane. They strike with a sort of urgency, like the hands of a neighbor’s wife who is running from an ax murderer. I know a storm is coming, but I find it comforting in a strange way.

Then I think back to those last days in Rosario and remember the awkward specter of silence that was always lurking in the background. Mitch knowing he was heading back to a familiar but uncertain life in Phoenix, Eric and I preparing to part ways temporarily and do some soul searching in the comfort of anonymity.

Then my thoughts circle back to Che, and I remember him writing about a “glimpse of two lives running parallel for a while with similar hopes and convergent dreams.” Rosario was Che’s hometown, the place from which all the roads he traveled stemmed. The irony struck me that fate had now cast it as the town where our roads temporarily split.

A grin sneaks onto my face as I think about some far off time in the future. I see a framed picture sitting on the mantel of one of Eric’s grandchildren. It’s a picture of the two of us, with our hats and mustaches, prosciutto sandwiches in our back pockets, the world at our feet . . .

It is in these terrible, fleeting moments that I know this trip has changed us in some fundamental way. Like a meteorite entering a lake, it has disrupted the placid facade of our everyday lives and sends out tiny ripples that will resonate throughout us for years, decades.

My friendship and admiration for Eric have grown greatly throughout this trip. I have no doubt these days will remain as some of the greatest in our lives. We have been two seekers trying to get at the marrow of life, two young men doing what young men ought to.

The final chapter of our adventure is quickly approaching. The future is rushing toward us like a phantom freight train. I can hear its whistle in the distance and can feel its vibrations beneath my feet. I close my eyes and breath evenly. There is not a cyclone whirling behind my eyelids. There is an inner calm.

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Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls, Argentina

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Of all of the current hot spots to visit in South America, Buenos Aires is certainly the most popular and arguably the most sizzling. Filled with sultry tango dancers, decadent parrillas (steak houses), and savvy well-dressed locals, Buenos Aires is now the place to see and be seen on the South American travel circuit. Argentina’s capital is an energetic, nocturnal city where dinner is rarely served before 10:30 p.m., and people don’t even think about heading out to the clubs until at least 2:30 a.m.

Since Argentina’s economic crash in 2001, Buenos Aires has become one of the most affordable world-class cities anywhere. However, as with anything that seems too good to be true, the cat’s been out of the bag for quite some time and Buenos Aires’ once rock-bottom prices have steadily been rising over the past 6 years. Like several places in eastern Europe, the constant influx of travelers to this city has inevitably led to an increase in prices. Although still cheap by international standards, it seems the legend of the “five dollar filet-mignon” is now a thing of the past, now costing about $7.50 these days.

After only an hour-long ferry ride from Colonia, Uruguay, Eric and I saw before us the sprawling skyline of Buenos Aires. Upon seeing it, we looked giddily at each other and began planning how we would spend the next week. Our expectations for this town were high and we hoped it might end up in the same league as Rio de Janiero and Panama City. Our cab ride from the ferry terminal gave us a good taste of Buenos Aires’ seemingly endless spread of broad boulevards and towering buildings.

We spent our first two days exploring central Buenos Aires and the busy area located along Avenida de Mayo and Avenida 9 de Julio. We immediately indulged in our first of what ended up being several meals at a true Argentinian parrilla (steak house). Although the quality of the beef was obvious and the price was right, we quickly learned that Argentinians cook their steaks considerably more than we do in America. Although we learned the correct terminology for ordering our steaks rare (jugoso, in Spanish), we found they always came out somewhere around medium +. By the time we left Buenos Aires, we had eaten at least 8 steaks each but, I must sadly report, at least 6 of the 8 were overcooked. This dining experience proved to be a bit frustrating and with each consecutive time we’d order one, we tried to emphasize more and more exactly how rare we wanted it. “Rojo (red), “jugoso” (juicy) and “poco hecho, por favor,” we would plead.

On our third day in Buenos Aires, Eric’s girlfriend Rori arrived, and I moved from the hotel we were staying at to a popular youth hostel nearby. I ended up spending the next three nights at the uber-popular Hostel Milhouse. Of all of the youth hostels I’ve stayed at in the world, I can safely say Milhouse is the biggest party hostel of them all. A typical night at Milhouse starts around 11:00 pm with people having drinks and talking before they head out to the clubs around 3:00 am. The night usually ends around 8:00 the next morning, when everybody finally makes it back to the hostel and crashes for the duration of the day before getting up and doing it all over again.

Sleeping in a dorm room at Milhouse felt like living amidst a den of vampires. During daylight hours, the darkened dorm room would be full of people trying to catch up on sleep, while at night the entire room would usually be empty until the wee hours of the morning. Partying is an all-consuming activity in Argentina, the likes of which I’ve seen in few other places.

I met a lot of other travelers at Milhouse. There was an incredible mix of people from all over the world. I ended up hanging out and going clubbing with a group that included travelers from Ireland, France, Brazil, and England. I even met two different lone travelers who were days away from finishing year-long trips. We had a great time dancing and drinking until sunrise.

Rori, Eric and I spent our days exploring the different neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, including Palermo, Recoleta, Balvenera and San Telmo. Each district had its own flavor, but San Telmo I found to be my favorite. San Telmo is a very old, classy neighborhood that is full of curio-shops and antique stores. It also has leafy plazas and cobbled streets that help create a very tranquil and charming environment.

On our fifth day in Buenos Aires my good buddy, Mitch, arrived from Phoenix, Arizona. The night before, I had been out partying all night and hadn’t gotten home until 6:00 a.m. By the time he arrived in town, around 11:00 a.m., I was still a wreck and he was tired from his flight, so we ended up spending most of the rest of the day in bed.

In addition to a lack of sleep, I was suffering from a wicked cold I had recently come down with. I’m sure this made for a slow start to Mitch’s trip; however, by the third day, we were back at Milhouse, and Mitch was getting a taste of what the party and youth hostel scene is like in South America. During the day Mitch and I visited Buenos Aires’ famous soccer stadium in La Boca as well as its beautiful cemetery Cementerio de La Recoleta where Eva Peron is buried.

