Peru Adventure – Final Day in Lima

An open air restaurant in Miraflores

An open air restaurant in Miraflores

On our last day in Lima, we knew we had a few things to cross off our list. We hadn’t yet made it into the main part of the city nor had we taken the time to visit a museum. We decided the best way to knock these things off our list would be to take a tour. We’d seen some red, double-decker tour buses touring the city during the earlier part of our visit. That seemed like the way to go. So after taking time to work on our repacking a bit, we made our way to the tour bus kiosk located in Parque Kennedy. Our earlier research told us that there should be a tour leaving early in the afternoon. We made it our mission to be on it.

After we purchased our tickets, we walked across the street to a local jugeria and sandwich shop. One of the things I’ve loved in the past about traveling to Central and South America is the freshly squeezed, tropical fruit juices that are readily available. So far on our trip, I’d missed out on this. I was not leaving this country without having a juice. I decided on a orange, pineapple, and strawberry juice and shared a grilled ham and cheese. It was a simple, comfort-food lunch and it was heavenly. Now all we had to do was keep the cats in Parque Kennedy from jumping into our laps to eat our food.

On top of the world...or at least on top of the bus

On top of the world…or at least on top of the Mirabus

The Mirabus tour began at 1:30. We boarded the bus and found our seats on the upper deck. As we were about to depart, the tour operator told us that we would need to watch our heads and be sure not to stand up while the bus was in motion due to low-hanging power lines. That got my attention. I looked up as the bus took off down one of the main thoroughfares in Miraflores and was surprised to see the faintest bit of blue sky peaking through the lightly overcast sky. Could it be that we would finally see some sun and blue sky in Lima the day we were leaving?

We toured through the Miraflores district and then into the upscale San Isidro district. I was enjoying the opportunity to see Limeños in the midst of their daily lives. Sometimes when you travel to a location that is very touristy, your view of what is normal life for the locals can become skewed. Riding down city streets during the midst of lunch time rush offered an opportunity to see men and women in business attire going about their usual routines. Lima is a bustling, lively city. It was fun to be in the thick of it.

Basilica Cathedral of Lima

Basilica Cathedral of Lima

The tour landed us in the Plaza Mayor where streets were closed off for a political rally. At the same time, a local cathedral was also having a street parade with the requisite pageantry. The area was so congested that we had to disembark and walk for a bit, which was fine with us. We entered the main plaza where riot police were ready near the political rally, just in case. One thing we noticed quite often in Lima is the number of uniformed, armed police officers on the street. They are everywhere, on foot, on bike, on horseback, and on motorcycle. The Limeños are under constant surveillance. There are cameras everywhere. The police presence was far more noticeable than it is in the States. Oddly, the predominance of uniformed police officers made me feel more safe in Lima. I’m sure some could argue the opposite.

The colonial-influenced architecture in this part of Lima is striking. What is interesting about it, though, is that it hasn’t been around as long as you would think. The Basilica Cathedral of Lima was built between 1535 and 1541. It was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1746 and then rebuilt. The cathedral, along with other structures in the Plaza Mayor, have been damaged and redone after multiple, strong earthquakes, the most recent one in 1940. Maybe that’s why the old looks so new here.


Blue sky in winter at the Museo Larco

The main stop on our tour was to the Museo Larco. The museum is in a lovely, 18th century building that was actually build over a 7th century, pre-Columbian pyramid. The museum houses an impressive, privately-owned collection of Peruvian pre-Columbian artifacts, some dating back 4,000 years. It also houses a large collection of ancient, erotic pottery, which we ran out of time to see. It’s too bad too because that would have made for some amusing dinner conversation once again.

The tour ended with a lovely drive down the coast and back to Miraflores. The blue skies were fading with the sun, and our time in Lima was wrapping up as nicely as it had begun. We were worn out after 11 days in Peru and opted to return to our new favorite restaurant right around the block from the hotel for one last round of Pisco Sours and a flawless meal. Then it was back to the hotel for final packing preparations and to await our shuttle to the airport. We had an overnight flight this time, for which I was highly grateful. Amazingly, I slept most of the way home, a feat I nearly never accomplish. It must have been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that gave me the peace of mind to rest. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several “trip of a lifetime” experiences. Our time in Peru reminded me that nothing I can own is as important as spending money on experiences that will live a lifetime in my memory. So…where should I go next?

Peru Adventure – Cusco/Lima

July 15, 2014



After a lively, late night dinner with our tour group that included the opportunity to make our own Pisco Sours, surprisingly we were up early for our final morning in Cusco. Our first stop was to Starbucks. Don’t judge. Old habits die hard, and Starbucks has free wifi. And reliable caffeinated beverages. And we wanted to Facetime with our sons. We hadn’t seen their cute little faces in days. We were due.

