Lost City of the Incas

There are two options to get to the top of the mountain that holds up Machu Picchu- the rather expesnive bus or hundreds of steep stairs leading up the side. I once again chose the easy route. Planning to get up at 5am but accidentally “sleeping in” until 5:45am, I managed to arrive at 6am at the bus stop. The line already snaked around the block, but there was nothing for it but to grab a ticket and get in line. I made it up the mountain just as the sun crested the horizon, throwing an amazing soft light across the ruins and the valley. Ahhh, this is what all my efforts had been for; the hype was justified. The sheer cliffs and the intricate architecture were even more amazing in person. Even with the heavy crowds and the expense and my still aching feet, I was absoltely enchanted by the site.

Survey point
Survey point

It is apparently quite common for the ruins to be shrouded in fog and clouds first thing in the morning, but the travel gods were smilling on me and I got to see the place in glorious morning light. In the end I spent over 7 hours wandering around, even through a heavy rain storm that rolled in during the early afternoon. I had come prepared with a poncho and snacks and water and even a novel, so I would wander for a bit and then sit and do some people watching and then wander some more. It took quite a while to absorb that I was actually within the grounds of Machu Picchu, so I am glad I took my time. After heading back to Aguas Calientes I had some late lunch and then caught the train back to Cuzco. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Sunrise on the mountain
Sunrise on the mountain
The road up
The road up
A segment of the Inca Trail
A segment of the Inca Trail
I picture the Inca as hobbit-sized based on their doorways
I picture the Inca as hobbit-sized based on their doorways
Beautiful! Gorgeous! Wish you were here! (sorry for the obscure Meg Ryan quote but I couldn't resist)
Beautiful! Gorgeous! Wish you were here! (sorry for the obscure Meg Ryan quote but I couldn’t resist)
The drawbridge.
The drawbridge.
Look, Ma! Ancient ruins!
Look, Ma! Ancient ruins!

Salkantay Part 2: Welcome to the Jungle

Rolling out of bed on day 3 of the hike took all of the willpower I posessed. Everything hurt- my legs, my arms, my back; and to top it off there had been a heavy rain overnight so my tent fly and ground sheet were soaked. Luckily the tent itself didn’t leak, but the wet gear was going to add some very unneeded weight to my pack. Asking around, I found out that the next two stops were actually in villages so there would be food available to purchase. With that I ditched the last of my pasta and sauce and just kept a few granola bars and trail mix for the rest of the trip. 

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A view of the trail to Colcapampa camp that I finished in the dark. Yes the hill is as steep as it looks.
One of the many streams feeding into the river I was following.
One of the many streams feeding into the river I was following.

The hike brought me further down in elevation, toward the river valley and eventually alongside it. The vegetation transitioned into full-on rainforest- a small offshoot of the Peruvian Amazon region. My pack felt just as heavy as yesterday, despite ditching much of my food, and my legs felt like wet noodles. I reached a small settlement and found they sold gatorade, of all things. I downed a 710mL bottle in one sitting and kept going.

Eventually I came upon a couple of men working in a smoldering field (the most efficient way to clear out vegetation for spring planting is to burn it out). I asked one of the men how far it was to La Playa, the nearest town. He told me 3 hours and then asked about the sleeping bag I had strapped to my pack- did I want to sell it? I thought about it for a few moments- I was now at an elevation where the temperature would likely stay pretty warm at night and the final night of my trek would be spent in the town of Aguas Calientes beneath Machu Picchu, so I was unlikely to need it in the near future. The downside was it was a quite nice North Face bag rated to -9, and there is no way I would get the amount it was worth. In the end I agreed, if only to give my poor legs some relief; we negotiated for a while and I ended up selling it for the equivalent of $40. 

Precarious bridge with a sheer drop? All in a day's work on the Salkantay trek.
Precarious bridge with a sheer drop? All in a day’s work on the Salkantay trek.
Waterfall!
Waterfall!

With my load considerably lightened, I continued toward La Playa, a rough little town in the middle of the jungle, but also an oasis of civilization after the washed out path and sheer wet slopes of the the day. From La Playa I was able to stow away on my friend Lucy’s tourist bus to get to the final destination of the day, Santa Theresa. It is generally agreed that walking to Santa Theresa along the road is both boring and sketchy as hell, owing to the narrow winding road clinging to the mountainside and the speeding traffic. My original plan had been to bypass Santa Theresa and take an alternate route called Llactapampa which would give me an amazing view of Machu Picchu as I approached over a low mountain. As it was I just couldn’t bring myself to tackle another 800m up and down. I would see Machu Picchu close up soon enough.