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On the morning of September 5th, Mitch, Eric, Rori and myself took an hour and a half flight to Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina. Although there is plenty to see and do in Buenos Aires, I was more than ready to leave when the time came. My cold and the debilitating effects of so much partying had taken its toll on me. It seemed, to me at least, the good air of Buenos Aires had turned a bit stagnant.

Luckily, a true breath of fresh air awaited us in Puerto Iguazu. Coming from the chilly climate of Buenos Aires to the sunny, balmy climate of Puerto Iguazu, felt like arriving in Hawaii. Although the weather in Buenos Aires was considerably better than it had been in Uruguay, it was nowhere nearly as nice as it was in Puerto Iguazu. Eric and I were again baffled a bit at this dramatic change in weather. It seems the weather in South America is a very patchy subject in the winter. There are plenty of micro-climates here, and you can easily travel from a place with weather in the 50’s to a place in the 90’s without necessarily going north toward the equator. I still can’t explain why a place like Florianopolis, Brazil, would have cold beaches, while Iguazu Falls (at roughly the same latitude) has weather in the 90’s.

This change in weather was a very welcome surprise, and it seemed to relax and brighten all four of us. We immediately checked into a highly recommended youth hostel called Hostel Inn. The facilities at the hostel were incredible and included a huge swimming pool, free breakfast, pool tables, wi-fi, and plenty of great common areas to hang out and meet other travelers. Like Milhouse in Buenos Aires, Hostel Inn proved to be where all of the in-crowd hangs out. We were surprised to see that even Mitch’s twin brother showed up to use the internet (pictured below).

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On our second day in Puerto Iguazu we went to visit the stunning series of waterfalls at Parque National Iguazu. Located at the convergence of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, the Iguazu area is a very special corner of the world. There are national parks on both the Brazilian and Argentinian side that provide different views of the falls as well as the spectacular natural setting they inhabit. We ended up visiting the Argentinian side of the falls, and it proved to be a very memorable day.

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The waterfalls at Iguazu National Park are powerful and picturesque, set in an environment that is replete with rainbows and butterflies. The entire setting is so perfectly beautiful you would think you were looking at a Hallmark card or an inspirational poster at the dentist’s office. The infrastructure at the park was very developed, and throngs of tourists could easily navigate an elaborate series of catwalks that spread to every corner of the park. There was even a tiny train, the type of which you might find at a zoo or amusement park, that shuttled people around to different areas of the park.

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Visiting the falls was great, but the train and all of the catwalks made me feel like I was on a ride at Disneyland. I personally preferred the untouched setting of Angel Falls in Venezuela more. Angel Falls felt truly remote, and just getting there was an adventure in itself. Iguazu Falls is so easy to get to I think it may even be wheelchair accessible.

The highlight of our visit to the falls was standing on top of Devil’s Throat. Devil’s Throat is the largest and most powerful of all the falls in the Iguazu area. Standing on the catwalk and looking over the edge of Devil’s Throat felt like looking off the end of the world. The powerful rushing water was quite a site, and the deafening sound of the falls added to the exhilaration of the experience.

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On our third day in Puerto Iguazu, we took a short ferry across the Rio Parana to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Although a visa is required to visit Paraguay, it is possible to make a day trip without having to purchase one. We caught the ferry on an area of the river where you are able to see all three bordering countries at once. It was terrific to be standing in Paraguay, seeing Brazil on one side of the river and Argentina on the other.

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Our visit to Paraguay was a short one and we mostly spent our time walking around Ciudad del Este, visiting its copious amounts of electronic shops. Ciudad del Este is a buzzing border town that is comparable to Tijuana, Mexico. Hordes of people from both Argentina and Brazil travel to this town to buy cheap, tax-free electronics that they then take back to their respective countries to sell.

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Today we flew back to Buenos Aires, and Rori will be flying back to America tonight. Mitch will be traveling with us for another week before he heads back to Arizona. Tomorrow we will be making our way to Che Guavara’s hometown, Rosario. From there we will be crossing Argentina before entering our final destination, Chile.

Montevideo and Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

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We’ve been spending the last week in the tiny country of Uruguay. After leaving Rio de Janeiro, we took an 18-hour night bus south to Florianopolis. The fantastic weather in Rio had us temporarily deceived into thinking beaches as far south as Florianopolis might be the same. After arriving in Florianopolis, however, it became immediately obvious that the beach was out of the question. Overcast gray skies and temperatures in the mid 50’s were sobering reminders that it was winter as usual in South America.

We ended up spending two nights in Florianopolis, just hanging out. There were plenty of beautiful women there; however, there was a suspicious lack of decent restaurants. Overall, the town turned out to be pretty boring, so we soon found ourselves on a 20-hour bus bound for Montevideo, Uruguay.

As it turned out, there were only two direct buses per week that ran between Florianopolis and Montevideo. Unfortunately, the bus we took left at 10:00 a.m. and arrived in Montevideo at 3:30 a.m. the next morning, so after 20 lovely hours on that bus, we got dumped off in the wee hours of the morning at a freezing cold bus stop in Montevideo. Ah, the pleasures of world travel . . .

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Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, turned out to be a pleasant city that reminded me a little bit of Chicago in the winter. Coming from the bright sunshine of Rio de Janeiro to the chilly winds and gray skies of Uruguay felt like walking from a technicolor movie into a black and white one. Montevideo, however, like a black and white movie, had a classic mood and feel all of its own. The atmosphere of the city reminded me of the lobby of an old hotel from the 1920’s or 30’s. We found it full of classic old skyscrapers, and it had an abundance of once grand, but now faded, hotels.

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Eric and I spent a fair amount of time checking out several hotel rooms scattered along the busy Avenida 18 de Julio. Our favorite experience was riding on a couple of very old elevators that felt as if their cords might snap at any moment. We ended up finding a great room with 15-foot tall doors, high ceilings, and a private balcony. We spent most of our time walking around Montevideo and observing daily Uraguayan life.