Just another morning in Cusco city

Just another morning in Cusco city

This Starbucks store sits on the second floor of an old building right off the main plaza, so it offers a nice view of the city while you wait for your latte. While we were sitting there, a procession of local, Catholic school children was making its way down the street in front of the store. Some were dressed in uniforms. Some were in angel costumes. All were adorable. It was one of those scenes you just don’t get to see in suburban Denver, so we snapped a few photos to share with our kids.I don’t feel one bit bad for visiting that highly commercial, Seattle-based coffeehouse. The way I had it figured, we were supporting American workers.

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

With caffeine on board, we went out to find some final souvenirs before heading to the airport. Walking around the central area in Cusco is fun. The city is both modern and ancient. You’re just as likely to encounter a hip student on a cell phone as you are a woman in traditional dress walking an alpaca. We lucked out and ran into Ray while we were trying to decide the best place to buy some last-minute gifts. It’s great to have a local to give you tips when you’re not familiar with an area. They can be invaluable in suggesting restaurants and pointing you in the right direction for exactly what you need. It helps when that person is also energetic, fun, and an all-around nice person. I was glad to discover that Ray is on Facebook. Facebook, for all its absurdities, makes the world a bit smaller by allowing me to stay in touch with amazing people I meet along my life’s journey.



We got to the airport with time to spare before our scheduled departure. While we were sitting there waiting, Andrew went off to buy some snacks. He returned carrying a bottle of Inca Cola. We’d seen this on the menu nearly everywhere we went. Inca Cola is Peru’s answer to Coca Cola. It looks like Mountain Dew, but Ray told us it tasted like bubblegum. Andrew poured us each a sample in a plastic cup and we toasted to our trip and our successful completion of the Inca Trail. Salud! Turns out it does taste pretty much like bubblegum soda, which I thought would be horrific but really wasn’t as disgusting as I had imagined. Not saying I’ll be buying cases of it on Amazon or anything, but I always figure I’m better for every new thing I’m brave enough to try.

Dinner at Saqra

Dinner at Saqra

We arrived in Lima hungry and tired. When we checked in at our hotel for our last night, I pulled up TripAdvisor and looked for a restaurant nearby. Saqra was ranked #14 in Lima and, bonus, it was just around the block from the hotel. It was a definite find. The ambiance was modern, fun, and funky, and the food was delicious. Up until that point, the four of us had been fairly conservative about what we ate and drank because, well, we were nervous about being sick on the Inca Trail. But with our trek behind us, all bets were off. We started with our first official Pisco Sours of the trip. The night before we’d sampled them but didn’t commit. I finally understood why people rave about these drinks. They’re tasty, they hit you like a ton of bricks (hello…cheap date here), and despite the lovely buzz there were no ill-effects afterwards. We ordered a couple appetizers, Parmesan scallops (which were served on their lovely shells) and ceviche to start. Perfecto! I settled upon ravioli for my main course and was not disappointed. The most fun part about Saqra was the restrooms, which were infinitely more amusing after a Pisco Sour. There are two unisex rooms. One is decorated with walls covered floor to ceiling in padded, red vinyl. The other room is entirely mirrored. Neither was occupied, so I had my choice. I won’t share which one I drew me in first, but I will tell you that a second Pisco Sour and another glass of agua con gas guaranteed that I eventually got to experience them both. When I got back to the table, as gauche as it is, I mentioned that the restrooms were not to be missed. I was curious to see what room would intrigue my friends. I’m all about initiating spirited (and occasionally inappropriate) dinner conversation among friends.

After dinner, we were worn out from shopping, touring, sampling, flying, drinking, and laughing, so we called it an early night. We had to rest up for our last full day in the City of Kings. Tomorrow we would tour Lima, visit a museum, and enjoy one last Peruvian meal before boarding a red-eye back to the States. As excited as I was to see our boys, I was melancholy about leaving Peru. Or maybe it was merely the effect of my Pisco Sours wearing off.

Peru Adventure – Machu Picchu

Postcard photo

My personal postcard photo

Until you’re standing there, surveying the whole of the place, you can’t comprehend how big Machu Picchu is. That was the first thing that struck me. The place is huge, big enough to once have housed perhaps a thousand residents. It’s hard to imagine that when you realize where these ruins are. They sit at around 8000 feet in elevation and are surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River, which is about 1500 feet down from the ruins. The ancient city itself is impressive with nearly 200 buildings, but it’s the impossible surroundings that you miss in a postcard photo focused on the ruins that blew my mind.

After a while, Ray told us we had to leave Machu Picchu and re-enter it through the main gate. We would have our passports checked with our entry tickets and might need to store our backpacks if the guards deemed it necessary. Ray also told us that the main entrance had proper toilets, vending machines, and a snack bar. We were all on board for that, so we walked out to begin again. There was a small entry fee for the bathrooms, but that was of no concern. I would have willingly forked over $20 to sit on an actual toilet at that point. The faucets with running water were heavenly. I briefly considered stripping down to wash up and I might just have done it if the restroom hadn’t been packed with an international crowd that would have frowned upon my personal bird bath in the sink.

A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!

A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!

