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MEGA BLOG: Peru, Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Stanford Young Alumni Expedition 2005
This whole thing started back on May 17th, 2005. I had casually deleted the email from the Stanford Alumni Association figuring that neither Steph or myself could afford the trip, or that it would be of any interest to either one of us. I was so very wrong! To my amazement, the girl from Florida who had never been south of the equator (let alone out of the country) was seriously considering it (note: this same girl-from-florida also loves sushi and now plays ice-hockey---go figure). We knew that these trips sold out and had to act quickly. Could we afford it? Was the timing right? Could we manage the details? Would we ever have this opportunity again? (Yes, Yes, Yes, Not Really). Within a few days we had our deposit wired and were confirmed for the trip. Within 2 weeks all 30 spots were sold out. We were on the trail 4 months later.
A few things to note: I have never been to a spanish speaking country. Neither one of us speaks anything other than food-spanish. I, too, have never been south of the equator or in a country as developing as Peru. I have never had to pack with such severe weight and space requirements (22lbs on the trail, 44lbs total weight). Nor have I ever been and stayed at these altitudes (13,800 peak, two nights at 12,000). I also have not been camping for this many nights in a row since I was a kid.
Yes, this was shaping up to be an adventure with memories to last a lifetime.
The preparation was intense. Lots of walking to get in shape (started playing hockey, too). Numerous trips to R.E.I. to purchase nearly $1000 in new lightweight gear. Spreadsheet packing lists. Scanned documents just in case. Travel insurance, immunizations, innoculations and imdemnifications. Books about Peru, the Inca Trail and Altitude Sickness. Medical kits to prepare and shoes to break in (I have *major* blister problems, but figured out how to beat them....more on this later). Thankfully, the Stanford YAE and Global Adrenaline provided documents and answers to all of our questions.
We flew out of SFO and into Atlanta, where we connected with a flight to Lima. We had chosen to arrive in Lima a day early so that we could explore and recover from the flight. We had also chosen to kick-down cash and have Global Adrenaline secure an english-speaking tour guide from the airport to our hotel. We figured we were going to be arriving late and tired in a foreign country with aggressive (not-always-so-nice) taxi drivers and just wanted the quickest route to our hotel. We figured correct.
We arrived near midnight and the first smell I noticed when we got off the plane was the smell of frying corn oil (every airport is different). Turns out, we debarked right by the food court! I was shocked by the sheer quantity of YELLOW signs everywhere. Once again, every airport and every country has its preferred colors, and in Peru the colors are black and yellow. After a desperate rush to the bathroom by Steph, it was down to the most efficient customs I have ever been through.
On our flight, I noticed a woman in my aisle who happened to also have the magic "red book" from SYAE. As luck would have it, the other person arriving one day early was sitting no more than 5 seats away from me on the plane and stood waiting for her baggage only a few people over. This woman managed to get her baggage 10 minutes prior to Steph and myself and vanish through customs. Just as Steph and I were seriously beginning to sweat that our luggage (and our livelihood on the Inca Trail) were not going to make the journey, the bags appeared. Looks like we would (have to) be able to trek the Inca Trail after all instead of lounging in a comfortable hotel awaiting luggage.
After collecting our luggage, we navigated to the "output" kiosk, where a security dude of some sorts asks you press a giant red button on a purple column. This triggers some magic random number generator and if the resultant light turns green you are free to get your ass out of the airport.
My light turned red. I was lucky enough to have all of my baggage felt up by a screener who could care less about me or her job (after all, what was I going to smuggle *in* to Lima....coca leaves?)
I collected my bags once again, and Steph and I walked out into the most disorienting din of spanish taxi drivers imaginable. Hundreds of signs held up ("John Smith", "Jane Doe", blah blah blah) and not a one said "Global Adrenaline". Meanwhile we are being harassed by some lady insisting that she can give us a ride, when the woman from our flight (Hilary) saves the day and pulls us towards her and our english speaking tour guide (Thank you Hilary!!!). Soon, we were on a short-bus and driving the 30 insane minutes towards the Sonesta Posada del Inca el Olivar in Lima.
Arriving in a daze, we met Leslie (who I remember seeing at an REI weeks before) managed to check in and then completely crashed.
We arrived a day early so that we could wander around Lima, get our bearings and recover from any jet lag. Waking up at a reasonable hour, we grabbed breakfast and quickly discovered how nasty coffee in Peru really is. In fact, it is labeled "coffee extract" and is simply folgers (or maxwell house) brewed 3X over normal and then boiled until a thick sludge. I had 2 cups that morning.
The hotel we were staying at (Sonesta Posada del Inca el Olivar ) was in San Ysidro, a nice business district. We figured we spend the morning walking to the Huaca Huayamarca pyramid close by. Walking in Lima is dangerous....and we almost got ourselves killed crossing the street several times in the 6 blocks to the pyramid. "Go with it"....became the theme of the day.
Turns out the pyramid was a total let down, but the good news is we were slowly becoming desensitized to cars clipping our heels. We also noticed the preponderance of security guards! There must be a union or something. Every single house we saw in Lima had nasty, vicious barbed (or electrical) wire or sharpened iron bars surrounding the property. However, we did see one very nice house without a single protection scheme, for this house had two full-time security gaurds standing in front with 1940's era machine guns slung around their shoulders.
A few quick side notes about our first day in Lima. Because of the omnipresent low fog layer and choking brown exhaust fumes coming from every vehicle, the sky was one uniform dull shade of gray. In spite of my eyes tearing (from the exhaust) and the ever present street vendors, poverty, crumbling paint and graffiti, we noticed one amazing detail: there simply was no trash on the streets in LIma. No paper in the gutters and no litter on the road median. Lima rivals Tokyo for lack of visible trash on the ground!
Returning to the hotel we decided to venture out. With a little bit of work, I convinced the hotel concierge that we wanted lunch at a moderately priced place that served cebiche. Somehow this translated to "Take the gringos to the most expensive restaurant and be sure to charge them triple the taxi fare."
Sure enough, we ended up paying 16 Gringo Soles (for what should have been a 6 Nuevo Soles ride) to get to Mira Flores and the El Senorio de Sulco restaraunt. Yes, the restaurant was superb and the cebiche the best I have ever tasted. The other thing that was superb was the 200 Gringo Soles price tag for the two of us and the lack of prices anywhere. We managed to scrounge through our money belts and dig out the cash, as neither one of us had felt brave enough to bring a credit card out (or camera) out on the streets.
"Go with it!", we said to ourselves and enjoyed a stroll along the cliffs of Mira Flores. No photos (sorry) because both of us were too unsure (and chickens***) to bring our cameras through unknown territory (lesson learned).
The path along the cliffs is amazing, low stress, and mostly devoid of the throngs of people found elsewhere in Lima. We even saw a bunch of wanna-be hang gliders (wanna be, because they were all just sitting around). It was truly relaxing all the way to Larco Mar, the strip mall of Mira Flores. At Larco Mar we found the familiar (read: revolting) sites of Tony Romas and Hooters. We ate churros in the food court (failing miserably even in our attempt at food-spanish-speak) and then headed towards a central park.
"Go with it," we told ourselves as we walked along block after block of gringo free streets. After 30 minutes, we reached our other destination (another Sonesta Posada) and hailed a taxi from the street (evidently a big "no no" in the guide books). I did my best to ask the price of the ride ahead of time (with a pitiful "quanto vale" or something like that) and didn't even bother bargaining the 6 Soles rate.
And thus began the most interesting part of our time in Lima. Turns out "Pare" in Lima-spanish translates to "Go with it". Taxi drivers don't stop and are perfectly happy with an inch on either side as they shimmy through a traffic circle. The truth is, we were never scared during the ride, as things happened too quickly and too far outside our realm of normal logic . Instead, I chose to sit back and enjoy the ride, content to "go with it" like I would a roller coaster in the states.
Back at our hotel, we joined some of the other early arrivals for a (nervous, first time meeting LOTS of people) Pisco Sour. A Pisco Sour is like the sweet sister of Margarita. They are kind of light and frothy and quite agreeable.
We then joined the group for a tasty dinner, and discovered that there is no such thing as "light Peruvian food". Appetizers were all the group could put away, and consisted of super tasty beef hearts, empanadas, tomales and more. The drink was a purple (looked like a cabernet actually) drink made from corn that tasted like bubble gum. I believe it was called something like Chicho Morado.
Another hair-raising taxi ride home (even the taxi driver yelped in fear as a car opened its door in front of him) and it was time to re-pack and head to bed, as we had a l-o-n-g day in front of us. "Go With It!" (which, when abbreviated and slanged that night became "gwee", which sounds a lot like the Quechuan word for guinea pig).
Waking up at 3:30am is simply not cool. In order to shower, drink coffee extract and be checked out and on our anteater bus by 4:00am, coolness got tossed. All this to get to the Lima airport and catch a flight into Cusco. The flight to Cusco takes you over the high altitude rugged Andes. The in flight entertainment is hilarious and the food (a mixto sandwich....ham-n-cheese basically) was far better than the American standard salisbury steak al a sodium.
Dropping into the Cusco airport, we circled around a big mountain and landed at a good clip (altitude raises stall speeds). Cusco is at 11,000 feet. Lima is at 0. I was quite light headed as I stood up and stumbled towards baggage claim.
After watching our red-tagged bags get claimed by half-dozen porters, we hoofed it out into the very bright sun and found our bus. En route, a guy was snapping our photos like a madman. Evidently, these entrepreneurs snap photos of everybody heading towards a tour bus. The amazing thing is that they figure out (somehow, mystery) when you are leaving Cusco and meet your bus with developed photos in hand for a few Soles apiece.
We took the bus up over the hills of Cusco and over a few more hills towards the Urubamba River Valley (the Sacred Valley of the Incas). We were in a tour bus, so we were mandated to stop at a tourist-laden overlook and take several photos.
We stopped in Pisac for a little shopping at the Pisac market. Our guide, Miguel, bought us all tasty empanadas and showed us a pen of "free range" guinea pigs. Yes, guinea pigs are a (tasty) delicacy in Peru and this one is even asking to be picked. We had a little time to wander the Pisac market and learn a bit about bartering (as well as getting completely taken) as we found alpaca sweaters, gloves, socks and silver jewelry. Seriously, US$10 for a hand-knit sweater (supposedly alpaca) is a steal regardless! We had to pass on the coca leaf jewelry, though, as the USofA DEA simply does not have a sense of humor about those sorts of things.
After Pisac, most everybody fell asleep en route to lunch at some touristy lunch spot where some local band knocked out Beatles tunes on wood flutes and other traditional Peruvian instruments. Lunch was tasty, however, and we all got some trail instructions (and maps) from our guides.
And then it was on to Ollantaytambo (say it with me: "oy - yan - tie- tam - bow") where our giant anteater bus managed to clear the thin cobblestone streets by nary a whisker. When the spanish attempted to conquer Ollantaytambo, the city gave them their most embarassing defeats. Turns out the narrow alley ways with the gutter in the middle are only one horse wide and one broken horse ankle deep.
We did get a chance to visit a "traditional" cancha and view the insides of these one-room thatch roof cottages. The Incas preferred (apparently exclusively) one room designs. A cancha was typically a 4 sided enclosed courtyard where the houses lined the outsides of the square. Think of it like a 4 room house turned inside out, actually. This particular cancha example raised cute little dinner on the floor. Seriously, I almost stepped on little babies several times. Every once in awhile all of Kui (say it: "koo - eee", the Quechuan word for guinea pigs, because that's the sound the little buggers make) would start their little alien sounding chant in an attempt at mind control or something.
In the cancha, we met a cute little school girl who was determined to practice her english and learn our names. Step-panie and I had a good conversation with her. Turns out my name in Quechuan is Puca (say it: "poo-ka"). Cute, huh? Speaking of cute... wtf, mate?
Then it was time to get a workout. Looking up from the base of the ruins you can see that they have some stairs. Seeing as we were all newcomers to 9100 feet, it took us 3 rest breaks to make it to the top. And the timing was perfect. What a view! Great stone work at the Ollantaytambo site, including some of the later megalithic stone work.
With darkness approaching, we hoofed it down to our hotel for the night. There, we had a chance to grab 30 minutes of sanity before heading to a happy hour in a smoke filled room (chimney didn't seem to work). I was starting to feel a major headache (remember the lack of coolness that began this day) and very tired. The smoke was killing my eyes and only the Peruvian beer in my hand kept me awake (weird, huh?).
Our first lecture by Professor Rick followed a little while later. A dark room with only a few hours of sleep (some had none) sounded like a great idea. In a true testimony to the inspiring lectures that Professor Rick is capable of delivering, most of the room stayed awake! (the lecture was about the puma shape of Cusco and some of the geological and environmental factors behind the Incas). Then we got the disturbing news about how we would have to pack (tonight being the last night of civilization) for the next few days.
Dinner was a blur and I managed to stay awake and stomach some very heavy food. Immediately after dinner we retired to our drafty (cold) room and I made the foolish attempt at washing some essentials and hanging them up to dry (foolish == stupid).
We slept like rocks in preperation for getting up early the next morning.
Another early morning wake up in the chilly Pakaritampu Hotel. It had rained through the night and was still raining when we woke up (and would continue raining for 3 more days without a break). The clothes I washed the night before had not dried a lick, and the shower had no water pressure (but it was warm).
Oh, and I felt like crud. I had the start of a chest cold (perhaps due to the smokey fireplace the night before) and the inklings of a fever. Great....lets go hiking at 12,000 feet!
More coffee sludge for breakfast, and then some coca tea (lots of sugar) in a foolhearted attempt at keeping the fever at bay. We then boarded a bus and drove up the Urubamba River Valley. At some point, we passed a bull fighting ring and then crossed a bridge over the Urubamba River and started climbing the steep side of the valley (gaining approximately 3,000 feet ) to a high altitude and fairly flat and expansive plateau.
Our first stop for that morning was the wind-swept (and rainy) terraces of Moray. Viewed from above, the terraces are tucked 100+ feet below the ranger station. There are actually 3 sets of terraces filling 3 adjacent low points. The drainage for each terraces was provided by an Inca-enlarged sinkhole and is evidently stone-lined and quite large. Those in the know think that this site was used to acclimate seeds and plants to the succesfully colder environments. Because of it's low-lying protection, the inner terraces are several degrees warmer than the outer rings. Early genetic engineering by the Incas! This same site also has Inca flying stairs leading from one level to another. In this photo you can get a sense of scale. The people at the far end are archealogists working on renovating the site. The site had sufferred much wear and tear as the former home to the Moray city market.
We practically ran up the hill towards the bus in an attempt to get out of the blasting cold wind. While waiting for everybody to finish up their body break, I was able to make change for a couple of trekkers. The trekkers then asked (and we agreed) for a lift down to Maras. They proved quite an interesting pair and had been wandering around Peru for quite some time. Back on the bus, we drove back through the city of Moray and stopped to take pictures of a chicha shop (signaled by bright plastic bags wrapped around the end of a stick and hanging out the doorway). Our short-bus barely made it through the tight city streets and had to pull a 270 degree right hand turn in the city plaza. Go with it.
Then came the hightlight of the day, the salt "mines" of Maras. As shown in this detailed map, the mines are an expanse of plots. Individuals buy rights to several of the plots and simply "mine" salt. The salt is provided, courtesy of mother nature, from a salty-spring found further up the narrow valley. With Peruvian low-tech ingenuity, this salt is routed down hundreds of small channels (aqueducts) to the various plots. As upstream plots fill with clay and become unusable, more level plots are constructed further downstream.
After a few donkey traffic jams, we drove down to the church (located just above the salt mines) and tourist station. We unloaded our bus and prepared for the 800 foot downhill hike to the Urubamba River. At this point, my fever was coming on strong and my legs burned from the touch of my pants....oh bother.
Hiking down through the salt mines was amazing and definitely recommended! Of course, seeing as Peru has yet to be overrun by stupid lawyers, there were no guard rails or trail warning signs blocking the amazing view. Instead, there was a 10 inch wide foot path down amongst the plots. We got to see men and women harvesting the salt by hand. Steph captured this amazing photo showing the dramatic elevation changes between plots and the numerous small channels that are used to fill the plots up with salt-laden water. This guy was carrying a 100 pound bag of salt on his back while walking barefoot at 10,000 feet. He's got my respect. The woman in the photo is a Quechuan wearing a traditional lime-covered hat.
Well, we reached the bottom (nearly last....I wasn't doing so well and felt like passing out) and re-boarded the bus (that met us down there) back to the Pakaritampu hotel. At this point we had a little over an hour to grab lunch and change for our upcoming shake-down hike on the Inca Trail that afternoon. One more chance to re-pack all of our necessities for the next several days into a 22lb(max) duffel. This was also my opportunity to ingest some Coke-light and a DayQuil (it helped) to reduce the fever (>101F).