Uruguay has a pretty European feel to it, and most people who live here have light skin and dark hair. Everybody in Uruguay carries around a thermos and a special mate gourd for sipping piping-hot mate. Mate is a type of bitter tea and is considered the national drink of Uruguay. Mate is taken very seriously here, and its preparation is considered a ritual. In both Uruguay and Argentina, 5 times more mate is consumed than coffee.

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After leaving Montevideo, we took a two-and-a-half hour bus to Colonia del Sacramento. Colonia is a charming old smuggler’s port, located just 2 hours across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. It is a sleepy, picturesque town that reminds me a little of Nantucket, only much more authentic. Lighthouses, tree-lined cobblestone streets, and old fashion street lamps give this quaint sea-side town an atmosphere that would make a fitting setting for a tale by Jack London or Herman Melville. There is also a terrific amount of old cars here, and we even saw some rare models made by Opel and a Rambler.

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We have been lying low here in Colonia for the past 5 days, burning up some time before heading to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires we will be meeting up with Eric’s girlfriend Rori, as well as my friend Mitch Fonnsbeck. Our trip continues, and soon we will soon enter into our sixth and final month. We are still pushing forward from one country to the next, one season to the next, one genre to the next.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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We are now in one of the greatest cities in the world, Rio de Janeiro. Rio is a legendary city of heroes, magic, and marvel. This city´s incredible natural setting alone is enough to count it among the world’s greatest metropolises. It is spectacularly set along the Atlantic coast amidst beautiful stretches of pristine beaches near lush, towering limestone peaks.

Rio de Janeiro is the place that every evil genius and criminal mastermind dreams of retiring to. Its famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are perfect places to sip rum out of a coconut and chuckle about how you’ve out-foxed them all. Rio de Janeiro is the kind of city you escape to after pulling off a major heist or caper.

The caper we had to pull off to get here was a harrowing four-day-long overland crossing from Sucre, Bolivia. What may not look so far on a map of the world, turned out to be a good 70 hours of solid travel. It all started with our taking a 14-hour night bus from Sucre to Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia. Although we didn’t make the excursion, we passed not far from La Higuera, where Ernesto “Che” Guevara (our hero and spiritual icon for this trip) met his Christ-like demise at the hands of CIA-trained Bolivian troops. I have heard there isn’t much to see other than the monument at the actual locale itself, but a tourism-based “Che trail” is under construction that tours through some of the last sites visited by the legendary revolutionary.

After a sleepless night on the bus, we arrived in Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz, where we immediately headed to the train station and booked a ticket on the “Death Train” to the Brazilian border town of Quijarro. The train left at high noon and didn’t arrive until around 7:30 a.m. the next morning. As I’ve said before, at this point we are willing to do just about anything to avoid a bus and get the chance to travel by train. I am a huge train buff in general, so I really enjoyed the chance to take this obscure route through the heart of South America. The ride was great; however, the train was not a sleeper, so we spent a second sleepless night periodically repositioning ourselves within the tight confines of our chairs.

We arrived at the Brazilian border after a good 21 hours on the train. It was at this point that we noticed we had another 28-hour bus ride to reach our next intended destination, Rio de Janeiro. Although I was feeling just masochistic enough to make the trip, my travel partner Eric admitted exhaustion. I must admit, it didn’t take too much for him to convince me that we should take a full day to recover before subjecting ourselves to the further punishment the awaiting bus ride would bring.

Unfortunately, we decided this after we crossed the Brazilian border. That decision turned out to be unfortunate for us because it was at this point that we discovered exactly how expensive Brazil is. Coming from the poorest country in South America–Bolivia, to one of the richest–Brazil, proved to be quite a shock to the wallet. We ended up spending the night in the forgettable border town of Corumba, Brazil, after trudging around to countless overpriced hotels. Although both our hotel room and meal that night were little more than basic, they ended up being among the most expensive of the entire trip.

In addition to the “sticker-shock” we experienced from the expensive prices in Brazil, we also experienced a fair amount of confoundment when confronted with the Portuguese language. After everything we had learned from our four months in Spanish speaking countries, we were right back to square one language-wise, the second we entered Brazil.

I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t Portuguese really similar to Spanish?” That’s what I was thinking; that is, up until the moment I heard Portuguese spoken. Granted, both Spanish and Portuguese are Romance languages derived from Latin and yes both look similar when written; however, hearing Portuguese spoken sounds nothing like Spanish. Even with our fierce arsenal of Spanish vocabulary, we were hard-pressed to make out a single Portuguese word spoken to us; they may as well have been speaking Vietnamese.

As difficult as it is to understand, I’ll admit that Portuguese is a beautiful language to hear spoken. There is a very distinctive accent used in Brazilian Portuguese that is evidenced in their lazy-sounding enunciation of words. In some ways it reminds me of a mix between a strong Boston accent and something like Cajun.

There are plenty of sounds like “sh” and “oi” used in Portuguese, and we found it hilarious that the Spanish number 2, pronounced “dose” in English, became “dois” in Portuguese. Also the saying “mas o menos” (more or less) in Spanish ends up sounding like a Steinbeck novel when given the Portuguese pronunciation “mice o menos.”

After having traveled through twelve countries so far on this trip, entering Brazil felt distinctively different. We felt as if we’d just landed on another continent that seemed like a strange mix between Latin America and Europe. Like a giant, unpolished emerald, the country of Brazil spreads over nearly half of the total area of South America. It is a world unto itself and I have no doubt a person could spend an entire six month trip just exploring it’s expansive terrain from the Amazonian rain forest to the wetlands of Pantanal. Fittingly, the Brazilian flag is a jewel-like emerald green in color and depicts the outline of the world.