Arriving in Santa Theresa, I found out that the tour group was heading to some hot springs down the road. The bus driver graciously allowed me to join in for a small fee. The hot water was AMAZING. After 3 days of exhaustion and rain and dirt, I could have stayed in that pool for days. As it was, I Iasted about 90 minutes before I started to look like an overcooked perogie. The one tragedy was that I left my much beloved hat at the pool. Alas!

For the night I borrowed Lucy’s coat as a backup blanket and wrapped it, along with most of my clothes around my body. The rain kicked in full force overnight, but I was surprisingly comfortable. Not my most restful sleep but not bad considering I was sleeping in a tent in the rain in the Peruvian jungle. 

Walking along the river.
Walking along the river.
Freedom train!
Freedom train!

In the morning I packed up my wet tent, gave Lucy her coat back and walked into town. My feet were in a horrid state by this point and I decided to end the hike a little early. Traditionally the trek ends with a walk along the railway tracks to Aguas Calientes, but I decided to splurge the $20 (from my sleeping bag proceeds) and catch the train. I am now sitting in a hotel room that costs twice my daily budget ($100) with hot water and white towels. My tent and gear are hung up all over the room to dry and I am watching Big Bang Theory with Spanish subtitles. A small part of me is sad that I didn’t finish the whole hike, but if my feet had gotten infected, that would have put a damper on the next several weeks of my trip and that was not a risk I was willing to take. Tomorrow: MACHU PICCHU!

Salkantay Part 1 : Trail Mix and Coca Cola

As I write this I have made it over the mountain, definitely worse for wear. I simultaneously overestimated my altitutde tolerance and underestimated how bad my stomach bug was. I wanted a more dramatic trip to Machu Picchu, but damn, that was a rough couple days. Still two more to go, so we shall see what I say at the end of this beastly march.

Things started out rather ominously, as I spent the night before my departure alternating between sweats and chills. I suspect the culprit was some lettuce from my BLT the day before that may have been washed with unfiltered water. With all the crap I eat from street vendors and in local markets what actually takes me down is a piece of lettuce in a touristy cafe. Seriously?

When I woke up in the morning I waited around in the hostel a bit and decided the worst of it was over so I headed out to catch a bus to the starting point of my trek in the mountain town of Mollepata. I cheated a little bit and caught a ride about halfway along the day’s trek since I had gotten a late start and was still feeling a bit ill. I was glad to cut the hiking time as the next day was going to be the big one. The start of the hike was a slow climb along a local gravel road, where I was passed by a mix of tour vans, hikers, motorbikes and mule trains. Everyone was going faster than me- my pack weighed somewhere in the range of 50lbs thanks to the winter sleeping bag I was obliged to haul with me, along with all the food, clothing and shelter I would need for the next few days. Luckily I only had to carry about 1.5 liters of water because I had brought a purifier and there were several water sources along the way.

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I rolled in to camp rather early because of my little cheat and had my camp set up by around 4 pm. This close to the equator, day and night cycles are fairly consistent seasonally, but I was technically in Peruvian winter so sunset was at 5:45pm. A lady running a little store along the main camping area offered to let me set up my tent in her yard for more security since she was worried for me travelling alone; I greatfully accepted when she also offered to let me use her washroom facilities as well. As the afternoon drew on some of the tour groups filtered in and I ran into a great gal I had met in my hostel. Lucy from Australia was almost the same age as me, and also a geologist. As I watched her guide set up the group’s after hike snacks of tea and popcorn and graham crackers, I had to admit I was slightly envious. I whipped up my pasta and had some trail mix for dessert.

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Turning in at a geriatric 8pm, I bundled into my sleeping bag and tried not to think of the next day. The night was pretty chilly, since we were at about 3900m by this point, but I stuffed all the clothes I had broght within the sleepng bag and ended up being pretty toasty in the end. The tour groups headed out pretty early, some before the sun was even up, but I lacked an alarm clock so I had to wake up the old fashioned way to the sun. I still managed to get out of camp by 7:45. This turned out to be not quite early enough, but I’ll get to that later.

The road degraded into a trail, often with a few branching sections from wandering mules and horses. The great Salkantay Mountain began to loom large on the horizon just as clouds started to gather to the west. As the route steepened, I no longer saw farms or stores but just when I thought I had climbed above the last building, a canvas shelter appeared ahead of me. Within was a small Peruvian man in traditional clothing selling assorted hanidcrafts, snacks, water, and of course, Coca Cola. I bought a water and Coke just for the novelty of it all. Here I was in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, about to scale a mountain pass, and  I find this? I guess Coke is kind of like the Internet, you can find it almost anywhere.