With my fever slightly in check and bags packed for the next 4+ days, we hopped back on the bus for the dirt-road ride to Chilca. Never knew that short buses could cross full streams, but this one did, three times up to the tops of the wheels. In Chilca, me and Steph got our packs as the group of 30 nervous trekkers assembled. I can only imagine that the point of this day's short 6km hike was to be a sort of shake-down and warm up.
Not long into the trail, it started raining again. Lightly at first, and our our warm bodies quickly dried. A few minutes later it became not so light and we had to get our rainjackets on (quickly). Here's a view of the trail's "Inca Flats" alongside the Urubamba River Valley. Further up on the trail, we had a great view across the Urubamba River and into a valley darkened by the clouds above. At this point, Steph was still feeling pretty happy, and my fever wasn't all that bad either. Somewhere around km80 on the Inca Trail we took this picture of us with the Urubamba River.
With a little bit of wind picking up, we finally approached the permanent "tented" camp site (km81-ish). As far we we could tell, somebody owned this piece of flat land and rented it out to groups the night before their start on the trail. There was a cement walled (dirt floored) group mess hall and even 2 flushable toilets and (rumor has it) warm showers! We were afraid it was going to be totally skanky with lots of groups, but our fears were not answered at this site (our fears would be answered on the trail instead).
The coolest thing....as we approached the site, we saw THATCHED ROOF COTTAGES! (for an explanation to the thatched roof cottage fetish, click here) Seriously, most of the tents fit perfectly inside these little huts and protected them from the wind and rain (and horses and dogs). We also had a great view of the 16,000ft peaks behind us (we were at 8900). At the site of our tents, we got assigned our numbered tent for the rest of the trip (it changed nightly). We got a chance to set up our sleeping bags, change into warmer clothes, go to the bathroom and then go into the cold cement "mess hall" for warm tea.
The Quechuan porters treated us to a "traditional Andean BBQ", which reminded me of a "traditional Hawaiian BBQ" with food and coals being buried under a layer of dirt. Unfortunately, I was too sick to enjoy the tasty chicken and numerous types of potatoes that were dug up by flashlight in a big ceremony. We all got to experience our first hand washing "ceremony" prior to dinner. One porter holds a pitcher of hot water in his right hand and a tray with soap in his left hand. Around his left arm is a towel and at his feet is a bowl. You stand in front of this porter and get warm water poured over your hands, then you get some soap, then you get rinsed, then he lifts his left arm and towel. (Not done yet)...Then you go to porter #2 who has a bottle of rubbing alchohol that he pours in your hands. Every member of our 30+ person entourage conducted this "ceremony" prior to every meal (and when sickness was high on the 2nd day the bleach concentration of the hot water increased).
Feeling mighty feverish and cold, I added some layers prior to the night's lecture by Professor Rick (yes, they had brought in the laptop and video projector and there was even a power outlet in the mess hall). Professor Rick (and his bum knee) wouldn't be able to join us for the hike, so the equipment was heading with him to Aguas Calientes by train.
I made it through the lecture (shivering the entire time) and enjoyed the discussion regarding the shapes of the cities and the method of Sapa Inca Succession. We learned that the 9th and greatest Sapa Inca who began the major annexing was Pachacutec (aka "Pikachu"). We also learned about Anan and Urin (upper and lower) sections of cities and how to recognize the various stonework.
That night, i crawled into my brand new sleeping bag for the first time and was thankful it was 0 deg C rated. My temperature was 100.6F. I sweat all night long and slept as poorly as the 2 dogs that kept sniffing around our tent. You see, Steph and I did not rank high enough to score one of those THATCHED ROOF COTTAGES, so our tent was unprotected for the sniffing dogs and sleepwalking horses.
Yes, sleepwalking horses. Sometime in the middle of the night (at least once) a horse decided to circle our tent several times. Steph and I were both awake-- afraid the stupid thing was going to try to join us in our tent-- when suddenly from just outside the tent the stupid horse SNORTED IN STEPH'S EAR. "Tsssk tsssk tssssk", was the sound I made really quick as Steph put her heart back into her rib cage ("tsssk tsssk tsssk" is the Peruvian equivalent to "Shooo" that is used for animals....I had seen this being used in Ollantaytambo). It worked. The horse went away and I went back to sleep satisfied that I could speak Peruvian.
After the horse incident at 4 in the morning, things quieted down pretty well until our 6am (or was it 6:30) wakeup. At this point, the porters "knocked" on our tent and delivered two trays of steaming water for us to rinse our faces with. This was also the time I decided to take my temperature one more time and discover that it was still hanging out around 100.6. When i saw Andrea (our G.A. rep/guide) walk by, I stopped her to let her know I was feeling a little bit sick and give her a heads up. Soon, I had our emergency medic (a fellow tour member, Jim) asking me the great questions (phlegm-vomiting-greensputem-gas-diarrhea-etc???). Pretty much no-no-no-no-no, simply a high fever and some chest congestion. A metric thermometer later (none of us had a calculator, so it was meaningless) and then the porters arrived with our morning tea.
You see, 3 porters would walk from tent to tent. Two would carry a folding table with the tea and hot chocolate, and the third would ask what you wanted and mix it up. Hot chocolate with powdered milk and two scoops of sugar....mmmmm.
Didn't manage to stomach too much breakfast that morning, and when we took my temperature again it was below 100 (the DayQuil was clearly helping.) At this point, i decided not to mess around and started taking the Diamox as well. Didn't feel like fighting both a chest cold and altitude sickness.
We packed up our sleeping bag and and duffel and put it on the tarp laid out by the porters (they had to divvy up our gear for carrying). After breakfast, we had the porter introduction ceremony. Ruben (our head guide) introduced each porter by name and village. The traditional Quechuan porters from (???) village can be seen here wearing the bright red alpaca ponchos.
There were some Quechuan women at the camp site that morning, and they were selling alpaca knit gloves, hats and bamboo walking sticks. I picked up a fleece lined alpaca knit hat for a whopping 10 Soles ($3USD) and both Steph and I picked up bamboo walking sticks at 4 Soles each.
We walked outside to start the trail and immediately did a u-turn. It was COLD windy and rainy. For the record...after changing, I wore the following: long microfiber pants and waterproof rain pants, hiking shirt, fleece, rain shell, hat.
It took us about 15 minutes along the Urubamba River to get to the km82 checkpoint. Steph, here looking like a drowned rat, stands in front of the sign at the classic start of the Inca Trail. Posing along the Inca flats in our matching rain suits....we had never been so happy to have a waterproof (i.e. not water "resistant") solution to the problem. Rain continued all day (either drizzling or pouring) and we slogged through the trails (streams) which were sometimes ankle deep in Burro-piles and Ox-piles and Dog-piles and even some human piles.
Miskay, Llactapata (TOC)
Leaving the 8900 foot territory, it was a steep uphill to the town of Miskay. As everyone took a load off, we ate the snack provided to us that morning by the porters (passion fruit, banana, trail mix) and fed what we didn't eat to the Pig of Miskay (warning....great shot). After about 15 minutes, we reassembled and prepared to head out. We didn't know it yet, but drama was afoot.
Just outside of Miskay, you come around a corner to see a trail that soars ~300ft at nearly a 45 degree angle. Yes, it is that steep and it was best taken one step at a time. At the top, we had the Urubamba River Valley to our backs and took a group shot, and yet another couple's photo. At the bottom right of that last shot you can see the trail some 300 feet below. This same hill top that we had climbed upon gave us some great (cloudy) views of Llactapata (or Patallacta if you desire). The Urubamba River Valley gets quite narrow past Llactapata and the Inca Trail leaves the Urubamba at this point to head up alongside the Cusichaca River.
Cusichaca River (TOC)
The next section of the trail ROCKS! It's dowhill, steep at times, but with nary a stone in site. Instead, we walked on top of 6 inches of coarse sand. BRILLIIANT! The rain drained through without making a river and the sand made downhill impact quite comfortable. At the bottom of the Cusichaca River Valley, we looked forward towards more and more clouds. In just a little while, we came across another Inca Trail map. This one included an elevation profile (fairly accurate, mind you).
First off, did you notice in that shot that everybody is wearing a poncho or rain suit and looks like a drowned rat? Second, the white dot on the top graph way to the left (just after the first low vertical nubbin) is where we are in that shot. I'm not sure what the purpose of this sign intends to be, but I am damn sure that it was a little bit demoralizing! At this point we're sitting at around 9,000 feet (we lost it all on that downhill) looking at a map that peaks out at 13,800. Ouch, ouch ouch.
And so up the trail we hiked. When the rain stopped, we got a chance to remove our hoods and try to dry out some. I would like to personally thank the dude who invented pit-zips on rain gear. Without that extra ventilation I would have been drowning (as opposed to simply soaking) in my own perspiration inside my waterproof ensemble. As we hiked this first full day, we learned to recognize the sounds of approaching porters and move to the uphill side of the trail to get out of their way. The porters will run you down if you down't watch out (not really, they are actually very nice), and you have to watch out for a 5 foot tall dude carrying 80 pounds of equipment.
Time for a digression....
There are 2 main rules on the Inca Trail (we were told by Ruben, our wonderful guide). (TOC)
As the day worked towards lunch, we took a short break in a Quechuan sheltered thatch roofed open walled cottage. We met some interesting dogs (see Bonus Section) and had some food thinking that lunch was still a ways off. Much to our surprise, when it was time to mobilize everybody yet again, the lunch site was only 30 yards up the trail. Lunch that day was tasty corn & quinoa soup (we would grow sick of this), avocado (always tasty) and ham, quinoa pancakes, tomatoes and cucumbers. We couldn't eat as much as we'd like, given we had all just consumed powerbars and whatnot 30 yards ago.
As we got in line to get on the trail again, they performed the typicaly headcount. By this time, we had started figuring out a good order on the trail. Some people liked to always be in front and hike for speed. Others (that's me & steph) didn't mind so much hanging out at the back and chatting it up and taking lots of pictures. We made friends with lots of our sick fellow trekkers this way, as invariably people would cycle through the back of the line when they were not feeling so good.
Time for another digression....
There has always been a rule in my family regarding hiking speed
Drama on the Inca Trail (TOC)
Remember how I said that drama was lurking? Well, about 30 minutes up from lunch at a chicha stand by the side of the road, Ruben got a call on his FRS radio. We all stopped and stood on the trail as word came down that we were missing somebody. We quickly checked our buddies and realized that we had left behind Monique. A check back over digital cameras (standing ankle deep in soupy feces, of course) seemed to indicate that we had left Monique behind in Miskay...2 hours and a fork-in-the-trail ago. The worried looks on our guides faces were evident, and throughout the next couple of days frequent stops and trekker headcounts became the norm. Anyway, Ruben and Miguel hoofed it back down the trail (each taking a separate fork in the road) and after 15 minutes our group was underway yet again. We would make it to the campsite that evening without word (and lots of group worry). Around dinner time, we would find out that Monique had been sicker than a dog (TMI, vomiting water) and had fallen asleep at the Miskay rest stop. When she woke up, she hoofed it up the trail (missing the NOT OBVIOUS LEFT TURN after Miskay) and after a few hours she ran into another trekker group. The guides of that group made her lie down in a tent and get some rest. After waking up, she headed back towards Miskay (thinking she was lost, when in fact the trail branch she was on would eventually meet back up with the rest of the trail) where Ruben found her. Ruben was (naturally) overjoyed at finding the lost, wet, sick trekker....and when the group heard this we were all relieved and much more vigilant at watching out for each other.
Here's what Monique wrote about the events:
Anyway, travelling up the Cusichaca River Valley, we passed through Huayllabamba (a typical campsite) and kept going. We were set to gain another 1000 feet (which we would lose the next day) and camp at an off-the-beaten-path-and-safer site. En Route to this (unknown) campsite, we ran into several ox and donkey traffic jams. As steph smirks here, the donkeys were cute and fuzzy in Peru. We also passed by several small Quechuan thatched roof houses where the children played in bare feet (in the mud) and were always quick to come up to us -- filled with curiosity but quickly told to come back inside by their mothers.
We approached the campsite as it was drawing near dark (still raining of course) and at some point caught this quick shot of the trail and the clouds. At the campsite, the ruins above us were still visible in the approaching darkness. At the campsite was another Quechuan house with a cute little girl (3 yrs old) trying desperately to keep a muddy puppy dog outside for the night (a definite battle of wills and some entertainment as our tent was being set up in the rain).
I also snagged a video of this pitiful sheep standing in the rain and bleeting its heart out. Dumb thing was not a trained performer and got cold hooves as I shot the video....only one bleet unfortunately. After digging rain trenches around our tent and checking for leaks, we managed to take a nap before dinner. We learned that hanging things up in a humid tent only makes them wetter (not dryer). We also learned what the smell of chemical toilets is like (we had 2 of them within 15 yards of our tent). Later that night, we also found out how many people were sick (TMA = vomiting, diarrhea or both) as there seemed to be a periodic string of flashlights to the chemical toilets.
Regardless....sleeping at 10,100 feet somewhere upriver of Huayllabamba and falling asleep to the rain against the tent (in our warm, dry, cozy sleeping bags) was definitely a good thing!
Starting a Long Day (TOC)
This was the longest day and the hardest day by far. Wakeup call was at some ungodly hour (5:30 I think). In spite of the nonstop rain, the inside of our tent remained dry. So, at 5:30am (I think) the porters started bringing around the plastic bins of hot water (one per person) to rinse off the trail slime and wipe one's face. Shortly thereafter, in the rain, they came around bringing the table with them and all the fixin's for coca tea and hot chocolate. I was starting to learn the Milo con Leche con Sucar to make the tasty wake up treat. No more fever for me at this point.
I shrugged on my clothes for the morning (for the record: long convertible hiking pants, waterproof rain pants, hiking shirt, wet fleece sweater and rain shell and alpaca fleece hat). Steph had on my comfy fleece lined wool hat (in place of her itchy scratchy wool hat) and one more layer on the top.
When we got to the mess tent for breakfast, we got our real surprise. Within 24 hours it appeared that 1/4 of the trekkers had gotten sick and weren't really eating. The signs seemed to be dysentery-like (vomiting, diarrhea) and not altitude related. Breakfast was tasty (although I forget what it was) and warm and the mess tent was fairly dry.
After breakfast, I got my second surprise. The porters were carrying the chemical toilets down towards the nearby stream to dump them and clean them out. Forget uphill and dig a hole....I believe they even rinsed the toilets in the stream. Nasty.
Well, on the trail early (6:30am, I think) we had 1,000 downhill then nearly 4,000 uphill then another 2,000 feet downhill and nearly 8.5 miles to go. We started down back towards Huayllabamba and through the tight washed out donkey-ox-mud-feces trail and past a small village and several football (soccer) fields.
Huayllabamba Checkpoint (TOC)
Stopping in Huayllabamba and a little warmed up at this point, everybody took a chance to adjust and prepare the the climb uphill towards lunch. That last shot was taken at the Huyllabamba checkpoint. This is where our guides handed in our trail passes and all the porters were weighed in. Yes, that's right, the Peruvian government is doing a great thing and making sure porters don't overcarry. I believe the weight limit is 40kg per porter (which is still a hell of a lot of weight!) but I am surely wrong on this number.
Although there was a slight mist of rain, people were glad to have removed a layer of clothing. The constant slow and steady uphill meant a lot of body heat, which meant the rain was drying as soon as it hit us. Regardless, for the record I was still wearing the same stuff...although I did unzip my rain pants up to my knees and then tuck them inside my socks to allow my socks to wick some moisture away (boy howdy was I styling!) I also made sure my pit-zips were wide open, my rain shell front was halfway down and my fleece was opened up as well.
Climbing Towards Lunch (TOC)
The climb was fairly gentle up towards our rest stop that day where Steph and Meredith chomped on apples. Since Steph and I were hanging in back the entire time, we didn't have to stop too long (and get chilled....turns out to be a great plan). The trail this morning can be psychologically divided into 3 sections. The first section was mellow and gradual (to the rest stop), the second section was a stairmaster on crack, and the third section was somewhere between a stairmaster on crack and a stairmaster on a triple soy latte.
So, anyway, the trail picked up and got busy working our booties shortly after the rest stop. We finally got to see row after row after row after row after row after row (x100) Inca steps. It was mostly tree-covered and "shady" (from the rain) and probably would have been a gorgeous hike on a clear day. Still hanging in the back-of-the-bus and encouraging our fellow travelers to keep on treading (some were suffering altitude nausea at this point) we snapped this picture of a few drowning trekker-rats.
Along the way up a super steep crack smoking delirious section of steps (the Incas believed that all steps should be 18 to 24 inches in height....making the walking stick a gift from the Sapa Inca himself) we came across a women being laid on the ground rather quickly. She was on top of a poncho and a guide was lifting her legs in the air up towards her chest. Behind us, Jim (our ER doctor) offered his help. We left the scene (nothing for us to do) and continued scaling 24" steps at our leisure. To finish the story, turns out this woman was NOT drinking water (something you have to remind yourself to do in the rain) AND she was suffering from hypothermia. In her dehydrated, hypothermic state, they got her on a porter's back, he carried her up towards lunch (30 minutes+ away) where they stabilized her and then carried her back down the mountain towards Huayllabamba (and most likely off the trail).