After our day of recovery in Corumba we valiantly boarded what ended up being a 30-hour bus ride to Rio de Janeiro. The hardest part about a 30-hour bus ride is the last 8 hours or so. It requires a heroic effort to maintain a healthy mental composure while in such dire circumstances. A person needs the serenity and inner-peace of Siddhartha, working in tangent with the ass-kicking endurance of Charles Bronson.

In addition to the obvious pains inflicted by 30 hours on a bus, it ended up being the price of the ticket that really wounded us. The price per person was 220 Reais (pronounced hay-ice) which equate to a scorching $120 u.s.d. I repeat, that was the price for a bus, not a flight! In other South American countries, a similar bus ride would have been anywhere from $30- $55. It proved to be a depressing experience for both our psyches and our budgets.

Our non-stop bus trip was so long that it required 6 different drivers. The transfers from driver to driver made it feel as if the bus were an Olympic torch being passed from one runner to the next. We finally arrived in Rio’s main bus terminal around 7:00 p.m. on Friday night. We immediately took a cab to the Flamengo district and found a cheap hotel for the night. When I say “cheap,” I’m referring to the quality of the hotel, not the price, which was still expensive by our standards.

We have now spent the last 5 days here in Rio, and I can certainly say we love it. It’s probably my second favorite big city we have visited so far on our Central and South America trip, ranking not far behind my overall favorite: Panama City.

Rio is very cosmopolitan, and its streets are full of beautiful people of every skin color and shade imaginable. Walking along the boardwalks of Copacabana and Ipanema feel like walking along a catwalk at an international fashion show. It’s glamorous, it’s fabulous, it’s Rio.

Our first full day here was spent exploring the districts of Gloria, Lapa, and Santa Teresa. The highlight of the day was riding on the charming Bonde trolley through the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is a bohemian community full of old colonial mansions and rolling hills. It’s a neighborhood that would fit nicely in San Francisco, and the Bonde trolley definitely adds to this feeling. The trolley only costs 30 cents to ride, but if you stand on the thin wooden side-rail, and hang off the side, it’s free. We of course opted to do it like the locals and hung off the side. Riding the trolley in this manner made us feel like ninjas from an old kung-fu movie. We decided a movie could be made about us called American Trolley Ninjas in Rio.

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Trouble struck our trolley when it encountered a car parked along the track. Although the trolley shares the road with cars, everybody in Rio knows you can’t park your car too close to the tracks. The owner of the car was not around so we and some other trolley-ninjas had to take matters into our own hands. As the pictures will show, we had to use our combined trolley-ninja training to bounce the car off the road. For all I know, this may be an everyday occurrence, but it seemed to take on epic proportions at the time. Once our mission was accomplished, our entire trolley burst into applause. We bashfully took our bows — it was just another day on the job for trolley-ninjas like us.

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That night we got to bed around 10:30 p.m. The partying on the streets was loud enough to keep us awake, so we lay there silently, in the dark, unable to sleep. It was then that we realized that it was Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro!!! What the hell were we doing in bed at 10:30? We quickly got dressed again and headed out to carouse and cause trouble on the streets of Rio. We ended up checking out a couple of different clubs, both of which were multi-level affairs, set in beautiful 19th century mansions. The nightlife in Rio is certainly alive and kicking. There were throngs of people both at the clubs and out on the streets. We didn’t make it back to our hotel until around 4:30 a.m.

Our second day in Rio was spent sleeping until nearly 2:00 in the afternoon. After that we walked around the district of Botafogo and checked out Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugarloaf Mountain is a 600 million-year-old limestone peak that juts out of the water along the coast of the city. There is a cable car that you can take to the summit of Sugarloaf, but at a price of $20 each we opted to skip it.

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We started off the next day with breakfast at our favorite Rio juice bar, Big Nectar. Rio is jam-packed with great juice bars serving an array of exotic fruit juices. Our favorite juice is made from the Amazonian super-fruit called açai. It is known for being one of the strongest natural anti-oxidants in the world and has a terrific flavor that tastes like chocolate-covered blueberries. Although you can find forms of açai in certain specialty food stores in the U.S., they simply don’t compare to a fresh glass, blended right in front of you.

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After our fix of coffee, acai and pastries, we walked to the cog-train station at the bottom of Corcovado Mountain. Corcovado Mountain is a unique hump-shaped peak that overlooks Rio from the west. Fittingly, the name Corcovado actually means “hunchback.” It is on top of this towering peak that the famous statue of Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) looms with his arms outstretched.

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Although the cog-train to the top of Corcovado was also $20, this was one attraction we could not pass up. After the 20 minute train ride, we arrived at the top. At over 700 meters above the city, arriving at the summit of Corcovado felt like arriving at an island in the sky. We were well above a majority of the clouds, and the views of Rio were breathtaking, albeit a little cloudy.

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In addition to the wonderful views, the placid-faced statue of the 39.6-meter-high, 700 ton statue was truly a marvelous vision to behold. Christo Redentor is both the icon for Rio de Janeiro as well as its guardian angel. It certainly deserves its recently elevated position to be included among the new seven wonders of the world. The only annoying part of the experience was witnessing every tourist replicate the same outstretched arm pose for a cheesy, candid photo.

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The next day we spent walking around the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. As I wrote before, this is the place where the beautiful people are. It is a very posh area of town, similar to South Beach in Miami. I was surprised to learn that the original Copacabana is actually the fishing village that we visited in Bolivia along the shores of Lake Titicaca. For some reason I had assumed the more famous Copacabana of Rio must be the original.

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A lot of the high-rise neighborhoods around this area reminded me of Central Park West in NYC. If you had the bank role, it would be easy to make Rio de Janeiro your home base. Like Panama City, it is not only a great place to visit, but would also be a great place to live for the rest of your life. We are going to spend another day or so here before heading south. Right now I’m not sure if we’re going to visit Sao Paulo or skip it and head straight for the beaches of Florianopolis.

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We are continuing on our adventure unimpeded. No boundary, be it physical or mental, will stop our relentless march upon the capital cities of the world. We are chasing the muse at all cost. To each place we bring our own personal style, our own unique way of seeing the world, and creating it as we see fit. Sensitivity, humor, and imagination are the tools required when traveling through the topography of the world, and of the mind. In each place we are building tiny empires, like sandcastles on the beach.

