I Am Disappoint

Poverty Certainly Abounds in Buenos Aires’s Villa 31

Poverty Certainly Abounds in Buenos Aires’s Villa 31

Yesterday, I did a little bit of research on travel in Ecuador on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree website. There I encountered the following complaint from a user called nemo_dat:

I’m a month into a two-month stint in Ecuador (enjoying a nice break between assignments). It’s my first time in South America and unfortunately I’ve been disappointed so far. I need to decide whether to stick it out in EC [Ecuador], go elsewhere in South or Central America, or perhaps cut the trip short and return home.

I’m having a hard time dealing with the air pollution, poverty, and sprawl. I’ve spent the past month in Quito and Cuenca. I left Quito because of the air pollution. I’m happier in Cuenca but was really looking forward to taking a scenic drive through the countryside today to see some unspoiled wilderness and breath fresh air. The scenery was nice in parts but my clothes reek of exhaust after spending the day driving. And while I saw some nice scenery I also saw some truly horrid buildings amidst the countryside.

I’ve been to several less-wealthy areas of the developed world, and while those places can be rough around the edges, I was easily able to find scenery and architecture to more than compensate. I just haven’t had the same “wow factor” in Ecuador.

I chose the Andes of Ecuador because I like mountain scenery and I’m not a fan of heat or humidity (not a beach person). But this isn’t working out. Are there places in Ecuador or elsewhere in C or S [Central or South] America I should consider?

I feel like an ass for saying it, but I think somewhere more “European” might be more in line with my preferences (I know that probably brings to mind Argentina).

Any advice on how to proceed is greatly appreciated.

Actually, I am rather sympathetic with nemo_dat: The fact of the matter is that some people are not cut out for travel in developing or undeveloped countries. Their curiosity is trumped by the discomfort factor, which can at times be considerable.

I had the misfortune to visit Yucatán in the early 1980s during a major heat wave and came down with some kind of tropical illness. I went to the front desk of the Hotel Cayre and asked them to send a recommended doctor, which they did—and promptly. He gave me an injection and wrote out a prescription, which I had filled out at a local farmacia. It did lead me to change my plans. I grabbed a flight to Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the State of Chiapas, high up in the Sierra Madres, and took a bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where it was reasonably cool at some 5,000 feet of altitude.

The complaint of nemo_dat is more about pollution and  a certain ratty quality prevalent in many if not most Latin American cities. Martine, for instance, complains bitterly about the broken sidewalks in Argentina and Mexico, which forced her to watch her step at all times. (In 1979, while watching for a break in the traffic at Insurgentes and the Reforma in Mexico City, I fell into a 10-foot ditch; so I can understand her.)

If that sort of thing is a problem, I suggest sticking to the mountains of the First World, like the U.S. or Canadian Rockies, the Swiss or Tyrolean Alps, or perhaps Australia. You’ll find a more “paradise-like” (translated: Disneyfied) environment there.

What you won’t run into there is the poor Aymara woman I met in Puno, Peru—now there’s a ratty city!—who was dragging around her home made knitwear. It was an icy morning at 12,500 feet altitude and I badly needed a scarf; so I bought one from her. She was so grateful that tears came to her eyes, and she stroked my arms as if I were a favorite family member.


Beating Soroche

I made it to Puno several days ago for what was to be the high point of my trip. Of course, I am referring to the altitude of 12,500 feet. Tomorrow I venture out on Lake Titicaca to see the Uros Islands (floating agglomerations of reeds anchored to the lake on which people live) and Isla Taquile. Since today was rainy, I expect the water to be rough, so I purchased some dramamine at the local InkaPharma just to be on the safe side.

If you have been following my posts about Peru, you know that I was fearing the ill effects of soroche, acute mountain sickness. Although I am still occasionally short of breath and have to wake up two or three times during the night, these are considered normal reactions. I took a two-pronged approach:

  1. I had my doctor prescribe Diamox (generic: acetazolamide). I take one tablet a day, and that does tend to account for several of my night trips to the bathroom.
  2. I take coca leaves in two forms, both of tea and, when the symptons worsen, I chew the leves directly. It helps to have a high carb diet to go with this.

It’s nice to be able to plan for this sort of thing. In the lobby of Puno’s Casa Andina Classico Tikinari Hotel, I get a big kick out of the whey-faced travelers staggering in with their giant rolling suitcases only to hear they will be picked up at 7 am tomorrow for several tours for which they are totally unprepared and likely to beg off from because their head aches, they are dizzy and nauseous, and in general remorseful for ever having signed up for their trip.