As we got close to lunch, 2 things became painfully obvious to me. First, we were getting higher up and so the wind was coming down the valley a little faster. Without as much tree cover, we were getting cold! Second, my stomach was not happy (in a TooMuchInformation sort of way). Steph mocks my pain in this photo....but my pain was real.
Not many photos from the next part, since the rain was heavy and the wind was constant and I was cold and I had to find a bathroom or ruin my only pair of rain pants. At last, shivering and desperate we came across our guide at Llulluchapampa. They told us two pieces of news. First, the good, there was a bathroom about 200 yards away. Second, the bad, we still had 10 minutes of hiking up the unprotected high altitude alpine meadow (marshy windy rainy cold) to get to our lunch tent.
Well, along with the good news comes more bad. I managed to get inside the bathroom shelter (ceramic tile lined concrete building) to find the toilets were the squatting types. Sure, they flushed, but when your legs have just taken you from 9,500 to 12,500 feet they don't hold a squat so well. The real bad news (TMI...skip to the next paragraph if you are squeamish) was whatever had tripped up my stomach caused me to "expel with quite a bit of force" as I squatted there. Details? You want details? Well if you really do....I have never in my life peed out my nether regions in such a manner with such distance. Thankfully, I had a completely full pack of kleenex and several unused handiwipes.
After that, I wasn't feeling too hungry for lunch. We started trekking up through Llulluchapampa and the wind tunnel valley towards our mess tent. It was a good 10+ minutes and we were cold, beyond shivering even. The valley around there is flat bottomed and wide and climbs steadily towards a dead end (above which sits Dead Woman's Pass). We were extremely relieved when we finally found our mess tents, at the end of the Llulluchapampa valley at some 12,800+ feet.
Lunch at Llulluchapampa (TOC)
Well, the mess tent was a mixed blessing indeed. The clouds were descending, the snow level (typically 16,000 feet) had dropped to 13,500 and the wind was blowing. We zipped up the mess tent but it was not warm, we were not dry, and it was definitely drafty. As we sat there for lunch, the situation was clearly deteriorating. I was not getting any warmer (in fact, I was drinking tea as fast as they could bring it) and I was not able to eat much more than the double-shot of immodium. For the record, Steph ate more than me for the next several meals...something that is absolutely inconceivable!!
There was one piece of outstanding news out of all this. Our guides had intelligently made the porters wait for us at lunch. The porters had been told to set up a tent with all of our bags waiting us. This would allow us to change at lunch (and also gave the 40 or so porters a dry place to stand).
Change is what I did!! And the tent with the porters was toasty warm (lots of bodies) and quite cramped. Both Steph and I found our duffel bags in a sea (literally...a 20ft diameter tent with a central poled roof that was full of standing porters and duffel bags 3 layers deep) of duffel bags.
I put on just about everything I owned for the hike up to the summit. For the record, I had on the following gear at this point: long convertible hiking pants, waterproof rain pants (the same), medium weight thermal top, technical t-shirt, black medium weight thermal turtleneck, long sleeve button down, fleece (wet) and rain jacket, gloves and fleece lined alpaca hat. 6 layers....and I was to remain cold for another 15 minutes and 200 vertical feet.
With everyone changed and the mess tent in a complete state of disarray (the wind had uprooted poles, knocked several poles down forcing us to hold the tent walls up and had even sent one pole INTO the tent when the fabric gave way)...I shall digress for one moment.
Digression: Surviving Blisters (TOC)
Remember I had mentioned earlier about surviving blisters. Well, after a decade and countless methods I finally figured it out. In the past I have tried every single thing. I have tried awesome shoes, cheap shoes, heavy shoes and light shoes. I have tried thin socks and thick socks. I have tried single, double and triple socks. I have tried synthetic and natural (wool) fibers. I have tried capiline and wannabeline and all sorts of liner socks. I have tried blister gaurds with some success (compeed works the best) and moleskin (SUCKS) and vaseline.
And I finally figured it all out.
First, I went to REI and spent 2 hours trying on every single shoe they had. I was looking for the deepest heel cup imaginable and certain brands just don't have that. With every pair of shoes, I tied them both tight and loose and then stood on my toes on the 45 degree vertical "rock" they have there. If I felt ANY friction or heat on my heel, I tossed the shoes aside. The poor sales poeple thought I was nuts (but they aren't the ones to have to hike 30 miles with blisters 2 inches across....seriously...I get blisters that are as big as 2 inches when I'm hiking....and they bleed...and it sucks).
Second, I broke them in with 2 months to go. Steph and I made weekly hikes of 8-10 miles with plenty of vertical. I actually don't think that this helped all that much in the grand scheme of things.
Third, I tried lots of different liner socks. Not all liner socks are made equal, mind you. I have found a pair that really seemed to do the trick...the gobe liners by wigwam. The reason??? They are 100% polypropiline. "Polypro" is some darn slippery stuff (it's not teflon good, but it's a close second...someday they'll figure out how to make durable fibers from polytetrafluoroethylene [PTFE = teflon] but they haven't yet). The difference seemed to be in that last 5%. Most liner socks are a blend of nylon (terrible high friction material) and polypro. Those liner socks don't work for me, and start hot spots after about an hour of hiking. On our test hikes, these 100% polypro socks appeared to be doing the trick.
Finally, and most importantly, along with a fresh pair of liner socks, I put antiperspirant on my feet every morning. Smelled good and worked in two ways. First, the antipersp kept my feet from becoming too wet---making the skin soft and more susceptible to blisters. Second, the antipersp acted as a dry-film lubricant, further enhancing the slip between my skin and the polypro liners and the hiking socks and the boot heel cup.
So, between the 100% polypro liner socks and the layer of antiperspirant (which also acts as a slip-agent) I succeeded in hiking the Inca Trail WITHOUT A BLISTER!!! Never would I have though that was possible (just in case, I carried more blister bandaids on me than the entire group combined, actually). It worked..... for me. Turns out steph got some monster toe blisters in her shoes (toe point is too narrow me thinks), but I had plenty of blister cushlin/compeed band-aids to help her out.
Time to hike up Dead Woman's Pass (TOC)
Satisfied with that my blister solution had survived the toughest uphill section en route to lunch, and wearing 6 layers of upper body clothing, I was ready to set out on the trail towards the summit. Looking up from our lunch spot at Llulluchapampa, we could swear the summit was very close indeed. We were wrong...false summit.
Anyway, with the rain still beating down (and turning to sleet as we climbed higher), I looked back at our lunch site 200 feet below. I then looked up ahead at what we thought was the summit. You can see the line of hikers on the trail approaching the false summit, and this is a light day at the start of the wet season...it gets much much worse than this. Did you notice in that last shot how low the clouds and and snow are?
(Side note: as the porters passed us, a few of them were carrying radios in their spare hands. As if the weight held to their backs with their left hands wasn't enough, the right hand was carrying a radio circa the 1980's. One of the porters passed by listening to a football [soccer] game. I had to ask, couldn't resist, who he was listening to. Turns out the Cusco Burros were playing....and winning. Go Donkeys!!!)
Well, we suffered our disappointment when we arrived at that false summit and caught up with Kathy (purple poncho and Rebecca (green poncho) and looked up at the real summit up ahead. By this time we had crested above 13,000 feet and were feeling tired. Not so much altitude tired, but full day on your feet climbing up thousands of feet in the rain with GI-tract issues tired. In fact, that last picture was taken in full on driving sleet. No joke, this was the real deal and we were going to summit this Dead Woman and her frigid Pass or else....
We got into a rhythm with Kathy, me, Steph and Rebecca in a line. We would count 50 paces (actually, 100, because Kathy started counting and she only counted on her left foot!!!) and then take a short break. We were all warm enough from our exertion and were simply exhausted from both the altitude and the Inca steps. Thankfully, it was turning to snow at this point and I made sure to grab a handful and throw it back towards Leslie.
At one of our rest breaks, I snapped this gorgeous panoramic of the Llulluchapampa valley behind us.
And finally, one last push of 50 paces through the snowy Inca steps and a blast of wind over the crest and Kathy in front of me and catching up to Elizabeth and Steph behind me and we were there. From the top we could look all around and see the Andes surrounding us. Steph got both of my hiking poles at this point so that I could snap this fine portrait of her at 13,750ft. The problem is....her face almost froze that way!! Ouch.
I also took time to snap this MOVIE while walking backwards up the summit with no trekking poles (notice that Steph has both of them) as we got to the top. It was worth the risk of destruction to my poor little Canon A70 as the snow and wind pelted us.
Immediately after getting to the top, we took shelter from the wind off to the right side of the trail. We weren't cold (6 layers and all), but we were wet all the way through. My feet remained a little bit dry (wouldn't last), but my gloves were soaked through (they were supposed to be water proof). The good news is the gloves were still providing warmth and my camera was still working enough for.....
The way down to Pacamayo (TOC)
Then came the way down (no pictures, sorry). At this point, the trail is partly "real" Inca and mainly archeologist reconstructed. It is tough to do this section of the trail justice, so I will lay it out in some powerpoint-esque bulletpointy format for ya (especially you manager types).
Well, all that done, we did manage to get down to camp as dark approached. During our little reverse-stairmaster hike our little group (Rebecca, Steph, Myself) had to pop some Vitamin IB (IBuprofin) to ward off some nasty headaches.
And it so happened that shortly after one of those advil stops, we were starting to whine amongst ourselves a little bit about the pain and cold and stairs. We soon got a zen-slap from the most amazing dog I have ever seen. You see, this dog had passed us after lunch on the way up to the pass. This little scrawny dog had made it all the way up and then down the 3,000 stairs to the camp below. This little scrawny dog was now hoofing it back up to the pass in the reverse direction and we didn't hear him complaining!!! Out of sheer awe and respect, we (actually Rebecca) kicked down a little powerbar to fuel him on the way back up. That dog rocked....and has all my respect! You do it, pooch!
Pacamayo Camp (TOC)
Anyway, we stumble into the Pacamayo camp and it is getting dark. We find our tent (tent number had changed yet again....I bet you forget we had even been assigned a number) and drop gear and run to the bathrooms. There are 2 bathrooms at the Pacamayo camp site. The lower stone walled (thatched roof) bathroom has a single male and a single female toilet. These are the sit down toilets with one exception, they have no seats. This exception is common on the Inca Trail and is fine (ceramic is more sanitary than plastic anyway, and just as cold) except that the toilet bowl is awfully wide for narrow bottomed folk. The upper bathroom has 4 toilets per gender. Both bathrooms get cold, dark and drafty at night and are always smelly. (TMI: The same problem I had prior to lunch, evidently others were having, as there was....uhhh....certain types of matter located in places on the toilet and surrounding tile walls that I would typically discredit as impossible in most ordinary circumstances. Seriously gross. Thankfully, they hose the bathrooms down at Pacamayo at least every other day from the looks of it.)
After our bathroom jaunt, Steph decided it was a good time to sit and look pitiful in our tent. I couldn't blame her, after all a scrawny malnourished dog had just shown us up and done the summit twice in less time than it took us to hike down once. We did manage to catch a short nap in our warm (dry) tent prior to dinner. As the sun was going down that night, I grabbed a picture of our fellow trekkers watching the sky from their tent. The Pacamayo camp site is heavily terraced and I would estimate that 200 to 300 trekkers sleep there nightly.
Tea time in the tent was a welcome time to dry off and warm up. With the candles and the bodies, it always was cozy in the mess tent. Tonight was special, though. Unbeknownst to the head guide (Ruben), the cooking staff had a special treat. These crazy porters had packed in the necessary ingredients to make (not one, but two) cakes for Kristina and Jenna's birthdays. Somebody had even packed in streamers and balloons and a competition was started to see who had the lungs (and bloodflow to the brain) to blow up a balloon at 11,900.
Needless to say, everybody crashed early that night (and I had trouble eating once again). Whether it was from the altitude (unlikely) or the exertion or the dehydration (drinking water in the rain seems silly, as we should just absorb it through our skins in osmotic fashion), both Steph and I had some good size headaches going on.
Depressingly, I woke up in the middle of the night and had no choice but to gear up for the 75 yard uphill trek to the bathroom shack. En route I saw another depressing touch of Inca Trail reality....a porter with the same need as I simply peeing into the Pacamayo creek. Worse, his choice location was only 10 yards up from where our kitchen staff drew our water. By the next morning, the number of sick (and Cipro imbibing individuals) in our trekking group would rise above 50% and keep climbing.
But on the good news front, as I walked back to the tent, I got an amazing site (too dark for a picture, sorry). At our altitude, we could look down the Pacamayo valley towards the Urubamba River Valley. The Urubamba River valley was socked in with low clouds. Above that 10,000 feet of clear sky and then high broken clouds barely touching the highest peaks around. The moon was peaking through and lighting the tops of the lower cloud layers and reflecting to light the various peaks and valleys in the intermediate layer. It was almost as if the sun had risen in the middle of a black-sky. (10 minutes of marveling at that and I shivered my way back into my cozy sleeping bag).
Another early morning wake up call with hot water and another attempt to wipe some scuzz off our bodies with damp camp towels. This morning I decided to provide the tea-bearing guides with a little bit of humor by (first rehearsing several times with the tent closed then) reciting in my best food-Spanish "Dos Milo con leche con dos sucar". Well, it went something like that. Even though I totally flubbed the punch-line, the guides got a good laugh at my attempt to tell a non-joke in their language anyway.
Today was the first day we got to see some clear-ish sky and we celebrated right off the bat by taking a picture of the two of us at the Pacamayo camp site. Warning....extremely major scruff and bed-head goings on...not for the faint-at-heart.
After another breakfast that I couldn't really stomach (followed by an Immodium chaser just-in-case) and then everybody made sure to hit the bathrooms (see about 6 paragraphs prior for an account on how that goes). That morning we would first hike up to Runkurakay (or Runcurraccay, or Runcuraccay, or Runt-curry-kai...spelling doesn't really make sense for the primarily verbal Quechuan language).
The plan for the day (TOC)
Anyway, starting out at 11,900, (as I said) we would first hike up 500 feet to the Runkurakay ruins and then up to the 13,000 Runkurakay pass, then down to 11,000, then back up to 12,500 then down to Phuypatamarca at 12,100. Here I stand, starting the day with the trail up to Runkurakay behind me. Before you get too excited, that's another false summit there. Where the trail ends to the right is where the ruins are (about halfway up).
With the rain on hiatus (drizzling only), the flowers appeared and steph grabbed a wonderfully framed picture of purple flowers with Inca steps in the background. There are some fairly tough sections en route to the Runkurakay ruins. The ruins themselves are fairly nondescript (although they are "egg shaped" as the name suggests to those native Quechuan speakers in the audience) and although we have some pictures they have not been included here for the sake of brevity. Heheheh....brevity....as if to say that I'm trying to not be long-winded in the recount. I made a funny.
One of the best pictures we took on the trip is this photo looking back. The low point on upper left quadrant is Dead Woman's Pass (13,780 for those who remember). The dead woman is actually the small nubbin left of the saddle. She has a turban-covered head, her face is in profle and her breast(s) are the small bump right above the saddle. This means that we came across at about the sternum of the dead woman. From that point, you can see sections of the trail winding down, then cutting (down diagonal right) towards the Pacamayo waterfall. At that point the trail parallels the river down towards the Pacamayo camp (tucked behind bushes in the bottom middle). That elevation change is 3,000 feet for scaling and bragging purposes.
With the rain slowed to nothing more than a light drizzle, Steph and I became the chief lollygaggers of our trekking group. Steph was determined to capture every single flower alongside the trail to show her dad, and we have every reason to believe that she succeeded.
The false Runkurakay summit (TOC)
Remember that false summit from earlier? Well, to add insult to injury, as you approach the false summit, you get an extra glimmer of hope because you can see one of the trail markers (example here) at a high point. Too bad, 'cause that trial marker marks this peet bog seen the in background. Above Red's right shoulder is the false summit (and false summit marker post). In the background you see Dead Woman's Pass and the trail down to Pacamayo. From there, we reached Runkurakay summit without much ado--elevation 13,050.
Now, this particular altitude was a point of contention. Ruben (with his handy barometric altimeter watch) happened to agree with both his watch and the signpost reading of 12,800 feet. I think both were wrong (sorry Ruben), as I had a differential satellite lock on more than 6 satellites. Furthermore, while averaging over our 15 minute stop, the altitude simply did not budge from 13,050. To put the nail in the coffin, I even turned the GPS off-and-on to reacquire lock with the same results. For the record, I was using a GPSMAP76 with fresh batteries and a completely unobstructed view of the sky....so neener neener to barometric altimeters and trail signs.