La Paz, Bolivia

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After leaving Copacabana, we took a three and a half hour bus to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. As we entered the city from the heights of the district called El Alto, we saw before us a sprawling metropolis, dramatically situated in terraced fashion, across a vast and deep Andean valley. At an altitude of 3,660 meters, La Paz is the highest capital city in South America. This high altitude seems to affect everything from the mentality of the people to the quantity of foam on a freshly poured beer.

La Paz is a city with its own crazy style and an attitude as distinctive as its altitude. Its streets are bustling with street-food vendors, sidewalk-invading storefront markets, and plenty of pedestrian traffic. As with Lake Titicaca, the people here appear a bit more rugged and seem to have a certain rustic nature you can only find in people from mountainous regions.

On our first night we stayed in the ever-popular Loki hostel. Loki is a string of three hostels that were started by a group of four backpackers about five years ago. We have now stayed at all three locations: Lima, Cuzco, and La Paz. All the Loki locations have a party atmosphere and each is the quintessential “backpacker hostel” for their respective cities.

The bar at the La Paz location was very stylish with high ceilings, velvet curtains, and a collection of gilded antique mirrors. Unfortunately, the rooms were pretty abysmal. We were first offered one of the only two doubles in the entire hostel. It was a dank, windowless troll’s den that smelled of mildew and lichen. We ended up opting for a small dorm that was also shabby, but at least didn’t appear to be out of a horror film.

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The next morning we awoke early and took a cab to the Brazilian consulate. We had read in our guidebook that the procedures to obtain a Brazilian visa should be straight-forward and that they were often issued on-the-spot. However, having dealt with several embassies and consulates abroad on other trips, I knew that each embassy was its own beast, and my experiences with them have spanned the spectrum from delightful to nightmarish.

As our cab approached the Brazilian consulate, I thought back to my best and worst consulate experiences. My worst experience was visiting the Chinese embassy in Moscow, Russia. This was during my third backpacking trip when my passport was stolen for the first and, thank god, only time. My ex-girlfriend Gina and I had just arrived in Moscow from Saint Petersburg. We had gotten little sleep on the train, and the first thing I had to do was head out into the gigantic metropolis of Moscow, alone, to find the Chinese embassy.

I was under the gun because I had a limited amount of time left before my Russian visa would expire. My plan for the trip was to cross Siberia, then visit Mongolia and China before taking a ferry to Japan and eventually flying out of Tokyo. I knew if I couldn’t get a Chinese visa in Russia, I would have to gamble on getting one in Ulaanbaatar, and perhaps be stranded in Mongolia.

The Chinese embassy in Moscow turned out to be a bleak 200 person queue that was loosely held together by screaming and argumentative embassy employees. After standing in the line for nearly 4 hours, they shut the door in our faces and told us they wouldn’t be open for another 2 weeks. Luckily, the Chinese embassy in Ulaanbaatar turned out to be my best embassy experience, and I ended up getting my much-needed visa in less than a day which enabled me to continue my trip as planned.

Fortunately, the Brazilian consulate of La Paz, Bolivia, only had a few people waiting when we arrived at its opening time of 9:00 a.m. After hearing our number called, we approached the clerk’s window and inquired about the visa. We were then informed that in addition to the requirements we expected– such as the ‘reciprocal’ $100 charge, an application, a passport and passport-sized photo–we also needed to provide bank and credit card info for the past three months, a yellow fever vaccination card, and a ticket out of Brazil.

This certainly stymied us, at least temporarily. The consulate hours were slim, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:45 p.m, so we spent the rest of the day reluctantly performing the tasks required for the visa. We accessed our bank accounts online and printed them out, then proceeded to locate our yellow fever vaccination cards and our electronic airline tickets scheduled out of Santiago, Chile, in October. We weren’t able to get it all done before the consulate closed at 12:45 that day, but we were able to return early the next day and successfully turn in our applications. We were then informed that there would be a 2 day processing period before we received our visas.

On our second day in La Paz, we changed our accommodation to a very beautiful and centrally located hotel called Hotel Fuentes. Tucked away behind the Plaza de San Francisco, Hotel Fuentes was a bright, clean hotel, with an amazing view from our private 4th story room. Its location was in a very charming area of town full of steep, cobbled one-way streets that were lined with stores selling handicrafts, souvenirs, and vibrantly-colored local clothing.

Our hotel was also just down the street from an area called the Mercado de Hechiceria (The Witches’ Market). This so-called “witches’ market” turned out to be an intriguing array of small, mostly outdoor stalls, selling everything from holistic herbs and remedies to the peyote-like, hallucinogenic cactus called San Pedro. I forgot to mention in my last Peru blog post that we were surprised to find that the central market in Cuzco also sold not only San Pedro, but also the very powerful hallucinogenic shaman’s brew known as Ayahuasca. I may write more about these intriguing, legal hallucinogenics in the future.

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In addition to exploring the witches’ market, we also visited the Museo de la Coca. It turned out to be a pretty humble exhibit that focused mostly on the history of the coca leaf. The overall tone of the museum was fairly balanced, and they did a good job of showing the positive uses of the coca leaf, while also showing the devastating effects of the chemically produced drug, cocaine. We found the museum interesting because it dealt with a subject that is hotly debated in Bolivia right now: whether or not coca leaves should be legal to grow.

Bolivia’s president Evo Moralez is the first indigenous person to serve in that position and is an avid defender of the coca leaf. He is a one-time coca grower, and his politics are the kind that would have him sitting at the same table as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He has started a few popular slogans here, such as: la coca es no cocaine (coca is not cocaine), and coca es no drogas (coca is not a drug). “Evo,” as he is affectionately known, is also infamous for holding up a coca leaf at the United Nations and pointing out that its color is green, not white.