When we had finally cleaned up and had some snacks, it was time to re-enter. We would get a tour with Ray for about an hour and then have a couple of hours to tour Machu Picchu on our own before getting into the bus queue for the ride down to Aguas Calientes where we would catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. From there we’d be getting back in a van for the ride to our hotel in Cusco for the night.

The number of visitors inside the ruins was already growing. Machu Picchu accepts a limited number of tourists per day (I heard between 2500 and 4000) and, despite its large size and the 11 hours it is open each day, it can feel crowded and overwhelming. When Ray was giving us his tour, he would have to scramble to find a quieter spot to give us information so we could hear him. He was able to give us some info about the site before he turned us loose to tour on our own with some recommendations about what we should investigate.

Steve and I split off from our tour group with our traveling buddies, Andrew and Heather. The four of us set off to see the temple first. I managed to get myself separated from everyone else while trying to take a photo of Pichu inside a building. When I tried to get to where I thought the others were, I was told by a guard that I could not go that way. What the heck? Turns out that to mitigate congestion, visitors must follow arrow signs in a particular direction while inside the ruins. Really? Okay. When in Rome. I turned around and followed the crowd, slowly and surely moving in the approved direction where I might eventually find everyone else.

I was starving. It was close to 11 a.m. and I had been awake almost 8 hours already. We’d been given sack lunches at breakfast, so I dug into my bag and started gnawing on a cheese sandwich.

“You’re brave,” a Canadian tourist said to me.

“Why?” I asked.

“You can’t eat in here,” she replied. Then she told me she’d gotten reprimanded for such an infraction earlier. I’d simply been lucky and no guard had caught me eating.


Rocks imitating art imitating nature

Snap. Now I was hungry, without my companions, and feeling my blood sugar dip. Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he’s angry. I turn into something reminiscent of the Hulk when I need to eat. Things would get downright scary if I didn’t eat something quickly. I decided to be a rebel. It had to be done. I pretended to put my food away in front of the other tourists who had caught me nibbling, but I kept part of the sandwich in my hand. When I’d get beyond a guard, I’d sneak a bite in my mouth as surreptitiously as possible. As far as I was concerned, it was a matter of life or death this breaking the law. Damn it feels good to be a gangster.

Steve found me and together we pushed ahead to catch up to our friends. When we found them, we decided en masse that if I was going to meet my goal of being photobombed by a llama we would need to get over to where we had seen them grazing earlier. The problem was that they were nowhere near where we currently were. We had 45 minutes to make our move. We started heading in the direction we needed to go. Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a tour group of seniors. It was clear that most of them were struggling with the stairs and the altitude. They were moving very slowly, and it would have been exceedingly rude and ugly American to shove through their group. So we stayed behind them and waited for their tour guide to move them through the narrow room where they were all standing. We were trying to be good citizens and follow the prescribed pathways, but the prescribed pathways were clogged with people who were not in the particular hurry that we were. I was becoming anxious. Time was a-wasting, and llamas wait for no one.

Help! I'm lost in Machu Picchu and I can't find my llamas.

Help! I’m lost in Machu Picchu.

We tried several different paths to head in the direction we needed to go, but we kept going around in circles by following the arrow signs. Finally, the guys split off to try to get their bearings or perhaps get directions from someone (who’d have thought that possible?). Steve returned to tell the tale of how he’d found an English-speaking tour guide but felt bad for asking him the fastest way out of the ruins. I never imagined that during my time in Machu Picchu I would become so discombobulated and frustrated that I would be looking for the exit. Andrew and Steve had separately landed upon the same solution to our problem. We now had an exit strategy, so we began cruising in that direction.

We found the llamas where we had seen them, happily munching on grass along the agricultural terraces. Now to get close enough to get a photo with them without getting kicked out for going the wrong direction or treading where we should not tread. This was going to be a trickier task than we had originally anticipated. Apparently it was everyone’s Machu Picchu dream to hang with the llamas. I didn’t want a photo of the llamas in the crowd. Time was ticking away until we needed to be out the main gate and waiting in line for our bus to Aguas Calientes to meet the rest of our group for lunch and train tickets.

Close enough

Close enough

All I can say is that Pachamama must have been looking out for me because as we were standing there puzzling out how to make this llama photo work, the llamas began to move down the terraces toward us as if Pachamama’s divine hand were urging them toward me. This might work out yet. We had 15 minutes left to get this photo and be out of the gates. Steve started snapping shots as they came closer, hoping that one would turn out. I did my part by jockeying for position near the llamas but out of the way of the other tourists who would not get the heck out of my photo-op. I did not make this long journey to share my llama photo with strangers. In the end, we had several decent photos of the llamas by themselves and one passable photo of me and the baby llama in the background. We had to call it good because it was time to make like a baby and head out.

As for the rest of our day, it was long. It started with a bus ride down from Machu Picchu that nearly did me in. The cobblestone road from the ruins, as you can imagine given the location of Machu Picchu, is set into the side of a steep mountain above a river. The road is wide enough for one bus. Needless to say, there is more than one bus transporting the thousands of visitors each day. I think I left impressions in the seat in front of me with my fingernails. I’m not even sure a Valium could have made that ride pleasant. It was the last sweat I broke on the trip.