After my Coke break, the serious climbing started. The path inclined and zigzagged along a roaring mountain stream, often only as wide as a single mule. By the time was halfway up I was swearing like a sailor, making little curse word rap songs in my head to distract me. I finally made the summit of the pass (4600m) by about 12:30 and a lovely couple from Minnesota agreed to take my photo. Their personal guide picked up my pack as a joke and then looked a little surprised, commenting that it was likely heavier than what the porters on the Inca trail were legally allowed to carry. Awesome? Sadly the clouds had rolled in by this point so the view of the mountain or the valley were both mostly obscured. The elevation completely sapped my energy but at least I didn’t get altitude sickness. I might have had some mild hypoxia because I kept having silly thoughts like “I should totally try and run up the next switchback!” Condsidering I could barely walk with the pack and thin air, this was an odd response. After a trail mix break (I could eat little else at this point because of stomach cramps), I headed down the other side of the pass. The fog thickened to the point where visiblity was down to maybe 100m or so, but luckily the path was well worn and I had also brought a topographic map and GPS as backup.IMG_5301

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After a few hours I finally emerged out of the chilly fog and into a cloud forest. I was now following a slightly larger path descending toward a much larger river. I passed a couple tour groups along the way but none were my friend’s group, who were planning to camp at a place called Colchapampa for the night. In need of some friendly conversation, I decided to head for the same camp. Whenever I would pass a mule driver or guide I would ask how far to the next camp and would get varied responses. I had checked my own map and calculated I would reach my destination just before sunset. Turns out I forgot to account for the fact that I was descending almost 2km vertically down from the pass so the sun was going to set sooner in the valley. The other problem was that all the estimates I was getting from the Peruvians would have been wildly optimistic for someone like me.

I finally got into camp well after dark, navigating by headlamp and taking very short determined steps. By this time I had been hiking for 11 hours and 22km and was so tired from stress and lack of food and thin air that I had no desire to do anything else but lay on the grass. My feet were throbbing stones in my boots and my back felt like I had been beaten with a stick. Amazing Lucy and her friend Barbara from Brazil offered to help me set up my tent and then Lucy cooked my pasta for me, insisting that I just needed to force something into me even if it gave me cramps. She was right of course. Trail mix and Coca Cola can only get you so far (22km to be precise).

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Cusco-topia

The city of Cusco is the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, overthrown by the Spanish back in the 1500s. It is a beautiful fusion of Spanish colonial and Incan architecture. Many of the buildings still have original mortar-less stone walls from the time of Pachacutec Inka. My main problem with the city is actually it’s popularity. Machu Picchu has become such a heavily visited destination that Cusco, as the portal to the ancient ruin, has become overrun. Every corner has a tout asking if you want a tour, or to buy a painting or a massage. My favorite was a guy walking around selling peanut butter. There is plenty to see and do but I am here for one purpose: Machu Picchu. Ever since I saw it in an old National Geographic when I was 12, I have wanted to visit the mountain citadel.

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Back in the 1990s, this was a serious adventure destintion; I found an old Lonely Planet guide from 1994 once that requested that you not have campfires within the ruins as it would “damage or stain the stone walls”. Nowadays the site is highly regulated and costs have skyrocketed. People can reach Machu Picchu as a day trip from Cusco, by way of a combination of bus and train. The other popular option is to take the Inca Trail, a 4 day trek along one of the old Inca roads. To do this option I would have had to book almost a year in advance. Anyone who has met me knows that planning more than a month or two in advance in my life is pushing it.

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This left me with one of the alternative routes which would get me as far as Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town below Machu Picchu Mountain (think Banff in the jungle). I have decided to do the Salkantay trek, a 5 day hike that will lead me over a mountain pass, past the sacred Salkantay Mountain and down through a cloud forest into the Peruvian jungle and finally to Aguas Calientes. And because I want it to be a proper adventure, I have also decided to do this solo. There are plenty of tour companies that would take me as part of a trekking group, sending along an English-speaking guide and a mule train for gear, setting up my tent ahead of time each day and feeding me along the way. Way too easy, right?

IMG_5286The next few days I’m going to get together a tent and some supplies and then I will be off. Wish me luck!

Riding in Cars with Strangers

Normally when my trip gets more interesting, it’s when things have gone wrong,  like the sailboat getting stuck on rocks in Belize, or the numerous bus breakdowns in Bolivia (maybe I have a problem with “B”countries?). Anyway, for once my journey became easier AND more ineresting, though there was a small hiccup or two before that. 