On Saturday, I board the Andean Explorer, a famous train that crosses the altiplano from Puno to Cuzco. That’s where you’ll hear from me next.

Puno Gets No Respect

Bicycle Repair Shop in Puno

Bicycle Repair Shop in Puno

As one who lived the first seventeen years of his life in Cleveland, Ohio, I am well aware that some places come as a major disappointment to travelers. Cleveland was usually referred to as “The Mistake on the Lake” and, parodying the Chamber of Commerce motto of “The Best Location in the Nation,” “The Worst Location in the Nation.” And on the old Dobie Gillis TV show, wasn’t that hippie Maynard G. Krebs always going to see a movie called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.

Well, Puno is one of those cities that gets no respect. A major entrepot for goods being trucked from Peru to Bolivia and vice versa. It is also one of Peru’s major centers of indigenous population, including both Quechuas and Aymaras.

If you take a look at the books written by travelers, you get a pretty dim view of the place. Paul Theroux (The Old Patagonian Express) and Christopher Isherwood (The Condor and the Cows) didn’t even give the place a chance: They arrived at night and left that same night on a boat bound across lake Titicaca for Copacabana, Bolivia. Since there are now no boat crossings to Bolivia—unless one is on an expensive catamaran tour—that option no longer exists.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 1970s (Three Letters from the Andes), he didn’t have much good to say about the place:

There was little for the eye to feast on outside. Puno is an assembly of corrugated iron roofs, sidings and goods yards sprawling round a church like a Gothic mud pie. We picked our way through the debris and squatting Aymara Indians—treading softly lest we tread on their dreams—to a ramshackle lacustrine port where an old steamer lay at anchor, brought piecemeal overland long before the railway, so that each plate was cut down to the weight a mule can carry, and sometimes a llama, then welded and riveted together again on the lake shore.

Fermor describes being met at the train station by a gaggle of unruly Aymara porters “seizing our luggage and bickering and punching each other all the way across the tracks to the repellent Ferrocarril hotel,” which had mislaid all the partys reservations.

Some years later, Michael Jacobs (The Andes), had this to say about Puno: “Neither of us was keen to stay any longer than necessary in Puno, which looked, under bright sunlight, even uglier than I had remembered it. The sun accentuated its resemblance to a waste tip of dirty brown boxes washed up by the lake.”

In Cut Stones and Crossroads, Ronald Wright damns the city with faint praise: “Puno has improved: I’ve found a hotel with hot water and a restaurant with hot food.” In The White Rock, Hugh Thomson considers Puno a “‘one-nighter,’ if that.”

Given all that bad publicity, I am sure that I will enjoy Puno. There isn’t much to see in the city proper (or should I say improper?), but there are the burial towers at Sillustani and the Islands of Taquile and Amantani in the middle of the lake. Plus, I will be trying to outlast the soroche I am sure will overtake me there at the elevation of 12,500 feet. Hey, nothing can surprise me: I’m from Cleveland.



The High Point of My Trip


Puno on the Shore of Lake Titicaca

Puno on the Shores of Lake Titicaca

If my upcoming Peru vacation is a success, it will be because I was able to withstand life at 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) altitude. The high point (both literally and figuratively) of my trip will be at Puno, a somewhat ungainly city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There will be short times during which I will be at 15,000 feet (4,570 meters) or more as I go over mountain passes between Arequipa and Chivay, between Arequipa and Puno, and between Puno and Cusco.

The hotel at which I will be staying—the Casa Andina Classic Tikarani on Jirón Independencia—provides oxygen for its guests as well as mate de coca if I am beginning to feel the onset of acute mountain sickness, or soroche, as the natives call it.

In the end, it is possible I am making too much of all this, but I will be traveling by myself. I have to be prepared to take immediate action in case I am one of the 1-2% of travelers in danger of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). If that happens, I will immediately return to Arequipa and figure out a Plan B that involves visits to Tacna, Peru and Arica, Chile, cities that figured in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), in which Bolivia lost its seacoast. (Even so, they still have admirals.)

If I find I can take the altitude, I’ll spend a night on Isla Taquile, which involves a 400 foot climb up a trail to reach the center of town. There, I will spend a night with one of the local families before returning to Puno by launch the next day.

After Puno, I head downhill to Cusco, and later still further downhill to Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.