Worth 27 long hiking miles and three nights on the ground

Well worth 27 long, hiking miles and countless stairs and three nights sleeping on the ground

We had Coke and wood-fired pizza in a real restaurant while waiting for our train. Our group barely spoke because we at last had wifi and could contact our families. We were back in civilization and it felt good. I thoroughly enjoyed the train ride to Ollantaytambo and even our bus ride back to Cusco. I didn’t sleep like some of my fellow tourists because I am one of those travelers who hates to miss a thing. I simply watched Peru as she flew by. I hadn’t even left yet and I was already wondering when I would return.



Peru Adventure – Day Four on the Inca Trail

Pichu...because nothing says ancient ruins like a plush toy from China.

Nothing says “ancient ruins” like a cheap, plush toy from China. I will do anything for my sons.

The wake up call for the final day of the hike was 3:30 a.m. I eschew any wake up call that happens at an obnoxious time, for example, 3:30 a.m. But on this particular morning I flew out of my sleeping bag ready to hit the trail. It had been a long, life-changing hike, and I was ready for the big finale. I was also growing weary of my filthy hiking pants and sports bras, and I knew at the end of the day there was a hot shower waiting for me. It was somber that morning at breakfast. Maybe we were all just sleepy, but it seemed like there was something in the idea of this journey being over that made us all a bit more contemplative than we had been. We loaded up our gear for the day, and I dug to the bottom of my pack to bring to the top something I’d been waiting until Machu Picchu to break out. Before I left, the boys had given me a Pokémon plush to bring along, 1) because they wanted me to have something of them with me (as if any part of me is ever without them) and 2) because they wanted to see a photo of it at Machu Picchu. I was merely glad they wanted me to carry a plush instead of, say, a rock. Either way, today it would fulfill its destiny and Pichu would visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu with me. The boys would be thrilled.

As with every morning on the Inca Trail, we headed to the passport station to be checked onto the trail for the day. The reason for the early morning wake up call was so that we could get onto the trail and through the Sun Gate in time to watch the sun rise on the ruins. The passport station did not open for a while, so we stood there in a line in the dark with other hikers, headlamps on, waiting for daybreak. This only added to the novelty of the day and our growing anticipation.

The Monkey Stairs

The Monkey Stairs

Finally the passport station opened and we were on our way. The sun began rising so we could jettison our headlamps and enjoy the last of the scenery on this hike. We were slowly heading our way up to the Sun Gate. I stopped a lot on the way to the Sun Gate. Not because I was gasping for air or needed to lower my heart rate but because I knew these were our last couple hours on the trail and I wanted to soak it all in. I stopped to take mental photographs and simply to be present in the Andes and appreciate all I had done to get to that point. It’s easy to rush to the denouement when it was the whole impetus for your journey. But, over the course of the past three days, I’d had the opportunity to focus solely on the journey. It transformed what would have been a great trip into a life-altering one. It’s our rushing through life to the next big thing that ruins us.

The last section of stairs you climb are aptly called the “Monkey Stairs.” This is because you more or less climb them on all fours because they are so steep. There’s no way to capture adequately a photo of these stairs, but imagine that you’ve just hiked nearly 27 miles, slept on the ground for three nights, and are dog tired from getting up at 3:30 a.m. To make matters worse, you’re wearing a pack. You approach a significant length of steps. They are uneven, worn, high and, frankly, the last thing you want to see at this point, but they are the final obstacle between you and Machu Picchu. You suck up your pride and begin climbing, hands on the stairs ahead of the ones your feet (or knees) are on so you can keep your balance. No point in getting this close to Machu Picchu and then injuring yourself so you can’t walk around and experience it.


The end of the line

When we got to the top, I realized we had reached the end of our hike. I hadn’t realized it was that close. At the top of the stairs is a sign that tells you that you’ve finished the Inca Trail. With a bit of melancholy, I took this photo of the sign to mark the occasion. I looked ahead of me, but the Sun Gate sits around a corner and there are people at the top resting from the stairs. The view is obscured. I finally summoned the courage to walk ahead to find the actual Sun Gate and see what I’d only read about. The Sun Gate itself is not something special to look at. It’s not a gate of any sort any longer, just a bit of ruins with windows overlooking the scene ahead.

Machu Picchu before sunrise

Machu Picchu before sunrise

I walked through the group of people gathered there, and it took me a minute to adjust myself to the view and what I was seeing. You’re still a hike away from Machu Picchu. It is there ahead of you and you can make it out, but it is a faded image in the distance. Because it’s still a way off, there’s some sort of mental acknowledgement that you’ve made it but the excitement of being there hasn’t kicked in because, well, you’re not there yet. The Sun Gate is an excellent spot for a photo-op, though, so we hastened to get that done while we waited for the sun to begin lighting up Machu Picchu.

