Pedestrian day in La Paz

Once a year, La Paz has a ‘pedestrian day’. Cars are banned (although not non-existent) and everyone takes to the streets to enjoy not risking their life when crossing the road. Although not as quiet as census day (when no-one is allowed out of their house), it is a lot more relaxed and quiet than the normal pace of La Paz.

This video was made by my super cool landlord, filming from the building where we live. If you like the music, also check out San Pedro Estudios.

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Colombian tidbits and book giveaway

I’m very excited to bring you not only a guest post today, but also a competition!

Cinda C. MacKinnon is a writer who grew up in Colombia and Costa Rica and wrote a novel, A Place in the World, set in Colombia. She fell in love with the people, culture and natural setting. In this post she talks about something many of us love about Colombia: coffee. Don’t forget to read on for details of how to win a digital copy of her book.

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A brief Coffee History:
Colombia is the second largest coffee producer in the world…second only to Brazil. The volcanic soil is ideal for growing coffee. The geography however made it difficult to transport the beans to market, especially in the past, as most of the best regions were the least accessible. It is a boom-bust industry at the mercy of weather, politics and markets. Many growers fought to remain solvent in the last century and Latin American countries were asked to adhere to quotas – to which they bitterly agreed.

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In 1975 a disaster in Brazil, the Black Frost, ironically aided the Colombian coffee market. When a terrible freeze killed over half of their coffee plants and ruined the crop, demand went way up for Colombian coffee. Brazilians quickly began planting the Coffea robustica species because it grows fastest. The Arabica variety however, which Colombia is known for, is the higher quality coffee; this made Colombia the leader for the most sought after coffee. (I personally think Costa Rica is in the same league.) In more recent years Vietnam has become an equal contender in terms of quantity.

Here is a fictional, but realistic passage (from A Place in the World) that depicts more about coffee cultivation from coffee growers giving a visitor a tour of their finca.

They walked between rows fragrant with coffee flowers. Alicia trailed along, followed silently by the finca’s yellow watchdog.
“The more flowers, the more fruits,” don Felipe said. “We calls them cerezas.”
“Cherries,” interjected Jorge. Felipe nodded, and pointed to a dark green seed. “When they turn red, they are ready for harvest. The bean is inside.”
“Will you pick them soon? Is it harvest season?” Peter asked.
“No season, really,” don Felipe smiled, brushing his salt and pepper mustache in place. “We pick the cerezas several times a year, at least two times between diciembre y abril, and also whenever they seems ready. Usually ’round agosto. But the cherries ripen continually, at the same time they start the new seeds.”…
…“We harvest more in the dry season. They have more ripe fruits then,” Felipe said. “Is not rare to have flowers, green cherries and ripe ones all the same time. Is for ‘dat reason that the coffee is gathered always by hand…for so not to damage the new fruits.”
… Did the first stock come from the jungle?” Peter asked.
“Ah no!” don Felipe beamed, raising an index finger and then lowering it at Peter. “That’s what many peoples think, but the coffee is not native to South America. It comes originalmente from Africa and Arabia. And peoples say…” he paused to ask Jorge how to say “Ethiopia.”

The Panamanian connection:
Everyone knows Colombia is famous for coffee, after all they invented Juan Valdez – but this excerpt tells a story you may not know about its history with Panama and the United States.

20131021-080507.jpg The Panama Canal famous-places.com

“Tell me about your American grandfather,” Alicia said.
Jorge turned out a palm. “His name was Mark Curtis and he was an engineer on the Panama Canal.”
“You know when the building of the canal was inherited from the French, Panama was still part of Colombia, no?” he asked.
“I guess most foreigners don’t know the story, but I went to school here, remember?”
He disregarded her remark and went on. “Theodore Roosevelt and his advisors decided it would be much easier to build the canal if they didn’t have to negotiate with Colombia. A revolution was instigated…it became a tradition of American intervention and orchestration of Latin American politics.”​
Abuelita is from an old Colombian family. They were indignant over American expansionism and the loss of Panama.” Jorge laughed as he told her the next part of the story. “There was a Carvallo family schism when my papi wanted to marry Mami…a Panamanian-American.”
…and now Jorge wanted to bring another gringa into the family.

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Have you ever been on a coffee tour? Where does your favourite coffee come from?

Cinda will give away a free Kindle eBook (or PDF) of her novel to the best question or commentator on this post! So get writing! (Reviewers also eligible for a freebie.)

Set in an emerald cloud forest in the final decades of 1900’s the passionate novel reads like a South American Out of Africa. A Place in the World is the romantic-adventure story of a young biologist and a multicultural cast of characters. When her Colombian husband deserts her on his family’s coffee farm high in the Andes, Alicia struggles to make a life there for herself and her son even as guerrilla uprisings begin to threaten the area, and a nearby volcano rumbles to life.

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Check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards for fabulous photos of Colombia, rainforests and coffee. You can also get to know her better by visiting her website and blog, and liking her Facebook page. You can get a softcover copy here and the e-book version in various formats on http://www.smashwords.com or Amazon.

