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Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Peruvian Adventure - The Fabled Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail is said to be the most famous trek in South America and one of the top five hikes in the world.  It's 26 mile span encompasses hidden Inca ruins, jungle, snowcapped mountains, and flowing rivers.  And it's crowning achievement after four days of intense physical and mental energy?  One of the wonders of the world... Machu Picchu.  This blog post will take you through what would prove to be a transcendental experience for me. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The SAS bus pulled up at our hostel at 5:45am and we piled in with our backpacks and duffels.  After about an hour of driving we stopped for breakfast at a small store/cafe where we were also able to stockpile any final items we might have forgotten.  For us this included hand sanitizer, Agua de Florida (I will explain later) and a few other items.  I also tried chewing coca leaves like the locals.  It was gross.

We were then dropped off at the Km 82 trail marker along a raging river near a train stop - the entrance to the Inca Trail.  It was here that we traded our duffels for walking sticks and began the trek.  Here's our official Day One photo!

The first day was not too strenuous.  It was a fairly equal combo of ups and downs that slowly lifted in elevation until we reached our campsite.  Our trusty guides, Hilbert and Oscar, kept us on course with one guide in front and one bringing up the rear.  We made a lot of stops (probably every 45 minutes) for people to drink water or snack on protein bars.  At most of the stops vendors sold food and drinks.


At one of the stops we even got to try "chincha" a local purple drink made from corn.  According to Hilbert "if you drink a lot of chincha you will make a lot of babies."  I then pointed out that Oscar had downed 3/4 of the communal tasting cup.  You apparently know the chincha is ready when they put out a red flag like the one below.

I was pretty impressed at our group of hikers.  I was already in love with everyone.  Five of us seemed to hug the front while the rest embraced a more leisurely trekking pace.  The five of us that would later jokingly call ourselves "The Sexy Cinco" were Dr. Llama, Lifesaver, Lil Sass, Spider-Man and myself.  Even Hilbert had started to loosen up and told us a couple of jokes that had us rolling on the ground.

We also saw our first Inca ruin, Llactapata (yakta-pahta), which in Quechuan (the local language) means"town at a height."  Not terribly descriptive and apparently that name is shared by multiple ruins but it was really pretty!  It was discovered by Hiram Bingham, the same person who found Machu Picchu.  We also learned some other interesting things like "Hold your llamas" which means "Take it easy and enjoy yourself" and "picking flowers" which the ladies say if they need to leave the trail to pee.

After a solid six hour hike that I would liken to the difficulty of Breakneck Ridge outside of NYC, we made it to camp.  The altitude from start to finish increases about 800 ft.  Dr. Llama had secreted a bottle of scotch that we passed around the dinner table.  Meals were one of my favorite parts of this trip.  We all ate together in a little haphazard tent and the food was cooked by our camp chef.  I think we tried almost every ingredient known to Peru and tried it in an array of dishes.  My favorite dish of the evening was the chicken and rice.

Unfortunately two of our group were suffering from the dreaded upset stomach sickness known as Peruvian "MUD BUTT."  You can imagine what exactly you suffer from.  One such hiker would be so afflicted by this 24 hour sickness that I can't help but make "Mud Butt" his nickname for this blog post.

We tucked in early only to awake to screams coming from the tent next to us.  This was the night that the nickname "Spider-Man" came about as the screams were due to a spider scare inside his tent.  Like the a-hole I am I immediately burst out laughing once we realized he was screaming because of a harmless spider.  In the morning there was zero trace of his furry friend.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I woke up the next day to warm quinoa porridge with cinnamon.  If you are going to get me up at 4:30am that is the best possible way to do it.  That shit is GOOD.  We suited up for our official Day Two photo and then started what would be the hardest day of the hike... and potentially one of the hardest physical tasks I have ever done.

Day two is approximately six hours of hiking which doesn't seem like a lot until you think about the increase in altitude from 9,700 ft to 13,776 ft in 4 hours you can imagine how steep that is (1,000 feet per hour).  I definitely felt my body struggling to process enough oxygen to keep me alert and moving.  This is the day that the Agua de Florida comes into play.  Apparently if you pour a nickel-sized amount on your hands, clap three times and then breath in the liquid's vapor through your nose it helps to clear out your sinuses and makes it easier for you to breathe at high altitude.  I think it might just be BS considering I just googled it and it's listed as a cologne!  I tried it but didn't find it to help too much.  Then again I didn't have too much trouble with the altitude in the first place.

However, the final 45 minutes uphill to Warmiwañusca (Dead Woman's Pass) I spent focused on literally putting one foot in front of the other because I was on the brink of exhaustion with the sun pounded fists onto my back.  The worst part is you are walking up STAIRS.  But when you reach Warmiwañusca the feeling of exultation is undeniable (probably because you don't have any oxygen left for brain function).  You can also see a photo below of the size of packs the porters carry.  Crazy.