We had timed our hike perfectly because the sun was on the hill directly behind Machu Picchu but it hadn’t yet landed on the ruins themselves. We all realized we needed to move it in a hurry if we wanted to hike the 1.5 miles down from the Sun Gate to watch the sun slowly sneak over the ruins until they were totally bathed in sunlight. The weather had been with us the entire trip. We’d encountered not one drop of rain, and the sky this day was again clear. There were no low-hanging clouds to obscure our view. It was literally a picture-perfect day.

Getting my zen on

Getting my zen on

I found speed in reserves I didn’t know I had while trying to reach Machu Picchu and enjoy it a bit before the crowds became insane. I am not afraid to admit I was nearly skipping my way down the last of the Inca Trail from the Sun Gate. I had done it. There I was. And there it was. My lifelong goal of being at Machu Picchu could be crossed of my bucket list. There aren’t many things that can eclipse the feeling of a long-term goal achieved. All that’s left is to savor it.




Peru Adventure – Day Three on the Inca Trail

July 13, 2014

When this is your view as you start your day, don't you just know it's going to be perfect?

Daybreak in the Andes

After spending a long, cold night at 11k feet and not sleeping well despite my considerable exhaustion, my distaste for camping was growing. So when our wake up call came, I was ready to get at it. We were much more efficient packing up our belongings and throwing on yesterday’s clothes without too much disgust. The relative amount of filth on our bodies was heading from tolerably uncomfortable to sort of gross, but we weren’t stinky yet so that was something. While I was missing my showers and rapidly becoming tired of squat toilets, I was pleased with how I was holding up physically. My legs were not sore from the previous day’s climb, proof that my training had paid off. When we finally unzipped the door to our tent, I had my first inkling that the day might be really great. The sun was just starting to light up the horizon. This planet blows my mind.

There's a ruin there if you look for it.

There’s a ruin there if you look for it.

As we began our day, we headed into the cloud forest up the steep path I’d seen and mentally anticipated the day before. Because we were getting closer to Machu Picchu, we were seeing more evidence of the Incas as ruins dotted the hillsides. Honestly, the ruins you encounter along the way make the trek completely worth it. I mean, you’re in the middle of nowhere. There are no cars to get to these places. You walk in or you don’t get there. I kept thinking about that and about how incredibly fortunate I was to be able to do this hike. I hadn’t even reached the end game yet, but I knew without a doubt that this is the way to get to Machu Picchu if you can, having the whole experience in the Andes. Sure. You’re hiking with 200 of your newest best friends, so it’s not completely secluded. But it is impressive and well worth the effort and the pit toilets.

A portion of the Inca Trail ahead of us

A portion of the Inca Trail ahead of us

Once we’d finished our ascent, we were solidly in the cloud forest. At one point, my hiking friends and I placed guesses about the altitude here. I guessed around 12k feet. We were closer to 13k. We hiked along a trail that wound along the sides of cliffs. If you slipped, the only thing stopping you from tumbling down was a dense carpet of foliage as far as the eye could see. The trail in this relatively flat section at top was an old cobblestone pathway. It seemed out-of-place and yet it was so cool that it was there. I appreciated that we were at least temporarily finished with the wretched stairs. We stopped and investigated plants and took lots of photos, none of which did any justice to the beauty of our surroundings. Ray had urged us to take our time and enjoy the ride. Everyone else was at least 15 minutes ahead of us, so it appeared we were the only ones in our group who were taking that recommendation seriously. It was a flawless day, sunny with the low-hanging clouds you would expect in a cloud forest. It seemed a shame to rush through the experience. Day Three was rapidly shaping up to be my favorite day of the trek. I didn’t want time to pass or the day to end but, dang it, I was hungry again. I needed lunch.

I'd like to have my lunch served here everyday, please.

I’d like to have my lunch served here everyday, please.

After a short scramble up some more infernal stairs, we found ourselves atop a rock outcropping in a sea of tents. The views were nearly 360 degrees. We were on top of the world. Our porters and chefs had set up another delicious meal, and this one ended with cake. Seriously. CAKE. On top of a mountain in the Andes. It was frosted and decorated in honor of a couple of newlyweds on our trip. If you’re going to backpack in the Andes, do yourself a favor and spring for a good tour company with porters and chefs. Having someone else help with your heavy load and do the meal planning and cooking is the best gift a stay-at-home mom can ask for.

Cake at high altitude. How did they do that?

Cake at high altitude. How did they do that? I can’t bake a successful cake from scratch at 5k feet. It must be chef school that makes the difference. That’s where they keep the secret.

After lunch, we found a spot to sit for a while to let our food settle. I pulled out my iPhone, which I’d kept off for most of the trek knowing we wouldn’t have a signal. But we were now about a 5-6 hour walk from Machu Picchu and, well, hope springs eternal. I fired up my phone and discovered we had signal strong enough to make an actual call. We hadn’t spoken to our boys on the phone since we’d left. It seemed like this would be a perfect time to call. Once we convinced my sister-in-law that everything was fine and no one had died, we told her that we were calling her from a mountain top in the Andes and we had limited time. She put our oldest on the phone. His first question was, “How do you have coverage there?” Then, our safety-conscious son followed up by asking, “You’re not near any cliffs, are you?” It was almost like being at home.

