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 – 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.