No pictures from that rest (nothing much to see) stop......we sat there munching on trail snacks and the super yummy and superior Peruvian version of Corn Nuts (which are bigger, tastier and not nearly as rock hard). There was, however, an interesting feature that we noted in several other places on the trail. When we stepped on the ground (packed sand on granite) we felt a very hollow reverberation. So, either there was secret Inca Treasure buried there by aliens, or there is something about the physics of packed sand on granite that I simply do not understand. Inca Treasure buried by aliens seems more likely to me.
Down towards Sayacmarca (TOC)
The way down from Runkurakay pass involved some fairly sketchy Inca steps. But we were already immune to the shock of such dangers. Near the top, there was one cool part where the trail cuts under some rocks (quasi-tunnel, not the official "Inca tunnel" however).
Curiously enough, the Incas believed (much as CalTrans does) in Vista Points. Maybe this is where the Incas pulled over late at night and made whoopie...who knows. Regardless, they had some great views, like this view from a vista point with a deep red tannic lake in the vista. In the far background of that photo was something we had not seen since Day 3....I believe the word in English is "sunshine".
(side story: we had marvelled at the fact that in addition to a full pack on his back, one of the kitchen porters was carrying about 4 dozen eggs in his right hand. These were flats of eggs in 3 layers tied together with a string. He simply was holding the string with his right hand and his pack around his shoulders with his left hand as he ran down the trail past us. En route to Sayacmarca when we noticed that about 4 of the eggs would not make the journey into our bellies. We stopped and took a brief moment of silence.)
We continued on our hike down to Sayacmarca. At some point, Miguel started playing his wooden flute as we hiked (powered by his supply of coca-leaves in his cheek no doubt). The sound and the surrounding environment created an enchanting effect.....a light musical breeze, gentle cloud cover, flowers, and only rarely the stench of coca-urine from the side of the trail.
We followed the sound of the flute (like rats to the pied piper) until the distraction of something louder came crashing and threatening from behind us: the stomp of nearly 20 determined, lock-step rhythm, boorishly loud, elbows-high, aggro German trekkers. Since we heard them about (shouting at each other in a german conversation tone) 100 meters before we saw them, we had plenty of time to pull aside and let them stomp past at high speed. Not a one of them had a camera or was taking pictures of any sort...it was almost as if they were there to conquer the trail, as if to violate it without a hint of sensitivity or a care for its virtues. We continued to hear the german precision trekking team for another 5 minutes after they passed us....they were that loud. I stopped and stood amazed at the fact that americans are considered to be the loudest and most obnoxious--for on the Inca Trail this was definitely not the case. (There is one more story regarding the german precision trekking team coming up, so read on.)
Back to the loving place.....we followed Miguel and his wonderfully uplifting noodling en route to Sayacmarca. Just prior to getting there, we were able to look down across the valley and through the clouds to see Concha Marca.
Sayaqmarka, Sayaqmarqa, I say Tom-ah-to (TOC)
Just below Sayacmarca (or Sayaqmarka, or Sayaqmarqa or Sayakmar3ka with a silent 3), we were told that we could de-pack and leave most of our gear under the observation of one of the guides. The reason being that the stone staircase up to Sayacmarca is narrow (<2 feet wide at one spot) and has a good sized vertical drop-off on one side. We were constantly being warned by the guides about the dangers of vertigo. It wasn't so bad, actually, except for one narrow section where the sheer rock wall on the left seems intent on pushing you over the sheer vertical drop on the right. Oh, and this is the only way into or out of the city.
The ruins of Sayacmarca were the first close-up super-cool ruins we had gotten to see on the trail portion of our excursion. The Incas (remember how I told you they were great at water management) had tapped a spring higher up on the ridge to bring water down to the city. To that end, they had cut a channel for miles into the solid bedrock until it came to within 10 feet of the city where a different method was needed. Once inside, the water channel wraps around the perimeter of the city prior to being distributed (through walls and underground) to some fountains. In the background of that last photo you can see where we came from.
Ruben gave us a great lecture on the possible purpose of Sayacmarca (most likely not a fort, in fact, but a place for workers to stay as they worked on the trail, perhaps a checkpoint, perhaps as a tambo or supply station). However, since I'm not very good at paying attention, I managed to snap the flat meadow at Chaquicocha across the valley as Ruben was giving his lecture. During that lecture the clouds started coming in and the rain came back and we all were getting colder and colder. Without warning, we were suddenly in-cloud once again. We still had to get to Chaquicocha for lunch, and behind Chaquicocha lay the third pass.
Before heading down from Sayacmarca, we had a little time to wander about and check it out. This particular stonework example is either a support for a hinge or a something else related to a doorway. Nobody could explain to us exactly how it was to work, so I'm banking on it involving aliens and crystals and Inca Treasure.
As I mentioned earlier, there is only one way in and out of Sayacmarca, and the downward direction is slightly more challenging than the way up (especially in the rain). We re-packed and started down the trail to the bottom of the valley where Concha Marca lies. As we descended, the tree cover got more dense and provided some cover from the drizzle.
What's this? (TOC)
As we approached the river that flows next to Concha Marca, we were hiking next to Matt an Jenn. Just before we crossed the wooden bridge over the river/creek, we were treated to a sight that I'm completely unable to explain. So, without judgement or any subjectivity, here is what I saw.
We approached the bridge and in a small clearing to our left were three people. One was a porter standing by carrying lots of gear. One was a younger man (part of the german precision trekking unit that passed us earlier). One was an older man (also part of the synchronized trekking team). The younger man was just finishing up removing his shirt (in the cloudy cold) and he stood in a pair of farmer-johns (long pants, tank top, unisuit type garment). I am unsure what the black material of those farmer-johns happened to be (leather, neoprene, nylon). The older gentleman was standing there watching, holding nothing (no pack) except a bundle of rope. The younger gentleman then put on a harness and started to tether himself while the older man watched and held the leash. Neither individual looked the least bit sick or in need of care so we moved along.
Now....at this point in time, I was thinking that this sequence of events might fit any one of the following logical frameworks. (A) Maybe younger man is sick, blind, poor eyesight, or needs guidance in some way. (B) Maybe there is a good place nearby for rock climbing. (C) Maybe younger man was going to wade in the stream to get something and needed to be secured (D) Maybe younger man was going to clamber down the hill to pick some of the beautiful yellow and red orchids.
As we got closer and then passed them, they finished their rigging. A few yards ahead while we took pictures at Concha Marca, the younger man walked confidently past us--in the lead-- with 6-10 feet of slack rope and the older man in tow. Everybbody was quite well, and right there, we can blast away logical framework (A).
We followed behind them, stopping to take pictures now and then, but never catching up to them. Seeing as both the younger and older had flown right past Concha Marca and the river, we can discard logical framework (C). Seeing as we never saw any good cliffs or walls along the trail or ruins to crawl over, (B) appeared to fade away as well. Seeing as we never caught up to them en route to lunch, it is unlikely that they stopped long enough to fit framework (D).
Fast forward 30 minutes, and as we climbed the gentle upward slope to Chaquicocha, we could see lunch tents above us. Up to the left I caught the sight of those two men approaching their lunch tent....still with the younger man in the lead, then 6-10 feet of slack line, and then the older man behind holding the leash (no porter in sight). Perhaps some interesting kinky logical framework (E) is more appropriate.
Happy Porter (TOC)
Another thing happened en route to Chaquicocha. As we were walking along, I spotted a collapsable umbrella on the trail. The naturalist in me did not want want to leave the thing lying there, so I picked it up and carried it with me. As we came within 100 yards of our lunch tent, I popped the half broken black umbrella open (it had started to rain yet again) and attracted the stares and grins of everybody watching (but I was staying dry).
When we got to the lunch tent, we dropped our trekking poles and I collapsed my umbrella and asked Miguel what I should do with this trail-trash (I didn't want to carry it out, but somebody should). Miguel, seeing the glass half-full and the umbrella half-working, told me to give it to a porter. "Which porter?" I asked, and he told me any porter. Turning a quick 180, I walked up to the closest porter (standing out in the rain) and handed him the umbrella. This particular Quechuan porter was skinny and tall and missing several front teeth with weathered brown skin pulled taught around his cheeks. He looked at me quizzically at first, unsure of whether to take the gift or not (Miguel said something short and quick) and then he put is hand out and took the umbrella with a big smile on his face. Neither one of us had said a word to one another.
I went ahead and got in line to wash and disinfect my hands (remember this part...we were still doing it of course) when Steph gave me a quick and polite jab with her elbow. She motioned for me to look back to the porter with the umbrella. There he stood with the spindly umbrella above him and 2 other porters huddled underneath and the biggest sh##-eating grin on his face as the rain fell down around them. I smiled, too.
Chaquicocha is a nice high meadow (probably lots of bugs there when it's sunny), which means its pretty marshy. It's amazingly flat with no trees (marshy for sure). Lunch that day was more of the same, just like my lack of appetite. I tried my best to stomach more of the quinoa corn soup and was having immense difficulties even thinking of putting the spoon in my mouth.....until.....I mixed in the magic hot salsa. The magic hot salsa had been on the table at every meal, but I had refused to touch it for fear of getting sick (fresh vegetables are a big "no no" when travelling to developing countries). However, Sam had been eating the stuff for a couple of days and was reporting no ill effects. I needed to eat something and my desperation overwhelmed my caution and so in went a couple of spoonfulls out of the jar-o-homemade-salsa. And guess what? The salsa (spicy hot fresh peppers) made the quinoa corn soup taste far better.....it seemed to cut the oily buttery eggy taste.
During lunch, the sun even came out for a short bit just to mock us. It had waited for all of us to be inside the plastic (greenhouse) tent so that it could come out full bore and broil us in a matter of seconds. It took less than 30 seconds for all of the trekkers in the lunch tent to strip off their outer layers---the temperature shift was that dramatic.
Climbing the final pass (TOC)
After lunch, the sun went away and it was back to the trail and up towards the third summit. As we climbed (and as Miguel continued to play his wood flute) the tree cover remained fairly dense. Some of the lichens growing on the rocks reminded me of seaweed--the environment was that wet and they were that polyp'd shaped. I tried to grab some pictures but it was just too darn dark under the clouds. You'll have to take my word on how cool those lichens were.
I'm not sure exactly when we hit the summit, so let us just pretend that this is Steph and me on the third summit. My GPS unit was working fine, so the reason for the uncertainty pertains to other matters. Turns out the Incas really liked to make their trails straight and level. Straight was obvious coming down from Dead Woman's Pass (45 degree descent...no problem so long as we don't have to make any turns or switch backs). In fact, straight is painfully obvious to our knees, because many of the trail sections could easily have been switchbacked (like the Perurail...different story).
Level was another matter. After Chaqicocha, the trail climbs to around 12,300 and then levels out and essentially stays level all the way to Phuyupatamarca. This is not to say that this is how the trail "naturally" would prefer to lie. You see, in order to keep things on the level the Incas chose to build monsterous retaining walls for much of this part of the trail (monsterous means cut stone stacked 30+ feet high on the side of a very steep mountain side). And if they had a section for which retaining walls weren't going to work, the Incas had no problem cutting flat sections across shear granite bedrock. If the above two options weren't going to work (say a giant granite slab had slid down the mountain side), they would tunnel between the granite and cut steps out of the solid rock in the process. This last bit is known as the "Inca Tunnel" and is as impressive as it is non-photogenic.
It's dark in the Inca tunnel, and I was deathly afraid of having Miguel or Ruben pop out of one of the alcoves in there and scare the Immodium AD out of me--which would have ruined my perfectly functional rainpants in the process.
It is truly amazing that this trail (and it's retaining walls and tunnels and stairs) has stood for over 500 years with hundreds of thousands of people trekking on it.
Phuyupatamarka (and your Syacmarca...if you think I'm sexy...) (TOC)
In spite of the weather (no view, lots of clouds, dreary rain) it remained fairly warm and pleasant all the way to Phuyupatamarca (Phuyupatamarqa, Phuyup3atamarcca, etc). Seeing the camp site in front of us (12,100) was a reward after yet another long day of trekking. There were 3 other groups there that night, and as we approached we were warned by our guides that the bathroom shacks were "not pleasant"--even in comparison to Pacamayo the night before. Reports from other trekkers took the rating from "not pleasant" down to "hold your breath and avoid at all costs". Oh well, another night using the chemical toilets wouldn't be such a bad thing--especially since one of them was set up with a gorgeous view of the Urubamba River Valley and Machu Picchu mountain.
The fun came about 10 minutes after we arrived at camp. By this time we had found our differently-numbered tent and I had visited the toilet with an amazing view. Several of us were hanging out looking down the ridge towards Machu Picchu. Suddenly, I noticed a dark, menacing and evil looking cloud swooping up the ridge towards us. At the first signs of rain, I started running back to the tent. Matt (at first confused by my haste) caught on quickly and ducked into his tent as well. We were just in time, for as we sat down in our tent (and pulled our shoes inside) it had started to hail. Steph was smirking inside the tent at mother nature's attempt to beat us into submission. We had made it this many days in the rain...a little hail wasn't going to break us.
But it came darn near to breaking our tent. Turns out our tent chose that time to spring a leak. In a short calm (before the bigger hail) I got Ruben to help me figure out how to stop the leak (poor design, actually, nothing "wrong" per se). At the same time we took This video of the hail, as people were still arriving into camp. Fun stuff, indeed.
Last night on the trail (TOC)
With our tent fixed and the hail subsided, I ran out ot the mess tent to finally enjoy one of the pre-dinner snacks and tea-times. I was actually hungry and the kitchen staff had fried up some wonton-like things that were quite tasty. We all sat around gossiping and telling stories and jokes and having a good time. The highlight of this little rag session was our combined attempt to "break Ruben down". We wanted to hear from our head guide some of the worst or most embarassing stories he had ever seen on the trail.
Alas, save one anecdote and story, Ruben's professionalism could not be broken down. The anecdote: evidently he had somehow gotten to brush elbows with Shakira when she came to Machu Picchu. (Ruben relayed this with a goofy smitten grin, all right). The story: evidently a week prior the porters had gone to dismantle one of the toilet tents and the person inside had not spoken up. They had completely lifted up the tent leaving the person inside sitting on the chemical toilet in the fresh air. Oops.
One cool thing we did have explained to us is why Ruben kept shouting out "Poppy!" now and then. When the lunch tent had blown apart back at Llulluchapampa, Ruben simply shouted "Poppy" in a loud and commanding voice and someone outside fixed the issue. He had done this other times (shouting without seeing anybody yet somebody came to the call). We finally asked who this "Poppy" guy was, and Ruben smiled (quite the charismatic smile) and told us it was more of a term of endearment.... like "Buddy" or "Dude" (for us Californians). For women, the appropriate term was "Mommy". Ahhhhh...it all made sense.
That night I remember dinner being fairly tasty (I was able to eat almost as much as Steph) and there was a little bit of a buzz in the air. Tomorrow we would get to see Machu PIcchu and have our first shower (and real toilet) for days. Everybody crawled into bed early, exhausted. The plan the next morning was to wake up around 5:00am in hopes of catching the sunrise.
I forget exactly what time we chose to wake up this morning, but I do remember that it was really early (5:00am, or was it 5:30). This morning there was no milo, sucar or leche or hot water in plastic tubs (yet). We had chosen to wake up with the hopes of catching the sunrise over the Andes.
Yes, we chose to wake up early in hopes of seeing the sun rise. We could have slept in another hour, but we were clearly suffering HACE (look it up) and our judgement was impaired.
We put on our stuff (it was COLD) and started to clamor up the hill above the Phuyupatamarca camp. It was another 50-75 vertical feet up an uneven dirt path. The porters were also joining us, carrying the table of tea & milo up the hill (and even a few seats).
For proof that my judgement was cloudy, I allowed Steph to snap this gruesome picture. Sunrise was approaching, and in spite of the cold and early morning hour, there were about 12-15 of us up there. Unfortunately, the sun chose not to join us, but I did manage to get this nicely gradated (is that a word?) photo of the Andes and this photo of where the sun should have been. A little later, I grabbed this image looking down the ridge towards Machu Picchu.
I also took a movie panorama while I was up there. However, I must issue a warning before you click on the link. Turns out, by some genetic practical joke, I have incredibly shaky hands (genetics trace back to my great-great-grandfather in fact). With that warning, go ahead and watch this panorama MOVIE from above Phuyuputamarca camp with its very own surprise ending!
Goodbyes and Gift Giving (TOC)
So, we hiked back down and got our camping gear in order. This particular morning there were 2 tarps laid out. The first tarp was for our normal duffel bags and the second tarp was where we were to put items we were gifting to the porters.
At first the second tarp was kind of meager, and I felt bad for the guys who shouldered the burden on the trail. The tarp started with a few nalgene bottles and lots of uneaten powerbars (simply because the eaten ones just don't gift all that well). Then, a sweater popped up and a pair of pants and then some socks and then some more stuff (cigarettes, headlamps, gloves, hats...). Seeing that few porters had them, I had decided to gift my Petzl Zipka headlamp. I also tossed in a nalgene bottle, a pair of hiking pants and some cliff bars. Steph parted with her black fleece and some powerbars.