Winding staircase in the forest

Winding staircase in the forest

The rest of the day was even more magical than the first part. It seemed that every bend we rounded brought us a better surprise. Who knew that the Inca Trail had tunnels and spiral staircases? We sure didn’t until we found them. Those Inca were clever craftsman. We were descending rapidly into a lush forest. Because it was the dry season, we weren’t seeing a ton of the orchids the cloud forest is known for but the vines, moss, and ferns made it not matter a lot. It was a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was half waiting for natives with poison darts to come running at us. Steve was just hoping there would be no snakes.

When our tour group had coalesced again, Ray told us that if we were willing to add an additional half hour of hiking into our already long day we could see one more ruin. I don’t think there was a person in our group who thought that would be a bad idea. How many times are you in the Andes looking for ruins, anyway? So we took our little detour. The forest became more dense. We were having to duck our heads under tree limbs. The path leveled off and the drop off on my right side became more obvious. Where the heck was Ray taking us? I separated myself a bit from the others and took a moment to stand alone in the forest and soak it all in. I could have been the only person on earth.

Intipata Ruins

Intipata Ruins

We emerged at the edge of the Intipata ruin. It seemed to appear from nowhere. I shook my head. Ray was right. This was well worth the extra steps. The agricultural terraces here were high above the Urubamba River below. We commented that if you fell backwards onto one and started rolling, you’d just keep rolling until you landed in the water a couple thousand feet below. That was not much of an exaggeration. We watched our footing. I was so grateful that Ray suggested this detour. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. You could tell by the quality of the ruins that we were nearer to the grand prize. We took a little time to walk around and enjoy the scenery. Ray gave us one last talk about the area and the history, finishing a story he’d started about the Incas on Day One.

Don't get out the walkers just yet!

Don’t get out the walkers just yet!

The sun was beginning to set rapidly and we had to backtrack a bit to get to our camp for the night. Before we headed in that direction, though, Ray talked us into a photo-op. It seemed a bit silly as we watched each couple pose for their photo. But when it was our turn, we did a trial run and then went for it. Turns out old folks can jump! Yep. We’ve still got it…even if sometimes we walk into a room to look for it and forget we went in there for it.

Peru Adventure – Day Two on the Inca Trail

July 12, 2014

Quite literally up with the roosters

Quite literally up with the roosters

We had a five a.m. wake up call, which sadly arrived at 4:55 heralded by roosters. Five a.m. I knew that in a couple days’ time a five a.m. wake up call would constitute sleeping in, but on this particular day five a.m. felt pretty raunchy. We’d been comfortable enough in our tent on our fabulous air mattresses (thanks, Big Agnes, for your Q Core SL pad), but despite my high hopes for a good night’s rest I’d missed out. Our tents were perched on terraces above a small village called Wayllabamba. On that Friday night, the residents of Wayllabamba were having a celebration, and clearly everyone and their dog (literally) was invited. The music and barking continued until well past two. I slept, but not well, and five a.m. arrived way too early. We dove into our hike morning routine. We dressed quickly, repacked our bags, drank our coca tea to combat the effects of high altitude, ate breakfast, and escaped our narrow, valley encampment without the full warmth of the sun.

Day two on the Inca Trail is the toughest day. That’s what all the previous hikers say. That’s what the tour brochures say. And that is what Ray said. I had prepared for this day and its over 4k feet in elevation gain and its endless stairs. I knew I would be able to do it. I just wasn’t particularly looking forward to it…at all. We were going to reach nearly 14k feet. I had climbed peaks that high in Colorado and knowing what to expect made me dread it even more. It’s slow going at that altitude for me, not so much because I am out of breath but because of my much higher heart rate. Ray had told us that our 7.5 mile day would play itself out in eight hours. Six hours up. Two hours down. I had hoped he was teasing. He was not.

Six hours straight up

Six hours straight up

We slowly snaked our way up the narrow canyon, one hiker right behind another until we reached our first resting area. This section of the trail was much as I’d pictured or had seen in photographs. Steep. Full of stairs. I paused often and mentally recorded that some of my fellow travelers were handling this with far greater ease than I was. I reminded myself I was the senior on this trip and tried to be at peace with it.

The first section was secluded, lush, and filled with cascades. We were nose-to-tail because of the nature of the trail, so I enjoyed the time chatting with other travelers and mutually gawking at the scenery, grateful for the distractions. The inexpensive hiking poles I’d bought at Costco before our trip turned out to be a godsend. They made climbing stairs with an extra ten pounds much easier on the way up. Later they would save my knees on the uneven, tricky descent. I kept hearing Dory’s refrain from Finding Nemo in my head. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.