On our third day in La Paz, we participated in what was touted as ¨the Greatest Outdoor Sporting Adventure in all of South America: Mountain Biking Down the Most Dangerous Road in the World!!!” What may sound like the tag line for a production by P.T. Barnum, turned out to have nearly as many shenanigans.

Eric and I had both heard plenty about Bolivia’s so-called “Road of Death” before we even began this trip. I had even seen a cable television special devoted exclusively to this dramatic and deadly stretch of mountain road that connects La Paz to the town of Coroico. Numerous surveys have shown it to be the most dangerous road in the world, with over 100 deaths annually.

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The circus that was our all-day biking tour started at 7:30 a.m, when we were bused to the beginning of our route. After being outfitted in ridiculous matching outfits that made us look like rejected construction workers, we were sized up for our bikes and given a safety speech. Our guides were an American guy named Zack and an Englishman named Aaron. Both were outgoing guys, but came off as a little dense.

We started our road adventure by plunging down a paved section of what is called the “New Death Road.” The New Death Road is a recently opened alternative route to the Old Death Road which is the most dangerous in the world. After cruising down a stretch of the New Death Road at speeds around 40 mph, we turned off onto the infamous Old Death Road. From here it was a knuckle-jarring scramble down a rocky, dusty narrow road with huge drops and lots of blind corners.

Our group was stopped periodically by the guides to be told grizzly stories about certain gruesome accidents that had occurred at this or that particular turn. Zack and Aaron often ended up contradicting each other and arguing over whether it was two Jewish boys who were racing that went over the cliff, or if it was a 19-year-old French girl trying to pass a truck. Anyhow, there were plenty of crosses and memorials along the route for the bus-loads of people and the 15 mountain bikers that had lost their lives on the road.

Although I enjoyed the location and the mountain biking, the overall feeling of the tour drove me nuts. Everything seemed too planned out and contrived, and being herded together with 20 other people felt oppressive. My feelings were mixed throughout the day, everything from excitement to outright disgust. The whole experience ended up feeling gimmicky, and the tour was far too choreographed. I started to feel like I was with a bunch of jocks that thought it was the coolest thing in the world to conquer the World’s Most Dangerous Road. So there I was, feeling ridiculous, plunging down the Road of Death as fast as I could, showing that I could conquer it as well as the next fat tourist.

To make matters worse, we were forced to spend two hours at some remote hotel after we were finished with the bike ride. From there we were told it was a 3 to 4 hour bus ride back to La Paz. The bus ride turned out to be the most grueling challenge of the day (far worse than the “Road of Death,” ho, ho) and took over 5 hours.

During this excruciatingly long ride, our guide Aaron drank massive amounts of beer and ran his mouth about everything from his disenfranchised youth and ineffectual father to his passion for consuming large amounts of illicit substances. By the end of the ride he had finished his soliloquy about everything that is wrong with the world and went on to ask if anyone wanted to order “something special.” Eric and I exited the bus at 10:30 p.m. after nearly 15 hours at the mercy of these fools. We had visions of beating our tour guides to death and setting fire to their offices.

We spent our last day in La Paz walking around the barrio El Alto and taking in its incredible views of the city. El Alto is a fairly poor neighborhood that has sprung up on the steep, mountainous slopes around La Paz. There aren’t really sidewalks in El Alto, just staircases. Like Casco Viejo in Panama City, it is an area where the poor and working-class still inhabit residences with priceless, world-class views.

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After leaving La Paz, we spent one night in the mining town Potosi, and we are now in Sucre. Tomorrow we’ll be taking a night bus to Santa Cruz, then boarding the so-called “Death Train” to the Brazilian border. I know what you’re thinking, “death road, death train, death bus–death, death, death, blah blah blah.” From the border it will be at least another day or two of travel to reach Sao Paulo. Here are some pictures of Potosi and Sucre:

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I’ll leave you until next time with some quotes to ponder:

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?” – Walt Whitman

“The world has known three great fools: Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and me.” – Simon Bolivar.

Machu Picchu, Peru, to Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

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Our outing to Machu Picchu began with a two and a half hour cab ride from Cuzco. Once we departed Cuzco, we headed into the countryside and soon found ourselves surrounded by towering Andean peaks. Most of the roads were pretty remote and some were even unpaved. The cab was packed with the five of us (Eric, Rori, Persephone, myself, and the cab driver), and our ride soon took on the feeling of a road trip. Our route became increasingly remote the further we got from Cuzco. Soon the twisting mountainous road led us to a high- mountain pass where a landslide had occurred. From here we had to hike for a good half an hour over the area the landslide covered.

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The scene at the landslide was quite a marvel. Loads of buses and automobiles sat helpless at the end of the road while a seemingly endless migration of people hiked the trail over the landslide. It was obvious this was an important route for both travel and trade. Due to the fact that the road was impassable for automobiles, all goods being transported had to be carried on the backs of the people hiking over the landslide. The vast migration of people and goods reminded me of a busy ant colony, high in the remote reaches of the Andes.

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After trekking over the landslide, we found our second cab waiting for us. From there it was another three hours until we arrived in a tiny, remote town called Santa Maria. We found the road trip to Santa Maria to be a very exciting and interesting one. The ride was full of incredible high-altitude vistas along the isolated, snaking mountain roads.

From Santa Maria we caught an overstuffed minibus for an additional three hour ride before arriving in another tiny town called Santa Theresa. That ride was a real bone-shaker. The road was basically a skinny, rocky dirt trail with steep cliffs on one side and sheer mountain walls on the other. By the time we reached Santa Theresa we were all quite tired and hungry from the long day of travel. After finding some cheap and simple rooms for the night, we sat down for a meal of chicken and rice.

We spent the rest of the night walking around Santa Theresa and watching a bizarre group of local teenagers doing a choreographed dance to a mysterious man playing a flute. It appeared like a scene out of a musical. First we were just watching the kids play basketball and soccer on an outdoor court when, all of the sudden, an enigmatic gentleman with slicked-back black hair stepped out of the shadows and began playing his flute. The children immediately stopped playing their games and were soon doing an elaborate, synchronized dance. It was truly bizarre and reminded me of the end of the children’s story, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” where the piper returns to charm the children away from the town.