But the surprise and best gift of all came from Anna. Anna is from New York and never had been campiing, let alone backpacking, let alone trekking, let alone all of the above for 4 days in the rain. I wasn't there to see this, so I'm relaying it 2nd hand...but she evidently walked up to the gift tarp and dropped her sleeping bag (imagine the sound...whuuuump....) and said "I am never camping again." This was a nice brand new sleeping bag and the porters were interested indeed.
So at this point, we all went into the mess tent to have a tasty (best yet) breakfast of pancakes! There was a buzz in the air, especially as the story of Anna's gift permeated through the group. This was our last day on the trail and everyone was eager to see Machu Picchu at the end of the tunnel (okay.....maybe that metaphor didn't quite work). After breakfast, Ruben told us a little bit about the gift giving (and goodbye) ceremony that was to occur. We all shuffled outside and Ruben was busy arranging the gifts into xx distinct piles (one for every porter). The piles were essentially random.
Ruben explained to the group that we would all introduce ourselves to the porters at this point and then the porters would be called up one-by-one to shake everyobody's hand. They would receive their tip (pre-arranged courtesy our tour group) and then there would be the gift giving. By the way, in the background of that last photo you can see Andrea and Leslie preparing the tips. The tips themselves (from what I gathered) were approximately 20% of the porters pay for the trip....a healthy percentage by any standards. Additionally, by Peruvian standards we figured out that porters are very well compensated for the work they do.
Regardless, when it was my turn (I had been practicing for this), I introduced myself with a "Noca Puca". Not sure how you spell the first word, but I believe it is Quechuan for "my name is". The second word I am more sure of, and it means "red". The porters looked confused and Ruben had to explain quickly that "Mi llamo Rojo" or something like that.
I was also proud of The Steph...for in spite of her ultra-quiet voice (and lack of desire to speak in front of that many people) they seemed to be able to hear her. Go Steph!
introductions and tips aside, Ruben selected a random member of our group to hand out the first batch of gifts. Ruben would call a porter and the giver was to randomly select a pile and hand it to the porter as they stepped forward. The excitement built as we watched the sleeping bag on the tarp, until the fateful moment when Matt chose to hand it out. I took a lot more pic's of the gift giving, but it was dark and most of them were blurry and all of them were celebretory.
On towards Huinay Huayna (TOC)
We all started the trail and the ultra-steep steps down towards the Phuyupatamarka ruins. Looking her 4-day-without-a-shower-best, Steph chooses to face the photo head on and take this photo like a trooper.
In front of Phuyupatamarca was another vista point type landing. From here, you can see the ridge all the way down to Huayna Picchu with the Urubamba River Valley below. For those of you thinking of hiking the trail, take lots of pictures at this point, as the bamboo grows tall further along the trail and views down the ridge become scarce.
Somewhere on the way down towards Huinay Huayna (or Winay Wayna or W3inay W3ayna) the group stopped for a rest break and a snack. The sun was starting to peak through and it was starting to get a little warmer. People started to disrobe and unleash the sweat.
We continued down the trail (hugging the mountain side whenever the porters flew past us) and that is when I decided it was about time to show my sensitive side. As you approach Huinay Huayna, you can take a "shortcut" down the side of the mountain to get there a little "faster". This has become the standard for people on the trail.
This shortcut deserves its own paragraph, as it was perhaps the toughest part of the entire day. First off, we had not seen the sun for days and it had chosen this time to blast through the clouds and bake the hill side we were descending. Second, the shortcut is steep and made of packed dirt and we had just spent days growing used to the idea of stairs on steep downhills. Third, the shortcut consisted of switchback after switchback for 30 minutes, and we had just spent days on a trail that would never stoop to such levels. Just prior to the pounding descent I managed to grab this shot looking up the Urubamba River Valley.
Lunch at Huinay Huayna (TOC)
As we hit the top of the Huinay Huayna camp site, we saw terrace after terrace of camping spots. We also came across a cute puppy (not the best photo, sorry) which was clearly friendly and clearly did not have rabies (Lonely Planet lies). We also were comforted by high voltage lines (once buried in a plastic conduit, but now exposed) in the dirt at our feet.
When we got the hostel, there were lots of other people there and the porters already had two tables awaiting us. I was plenty warm by then and took the opportunity to strip down (convert my long pants into short-shorts and ditch the long sleeve top) immediately. While Steph did the same, I attempted to go get us some beverages for our lunchtime meal. I use the word "attempted" in this case, for the process by which to acquire drinks for oneself was totally back assward. You first had to go into the snack bar area (where all the drinks were waiting along side all the candy bars) and figure out what you wanted. Then, after trying to pay the guy behind the counter who absolutely refused to take your money, you had to find the person behind the iron bars outside in another room 20 feet away. After you paid this person by using pantomimes and bad spansih, you walked back to the snack bar area and attempted to claim your drinks with the sketchy looking receipt. In the end, I had secured both Steph and myself something bubbly (Inca Kola and a Coka-Light) and definitely NOT gatorade.
Lunch was provided by our kitchen porters (yes, we still did the hand wash ritual as well). I was glad for the safe lunch choice, for the kitchen at the hostel did not look the most sanitary of places for a short-order cook to reside.
As we finished up lunch we were told we could leave some items at the hostel while we made the short walk over to the Huinay Huayna ruins. As we were dropping our daypacks off, I grabbed this great photo of the snack bar window at the Huinay Huayna hostel. You'll note that there are stickers from all over the place...except for Stanford (next alumns going that way, could you do all of us the favor of fixing this shortcoming....we'd hate to see the cal weenies beat us to it).
And at last, it was off on the short walk to the ruins at Huinay Huayna. The lighting was perfect, the air was warm, the sun was out, and we took advantage of the scenic backdrop. If that last one was a little too cute for you, here's the plain version of the beautiful ruins (Inca terraces and Urin Huinay Huayna in the center). The temple wall at anan Huinay Huayna has some excellent cut stonework. Unfortunately, during their reconstruction of the wall, the archaeologists simply could not match the original placement and the fit of the stones worsens as the wall goes higher. Looking up the Urubamba River Valley from Huinay Huayna, the lighting was amazing. We could see the trail coming up from km104 along the dappled hillside. Not bad for a day-hike....and probably a great way to get to Machu Picchu for most.
And because the lighting in this photo is so cool, it gets it's own line.
Ruben gave the group a short lecture in the anan sectuion of Huinay Huanya. The group had a chance to kick back and watch as Ruben drew pictures in the sand. We were tired and of the (incorrect) belief that Machu Picchu was nary a stone's throw away.
With the lecture done (sorry, Ruben, but I forgot what that one was about), we had just enough time to grab this photo of me on the steps down towards urin Huinay Huayna. The bath/fountains are directly behind me and parallel the stair case.
We left Huinay Huayna (Steph took a few more flower pictures) and collected our gear back at the Hostel. In a well-counted group, we marched together towards the final checkpoint. Once through the checkpoint we were off on the final section of the trail towards Machu Picchu.
The hike towards Intipata (TOC)
Many people spend their last night on the trail at Huinay Huayna. They rush along the trial so that they can do something insane the next morning. These crazy folk choose to wake up extra early (3:00am in some cases) and hike in the dark towards Intipata. They do this so that they may see the sun rising over the famed Sun Gate. For numerous reasons, i was glad that we had not made a similar choice.
For starters, the sunrise (had there even been a sunrise through the clouds) from Phuyupatamarca would have been far more impressive. Additionaly, you can always get up the following morning and catch the early bus to Machu Picchu and hike the trail up towards Intipata. This last option gives you the best of both (sunrise at Phuyupatamarca and sunrise the next morning at Intipata) without the danger of the night hiking. For hiking the trail from Huinay Huayna to Intipata in the dark would be dangerous indeed. I wish I had been able to take more pictures to substantiate what I am about to say, for the words just don't do the fear justice.
Now, both Steph and I have been on some sketchy trails. I've hiked the muddy cliffs along the Na Pali coast (Kauai) in my bare feet with 300 foot cliffs a slip away. I've trekked on some burly granite trails in the Sierras with crumbling dirt beneath every bootstep and the maw of a steep hillside below. I have even had the delightful opportunity to balance walk (with 50lbs of gear) across a log above a fast flowing river...TWICE in the same afternoon (we got lost).
But the Inca Trail represented its own challenge. The rocks at points were dreadfully uneven and the trail necked down to 2 feet (or less). The views were stunning (remember the rule to stop before you look) and quite a distraction. The drops were also impressive (300-500-1000ft) and definitely capable of killing. However, the real fear was a direct result of the fantastic Inca engineering that went into building the trail.
On most cliff-side trails the drop-offs aren't really straight down. Usually there is some sort of slope with a few bushes here and there. These scraggly plants clinging to the sides of the cliff give one the illusion of safety (on the Na Pali cliffs one can imagine grabbing on to a bread fruit tree as one fell....or better yet, splashing ever so softly into the cliff-breaking surf below...). Not so on the Inca Trail. The incas were experts at keeping their paths level by building up sheer vertical retaining walls (in some cases 50+ feet). The drop offs from this trail were frightening in their sheer honesty.
Anywyay, during this warm afternoon hike with Miguel, Steph and Sarah were chatting it up when at one point Sarah stumbled (nearly going over the edge). In spite of giving us all heart attacks, she managed to catch herself and we all laughed it off (it was only 12 inches from not being funny).
During this time, we also heard a sound we had not heard in a very long time. The sound was that of a helicopter and it was circling around in the Urubamba River Valley. We hadn't heard of helicopter tours, but it made sense to have them in such an awesome valley. Miguel was with us at the time and neither confirmed nor denied our delight at seeing the tourist helicopter.
To wrap up this story, I will tell take a detour and tell you what I found out the following night as I sat next to Ruben on the train ride back to Cusco. For starters, it was not a tourist helicopter--it was a medical evacuation helicopter. Someone had been bitten by a bushmaster on short trail between Intipata and Machu Picchu. At the time, the helicopter was circling trying to find a place to land. All of the guides had heard the distress call on their radios, but chose not to mention it to us so as not to alarm anybody (bushmasters are so rarely seen on the Inca Trail that you'll find almost no mention of them....even in the Paranoid Planet guidebooks). Evidently, one person was lucky enough that day to see a bushmaster on the Inca Trail and they had to rush her down towards the Machu Picchu bus stop where the helicopter then took her down to Aguas Calientes. Precious time ticking away, they evidently have no antivenom in Aguas Calientes and were forced to re-board the victim and take the long flight (45 minutes) in to Cusco. As of this writing, I am unaware of the fate of the victim, but none of the guides were too eager to discuss the situation beyond a grim shaking of the head and shrugging of the shoulders.
As we approached Intipata, the afternoon wore on and we were becoming more tired than we had expected our "leisurely walk into Machu Picchu" would make us. At last we hit the "Purgatory Steps" (or something like that). This final ultra-steep section of approximately 50 steps takes you right up to Intipata. Ultra-steep in this case means >45degrees....and like 50 of them in a row (I lost count).
At long last, Machu Picchu (TOC)
The hike from Huinay Huayna to Machu Picchu was mostly in the shade. It's on the Eastern side of the ridge as well, so it gets less afternoon sun. For the most part, in spite of the day being warm, we were hiking comfortably and enjoying the expansive views of the Urubamba River Valley below (whenever the trees parted to afford us such views).
At the top of Purgatory Steps was another one of those trail signs, and this one said "Intipata". It was a zoo up there, literally, with animals from all around the world (all shapes, sizes and smells) lined up and snapping pictures. We jockeyed for position and got several worthwhile shots of the overlook from Intipata. You can see Huayna Picchu over the top of my right shoulder. Both Intipata and Huayna Picchu sit 500 feet above Machu Picchu (which is at ~9000ft). Machu Picchu itself is 1000 feet above the valley floor (which lies at ~8000ft). We took 10-15 minutes of rest at Intipata and just enjoyed the sunlight and the views.
What is that I hear.....You can't believe how steep these valleys are? Well then, check out the bus dirt road criss-crossing in the background. It takes the bus a long-ass time to get down from the bus station at Machu Picchu to the station in Aguas Calientes (45min). Go to the bathroom before you get on that bus!
Still don't believe how burly these granite peaks are? Well, they aren't so burly that things can't cling for dear life and eke out a meager existence.
We didn't take too many photos en route down from Intipata....you've seen the postcards, so you don't need to see my photos at that point. Not to mention that some nasty dark clouds were rapidly approaching and we wanted to get to Machu Picchu with utmost haste (which was silly because there isn't any rain shelter at Machu Picchu). We unknowingly passed the bushmaster section of the trail and then came past some sections being reconstructed by archeaologists (think lots of string criss crossing in mid-ar).
Then, at long last...we were at the upper terraces. To celebrate (no more stairs!!!) I decided to get one foot up and show my dominance over a set of classic Inca flying steps.
And here come the money shots! The sun was clearning, the lighting was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G (angled, dappled, wonderfully soft), and the view was tremendous. There were no people in the background, as it was after 4:00pm and everyone had gone down to get some chicha. This was the P-E-R-F-E-C-T time to photograph Machu Picchu. We stood on the upper guard shack terrace and snapped image after image after image.
Well, that did it for the photos. Professor Rick also gave a wonderfully short talk up on the terrace and we took our 2005 YAE group photo up there as well. The talk was short, 'cause Professor Rick is a smart fella' (dat's why he's da' 'fessor) and he knows that this is one of the best times to see Machu Picchu.
Did you get that? Those of you planning a trip should know that the late afternoon (4pm till closing) is truly a special time at Machu Picchu. There aren't the teeming crowds, it's quiet and peaceful and you can wander around and get a great feel for the ruins. The early morning hours are special as well. Skip the hours between 9am and 3pm, however (go down and get lunch).
To the Bus Station, and quickly! (TOC)
After the lecture, we were given the choice to either stick around and wander the ruins or head down and get checked into the hotel. By this time it was 5pm. It would take 45minutes to 1 hour to get down to the hotel in Aguas Calientes. We had a dinner lecture at 7pm. Steph and I desperately wanted to take a shower (and perhaps change out of 4-day old underwear) and I really-really-really had to go to the bathroom....badly. (Steph would like to point out that she actually had packed a daily change of underwear and Red had actually packed a change as well...but the stink was undeniable).
This is one of those tough calls the YAEs put you through. It was the perfect time to stay at Machu Picchu, but we were trail weary and hungry and did not want to be late for the lecture. Oh, and did I mention that I had to go to the bathroom really badly.
From the upper guard house down to the bus stations (AND THE ONLY BATHROOMS AT MACHU PICCHU) takes 15 minutes of fast walking. Warning...start TMI.... My gut was expanding and becoming more and more pressurized. I desperately hurried steph along and glanced along the side of the trail for a place to jump into the bushes. With too many people about, I took rapid (and smooth, non-jarring) strides as my ticking time-bomb GI tract sent warning signals that I could not ignore. There was simply no way I was going to make it (and I didn't even know where the bathrooms were...having never been to Machu Picchu). I unbuckled my waist strap to buy me an additional minute. I attempted to pass gas but didn't want to release the fury of everything else pressing to come out. By the time we reached the bus station, I was nearly running, and my goal came into sight. I had seconds more before the pressure inside beat out my musculature's ability to hold it all in. I started digging out the 50 centisimos (1/2 soles) and suddenly broke out in a cold sweat. With only seconds to spare before impending doom, both bathrooms appeared closed for cleaning. The lights were off and the entrance to the men's restroom was blocked, as it was being hosed down. I had to do something fast, for the immediacy of the situation was....errrrr....imminent? And so I ducked into the dark women's restroom and ran into a stall and yanked off my hiking pants (and foul trail-smelling underwear) and allowed the 4,000PSI pressure to escape from within. Now, that's relief! end TMI
Incidentally, the bathrooms at Machu Picchu are far cleaner than the trail bathrooms. However, they too are lacking seats and the porcelin bowls are fairly wide (don't fall in). Yet they have toilet paper, but you still can't flush it.
Machu Picchu part deux (formerly known as Aguas Calientes) (TOC)
When I exited the bathroom, it became evident that my necessity for pressure relief had caused us to miss a bus. No matter, another 10 minutes and we were on our way down. The way up and down the windy dirt road is interesting. "Go with it!" Steph and I winked at each other. The dirt road is one lane wide and the bus driver flys the vehicle down like a greased pig into a blanket. The bus inevitably has to pass its friends and we soon figured out that the downhill bus has right-of way. Given that the switchback visibility is nonexistant and that the drivers were not radioing each other, I decided to "Go with it" and calmly enjoy the view instead of sweating the details.
We reached Aguas Calientes at dusk. The bus station is near the bridge across the river. We immediately were assaulted by vendors of all sorts. Ahhh....civilization after 5 days on trail proved to be a shock on the system. I didn't fear pickpockets, however, as my sphere-of-stink was a veritable force field.