After a couple of hours, we had our last opportunity of the day to buy Gatorade, water, and candy from a few locals at Llulluchapampa (easy for me to say). They haul that stuff up every day to sell to tourist hikers with a hankering for chocolate and cash to spend. The mark up is nearly as steep as the Inca steps, but we were happy to buy a pricey Snickers bar from the gentleman who let us pitch our tents on his property. We took our last opportunity to enjoy a semi-civilized potty before heading into the sunnier portion of the day’s hike. As we ascended out of the shadows toward Dead Woman’s Pass (named not for a dead woman but because the pass seems to have the outline of a woman in repose…read “there is a giant boob in the landscape”), I spotted my first llamas. I was beyond giddy. They were at a distance on the hillside. But, dang it, there were llamas in those there hills!

Not sure why I am smiling here...I wasn't even close to the pass

I think I am smiling here because I think I see the summit. Ha. I was looking at the false summit. Joke was on me.

When you read about the trek, you’re made well aware of the never-ending steps. What people fail to mention is that for a good portion of the hike to Dead Woman’s Pass, you never lose sight of the trail ahead of you or the final destination ahead. But that damn pass never seems to get closer no matter how many steps you take. I was on an endless, Inca hamster wheel. I’d climb 10-15 steps, pause for a heart rate check, check behind me, and wonder if I had moved at all. I finally understood why Ray said it would take us six hours to do this climb. No one, not even the twenty-one year old Danish tri-athletes in our group, was running these stairs. It was slow and steady and someday we’ll get there. At least I thought I would. Or I would die trying. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.

As we climbed higher, we changed ecosystems. What had been lush and heavily forested became barren. I realized we’d ascended above treeline, but the environment here looked so different from the treeless alpine tundra in Colorado. In Colorado at this altitude, we’d be shivering and putting on additional layers. A bit closer to the equator and here we were stripping off layers and slathering on higher SPF.  Our group was well spread out by now. I was still dragging up the rear and, try as I might to forget about it, it was bumming me out and my stinking thinking (and hunger) began to take over. I started to falter. Fortunately, my patient and encouraging husband stayed back with me although he well could have gone ahead. There were many times along that last section that the thought crossed my mind that I could quit. Steve was there to remind me that if I quit I’d have to turn around and go all the way back to the beginning. Yeah. Like that was going to happen.

Yay me!

Yay me!

Eventually, after many, many, many breaks and even more whining, I reached the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass. Halle-frickin-lujah! I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up a bit. Oh. Fine. I shed a few tears. I pulled out some paper, made a sign to celebrate my summit, and had Steve snap the photo. The sign, with words inspired by a Jason Mraz song, succinctly captured how I felt. I was on top of the world. I fucking did it!

I spent a while at the summit, peering all the way down the valley I’d just escaped. I watched the folks who were still trudging along the well-worn steps, and I sent them lots of positive thoughts because I knew they would do it. After all, I had. I took a moment to sit down and was overcome with gratitude. I was thrilled that my body hadn’t failed me and that my spirit had kept up. I looked around and absorbed it all. I am in the freaking Andes. Somewhere, 9 hours away by air, my children were hopefully at the swimming pool enjoying a hot, mid-July day via water slide. I missed them. I daydreamed about standing on that summit again someday with them. I’ve done it once. I could do it again. Funny how little time is needed to recover from the struggle to reach a goal once you’re standing victorious, arms outstretched to the world in celebration.

It's all downhill from here...until it's uphill again.

It’s all downhill from here…

My stomach began making obnoxious sounds. It has been six hours since breakfast and, although I’d been shoving nuts, candy, fruit, and energy bars into my mouth all morning long, I was desperately hungry. The only thing standing between me and lunch was another two hours of hiking and about a gazillion more stairs. I wasn’t as worried about the descent because, well, it was all downhill. The view from the top of the pass down into the next valley below was even better than the view from the morning. I knew we were in for great things. We adjusted our trekking poles for downhill travel and were off. As we quickly made our way down (funny how much faster I am on the downhills), I noticed in the distance a faintly worn line heading back up the next hill. I asked Ray if that was where we were headed tomorrow. He wisely told me that was something we could worry about later.

“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” I replied. “It’s all downhill from here…until it’s uphill again.”





Peru Adventure – Inca Trail on Day One

July 11, 2014

Saying goodbye to the Inka Paradise Inn...and running water

Saying goodbye to the Inka Paradise Inn…and running water and flushing toilets

The big day arrived. We were heading out for four days and three nights without modern conveniences. I hopped out bed and prepared to enjoy my last shower for days, so it was with much chagrin that I realized that I had no shampoo packed in my weight-restricted bag. With heavy heart, I shampooed my hair for the trek with bar soap while ducks quacked in the courtyard outside our room. Goodbye running water. Goodbye flush toilets. Goodbye clean body. Hello, Andes.