The next morning we set out on a hike from Santa Theresa to the resort town of Aguas Calientes. Our hike started by crossing the Rio Urubamba, via a rustic, rickety cable car. We all enjoyed crossing the river in this manner, and it helped add an extra element of adventure to our hike.

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After crossing the river, we followed a dusty trail that led through some spectacular scenery. There were looming Andean mountains, waterfalls, and even beautiful flowers that flanked the sides of the trail. After about two hours we reached a hydroelectric plant where a set of abandoned train tracks began. From here we hiked along the tracks for another three hours before reaching Aguas Calientes.

Hiking along the train tracks in such a remote and beautiful place was fantastic. There was an air of romance and adventure. Crossing train bridges, and even swinging hand-over-hand to cross another river, all helped to provide a true feeling of rugged adventure.

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The most popular ways to reach Machu Picchu are to either take the tourist train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, or to hike along the overcrowded Inca Trail. I found our approach to be the least popular yet, perhaps, the most impressive. We only encountered about five people during the entire hike. We spent the rest of the night relaxing in Aguas Calientes.

Aguas Calientes is also known as “Machu Picchu Pueblo,” and is located in a deep valley directly below the ruins of Machu Picchu. Although it is a tourist town from start to finish, we found Aguas Calientes to be quite charming. The town’s sole purpose is to serve as a base of hotels and restaurants for people visiting Machu Picchu. That said, the town seems to do a pretty good job of it. The best part about staying in Aguas Calientes is that its strategic location provides visitors the ability to awaken early in the morning and hike up to Machu Picchu before sunrise. This allows you to view the ruins before all of the buses and trains full of tourists arrive.

The next day we all awoke at 3:30 in the morning and began our hike to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up getting a wink of sleep that night and was exhausted before we even began. The hike proved to be an unforgiving experience. It was a steep trudge in the pre-dawn darkness, straight up countless crude rock staircases. Although it was freezing outside, I found my t-shirt drenched in sweat by the time we reached the entrance gates.

After waiting another half hour at the entrance, we found ourselves among the very first people to enter Machu Picchu. The sun had just risen above the towering mountain peaks, so viewing the perfect beauty of the ruins was stunning. Like standing in front of the Taj Mahal, or on top of the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu proved to be one of those unique places in the world that is truly marvelous. I have to say it lived up to and exceeded every expectation I had. This lost city among the clouds certainly deserves its rank among the world’s greatest wonders.

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Once inside Machu Picchu, we began the hike up the picturesque mountain called Wayna Picchu that looms majestically to the north of the ruins. This hike was also fairly taxing, but the views from the summit were priceless. Sitting on top of Wayna Picchu felt like sitting on the rooftop of the world. Like Angel Falls, Macchu Picchu is a place where the immortals reside. It is a place of dreams and inspiration.

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After our incredible visit to the ruins, we walked back down to Aguas Calientes, where we later caught the train back to Cuzco. Although the train was criminally overpriced at $77, it was an incredible route that provided further stunning views. We ended up back in Cuzco after a very memorable day. The four of us then relaxed there for the next two days before Rori and Persephone left to return to America.

Wednesday morning Eric and I boarded a train bound for the town of Puno, located on the coast of Lake Titicaca. The train was a perfect way to enjoy the beautiful and remote landscape that spans between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. We relaxed at our window-side table and watched vast valleys, towering mountains, and sparsely scattered mud brick pueblos, race by our window. The landscape reminded me of the Wild West and I felt as if we were in the opening scene of the movie Dead Man. We were traveling toward Bolivia and images of Che Guavara’s execution and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s last stand played through my imagination.

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We arrived in Puno around 7:00 that night, after almost 11 hours on the train. Puno turned out to be a busy little town with small cozy streets and an interesting mix of architecture. We found the weather to be very cold, due to a chilling wind that comes over the lake at night.

After the long day on the train, we were starving and looking for something good to eat. Luckily we found what must be one of the best chicken joints in all of Central and South America. Eric and I have become aficionados of fried and roasted chicken; and let me tell you, this place was one of the best. You know a place is good when there’s a line of locals that goes straight out the front door.

The next morning we took a bus to a town called Yunguyo, near the Bolivian border. After walking across the border we entered my 55th country, Bolivia. The crossing was surprisingly easy, and we were relieved to discover that we did not have to pay for a visa to enter the country. We had heard conflicting information about a new law enacted in Bolivia that requires U.S. citizens to obtain a visa at the cost of $100. Although this law has apparently been passed, they have not yet worked out the details and, therefore, it is not yet in effect.

Thanks to the new and tougher restrictions on getting visas to the United States, countries around the world are starting to impose “reciprocal” charges and mandatory visas for citizens of the United States. Brazil now requires a $100 visa, as does Chile, if you fly into the country. It seems America’s xenophobia ends up costing harmless little travelers, like me, big bucks in the end.

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After crossing the Bolivian border, we continued on to the quaint lakeside town of Copacabana, where we have now spent the last three days. We’ve taken a few good hikes, and have also been eating excellent Lake Titicaca fried trout for $2.50. Today we took a ferry out to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) on Lake Titicaca. We ended up hiking the width and length of the island and saw several archaeological ruins. The island reminded me a lot of the Greek islands and the coast of Croatia.

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The weather in this region of South America can be harsh and inhospitable, but the location is terrible with beauty and mystique. The people of the Lake Titicaca region appeared to be very rugged and earthy. The women here have an incredible sense of style. They all wear grand, multi-layered dresses and classic bowler hats. Several of them carry babies slung over their backs, nestled in colorful blankets.

Traveling to this area is like traveling back in time. You feel as if you are on the set of a movie about another place, another time. From here we will be heading to La Paz, where we heard it was snowing a couple of days ago.