We crossed the bridge and then walked along the train tracks down a (used to be cobblestone but now is) dirt road. The good old smell of wall-urine reared its head now and then. We finally reached the end of town, and with it our hotel for the night. We were staying at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. This is a nice hotel, the nicest of the trip, and we had less than 12 hours of time to spend in it....of which 3 of those hours would be at the dinner lecture. They had a lot of amenities we did not get to experience (hot tub, sauna, hummingbird walk, orchid walk, spotted bears, bushmasters in the trees, nature trails) but would consider worthy of a second trip (except the bushmasters, that is).
The Inkaterra is an eco-tourist establishment, so the furniture is a bit on the rustic side and cob webs were plentiful inside the hotel room. Dinner is included with your night's stay and is served in a restaurant on the other side of the tracks. Yes...you have to cross the single railroad track to get to the restaurant. For you lawyer-crazed americans out there (that's me), you'd be shocked to find out that crossing the tracks involved no safety guards, crosswalks, buttons, rails, lights or waivers. Personal responsibility is so refreshing that I believe Peru should export it to the USA. We can trade our lawyers for it....surely lawyers are worth something!
But I digress.
Dinner Lecture Theater (TOC)
After a quick shower, Steph was prettified and willing to pose. I took 5 minutes to hit the gift shop and pick up some Inca salt--everything else was too overpriced (eco-tourism in a nutshell) to consider. We were one of the first ones there and I was sorry to have forgotten my jacket. The restaurant has massive thatched vaulted roofs and they have openings at the top to let all of the heat out (eco-toursim = no insulation). I picked a seat with my back to the glass and a scant 4 feet from the passing PeruRail trains and shivered through the lecture. The wine was good, the food was tasty, the company that night was wonderful.....the service was nonexistent and water refills simply did not occur.
Professor Rick gaven yet another inspiring lecture that night covering the history of Machu Picchu and its evolution over 70 years. Machu Picchu was no one single thing (in addition to being an alien crystal manufacturing facility it also was a warehouse for nubile slaves and the source of power for a massive paranormal containment field) and it served several purposes throughout its occupation. Professor Rick also told about Machu Picchu's first tourist (Hiram Bingham) and the first porter (gave a tour for 1 silver dollar). Great lecture and then we had the pleasure of Prof Rick joining our table at dinner. Great stories followed the great lecture and the night became late.
Don't remember much else before hitting the soft beds.... We stumbled back to our room, repacked for the umpteenth time and collapsed. Another pre-dawn wake-up awaited us.
I don't really remember being human at the hour we awoke (I think it was 4:30AM). We had opted to join the pre-dawn group so as to get an early start on the day and our leaders wanted our bags red-tagged and in the lobby. Breakfast was at 5:00am, and we were to meet to walk to the bus at 5:30-ish so that we could get to the front gates by 6:30. It sounds about as painful now as it was then (although they did have bacon at breakfast).
This was to be another day in which we wouldn't see our bags (or a hotel room) until late that night. It was dark as we stumbled through the grounds of the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. During breakfast we ran into Monique and decided to hang out with her. Monique (remember the day 4 drama) was just starting to beat down the bug-in-her-stomach and she was looking much better at this point. On the way out the hotel that morning, I managed to grab a pre-dawn shot of the restaurant (where we had dinner the night before, breakfast was somewhere else that morning).
The group (about 10) of us began trotting towards the bus station. The other 7 in the group were headed up to Huayna Picchu that morning. Since they only let 200 people climb up to Huayna Picchu per day, it made sense for them to get an early start. The three of us were just hoping to be rewarded with some quiet time at the amazing archeological site.
When we got to the bus station, there already was a line queued up and we were looking to miss the first bus. Somehow, though, guide-master Harry "Potter" pulled some peruvian wizardry and managed to jump us ahead of the entire line. I did not recall seeing money change hands, and when asked about it later, Harry replied that he had simply done magic and that his friends call him "Harry Potter" (no joke, that was his answer!)
We arrived up at the main entrance at 6:30am and were stunned to see a throng of 200+ people amassed at the entrance. Evidently the Peruvian government had changed the opening time from 6:30 to 7:00 and had failed to notify people. This gave us a chance to hang out with our group buddies for a little bit and whine about lack of sleep and things like that.
At 7:00am, we clamored through the entrance. As I've already mentioned (in day 7), Machu PIcchu is best viewed early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It is quiet, peaceful, amazing and amazing (worth 2x of that word). You can grab awesome pictures, navigate and explore and not have to wait for tour groups to get out of your way. I am glad we got up at 4:30...our suffering was worth it.
Morning in Machu Picchu (TOC)
Here is where I bore you with pictures.
From the lower guard house that morning we could see Huayna Picchu. (Here's the same shot for fans of The Steph). You can see the lower terraces of urin Machu Picchu, which we walked across in the morning calm. Looking back at the lower guard house with no people in sight. Totally worth it.
And that's about when we stumbed across THE SQUABBIT of Machu Picchu. Squabbits are a mysterious race of alien creatures (part squirrel, part rabbit) that thrive off the energy emanating from the intihuatana stones. They eat crystals and live forever. This particular squabbit was shy, and we had to sit still for 5 minutes to coax him out of his secret space ship entrance way. Warning: it's got big teeth.
Permitted to pass, we marveled at the fountains still flowing after 500 years. Notice how the Incas cut right into the bedrock to make this water channel. Amazing.
Another benefit of being early is that the three of us got to clamor around the Condor completely undisturbed. Monique is seen here peering under the condor's right wing towards a back room. With nobody around, we got a clear shot (max wide angle) with Steph at the apex of the condor's wings. The condor's body is the carved bedrock in the front. You can see the head (and eyes) with the semicircular stone representing the frills of the condor's neck. The wings are two solid pieces of (unmoved) bedrock. This represents a wonderful example of the Incas modifying while being inspired by their environment.
From the condor, we wandered upwards towards anan Machu Picchu. Looking back again, we could see the central plaza and Huayna Picchu. There was one tree in the central plaza, and the sun lit it up beautifully that morning. Fans of Steph and/or Monique will like this one.
Temple of the Sun (TOC)
We had gone "across town" to get to the main temple, the temple of the sun before anybody else could get in our way and destroy our photos. The Incas believed in permanence and built their important structures on top of solid rock. The windows high up on the wall each have 4 stone pegs. Presumably something was hung from these pegs so that on the summer/winter solstice the shadow cast on the intihuatana inside would align perfectly with a carved feature. Amazing (that word again), deadly accurate, and in a land of earthquakes, the Incas proved their worth by building a temple on solid rock with an alignment stone of carved bedrock. We were not allowed to get any closer (or go inside), since crystal-loving spirtualists (and squabbits) have been taking pieces out of the intihuatana.
Below the temple of the sun is a "cave" of sorts. We heard a few possible explanations for the cave's existence, and given Machu Picchu's multifarious nature all of the explanations probably hold water. The exit/entrance hall to the temple section had its own unique section of stonework. It was clearly used as the one-and-only security entrance to the temple compound. How it was used, however, is a topic still up for debate.
You'll also note that the stonework in this section is all perfectly cut....this is your signal that the Incas cared about this section of Machu PIcchu. And yes, I mean perfect. I, too, had my doubts about how well stones could be fit together. I, too, was certain it was simply guidebook exaggeration. Well, pictures don't lie (no photoshopping, I promise) and in this case you can see what I mean. You couldn't fit a razor blade between those stones, even if you tried (I didn't). To make this wall even more amazing (key that word again) is the fact that the stones actually interlock together (something you need either x-ray vision or permission to hack apart the wall to see).
Nearby the temple of the sun lies the grand cancha of the sapa inca. Unlike the other canchas, this one clearly was special (hint: stonework). The 9th and greatest sapa Inca, Pachacutec (aka Picachu) was perported to have slept in the very same spot in which I chose to take a nap.
Personally, I've always preferred a cancha with a view. 'Nuff said. Oh, and here's another photo for those fans of Steph and/or Monique. Scatter-hopping some more, here is some kick-ass stonework. That hole that you see is carved out of solid rock and is only 1 inch in diameter. Most likely it served as a tie-down for a roof beam.
We had to meet up with the rest of our group soon, so we crossed the central plaza again and walked back towards urin Machu Picchu and the condor. While exploring around a carved bedrock slab, I heard Steph and Monique gasp and tell me to move "very slowly". Evidently, my friend here, had decided not to take my head off (although he had come close). Perhaps he was hunting The Squabbit of Machu Picchu, but he was willing to pause for a second and let me frame a shot with Huayna Picchu in the background. Well, maybe he wasn't hunting The Squabbit of Machu Picchu and was instead hamming it up for me.
Dana Street Roasting Company (TOC)
So, a little background....there's this local coffee shop that I have been going to for some time. They roast their own beans and brew the best coffee I have ever had (especially that Zimbabwe La Lucie! Tasty!). They recently started selling t-shirts and I felt it was time to start a tradition for them. This shot doesn't give enough of a sense of place, though. This shot, while cool, looks back towards our campsite from 2 nights prior. While nicely framed and offering a greater sense of place, this shot still could be better.
Now this picture of Red in his Dana Street Roasting Company shirt at Machu PIcchu is so cool it deserves it's own line.
In fact, that last photo came out so nice, I printed it up and expensive photo-paper and framed it and gave it to Nick (the owner) as a gift. It now resides on their front counter for all to ask "Is this photoshopped?". AS IF! Cheez...
Back with our group (TOC)
And so we re-joined our group and Professor Rick gave us another great (albeit short) lecture about the site. This was a frustrating part of the day, since moving a group of 30 peole around the tight confines of Machu Picchu is a very difficult task. We kept bumping into other (equally sized) tour groups and having to wait for areas to clear out. This was simply more affirmation that getting up at 4:30am was worthwhile.
The sun climbed higher and the day warmed up. This photo, as unbelievable and photoshopped as it may look, shows the impressive backdrop of the Urubamba River Valley with Elizabeth pulling foreground duty.
The group then continued up towards anan Machu Picchu where we walked among the boulder fields. One of the giant boulders up there happens to have the Inca symbol for snake carved in it (worn away, faint, but it is there). Our guides, Harry (Potter), Ruben and Miguel chose this as the rock for their global adrenaline album cover photo.
From the top of Machu Picchu, one gets to see several cool things. Off to the North side (the vertical cliff side) the Urubamba flows past. There is a scar on the hillside from a fairly recent (1,000 foot) landslide that buried the PuruRail tracks. PeruRail, seeing an excuse to terminate a not-so-profitable line of service, has since chosen to not fix the tracks and conveniently end the rail service at Aguas Calientes.
At the top of Machu Picchu, the style of stonework changes. There are a few structures (appearing unfinished) that employ the use of megalithic stones. These megalithic stones also have inset cuts in a style that is similar to the stonework found in Ollantaytambo and at Sacsayhuaman. This style appears to coincide with the twilight of the Inca culture. There were several impressive structures up there, and also evidence that Machu PIcchu is beginning to suffer the effects of time. The ground is subsiding and Machu Picchu is starting to either (a) split apart or (b) slide off the hill side. Perhaps in a few thousand years (when you are reading this for the second time) some of the stonework will finally have toppled.
There is a small intihuatana at the top/northern side of Machu Picchu. This one is shaped and aligned (to within one degree) like/to the Southern Cross. Too bad we couldn't hang out there at night and check it out for ourselves.
From there we followed the spirtual lines towards the large intihuatana at the very top of Machu Picchu (what some call The Intihuatana). For whatever reason, this stone also appears unfinished (although many theorists have pontificated their theories on the shape of the stone). Steph had forgotten her crystal and neither The Squabbit of Machu PIcchu nor the buried Inca Alien Trail Treasure were able to provide her with one.
To avoid the crowds, our group trekked back down to urin Machu Picchu. With fewer "major sites" there were less people down in the lower section. One particular item of interest was tucked away and totally unmarked. Used for sighting one of the solstices (summer? winter? octoberfest?), the narrow tube is more than 10 feet long and only permits sunrise one day a year. Inside there is a small room with two polished rocks for reflecting the sunlight further into the room.
At this point the group split up and Monique, Steph and I walked up towards the Huayna Picchu entrance. From there we got ourselves stuck on the unfinished review platform looking out over the main plaza. The review platform is higher than the old one (low and across the way) and was being constructed by flattening a boulder field. Even its unfinished state, it offers an impressive view of Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu peak.
After re-tracing our steps (we were starting to get hungry and tired at this point as it approached 1:00pm) we went for a quick jaunt through the massive artisan cancha. We came across an interesting stone that appears to be cut in the shape of a person lying on their back. Does anybody know what's going on here? I did not think the Incas carved represetational figures. There was no evidence of this type of work anywhere, so why 2 examples lying in the middle of Machu Picchu?
Lunch in Aguas Calientes (TOC)
We were exhausted as we walked towards the bus station at the main gate. Leaving Machu Picchu, the end of the Inca Trial, you will find the final resting place for trekker bamboo poles. These most likely get re-sold (4 soles) at the start of the trail the next day.
Our final bus ride down was as nerve racking as our first. The three of us arrived in Aguas Calientes and from the bus station took the alley heading away from the river (this is the Alleyway coincident to The Upstream Bridge in The Town formerly known as Aguas Calientes). We were in search of a restaurant that was recommended as tasty (and safe) by 2 of our tour guides. When the alley dead ends, we took a left downhill towards the town square. On the corner on our left (river most side) stood the Pueblo Viejo. There is nothing unusual about this place (heck, we counted at least a dozen pizza places in the town), but it was a tasty place to grab a bite and I would have no problem recommending it. The beer was cold, the pizza was wood-fired and the company was superb (Matt & Jenn had also found the place).
After our lunch (pizza names of which I forget), we decided to stroll down to the town square and pay homage to Pachacutec (aka Pikachu), the 9th and greatest Sapa Inca. In the town square you will also find a few hostels, a tourist police headquarters and lots of gringos with cameras. Yup, it's a safe place to hang.
We decided to head back to our hotel from the night before (the one which we had spent a scant 10 hours at) in hopes of doing the self-guided humming-bird (orchid, bushmaster) tour. We opted for the right-er most alley on the way back up to The Upstream Bridge in The Town formerly known as Aguas Calientes. This was a mistake, as we neither felt safe or comfortable in the close environment with loud teenagers bumping into us. Word of advice, stick on the main street and avoid the afforementioned alley way. Nothing bad happened, but the vibes were definitely there.
Back at the entrance way to the hotel, we were stopped by a dude with a clipboard. No, he wasn't soliciting for handouts, he was checking our name against his uber-guestlist. We were not on that list, but he seemed to accept our English for "We just spent 10 hours here last night and want to check out your bushmaster, hummingbird, orchid tour." Unfortunately, in spite of his pity, he sadly could not let us pass. The "self-guided" tour was at specified hours only and we were not on schedule. Boo-hoo...
Killing Time in Aguas Calientes (TOC)
So, with an hour to kill, we turned around and walked (again) past the train, and then walked across The Upstream Bridge in The Town formerly known as Aguas Calientes. This time, we decided we would tool around that same alleyway (parallel to the river) and walk upwards towards the Aguas Calientes of Aguas Calientes (I think that is what the hot springs are called). I needed to get some more AA batteries (at an ungodly price, $1USD/battery) and we all needed some water for the train ride (con gas for me).
We saw some cool things on that little stroll in the sun. To recap the coolness in that short section of street:
And so with time running out, we ambled slowly back towards the train station. As we crossed The Upstream Bridge in The Town formerly known as Aguas Calientes, I nonchalantly pointed my optics upstream-ward. That last one should give y'all a good feel of the town and how small it really is. With the sun starting to go down over the mountains, I chalantly framed downstream Aguas Calientes and the Urubamba River. You can see The Downstream Bridge in The Town formerly known as Aguas Calientes in that last shot, as well as the bus pick up spot and about a half-dozen pizza joints.
After crossing TUBinTTfkaAC you land square in a little market. This market sits adjacent to the train station and offers a fairly good shopping opportunity while waiting for your train. Since trains don't leave all that often, you're better off killing time in this little market than cutting it close coming down from Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, the market in Aguas Calientes did not have nearly the values that we found in the Pisaq market. In fact, the values in Cusco would turn out to be better. While there, Monique was looking at wood flutes (for her brother) and the outstanding shopkeep gave her a 15 minute lesson to seal the deal. We found a cool deck of cards, but couldn't justify paying $5USD for them and the shopkeep just couldn't be talked down. However, we did manage to pick up a few "I am Inca Trail Survivor" T-Shirts.
All Aboard PeruRail (TOC)
And so we entered the train station. Clean and nice with a small snack stand, we hung out while people smoked outside the station. The inside was crowded and our group preferred to cling together for the time being. While this map of TTfkaAC would have been useful to have outside the station (say on TUBinTTfkaAC) it's still quite useful (for you now). You can see it's a small town and the bottom chunk is made up entirely of the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel grounds.