Warmiwañusca is the highest point of the trek and is fondly referred to as Dead Woman's Pass because the mountain range looks like a woman lying on her back.  The trail essentially crosses over her belly.  Everyone sat at the top to enjoy a well-earned Jolly Rancher but it was freezing due to the wind whipping over the crest of the pass so we quickly began our two hour descent on EQUALLY steep stairs to reach our second campsite of the trip.  Walking sticks are a DEFINITE must.

The best part about this day is not only everything you've accomplished but you end the day early (around 4pm) so we spent the rest of the afternoon having a "pool party."  There wasn't a pool obviously but we did take our sleeping pads and arrange them like lounges and drank some rum while we tanned.  We joked about how some of the people in our group had never heard of ginger candies, Emergency or Swedish fish.  Weirdos!

It was apparently the day for humorous happenings (probably again because of the lack of oxygen so everyone was acting loopy).  The first one requires a little background.  Since the start of the trip Oscar would address Lil Sass and I as "mamí" (prounounced mah-me) whenever he was trying to get our attention.  We thought this was just a term of endearment for a friend.  While hanging out in camp Lil Sass then decided to call Hilbert, "Papí," for the same reason.  Hilbert's reply was, "Maybe in a couple days!"  I started cracking up and Lil Sass looked confused.  Now sitting in front of my computer, I have consulted the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary and "mamí" is slang for "sexy baby" which explains Hilbert's reaction!  I am cracking up... again.

The other hilarious comment explains the other half of Dr. Llama's nickname (he was already a llama doctor).  When we reached Dead Woman's Pass he stopped to go through his bag which had multiple canisters of pills.  He explained that there are four levels of altitude medication.  The first three have crazy medical names.  The fourth? Viagra.  And not only that... the dosage is FIVE.  When our eyes immediately went wide he quickly said, "I would never take that!  I'd need a llama on the way down!"  I almost rolled off the cliff laughing.  It was amazing.

And last but not least...while preparing for bed that night Lil Sass asked "Why are you meowing?" to which I replied, "That was my butt."  Needless to say she vacated our tiny tent faster than I've ever seen her move.  Haha. I win.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The next morning was another 4am wake-up call featuring a toasty oatmeal breakfast.  Today would be the longest day (11-12 hours) although that includes stopping at a variety of Inca ruins along the way.  This would also prove to be the most beautiful part of the trek.  Day Three pic below!

The day started with a pretty aggressive uphill trek at quite a clip so that we would be high enough up to see the sun rise over Mt. Veronika.  Luckily, the mud butt had cleared up so the "Sexy Cinco" started to swell in numbers as they joined the front of the pack.  This immediate prompted a name change to "Wolf Pack" in honor of The Hangover (Hilbert's favorite movie).  We told him we'd try and convince the producers of the movie to have Hangover IV in Peru.  Unfortunately, "Fuddle" (so named because he was always the last one ready to go because he was busy "fuddling" about) had pretty severely twisted his ankle the day before so not all our group was as fast.

The sunrise was awe-inspiring due to both the remoteness and the vastness of the landscape.  I felt truly small.  It was unfortunately not as awe-inspiring as our three moons.  Yes, once we reached the top of one of the two passes, Spider-Man, Lil Sass and I decided to give our backside a little fresh air... just for fun.  Sorry readers... no pic!

It was probably around this time that I started to notice a strange behavior in one of "mudbutts."  This behavior is known by many as "selfie-addiction," the enjoyment derived from taking pictures of oneself with one's iPhone.  It can spread quickly too.  Thus, the nickname "Selfie" was born as this hiker would probably accrue over 100 selfie photos throughout the trip and many of the rest of us would be dragged down the rabbit hole with him.  He clearly has had this addiction for awhile as his "selfies" are some of the best I've seen.  I felt that a quick montage would show it off best.


But on a serious note, when I started yesterday's blog saying this was one of the most transcendental experiences of my life it really came from Day Three.  With the worst of the physical work behind me (I was surprisingly not sore at all!) I was able to instead focus on the natural beauty around me.

The first ruin we came across was Runkuracay (the "Egg Hut"), a small site that probably served as a watchtower for people coming over Dead Woman's Pass as well as a storehouse for supplies. 


The second ruin was Sayacmarc, a huge ruin with only one small entrance that overlooks a massive valley ("dominant town" or "inaccessible town").  There's a large "backyard" walled in stone that ends in a point so when you stand there and look out over the valley it envelopes you.