I arrived in Huancayo on Monday after a dreary few days in Lima and as per usual the bus was late so my original plan to wander the town for some suitable accomadation was out the window. Stranges cities in the dark do not lend themselves to wandering. I picked a place out of the Lonely Planet and flagged down a taxi. He dropped me off in front of a large metal gate with a small sign reading “La Casa de La Abuela”; House of the Grandmother. The sign was inviting but the exterior was not. I rang the bell and waited about 5 minutes before I heard a voice on the other side call “Ola?”. I responded and the man behind the voice opened the door. Inside was a lovely courtyard with hammocks and a cat and dog come to great me. By this time it was past 10pm but the man invited me in for some coca tea and his wife appeared to say hello.

As far as I could gather with my crappy Spanish skills, they were a pair of proffesors and they ran the hostel as a hobby. They were so nice I kind of wished they were actually my grandparents. I was shown to the dorms and I realized that I had the place to myself. Not bad for $12.  

The next morning I went wandering the town and hiked up to a cool rock formation way up in the hills among the local farms. Forgetting I was at 3600m above sea level, I got a little light-headed before tracking down a bodega that sold water. As I walked back to town, an old man started following me and when I said hello he started chatting with me in very fast Spanish. I am pretty sure he was just asking how I liked the rocks, but I am still not sure.

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Early Wednesday morning, I bid farewell to my proffesors and caught a taxi to the train station. Though it was recommended to me to take the bus, I have always had a soft spot for trains, so at 6:30am we pulled out of the station headed toward the mountain town of Huancavelica. The train isn’t exactly what you might call a modern piece of engineering (Ha, PUN!). The main line from Lima to Huancayo only runs as a tourist trip every two weeks during high season, but the route I took was used primarily by locals, and thus got much more punishment. It was also damn cold, sitting somewhere close to 5 degrees with no heating and a few permanently open windows. Awesome. I dosed off about 2 hours into the 3 hour journey, wrapped in my sleeping bag; when I woke up it was almost 11. Hmm. 

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I looked out the window and saw a lot of black smoke, and while it is a diesel engine, I’ve been around enough malfunctioning tractors to know happy exhaust and angry exhaust. There were several stops and starts while I was sleeping and a few more after, but we eventually rolled into town 5 hours after departure.

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Huancavalica was everything I wanted it to be. A gorgeous town with mountains all around and the streets filled with locals selling everything from oranges to ponchos. And once again not another backpacker in sight. I have a feeling if this place was slightly more accessable, it would be overrun. Not that I’m complaining- the lack of tourists was also a great way to bring back some of my Spanish skills I had forgotten- the last person I met who spoke English was back in the Lima bus station.

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Reading up on the area, I realized that I wouldn’t have to backtrack to Lima to get to Cusco (and Machu Picchu) if I caught a bus at 4:30am to Ayacycho and continued south-east from there. Even more off the beaten track, the guide book warned that it would be a gruelling 12 hour trip with few paved roads. Sounds like fun! 

I dragged myself out of bed at 3:15am as the hotel clerk had warned me to be at the departure point early because the driver’s schedue was rather fluid sometimes. Failing to find a taxi, I made my way to the main square, hoping to have better luck there. The place was well lit and as I got closer, two police officers approached. They asked me where I was headed and I explained I was going to another square where I was to meet my bus. They misunderstood and thought I was going to walk the whole way in the dark, and insisted on accompanying me to my destination. Can’t go wrong with a police escort, right?  Arriving at the bus stop, they chatted with another pair of police there who agreed to keep an eye on me while I waited for my bus. On the corner there was an old lady selling some kind of breakfast drink and a young man sitting on a car next to her shouting “Ayachuco!”. He was a tout who ferried passengers to the main terminal where the bus now departed from.  

With official identification and labeled and licensed vehicle, I doubted he was here in an elaborate scheme to kidnap me but just in case I glanced over to the police officers who nodded afirmatively when I pointed to the tout. Before we left I had one of the weird breakfast drinks which was made up of hot orange juice, quinoa, and macca. The old lady kept laughing at me and I thought it was because of my Spanish, but I looked it up later and it turns out macca is supposed to be an aphrodisiac and I was about to get in a car with this young man. She was a cheeky little thing.

When we arrived at the bus station, the bus was gone, as the hotel clerk had warned me. The tout then offered to drive me to Ayacucho for double the price of the bus. My other option would be to wait in Huancavelica for another day or risk haning out in the dark bus station in the hope another bus might come along. I chose the car. He picked up a couple more late passengers and we were off. The 12 hour grueling journey turned out to be a lovely 4.5 hour cruise, as the road was now paved (though still only one lane which made some of the switchbacks entertaining). Along the way we came across a huge tour bus in the ditch and the tout (his name was Orlando), indicated the bus driver likely fell asleep at the wheel. Yet another reason I hate overnight buses.