Once on board the antics sort of began. Seat swapping commenced (yes, they had assigned seats) even as the porters (recruited by the guides) were loading our luggage onto the train. The train ride was going to be 3 hours long and thankfully there was a (nice, clean) bathroom inside each car. As we got rolling, the guides handed out snacks that they had purchased for the trip (chips and other yummy goodness). Sitting by Ruben, Steph and I grilled him a little bit (about the bushmaster bite the day before) but didn't yield much from that line of questioning.
The train ride was around dusk and we watched the Urubamba river rushing by outside the window. The PeruRail train from Aguas Calientes moves S-L-O-W-L-Y. We're talking a top speed of 20-30mph (a blazing 60kph perhaps) with a significant side to side sea-sickness rolling shimmy. There were two (or was it three) tunnels early on and we did well to make sure our windows were closed and we were holding our breath to avoid inhaling the thick black smoke belched by the old diesel engine in front. As it got dark, we sat back and enjoyed the view of the high valleys and stars through the side and top (yes, top) windows of the car.
Somewhere, perhaps halfway, the train stopped (Ollantaytambo-esque station me thinks) and people got on and off. One of our guides ran outside to the station gates to pick up something (forgot what) and then ran back onto the train. After what seemed like a long stop, the train crossed the Urubamba and then headed up a different valley towards Cusco.
For some time, the lights were left off and we were able to witness the valley walls getting steeper around us, obscuring the star-filled sky. For some reason, they switched on the lights, yet we were still an hour or more away from our designated stop. Evidently, one of our group tried to ask the conductor to turn the lights back off, and the conductor (in a flurry of super fast spanish) came up to talk to Miguel and ask him to explain the situation. At that moment, I had forgotten (I had been warned) what this was all about.
An Abrupt Turn of Events (TOC)
I was distracted mometarily by the train slowing to the stop (Oh, no...we were being hijacked in the middle of a desolate Andean valley). Then the train started GOING BACKWARDS! Was there something in the way? Were we falling backwards down hill to our eventual doom as we jumped track while going back over the Urubamba on a moonless night in September? Would a hero need to save the day (not it)?
Nope...the train was doing switchbacks. I kid you not. The train did about 6 switchbacks over the course of 15 minutes! It would stop and reverse direction, move for about 1 minute and repeat the entire process over. Miguel had to explain to me that (no hero was needed...he must have seen the panic on my face) the valley got so narrow and the train had to go up 10 meters, so instead of grading the track up the cliffside over the course of a mile or so (the Inca Way), PeruRail figured switchbacks were easier.
Oh, and to jump ahead, we were going to get off the train one stop before Cusco in Poroy. Evidently, the train does an hour of switchbacks between Poroy and Cusco (easier than building a tunnel, I suppose). An hour of train switchbacks versus a 15 minute car trip is a no-brainer to an intelligent tour group....(that's us).
Back to where we were....just having finished (or somewhere in the middle of) the first set of train switchbacks, Peruvian music started blaring over the train cars loudspeakers. Then I heard laughter from the back of the train car and then I saw the Gimp. Not to be confused with StrongBad, or a Schtroumpf, this was one of the conductors dressed up as GimpaMan.
You see, although I had been told by several people, I had failed to recall until that moment that the conductors of each train car did a fashion show for the passengers. No joke (you thought the switchbacks were bad), the Gimp headed back (where the other 2 conductors were changing into Alpaca sweaters and scarves) and the 80's cheese music started blaring. Yes....80's cheese on a PeruRail train with conductors swaying their hips and spinning down the aisle in a fashion show. Who would of thunk it? Evidently, with our rowdy group in the train car (and the flirtatious guides whisteling), this was more attention than the conductors typically get....so they hammed it up all the more. Oh....and when it was all done, they wheeled the goods around ($90USD alpaca sweaters...not on your life....$200USD for one of them....as if).
Finally, the train exited the canyons and started travelling on a plateau. Ahead we could see city lights of Poroy, and the stop where we would be getting off. At the stop, there was this amazing lawnmower chained to a tree (think sheep) that made the deepest, hoarsest, smoking-induced Baaaaahhhh (sounded like Baaggghhhhuffff). Great for laughs, but I didn't want to go wetting my pants. A quick pitstop at the train station bathroom (which incidentally was sparkling clean and had fresh cut flowers in vases on the countertop) and the group boarded 2 short-buses for the 15 minute drive into Cusco.
We arrived at the Hotel Novotel in Cusco sometime after 9pm with a free night. In case you didn't laugh at that last sentence, you probably should have---remember we had rolled out of bed at 4:30 and the last thing on our mind was wandering around an unknown city in the dark looking for a bite to eat.
Turns out the room service was well priced and darn good! The ravioli alfredo was super tasty and Steph's grilled cheese sam'ich wasn't bad either. A few Cusquena beers from the mini bar and we found ourselves just shy of collapsing.
Of course, prior to collapsing, we had the unpleasant task of yanking out our wet and smelly trail clothes and setting them around the room to dry. Several items were portioned off to the side to leave for the cleaning crew (powerbars, water bottle, shirts and a few neuvo soles). Our full day in Cusco would have been a great day to have laundry done (professionally)--had it not been a Sunday. So, before I could collapse, I also had a small load of hand washing to do (lest I be left wearing underwear for the third time).
The beds in the Hotel Novotel were the best in Peru, as we were going to have 2 full nights there. Yippeee!
Chavin de Huantar
Another early awakening...again by choice. We had chosen to wake up extra early so that we could get breakfast and grab a seat for Professor Rick's bonus talk. We thought we were being stupid, only to find that once again we had made the correct choice.
You see, this was Professor Rick's chance to shine...and his lecture was dazzling. This bonus lecture was on his work at Chavin de Huantar and the work being done there. What made the lecture so amazing was the breadth covered. Professor Rick delved into the technical aspects (complex, accurate 3D measuring, modeling) and how these technical aspects really enabled one to understand the sight (various construction periods, solar alignment possibilities, methods of site use, ceremonial impact, etc). He also covered the social impact(s) the town was faced due to the popularity of the site. In his words, there are many "stakeholders" (archaeologists, towns-people, governments, grad students) in a project this large.
I won't bore you with much more (go to his site), but I will add that the talk was made even more relevant by the fact that Professor Rick was planning to leave the next day to head back to Chavin de Huantar.
Following the talk, some of us had chosen to sign up for the optional tour of sites around Cusco. Shortly after boarding the bus, we saw clear evidence of a knock-off of the NGSI symbol (okay, Rambaldi symbol for your Alias hacks).
Tambo Machay (TOC)
We took the bus as if we were headed towards Ollantaytambo again (the road felt familiar), but this time stopped short at Tambo Machay. This particular tambo was built [over][on][a] spring and the rumor had it that if you drank the water you would be forever young (or at least dreadfully sick with giardia. I decided to at least touch the water, but scoffed at the thought of drinking it. Tambo Machay has some great water works as well. From the cut stone wall at the back flows one channel, which then splits into two channels at the lower level. "They" (notice it's always a "they"...is it the government, the scientists, the bloggers, the judges) aren't quite sure where the spring water source is located. "They" even went as far as dying the various springs to attempt to locate the source--no luck.
Anyway...Tambo Machay was "just another ruin" for us by this point (would have been more awe inspiring if we had seen it prior to Machu PIcchu) and it was cold (even in the sun), so we didn't spend much time there.
Sacsayhuaman & Warachicuy Festival (TOC)
Next stop....Sacsayhuaman (pronounced "sexywoman"). Only we couldn't quite get to where we intended to go because there was a monster traffic jam and evidently a ginormous festival that none of our tour guides were prepared for. As a result, we had to walk the final bit to the massive fortifications at the head of Cusco. This wasn't a problem, but we definitely stood out like a sore thumb. I bet there wasn't a single tour group (other than our own) who had chosen that crazy day to head to Sacsayhuaman. As we were walking, the smell of local cooking filled the air (made me hungry, but not hungry enough to risk all-day-in-the-sun raw chicken.
As we approached the fort, we realized that this was to be no ordinary tour. First off, we would clearly not have free roaming access to the amazing megalithic cut stone work. The largest of the stones is said to be 30 tons and cut on numerous sides. However, what really made this day special was the annual Warachicuy Festival. We had struck modern day inca gold!
Sure, we were foreigners pushing through a crowd of thousands of people. We were completely overwhelmed and absolutely out of our element(s). My head was spinning and I clung to my camera (desperately afraid of pickpockets and completely without cause). There was just so much activity at this amazing Inca structure--the place was alive.
This national-geographic-esque photo of several teenagers clearly deserves it's own line.
Turns out (as explained by our Cusco-native guides), the Warachicuy festival is like the most elaborate school play you have ever seen. All of the local school boys participate (the girls are off partying somewhere) and it consists of a series of staged mock-battles. Ruben had trouble explaining, but although it is staged and scripted, the participants are not quite sure who the victorious school/team will be. The announcer calls the "play-by-play" of the reenacted battles and in every head to head battle an army wins. In the end, the winning "army" picks the new Inca. We asked Ruben if this new Inca was like a popularity contest (think homecoming queen/king), but he said "no" (yeah....right).
Sacsayhuaman is a sort-of valley. On one side is the ramparts of the megalithic stone walls. On the other side are geologically slip-cut granite domes. The Warachicuy festival takes place smack in the middle. Proof that it is like a giant school play: all of the parents and families were sitting up on one side of the valley looking down on the events and cheering and clapping.
On the other side, above the megalithic ramparts, schoolchildren dressed as condors flapped their wings (arms) in quasi-unison.
With some effort, we pushed past and around the main (fenced off to force you to sit up high to watch) "battleground". On the other side we came across a gigantic green snake with hundreds of legs with me grinning like a dingaling. Here's another shot showing the enormity of the stones ("megalithic") with the Condors in the background.
The one annoying thing about the festival was the number of people trying to get you to take a photo of them (and their cute alpacas) so that they can charge you a dollar. I am not a fan of in-your-face capitalism, so I waited until they weren't looking and snagged this photo for free.
We were getting near the other side of Sacsayhuaman (where our short bus awaited us) and saw the beginnings of yet another amazing spectacle. These young guys in yellow (probably "too young to battle") were preparing to storm the ramparts with their Inca (rainbow) flags. As we boarded the bus, they began their run up the stone levels (along side the condors) and I grabbed this wide angle keeper shot of Sacsayhuaman.
And with that, our bus tour came to completion. What a wonderful happenchance.... My advice to those of you reading this: If you are ever in Cusco in the middle of September, try to see the Warachicuy Festival at Sacsayhuaman. 'Nuff said.
Lunch and Shopping (TOC)
Our bus got back to the hotel and (drum roll please) we had a whopping 3 hours before our next activity. This was our chance to find a chicharia of some repute. At last...a chance to chum the chicha. We got Ruben to draw us a map of the local Chicharia (to make a long story short, the people who did end up going there found out that the chicharia did NOT have any chicha. They were out of chicha but had some gallon-sized pink drink that cost a whopping 3 soles).
We opted instead to take a friend's recommendation and hit the Inca Grill at the Plaza de Armas. Seeing as it was a Sunday, the Plaza was still closed to traffic (they have a parade there every Sunday). We strolled around the plaza and (caught one parade) and, after a revolution-and-a-half, found ourselves seated outside the repudiated Inka Grill. I was in luck, guinea pig was on the menu! Even if I was unable to cross off Chicha, I would at least be able to remove Guinea Pig from the culinary check list.
Well, the Guinea Pig was absurdly overpriced ($20USD!!!!) and tasted like (drum roll) chicken. Well, that's not quite true, it tasted like rosemary. In fact, all that I could taste was rosemary. It was a very difficult meal (like eating quail) with too many small bones and not much meat. Steph even had a small bite (enough to count against the checklist of items) of the little critter. Advice: I would skip the Inka Grill. The food was not all that wonderful and we later found out we were charged 4X over the going rate for a lunch in Cusco. In fact, two of our tour mates had gotten themselves a four-course lunch for a combined total of $10USD.
We did manage to gather some interesting stories from our hour of lunch on the plaza. First off, sitting outside and eating lunch on the Plaza de Armas is a "bad" idea. You can expect to get hussled/conned/approachedformoney at least once every 30 seconds. By the time the same kid came around for the third time we were getting a little bit testy. We learned to say "nogracias" three times fast without making eye contact (this is the secret signal to shoo).
A couple of interesting side stories from lunch. As we were sitting there (trying to enjoy a peaceful lunch and people watch) we were constantly being accosted by all sorts of "ruffians". Most of them were children. At least 1/3 of them were trying to sell postcards of Cusco. One particular ploy (original at first, but it soon got old after the 4th child attempted to work it) was for the kid to show a postcard of a sad looking young girl and say "Me sista...she no food...she hungry...uno soles?". Our response was a non-eye-contacting "nogracias-nogracias-nogracias". What made this "me sista" ploy funny (yes, I said funny) was that the 4 different kids evidently had the same starving sister on the same 5x7 postcard.
There were also bands playing for money and "art" dealers and genuine rolexes and you name it. The winner of "the best lunchtime ruffian" goes to one enterprising postcard dealer (I think had originally tried "me sista" on us the first go-around) who showed us postcards and said "one million dollars". Seeing a bright young kid, I immediately bartered back "no...2 million". The price raised from there and eventually the both of us agreed that the postcard was worth no more than 25 million dollars.
Post lunch we had a little time to kill before having to meet the group for the walking tour of Cusco. It was a gorgeous day, and Steph smiles to prove it. We decided to walk up towards the 13-sided stone in one of the Inca Walls (we couldn't find it) and then into the artisan area San Blas of Cusco. We needed to land some alpaca stuff (perhaps a gimp mask or two) and some shirts. I had my heart set on finding a soccer jersey from the home team (specifically, one that said "Burros" on the back), but I was woefully disappointed to only find beer-sponsored jerseys (lame). For all I knew, the Burros didn't even have a logo (other than Cusquena Beer) or mascot (drunk fans).
Steph did manage to find herself a nice alpaca/wool blanket, and I found some amazing pottery (at a price that is simply too low to imagine). I picked up a one-of-a-kind ceramic penguin with a black fire-glaze for my aunt for less than the price of a sandwich. Beautiful piece. I would have gotten her a larger penguin, but I was worried enough about transporting the piece home regardless (as it is, the beak broke....sad).
Walking Tour of Cusco: The Cathedral (TOC)
With our bags dropped off at the hotel, we met our group on the steps of the main cathedral overlooking the Plaza de Armas. Too good an opportunity to let Steph hog all of the sun, so I stepped in for my own glamor shot. Every good plaza needs at least 2 cathedrals, and Cusco's Plaza de Armas does not dissapoint. Looking towards the other cathedral (from the steps of the main one) I'm as scruffy as ever.
The tour of the Cusco cathedral was amazing and due to anal-retentive rules, I have not a single photo to share with you. Some of the highlights in bullet form for ya:
The Cori Cancha (coricancha, qorikancha..etc) (TOC)
From the cathedral, we proceed down "the alley of the smallest stone". As you can see from the tilted walls, it is classic Inca built with spanish structures atop. It wouldn't be "the alley of the smallest stone" without just cause, now would it?
We were walking towards the Cori Cancha, the Inca Capital's temple-of-the-sun at the very heart (well, genitals, actually) of Cusco's puma-like form. With the afternoon lighting as beautiful as it was, I couldn't resist taking a picture of the scarred (school children + lime + school pride) hillside surrounding Cusco.
The Inca built their capital (Cusco, duh) in the shape of a Puma. As we noted earlier, Sacsayhuaman is somewhere at the head (the teeth some say). The Plaza de Armas is in the belly (and since so many transactions and things occur in the digestive track, it made sense to put the main plaza areas there as well.) Urin, or lower, Cusco is where the two rivers meet and flow outwards...and this is the bowels of the puma. So what about the Cori Cancha--the very center of the Inca (and alien) empire? Well, it seems fit to argue that the continued survival of an animal "springs forth" from its loins (or something like that). For the Inca empire to continue to grow and rise in power it needed to to disseminate its power from a centrally erected structure in all it's rigid-as-stone might. Basically, the Cori Cancha was built in the "groinal region" of the Puma--more to the point, the Cori Cancha was the genitals of the Inca's mighty puma-shaped city.
So, when the spaniards decided to decimate the Inca, take all their gold, rip apart their social structure and inflict small pox upon them (all in the name of conquest and good fun) they couldn't rightly let the main structure at the heart (errr...loins) of the Inca empire stand untouched. Nor were they successful in tearing down the Inca-built walls (entirely unsuccessful...lack of manpower, willpower, know-how or all three).
The punchline: the Spaniards built a dominican temple right on top of the Cori Cancha. Yup, the Spaniards put a holy catholic structure on the Puma's wee-wee. "Oooops". They essentially took down the outer walls and then built on top of the structure as if it was a pre-laid foundation. They surrounded the interior structures of the Cori Cancha so that others could not see them (and think the dominican order all mighty, etc etc).