After a hearty breakfast, we grabbed our gear bags and backpacks and piled into the van to head to Kilometer 82 where all intrepid Inca Trail trekkers begin their journeys. The van was quieter than usual as we drove through the countryside away from Ollantaytambo and toward the Camino Inka first checkpoint. I stared out the window as our van traveled too close to the edge of the Urubamba River on a rough, dirt road just wide enough for one and a half cars and barely wide enough for one over-sized tour van top-heavy with gear. I reflected on what a shame it would be to perish on the way to the Inca Trail, and then put on my sunglasses and closed my eyes.

Gearing up

Gearing up

When we reached the rendezvous where we would meet our porters and begin our hike, reality set in. Before us were 24 porters for the 14 of us trekkers. Westerners really are a pampered group. These 24 men, plenty of whom were in their forties, were gearing up with packs weighing 55 pounds to do the same trek I knew I would suffer through carrying my piddly day pack. And they had done this dozens of times because it was their day job. Some of them would complete the hike in sandals made from old tires. I felt like a colossal waste of carbon matter as I walked toward the passport line wearing my puny, ten-pound pack.

Everyone say "Photo Op"

Everyone say “Photo Op”

The first step toward hiking the heavily regulated Inca Trail is having your passport logged and stamped at the first checkpoint. To do this, you pass beneath a gate marking the entrance to the Inca Trail. This is the first obligatory photo-op. We all handed over our cameras to our tour guides and smiled obligingly for a slew of group photos. I imagine those tour guides know every camera in the world by now for the number of times they have to endure this lunacy with different travelers from around the globe who show up on their doorstep to experience their backyard. When we were smiled out, we headed into the line where we waited with other groups for our turn to be logged onto the trail. With passports then officially stamped, we crossed over the Urubamba River and onto the initial portion of the trail, a gravel incline to a small lookout platform.

The trek begins

The trek begins

Ray had told us that this day would be our easiest and a gauge for what to expect along the rest of the trail. In retrospect, day one was the easiest of the four. Saying that day one is easy, however, seems a bit of an overreach. There are plenty of challenging ascents along the way, and the landscape in the dry season isn’t as shady and forgiving along the trail as one would hope. The area on this first portion of the hike reminded me a bit of Colorado, dry and rugged. The flora was different (we don’t have eucalyptus trees in Denver), but the rocky landscape reminded me of home. You find the familiar where you look for it, I suppose.

The biggest surprise for me on this day was the number of small, remote villages we passed. I am not sure I grasped how many people lived along this trail before we began hiking. But people still live in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Because there is no motorized travel along the trail, we encountered many burros that first day that were laden with all manner of goods. It wasn’t that many miles into our trek when we passed a burro transporting not goods but a person who was clearly western and obviously miserable. This person, we realized, had been attempting the trek but was now either too ill with altitude sickness or too injured (sprained ankle, anyone?) to continue on ahead. Ray told us that when this happens on the first day, you may be fortunate enough to be escorted out via a rough ride on a burro’s back. A fellow traveler coined this method of transportation the Donkey of Disappointment. That moniker didn’t seem strong enough to me given the appearance of that weary traveler, so I renamed it the Donkey of Despair. Nothing like being hauled off the Inca Trail, sick and defeated, in front of others. I must admit that I made a pact with myself right then. If, heaven forbid, I became one of those riding on the Donkey of Despair, I would not ride silently past new hikers, head hung in shame. Instead, I would mess with them by shouting warnings laced with obscenities…”Turn back! It’s horrible. You crazy bitches are headed straight into the depths of hell! Save yourselves!” Luckily, it never came to that.

No mortar here, just perfectly stacked stones

Perfectly stacked stones

Each section of the Inca trail is diverse and breathtaking in its own way. Along the way, the scenery changes but the consistency of the Inca ruins remains the same. To gain appreciation for the Inca structures, it helps to remember that Peru is a very seismic country. Earthquakes are frequent. Several times since the Incas civilization collapsed, strong and deadly earthquakes have decimated structures in Peru. Yet Inca structures remain because the Incas were superior engineers. Ray, with his five years of studying the Incas and his nine years taking tourists through this area, had endless stories about the ancient kings and their struggle to create and maintain the Inca empire. When we stopped at ruins, he would take time to tell us their significance and then he let us wander around, stand in them, and ponder it all. One thing about hiking this trail as the person I am at 46 and not the person I was at 26 is that I was able to enjoy the hike as a journey and not simply as a means to reach a destination. Each time we took a legitimate break, I marveled at the work of the Incas or at a plant I’d never before seen or at the imposing grandeur of the Andes. I was not the fastest hiker in our group. I may very well have been the slowest. But two months later I can still recall the feeling I had standing where this photo was taken. That, my friends, is what living in the now is all about.

A tent with a view

A tent with a view

Day one was my least favorite day in terms of scenery and ruins. The day for me was mainly about getting into the groove of the hike and determining what was in store for me during the days ahead. When we finally arrived at camp that night, I was worn out…not so much from the 7 miles but from the emotion of the finally realized experience. I was glad to find our tent, peel off my socks, and settle into flip-flops and a cleaner t-shirt. I’m not sure I ever was so happy about the prospect of sleeping in a tent as I was that first night. I probably never will be again either.