I got to Ayacucho in the late morning just as some sort of rally was kicking off in the middle of the square. I asked three different people what was going on and got three different answers, ranging from a soccer party to a political rally.  I think it was a volunteer drive for the upcoming election, but never figured it out. There were bands and street performers and a bunch of other random stuff but all I wanted to do was sit and have a coffee. 

The more I travel, the less need I feel to go “see the sights”. There were some ruins outside of town from the ancient Wari civilization, who were rivals to the Inca, but I spent most of the day wandering and trying to plan onward travel. The next segment on my hopscotch across the central highlands was not going to be so easy as it had been so far. And to think most people just fly into Cusco from Lima in an afternoon. BORING.

Uphill

Well I wanted adventure, didn’t I? The road to Huancayo is not exactly the Trans Canada, but I thought I might mitigate some of the discomfort by booking one of the swankier buses, complete with personal tvs and meals served on tray tables at your seat. Picture the leg room of an airplane seat in first class with the food quality of economy class. At $30 for the 7 hour trip, I was not complaining.  

Things started out tame enough, as the bus accended out of the cloak of Lima’s perpetual fog and into the foothills of the Andes. We passed through several villages clinging to cliffsides along the road, which followed the valley created by the Rio(River) Rimac. I knew from my map that things got much steeper along the way, but as we got above the treeline, the sheer cliffs we drove along were pretty much the definition of vertical. It was like driving through the downtown of a major city with all the skyscrapers made entirely of stone. How they managed to build this road and its accompanying railway, is a mystery to me. I will never complain about the roads in British Columbia again.

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Things got really interesting as we ascended out of the river canyon.  At an elevation of just over 3800m we came across a car in the ditch and our courteous bus driver decided to help block traffic on the switchback while a group of enterprising locals towed the vehicle to safety. This sounds like a simple task as I describe it but the car was tipped to almost 45 degrees at the sharpest point of the switchback and the wheels along the driver’s side were barely touching the ground. 

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My personal issue with the delay was the altitude. Having come from sea level in Lima, my lungs were getting a workout like I was doing some decent cardio, though I was simply leaning back in my seat panting like an overweight shitzu.  I have been to that elevation before, but never directly from sea level, so the acclimitazation was much more dramatic.  I should be greatful the accident didn’t occur a little further up the pass; the highest pass on the road to Huancayo reaches 4843m.

After a delay of about 45 minutes we were on hour way again and eventually rolled into Huancayo in the early evening.  I caught a taxi to the charmingly named Casa de la Abuela (House of the Grandma) and I tucked more poor, oxygen-starved self in for the night. Despite the cold, I slept like the dead.IMG_5096

Arrival

And once again I am off to a distant corner of the world. I arrived in Lima around 10:30 pm and customs was surprisingly fast and well organized. I love to be pleasantly surprised when dealing with uniformed officers carrying assault weapons. I had organized a ride ahead of time with the hostel so a lovely Peruvian gentleman was waiting with a sign that had my name on it (something I have always wanted to experience- I’m just like Beyonce!).

Arriving in my hostel, I was greeted by the night clerk who spent 30 minutes showing me nearby markets and buses on the map but neglected to mention where the bathroom or my dorm room was. The place has only been open for a couple months so the furniture was sparse but that also ment new mattresses, an almost unknown luxury in the backpacking world. The only other people in my room were an Irish couple but they went immediately to sleep and left the next morning so I had the room to myself after that.

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Lima is a huge city and I was only there for a day and a half so I limited my ambitions to wandering the local neighborhood of Miraflores. The ever-present fog gave my walk a feeling like I was stuck in a dream sequence. I read that it sticks arond pretty much continuously from April to October and with that Lima was erased from my list of places to live as a trendy expat. Miraflores itself was amiable enough in a generic upscale coastal sort of way. Located along the ocean and seperated from the shore below by some rather intimidating sandstone cliffs, it is a very safe, well-to-do spot with an Apple store and dedicated bike lanes. With a few more lululemon yoga pants and some paler residents, it could pass for Vancouver on a foggy day. IMG_5038

I think a more adventurous locale is in order, wouldn’t you say? Rather than jump on the Gringo trail with all the gap year kids and retirees, I think I’ll take the tricky way into the mountains tomorrow. Onward to Huancayo!