Well, turns out the dominicans gave up trying to tear down those interior cancha buildings and instead put them to use. They painted the stones white and put up snapshots of jesus and his pals. When arhaeologists (in the last 50 years I believe) were finally allowed inside the dominican grounds, they found the most wonderfully preserved Inca structures imaginable. Pull down some pictures, scrape a little paint off and below they found the beautiful black basalt cut stones perfectly fit.---no, make that exactingly fit.
At one point, they (the dominicans, not the archeologists) attempted to use dynamite to blast a cancha wall apart. Maybe dynamite wasn't made as good as it is now, but it didn't do the trick. However, it did expose how exacting these stones were cut. You'll note here that not only are the stones perfectly fitting on the outside, they are also perfectly fitting on the inside. You got that right, nobody would ever have seen a draft angle or a small gap where the stones met internally, but the Incas clearly had to satisfy Aliens with x-ray vision, and to do this they had to cut the stones perfectly on ALL 6 SIDES. No joke....why would I joke about Aliens with x-ray vision anyway.
Rumor (and some sketches by a Spanish dude a long time ago) tell of the Cori Cancha containing vast amounts of gold (in deference to the sun god). The outer wall had a gold ribbon (kinda like barbed wire) ringing the top. There were giant gold gold plates hung from special cut stones (note all the hang-holes for a very heavy item). The central courtyard was filled with golden animals (like an well-funded artist's conception of Noah's Arc). Obivously, by the time we showed up (September, 2005) all of these wonderful items had "gone missing".
Here's an exterior view (from another angle) of the Dominican structure sitting directly atop the profoundly superior Inca stonework.
We also received another dynamic explanation of the structure from our guide, Ruben, while Professor Rick looked on. Together, they were explaining how the walls of the interior cancha buildings were slanted outwards in order to help support the weight of the roof. However, the outermost wall of the Cori Cancha was (in a typical Inca fashion) slanted out towards the bottom on both sides. Since the inner cancha buildings shared the outer perimeter wall (and an inward slant on an inside room was not an option), the Incas were presented with a challenge--how to achieve the strong outer wall and support the roof at the same time. This presented the Inca with a problem I made sure to take a photo for you to show how the Inca gradually varied the wall angle to solve this very problem. In the foreground, the perimiter wall is slanted outwards, but as the wall progresses to the background, you can see the slant becoming vertical as it meets up with the interior cancha building. Brilliant AND subtle, I say!
Since you've gotten this far in the megablog, I also figured that you deserved yet another fine example of why the Inca's kicked ass. Just look at that cut stone work! Shame on the spaniards for destroying a people that could work stone like that--even if it was in the name of conquest and good fun (and I'm all for fun).
As beautiful as the black basalt cut stone is, it is evidently very fragile, too. Unlinke the granite in the high country, the black basalt prefers not to hold a sharp edge. So, what do you do if you accidentally break an edge on a stone that's already been cut perfectly? Answer: simply plug the hole.
The dominican temple never ceased to amaze (well worth the price of admission!). They put a stone down in one cancha building so that you could sight down the windows. You'll note that (in spite of my poor photography), the windows are all perfectly plumb.
Well, it was getting near time to leave, but with the sun slowly setting and few people about, I grabbed with wonderful (i.e. artsy) shot of an interior hallway. You can see the domincan-incan fusion going on here.
Afternoon in Cusco (TOC)
After the Cori Cancha, we were cut loose for a precious few hours of shopping prior to a dinner-time engagement with the group. Excited, we all trooped back to the Plaza de Armas (to get our bearings). The sun was low in the sky and the lighting was excellent, making for a perfect time to catch the Cusco Cathedral with the azure blue sky and marshmellow clouds. Well, maybe not marshmellow per se, but the lighting really was beautiful at that time. Nothing like a sun flare over a plaza (at 11,000 feet) to make you appreciate a city.
So, Steph and I began walking through the San Blas area of Cusco. We were looking for presents, alpaca gimp gear and blankets and gloves and pottery and you-name-it-oh-my. Before the sun had a chance to close out the day, I found it mirthy that the only place I had managed to see the Inca sign for snake was on utility covers!
I must say, we had a grand time wandering around Cusco. We felt entirely safe and were envious that we would not have more time to try all the wonderful restaurants that we passed by. The city (in spite of the dangerously tiny smog-filled streets) is absolutely charming in the afternoon! The shopkeepers were quite friendly, even when we showed up in the middle of a Cusco Donkey football/soccer game.
Lecture & Dinner that evening (TOC)
By this point in the trip, my brain was mush. Not only was it full, overloaded, overextended and bedazzled by all the marvelous learnings, it was tired. We were off the trail (the hard part done) and were feeling the sleep deprivation. The point I'm trying to make is that I don't remember much about this last lecture. I think it was more of an open Q&A relating to specifics of the Inca downfall. For instance, why were 100 spaniards able to wipe out a culture millions of people strong in approximately 4 years? What happened after the conquest? What motivated these spaniards to go to Peru and "have a good time"? etc. This was our last lecture by Professor Rick, and we all drank (guzzled) down Pisco Sours and thanked him. He was off the next morning to Chavin de Huantar and we were heading back to Lima.
But before then, we had a wonderful goodbye dinner for those who wished to join in. The meal was inside Cusco's Museo de Arte Precolombiano at the MAP Cafe and a short walk away from our hotel. In the courtyard of the museum they had set up a box-frame with glass walls and shoehorned seating for 50. Our party took up nearly half of the seating and was responsible for 95% of the noise. The food was tremendous and the wine and beer were tasty, too. The group had the opportunity to swap stories and drink--a great combination for sure. I recommend this place (and I'll post the name when i figure out where it was).
We all retired for the night (although some went out to party) and repacked our bags yet again. Tomorrow was yet another early day boarding a bus and heading to the Cusco airport. I was finally off of the Diamox (and not feeling bad at all) but was still definitely feeling my stomach. There were rumors of a transit strike schedule (yes, they schedule these things) for the next morning. Rumors spread fear, and we were all afraid we'd be stuck in Cusco for an additional 48 hours. Fear or not, sleep was required, and we ended the day as tired as ever--we'd rest up after this vacation was over.
Avoiding the Cusco transit strike (TOC)
Before we could get to Lima, we had to get out of Cusco first. Seriously.
Our flight was leaving at sometime around 9am that morning and it turns out the transit strike was schedule 30 minutes prior to our departure that morning. The transit strike was planned to last 48 hours and we were worried. Would we be able to get out of Cusco? Would we be able to get around in Lima? Would we be able to get to the airport in Lima and catch our international flight back home? So many questions and very few answers.
On the back of all of the taxi cab windows were sprawlings (couldn't translate, but probably something like "fight the big-man" "power to the cabbies" and such). The transit strikes protest the high cost of gas and the high taxes on gas. We all boarded our long-bus and as we drove towards the airport we saw taxi cabs lining the street. The cabbies were all standing by their cabs in no hurry to move whatsoever. I imagine that by 9am, the taxis get moved into the street, effectively blocking all other through-traffic.
One thing was certain, this strike was a serious thing. At various intersections, cops in riot gear lined the streets. On our bus there were murmors about rock throwings and people pushing buses over. There were already some streets blocked off by mid-size and large rocks. Lots of people were standing about, too.....waiting. There was an odd calm-before-the-storm feeling in the air.
When we arrived at the airport, the nervous chatter aboard the bus increased. The airport gates were locked and it appeared that our bus was not going to be allowed inside. Some clever talking (and police-officer convincing) made it apparent that this bus-full of white people had no interest in transit strikes and intended to use the airport for lawful purposes only.
We disembarked and got into line for ticket check in. The guides snagged some porters and paid them to haul our bags inside (spoiled = us). Oh, and remember that photo-snapping guy from day 2. Somebody must have tipped him off or something, because he met our bus and sold several photos to various group members! Amazing entrepreneurship!
That was it for Cusco. Sure, some time was spent waiting at the airport (but this is universal to all airports) and the plane flight had the funny movies again. Time for Lima...
Lima snapshots (TOC)
Wanna know what the first sites look like as you are pulling out of the Lima airport. Well, here's a view from our bus as we were pulling out of the LIma airport. This was our last day in Peru and we were headed to the Sonesta El Olivar (the same one as our first day) to establish a temporary home base. After a group lunch we were scheduled for a bus tour of Lima.
En route to teh El Olivar, I grabbed a few fun photos. Like this random street scene. Or this shot of a walk-up hardware store. On the way between the airport and our hotel, there were a lot of chicken restaurants....most of them extremely popular at about 11:00pm. Couldn't resist taking a picture of the random signage (helps distinguish countries) like this example where a lot of yellow and red are put together in a very not-see-this-in-america-way.
Best of all were the number of places for buying fuzzies.
We arrived at the El Olivar and were surprised to find out that Leslie (our SAA associate) in all her free time had put together a quick slide show on her iBook. Leslie had been carrying a nice SLR around the entire time and had snapped a ton of great photos. What a treat!!!
Following the slideshow, we were treated to an amazing lunch spread at the hotel. All sorts of goodies and tasties and dishes. Typical buffet....not enough plate space and way too many options. And just to spoil us further, we also got a short Q&A section with a diplomat to Peru. Another treat!
Bus Tour of Lima (TOC)
I'll just go on the record to say that a bus tour after this many sleepless days (and a hike on a trail, for instance) is a bad idea. Unfortunately, when your tour guide is a little unengaging (shall we say) matters only become worse. We got to see a lot of things on the tour (as you'll see), so it was worthwhile in that sense.
First stop was the Plaza de Amour, the same place we had visited on our first day. This time, camera in hand, we were ready to take pictures. And, oh look, there I am in the Plaza de Amour looking like a dork. The cool thing about the plaza is the massive statue of the couple kissing. Never find something like that in America...I guarantee it.
The walls surrounding the Plaza de Amour were put together by art students with donated materials from a local ceramics factory. They are amazing and include countless names of fictional (or perhaps real) lovers. There are quotes and sayings as well. My favorite piece of the wall can be found on the southern end of the Plaza...where a love triangle is immortalized in ceramic.
Heading along on our bus tour, there was the opportunity for more street scenes-- like this funkadelic store. There were also a couple of fun signs telling cabbies to lay off the horns. Steph also got a great window scene of this chef school in downtown Lima. And of course, another random street scene.
Our next stop--Lima's Plaza de Armas and the Lima Cathedral. Once again, no photos inside the cathedral. The cathedral in Lima rests in stark contrast to the cathedral in Cusco....dark, massive, forboding, cold, catholic. The bones (supposedly) of Pizarro were located in the cathedral in a very short box. The box was extra short 'cause the head was in its own box. The story on the murals in Lima was more glorifying of the Spaniards than those in Cusco.
Leaving the cathedral, we walked towards the San Francisco Monastery in Lima. But first, I had to get this shot of the water canon vehicle that has taken permanent residence outside the president's palace. Approaching the monastery, I had no idea what to expect, but I was sure happy to be walking and not half-drowsing in the bus. The plaza in front of the monastery is filled with pidgeons and kids and kids chasing pidgeons.
Now the inside of the monastery is a diamond in the rough. Well, actually it's more like a diamond that was re--buried and didn't have enough money to get cleaned proper-like. There were so many cool things inside the monastery, that I just had to take lots of photos so that I could bore you with them. First up, the massive dome with this intricate wood criss-cross pattern....a tough shot without a flash. Second, another flashless shot of this musty smelling harry-potter-esque library (Steph's head made the perfect tripod). Out on the second floor courtyard there were some paintings that had sadly turned black due to environmental exposure. So, instead I took this picture looking through a courtyard pillar out to the iron cross on top of the hill above.
The other great thing about the San Francisco Monastery is the catacombs. Once again, no flash, but I got a couple of shots for you, like this one of one of the catacomb corridors. Now it's kind of dark and disturbing, but the franciscans cleaned up the catacombs years back and rearranged all of the skeletal pieces in interesting ways. This pit of skulls (no joke) is at the center of the catacomb deep below.
And since the art is definitely quechuan, the obligatory Last Supper portrait has all the great Quechuan features. Once again, no flash (thanks Steph for the head-tripod), but you can see the guinea pig in the center and the chicha mugs and the limes and all the other things.
To sum up the bus tour, the San Francisco Monastery was my favorite part of the tour and also the most disheartening. Such a beautiful collection of art and inlaid floors and vaulted ceilings yet no means by which to support and maintain itself. So, if you are ever in Lima, be sure to visit the Monastery and do your part to support the diamond in the rough.
Wrapping it Up (TOC)
That evening, after the bus tour, we all met for one last time for dinner. We had reserved the upper floor of a nearby restaurant for drinks and dinner. Good times, some party games and hangin' out with da' folks for one last time. I couldn't think of a better way to wrap up an amazing trip to a great country!!
One last Pisco Sour, and we were on the bus for our final ride to the airport. The expected group-wide sadness of the end-of-a-journey began to descend. Kristin was nominated (chosen?) to create a shirt design for the group and we were told to expect a call for group photos. Periods of silence interspersed the laughter and we said goodbye and thanks to those around us.
At the airport, the group began to splinter all too quickly. A few smattered goodbyes and the crazy check in process followed by the quest for stamps followed by getting through customs followed by paying the exit tax. Inside, and at the gate, Steph and I had a little time to wander around the duty free shops and pick up a few final gifts for friends.
And then we sat quietly waiting for the plane...just a few of us now. We were completely exhausted, drained, wasted and pisco-soured-out. It's always depressing to close out an amazing time with brand new friends, but all good things must end in time and it was time for our vacation (sans sleep) to come to an end. Any of y'all reading this...hope to meet up with y'all again on future SYAE trips.
I don't even remember boarding the plane and sitting down. Somewhere in there I dozed off....sleeping in an environment more testing than a sleeping bag on rocky ground (an airplane seat with a poor headrest). I was zonked and we were en route to Atlanta. There was an obnoxious crying baby on board, but nothing that my earplugs couldn't handle.
In Atlanta, we had to pass through customs. The drug sniffing beagle gave my bags a good onceover (I was glad that the coca-tea smell exuding from our pores wasn't enough to cause us problems). On the other side of customs it was a sudden rush to the bathroom and one final GI-tract explosion (turns out the GI issues would continue for another week as my stomach figured things out). A lunch at the Atlanta airport Chili's and then we boarded another plane headed for San Francisco. Don't remember much else...but somehow we made it home. It took over a week to unpack and dare to deal with washing the ultra-nasty trail clothes.
As I finish out this megablog--almost exactly 3 months since we got back--I am very glad that I took the plunge and signed up. Prior to the trip, i was nervous about the challenge, anxious about the unknown and scared of too many things to count. Would I go to Peru again? Yes, especially Cusco and Machu Picchu. Would I hike the Inca Trail again? Probably not, there are too many people on the trail as it is...too many for me to feel the need (or the right) to take a second swing at it (ask me again 10 years from now). Would I travel with SYAE again? Hell yes...the trip arrangments, the people, everything was awesome. Cherished and unforgettable! Who needs sleep, anyway?
Looking back at the Introduction to this whole thing, a few last minute thoughts come to mind. Packing for trekking and weight and an unkown environment was a lesson in insane day-to-day organization involving a few very large spreadsheets. The gear required (to get the weight down) plus the trip costs came out to be a pretty shiny penny, but definitely worth it! The food was tasty and offerred a great variety of flavors and textures. I wish I had not gotten that chest cold (or whatever it was) early on, for I would have liked to determine my altitude susceptibility better (without resorting to Diamox). Speaking of Chest Colds, that DayQuil was a total lifesaver those first couple of days on the trail. Immodium was the life save the last couple of days on the trail. And finally, although we didn't ever need it, the travel insurance and the scanning of our important documents definitely helped us sleep better at night!
I had a great time, and am glad that the both of us together took >700 photos (not nearly enough IMHO). It has also been my pleasure to share the unabashed set of experiences we encountered while on our excursion...for in the sharing, I too have marveled at recalling some of the things we accomplished.
Special thanks to Steph and Susi for all of their editing help! In spite of their valiant efforts to set me straight, I know there are still mistakes in here, but at least it's clean enough to read!
According to Paranoid Planet, the dogs in Peru are mistreated, malnourished and downright vicious. To make matters worse, Paranoid Planet claims they are all infested with rabies and you have to throw rocks at them to make them go away.
What I found was something a little more real and a little less paranoid. Sure, the dogs are malnourished, but they don't appear to be mistreated and they definitely were not vicious. You see, vicious dogs don't get handouts, and these dogs were hungry an searching for handouts. Dogs are not stupid, and they must have learned long ago to "play nice and cute" and reap the rewards. Backpackers carry food and energy bars, and dogs love energy bars.
I found myself taking pictures of these dogs....for they had as much character as the worn walls around the towns. I took enough pictures to piece together this little bonus section. Enjoy.
I'll do it in bullet form for ya':
March 3, 2008