We have once again decided to change our route. We will now be crossing Bolivia mostly via train before heading into southern Brazil. We plan to spend about 2 weeks in Brazil before heading through Uruguay, then on to Argentina in September. We plan to spend all of September and the first part of October in Argentina and Chile before flying out of Santiago.

Cuzco, Peru

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Cuzco, Peru, is a city full of juxtapositions. It is a place where colorfully clad indigenous descendants of the Inca brush shoulders with mobs of camera-toting, gringo tourists. It is also a place where ancient imposing Inca walls butt-up against five star hotels and restaurants. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas and gives the appearance of being a place where the sacred and the mundane coexist in an energetic clash.

Eric and I reluctantly left our beach paradise in Mancora on Saturday night and took an 18-hour bus to Peru’s capital, Lima. After arriving in Lima we learned that Persephone had succeeded in getting her stand-by flights and had arrived in Lima the night before. Fortunately, Persephone was able to use her survival skills well and, thanks to some people she had befriended in first-class, got a free night’s accommodation at the Marriott hotel.

After contacting each other, we met up with Persephone at our hostel in the beautiful district of Miraflores. Eric, Persephone and myself spent the rest of the day exploring Lima by foot and eating at some great restaurants and cafes. Although we had heard a lot of people talk trash about Lima, we found it to be a pleasant and interesting place. Our stay there was brief and largely limited to the Miraflores area, but I found it to be a place I wouldn’t mind exploring more of, some time in the future.

My interest in Miraflores was heightened by the fact that I have been reading a novel that takes place there. The novel I’m referring to is called Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and was written by Peru’s most famous novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. I enjoyed walking through the city and picturing the characters that populate the novel. Later that same night, Eric’s girlfriend Rori also flew into Lima, so early the next morning we all took a short one-hour flight together from Lima to Cuzco.

Our first day here in Cuzco was largely spent relaxing and acclimatizing to the altitude. Due to Rori’s late arrival into Lima, she and Eric had hardly slept the night before, so they spent a good amount of the day catching up on some much-needed sleep. Persephone and I ended up walking around the city and exploring the central market. I have seen quite a few impressive markets on this trip, but the Cuzco market proved to be the most interesting. In addition to tons of locally made crafts, clothing and souvenirs, there were also coca leaves for sale, as well as an intriguing and grotesque display of dismembered animal parts. If you think the pictures look disgusting, just imagine the smell.

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We decided to buy some of the coca leaves and try out the effects of this portion of the versatile coca plant. Unlike processed cocaine, the coca leaf is a much-respected, legal part of the plant that is used medicinally by the locals for everything from fatigue to minor aches and pains. The correct procedure for using the coca leaves is to suck on them for about twenty minutes before adding a little sodium or wood ash. The consequent effect numbs the inside of your mouth while giving you a slight buzz, similar to that of a cup of coffee or a cigarette.

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Later that night we went out to eat at a restaurant called Sumaq Misky where we all tried the local specialty, cuy (roasted guinea pig). Cuy is regarded as a delicacy in the Andes, and I have learned it has been a part of the local cuisine since pre-Inca times. Persephone and I shared the picante version of the cuy, while Eric and Rori tried the aromatic Chinese version with thin pancakes and hoisin sauce.

The flavor of guinea pig turned out to be pretty gamy and tasted something like a cross between rabbit and goose meat. The Chinese style that Eric and Rori had was already shredded and deboned; however our picante version was served whole, replete with head, bones and skin. Overall it was an interesting gastronomic experiment, but not one I will be repeating anytime soon.

Adding to the intrigue of our cuy-eating experience, we later visited La Cathedral in Cuzco’s main square, where we saw an incredible depiction of the Last Supper in which Christ and the twelve apostles are assembled in classic form around a table that, not only featured bread and wine, but a singular roasted cuy. Sadly, pictures were not allowed in La Cathedral; but, believe me, it was one of the most mysterious and beguiling religious paintings I have ever seen. We also came to learn that the mystical cuy is also used in several shaman rituals and is even sometimes passed over a sick person’s body in order to detect the origin of an illness.

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The next day we attempted to top our culinary misadventures by trying another local specialty, alpaca. Alpaca is an indigenous animal that looks similar to a lama. These animals are ubiquitous throughout the Andes, and their wool is frequently used to make sweaters. Persephone and I tried some alpaca burgers made from the tenderloin. The flavor reminded us of steak or venison, and we found it to be surprisingly tasty. Unlike the precarious cuy, alpaca is a welcome addition to my dinner plate any night.

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After filling ourselves up with alpaca burgers, we visited the Inca museum. It was a fairly humble museum, but provided us with some interesting information to prepare for our trip to Machu Picchu.

Today, Thursday, we went horseback riding in the Andean countryside around Cuzco. In addition to the simple beauty of riding a horse in such a dramatic environment, we also visited several Inca ruins, including Saqsaywaman and Q’enqo. At the end of the day we visited a large statue of Jesus overlooking Cuzco in similar fashion to Christ the Redeemer in Rio. The view was both magnificent and breathtaking.

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Tomorrow we will be taking a hired taxi to the small village of Santa Maria, about half- way between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Apparently there is a landslide that covers a section of the road connecting the two towns, so we will also have to do a bit of hiking before catching an additional taxi on the other side. From there we plan to do a combination of hiking, busing, and even cable car riding to reach Machu Picchu.

After doing a fair amount of research, we decided the latter travel method to be the most interesting and cheapest route. The very popular four-day hike along the Inca trail apparently books up months in advance, and the idea of taking the overpriced tourist train both ways seems like a cop out. Hopefully all will go well and Machu Picchu will live up to the hype that has caused it to become the most popular tourist destination in all of South America.

I will not have access to the internet for the next four days but will provide a blog post about our adventures, probably on Monday or Tuesday. Overall, Cuzco has been a great experience and traveling with the girls has provided us with a new and interesting phase of our journey. Tomorrow it’s on to another wonder of the world–Machu Picchu.