Travel

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.

IMG_9358

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.

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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.

 

 

Peru Adventure – The Sacred Valley

July 10, 2014

Cristo Blanco watching over Cusco

White Jesus watching over Cusco

We started our day in a van around 7:30 a.m. We had a busy day planned, so we got right to it. Our first destination was a statue that sits high above Cusco. Ray called it “White Jesus,” but it is officially called Cristo Blanco. The statue was a thank you gift from some Christian Palestinians in the mid-1940s after they sought refuge in Peru. Considering that we were about to take a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, it seemed a little strange to be hanging out by a white Jesus but the view was worth it. From there, we were also able to get a glimpse of our first Inca ruin, Sacsayhuaman. Ray told us the correct pronunciation for that word. Then he told us most gringos call it “Sexy Woman,” and that stuck. Go figure.

After our photo-op, we got back into the touring van and descended down the winding road toward the first of our two cultural destinations of the day. We were going to a local village where women still practice the art of weaving as it has been done for centuries. One of the reasons I chose G Adventures for our trip was their dedication to helping the communities they visit through Planeterra, a charitable organization they founded. Planeterra’s mission is to protect iconic destinations from being exploited by partnering with community members and finding ways to support them, help the environment, and encourage local business.

Weaving the old school way

Weaving the old school way

As we pulled up to the village, our van slowed to pick up a diminutive woman in traditional costume who served as our guide for the tour. Lucila explained how they shear the wool from alpacas, clean it using the roots from a plant, and then color it by creating dye from different native plants and minerals. Once the wool is dyed, they spin it and then weave it into hats, scarves, and other textiles that the families sell to folks who visit the co-op. If the women use the ancient weaving process (shown here), it can take a month to make one patterned table runner. If they use the more modern looms provided by the Planeterra foundation, these same textiles take half the time to create. Either way, they’re producing handcrafted, truly Peruvian souvenirs for tourists while sustaining their community and preserving cultural traditions. We bought gifts for everyone on our list and felt good about supporting these families and the Planeterra mission. Total win/win.

Ray explaining the Inca terraces

Ray explaining the Inca terraces

Our next stop was to Pisac to tour our first Inca ruin. As we pulled up, we could see the agricultural terracing the Incas had set up. It was my first opportunity to acknowledge that we were actually in Peru and about to experience something I’d only seen in photos. I felt so small in the expanse and could not wait to stand there in the midst of what the Incas had created. Once we negotiated the maze of tour buses and finally reached the entrance, Ray took over. He told us how the terracing allowed the Incas to grow diverse crops depending upon the altitude at which they were planted. The Incas were not only master builders, but they were masters of their environment as well, creating channels and rerouting snow melt water to irrigate their crops from the top down. We toured the ruins and got some practice huffing and puffing our way up the stairs. Ray told us he was going to be evaluating our group fitness. As the oldest person in our group, I crossed my fingers that I would not turn out to be the weakest link.

The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch

The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch

In the meantime, I needed something more than oxygen. Lunch. Did someone say lunch? We had an hour-long bus ride to reach our lunch destination, another Planeterra brainchild. To foster preservation of native, Peruvian cuisine, Planeterra had worked with one small, struggling community to create a top-notch restaurant that serves traditional cuisine crafted from local produce to weary travelers like our group. Ray assured us that the meal would be excellent. It was. In a state-of-the-art kitchen in the middle of nowhere, Peruvians who had been trained as chefs by Planeterra had spent their morning whipping up delicacies for us. We had appetizers, a delicious green salad (you have no idea how excited I was about that “safe” lettuce), a rocoto pepper stuffed with ground alpaca (so good), and mazamorra morada (spiced pudding made with purple corn and fruit) for dessert. It was probably the best meal we’d eaten yet in Peru. To rest after lunch, we all took turns trying our hand at Sapo, a Peruvian tossing game similar to our Cornhole game where you try to land a beanbag in a hole. Instead of tossing a bean bag, we were tossing heavy, metal coins into holes on a table to score points. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but it was a fun way to interact with our fellow travelers. I found myself grateful that hand-eye coordination is not a skill required to hike the Inca Trail.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Our late afternoon plan included yet another bus ride. This time we were headed toward our last civilized accommodation before becoming ground sleepers. We arrived in Ollantaytambo (oy-on-tay-tom-bo), checked into a super cute inn, and had just enough time to unpack our souvenirs and freshen up before hitting our last destination of the day. Within walking distance of the inn and situated at the junction of two valleys sit the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. The sun was starting to sink behind the Andes and we were losing daylight. Because of this, as we were entering the ruins, most of the crowds there were leaving. Like all the other ruins, this one included an impressive number of stairs. Ray broke it down into sections for us, giving us time to gasp for air while he told us about our surroundings. Of all the ruins we saw on our tour, these became my favorite. The stonework was incredible, and the setting was impressive. Scanning the nearby hills, small ruins were evident all over the place. Maybe it was the setting sun. Maybe it was the excitement of the trek we would begin the next day. Maybe it was the recognition that we were in truly sacred territory. In any case, something that evening made those ruins stand out. What the Incas were able to do in the formidable terrain of the surrounding Andes is awe-inspiring. And despite the cold wind blowing down the valleys and into the site while we walked around, I was getting a warm, fuzzy feeling about where this trip would take me.