Sacred Valley

Whilst Cusco was a bit of a culture shock for us (after the relatively chilled out attitude to tourism in Bolivia), the Sacred Valley was much more relaxed. We stayed in Ollantaytambo for a few days and enjoyed free ruins, cute cafes and delicious food as well as side trips to the salineras and Moray agricultural terraces. It was a lovely respite from the crowds at Machu Picchu and the touts in Cusco.

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See also our photos from Machu Picchu and visitors’ guide.

Machu Picchu: a guide to visiting

You’re probably already familiar with the site of Machu Picchu, having seen a million photos like this:

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But actually seeing the ruins in their real-life location, surrounded by jagged green peaks, is something you can’t fully appreciate until you’re there. The fifty bucks entrance fee is expensive, but if you’re at all interested in history or architecture it’s worth it.

To reach Machu Picchu you can either trek in along the Inca Trail or enter through the nearby town of Aguas Calientes.

If you want to travel independently, you must buy tickets in advance, which can be done online in Spanish (instructions on how to use it in English). The site is pretty straightforward to use and helpfully shows how many tickets are left of the 2,500 allocated for each day. In high season, you might want to buy them well in advance. And by the way, with a valid student card you get 50% off Machu Picchu entrance and other archaeological sites in Peru. However, you can only buy your tickets through an agent (not online) and be forewarned that in Cusco they would not accept our ISIC cards because we are over twenty five years of age!

Should you take the train to Aguas Calientes?

There are two train services: Inca Rail and Peru Rail.

I like trains. A lot. But I was not impressed by Inca Rail. It’s way over-priced (the cheapest ticket was $50 one way, starting in Ollantaytambo, and it is still cheaper than Peru Rail). The seats are comfy enough and you get one free drink, but honestly, on a journey of a mere hour and a half, you don’t need all that. I would have been much happier to forgo the luxury and pay less. Plus the carriage shook quite badly at some points, which for some reason made me a little motion sick.

Unless you have mobility or time issues, I would not recommend spending money on the train. Instead, trek along an alternative trail or take the ‘back door’ route.

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Should you take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu?

It’s expensive, but it’s also a long slog uphill to Machu Picchu (also it’ll be in the dark if you’re going early). In my opinion, if you’re going to splurge at any point on your trip, this could be the time to do it. It costs around $10 one way but it allows you a bit more time in bed. Get to the bus stop by 5:30am to join the queue and get on one of the first buses of the day. On the way back it’s all downhill so you could save money by walking.

Should you go at dawn?

You’ll be told to go early to avoid the crowds. I was there, ready to enter when the site opens at 7am. Considering how many people were lining up, I didn’t think it could get much more crowded. But it did. And then some.

During the first couple of hours after opening, it’s possible to walk around the site and find spots with very few people, if not places where you’re entirely alone. Later in the day, the site operates on a one-way system and you get stuck behind big tour groups with surly guides and cameras clicking left, right and centre.

So yeah, it’s worth getting up early to avoid at least some of the crowds. (The end of the day is another time you might get some space to yourself).

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Should you stay in Aguas Calientes?

If you’re going at dawn, you’ll have to. Other than this, there’s no reason to spend time in this tourist town. Unless of course you like 4-for-1 happy hours and over-priced restaurants that slap a ‘special tax’ on your bill at the end.

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Should you climb Huayna Picchu or Cerro Machu Picchu?

If you enjoy hiking, then climbing one of these peaks is definitely worth it. Not only do you get spectacular views, but you also get to escape the crowds a little. You can’t climb both in the same day, so you have to make a choice (or pay entry for two days). For me, climbing Huayna Picchu was the best thing about the whole day. Just don’t go if you’re afraid of heights.

Since tickets to these two areas are limited, you need to buy them in advance (easily done online when you’re buying your Machu Picchu tickets). Make sure you plan at least a few days in the area to acclimate as the last thing you want is to get sick and not be able to use your non-refundable ticket.

If you don’t mind the hotter temperatures, I’d recommend taking the later time slot (10-11am) for entry to Huayna Picchu so that you have more time at the main site in the pre-crowds early morning. For Cerro Machu Picchu you can enter at any time.

Should you bring your backpack/tent/sleeping bag to Machu Picchu?

I wouldn’t expect any sane person to take camping equipment all the way up when there’s absolutely no possibility of you being able to camp there. And yet I did see people walking around with huge backpacks full of stuff. Do yourself a favour and leave your big bags at your hostel in Aguas Calientes. They should have free storage even after you check-out.

All you need to bring with you are your passport (they check it against data on your ticket), sun and/or rain protection, water and snacks or a packed lunch (unless you want to pay for over-priced food). It all fits in a daypack. That’s it.

Have you visited Machu Picchu? Do you have any advice or recommendations to add? Share your experiences below.

Check out more photos of our visit to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.