Peru Adventure – Cusco

July 9, 2014

Cusco

Cusco

Before we could begin our Inca Trail trek, we needed to spend some time acclimatizing to the higher altitude. We were already fortunate enough to be coming from the Mile High City, but any Coloradoan can tell you there’s a big difference between physical exertion at 5,280 feet and physical exertion at 14,000 feet. We needed some time to get ourselves ready. So on Wednesday morning, we headed back to the Lima airport to board a flight to Cusco, which sits at 11,200 feet. A combination of Inca and Spanish culture, a blend of old and new, Cusco did not disappoint. For starters, landing at the airport there was more eventful than I was prepared for. As you descend toward the city, the Andes rough you up and force you through sharp turns as the pilots maneuver to land in the narrow, high valley where Cusco rests. I’d like to say that regular flights over the Rocky Mountains had prepared me for this, but they didn’t. But then I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the wonder of Cusco.

Our G Adventures guide, Ray, was waiting for us safely outside baggage claim. He efficiently loaded us into a large van for the 15 minute trip from the airport to our hotel and began briefing us about the rest of the events for the day. After a couple of free days wandering around Lima sans guide, I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about Peru from a local. A guide will make or break a tour, and immediately I knew we were in good hands with Ray. He was born and raised in Cusco, spoke Quechua (the language of the local natives), and finished his degree in tourism at the university in Cusco by completing his thesis on the Incas. And if his expertise were not enough, Ray’s impeccable people skills carried us from that first van trip through our last night in Cusco. He somehow managed to keep us motivated and on track for our entire tenure with him without ever making us feel rushed. I later discovered that he’s a Gemini like me. I knew I liked him.

Grains available for purchase from local farmers in the San Pedro Market

Bags of grain in the San Pedro Market

We had a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up before heading out for a walking tour of Cusco. Ray first took us to the San Pedro market. We wandered the aisles of this packed, open air venue where you could buy produce, grains, meat, herbs, textiles, and other assorted items. I marveled at the size of the Inca corn, which makes our corn nut snacks look piddly. We stopped occasionally to make food purchases from several local vendors so we could sample traditional bread and some tropical fruits that we can’t find here at home. It was one of those things that we might not have experienced without a good guide. We might have found the market on our own, but the likelihood that we would have felt comfortable purchasing and ingesting unknown foods is slim. The most interesting fruit we sampled was the granadilla, which had a hard outer shell similar to a gourd but which was very similar to a passion fruit. The flesh around the seeds was gelatinous (think chia seed consistency) and you had to suck the fruit from the outer shell. It was a fun experience. Nothing like getting to know your new friends by mouthing fruit on a street in Cusco.

Looks like a good time to walk your alpaca

Looks like a good time to walk your alpaca

We walked from the market toward the main plaza. Along the way I took time to marvel at the architecture. The bottom portion of many of the buildings was fashioned from different materials than most of the top parts of the same buildings. Ray explained that over the course of hundreds of years and dozens of earthquakes, the Inca walls remained in tact while the Spanish buildings erected on their ruins crumbled. Consequently, Cusco has a very new, old feel. I marveled as we walked near one of the old Spanish churches erected by the Conquistadors. Outside there was a street performer who had painted himself gold and was posing as a living statue for cash, a scene I could easily imagine any day of the week on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Passing right in front of the church at the same time, however, was a woman in traditional costume walking an alpaca. That was when I knew we were in for something special over the next week.

Noting we were hungry and a bit worse for the rapid altitude change, Ray directed us to a spot to grab a late lunch. He told us that our best bet was soup. Better not to overburden your system when your body is already struggling to acclimate. I was definitely feeling somewhat off already, so at Ray’s suggestion I tried the quinua (quinoa to us North Americans) soup…just the right amount of protein and comfort. Perfecto!

Later we met back at the hotel for a briefing about our journey into the Sacred Valley of the Incas and our Inca Trail trek. We were at last introduced to the whole of our hiking group. There were fourteen of us, six Americans, four Brits, a Swiss couple, and two Danish twenty-somethings. We quickly surmised that we were older than most of our fellow travelers by at least 20 years. We tried to imagine our advanced age would not be a handicap but, just in case, I began referring to us as “the old folks.” (It was what “the kids” were thinking anyway.) We covered logistics and were reminded that our packing limit for the next five days was 6 kilograms (about 13 pounds) and that had to include our sleeping bag and ground pad. They gave us the trip bags to pack for our porters and sent us back to our rooms to begin the arduous task of packing, weighing, and repacking. I was thrilled to realize I’d estimated well at home. My first time to the bag scale left me a half kilo under the allowed weight. Woohoo! I got to add in another shirt and the portable battery charger for my iPhone. All was right with the world.

Comfort food of potential destruction

Comfort food of potential destruction

Dinner was at a quaint, well-reviewed restaurant called Nuna Raymi’s. While my friends all went with more traditional Peruvian food, I was still feeling not quite 100% so I opted for the comfort of pasta. And I was enjoying my spaghetti with olive oil and chunks of delicious, locally crafted cheese until I thought for a second about the fresh basil and tomatoes in the entrée that I’d happily been gnawing. My mind did the inadvisable and considered that they may have been washed in water that hadn’t been boiled. I am not much of a worrier, but for about thirty seconds I entertained the horrific idea of uncontrollable, unscheduled, and just plain ugly potty breaks in the presence of 10 strangers with no proper toilets, limited foliage, and pack-out-your-own trash. I considered the swamp ass that would certainly follow such episodes and the irreparable damage it would inflict on my limited undergarments and two pairs of pants over the next five days. I imagined sleeping in a tent with these clothing items and my unclean self. I shuddered. Too late now. There was a reason why I purchased and packed Imodium AD and filled a prescription for Cipro. Why borrow trouble? One way or another, it would all be fine, right? I’m not much of a praying woman, but I’ll admit that on that note I sent some positive energy out to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to encourage her to look after me, just in case.