I was sitting on the rock wall in the "backyard" with Selfie, Mud Butt, Dr. Llama and Lifesaver when Lil Sass came running around the corner insisting that I move so she could get a picture sitting on the apex of the wall.  I moved out of the way and she jumped up on the rock into what was accidentally a very suggestive pose.  We all started laughing at the same time which immediately drew her attention - "What?!"  To which I struck a similar pose and said, "Look I'm doing the 'Sexy [Lil Sass]'"  This would become a running joke for the rest of the trip complete with other people in our group striking the "Sexy Lil Sass" as opportune moments. Selfie was kind enough to pose.

Dr. Llama also took a picture of just our shoes as a joke because I kept telling him from the start of the trip to "get the shoes in the picture."  So he did.

In addition to acting like jackasses we also learned that Sayacmarc was likely a religious center where travelers would stop on their pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.  After Googling I've found other accounts that it was a fortress, storehouse, etc, so my general feeling is that they just sort of make up whatever they THINK it was.  Impossible to know for sure.

Sayacmarc was quickly followed by lunch overlooking the valley and it was at this lunch that "Fuzz" received her nickname.  I was bored from drinking plain water and Lil Sass had run out of Emergency packets at this point so I went nosing around for something else.  "Fuzz" has little seltzer-like tablets that were tropical fruit flavored that she offered up.  After tossing one into my water bottle, I watched as the entire bottle exploded in bubbles that eventually subside.  She called this "fuzz" and told me that it was ready to drink "when the fuzz is gone."  Adorable. 

The post lunch trek was my favorite stretch of the trail.  As we were leaving one of my walking poles malfunctioned so I ended up falling behind the Wolf Pack.   Fuzz and Fuddle were walking slowly due to the ankle injury so they were quite a ways behind me.  Once I fixed the pole I began walking and it sort of hit me.  Here I am completely alone on what feels like the top of the world.  No power lines, no people, no animal noises... just snowcapped mountains, jungle and the silence of the air.  It was intoxicating.  I'd spent a good part of the trek moving at a fairly quick clip but this time I couldn't help but move as slowly as possible to capture and record the beauty around me into an eidetic memory of the scene.


The Wolf Pack soon realized they were down a member so at some point I came around the corner and found "la familia" taking a water break while they waited for me.  LOVE these people.  This rest stop is where we got the best group picture (in my opinion).  It's called "Poo Rock" because the area smells like alpaca poop.  GROSS.

We continued hiking up and down for the next few hours in a ritualistic, silent fashion until we reached Phuyupatamarca ("cloud-level town").  This was probably my favorite ruin.  No idea why really.  I just liked how it was perched on the edge of Earth which makes sense for a religious ceremonial site.  The entrance to the site also had a pretty funny sign that I had to share.  Apparently you are not allowed to Wash Your Vajillas here.

This also marked the end of uphill climbing for the day and the end of the Wolf Pack sticking together as the entire group sort of split off into pairs depending on how fast you can climb down massive stone steps.  Lifesaver and I ended up together for a couple of hours which resulted in a lengthy discussion about traveling the world and Lord of the Rings.

As we neared camp, we had the opportunity to pass by a set of terraces where we did a photo shoot with some very unfriendly llamas.  Granted if I was chilling on a mountain top, eating grass, checking out the view, I probably wouldn't want to pause and pose for tourist's photos.  I did get some AWESOME shots of them with the Urubamba River in the background.  Thanks llamas!


From there it was a quick jaunt down to camp where we raced each other to get in line for the coldest shower of my entire life.  I pretty much just rinsed off because it felt like I was being daggered by icicles.  I was reward for my trials with some black market beer (you can get beers under the table at this campsite but you can't advertise it so just be hush hush when you ask your guide and he will make it happen).

Hilbert was jumping up and down pushing us to shower and get ready faster because he had a surprise for us.  We followed him through the camp around the side of the mountain (about 15 minutes walking) and were rewarded with a breathtaking view of Winawayna ("forever young").  I was a little "ruined" from sightseeing at this point so I just stayed up at the top, drank my beer and watched the sunset while some of the others went exploring.  Spider-Man and I pointed down at the different rooms discussing that if it was our house who would get which room.  He mentioned that we'd definitely need to install a lift from the river below to get the cars up to the garage.

I could feel the anticipation from the next day building in me...Machu Picchu was within reach.  I was elated and depressed at the same time.  Tomorrow marked the pinnacle of the trip and yet I was sad knowing that my time with "la familia" was coming to an end.

That night we gathered around the table for our last supper and what do you know there was CAKE!  No idea how they made a cake at this altitude without an enclosed oven but hey not complaining.  It was pretty damn good!  We all went around and gave small speeches about our favorite times together and broke open the few bottles of wine we had left.  Then it was to bed early because the next morning would be our earliest yet.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

I jolted out of bed easily at 3am buoyant with anticipation.


We hurriedly broke down the camp and began the one hour trek to Intipunku (the "Sun Gate"), the entrance to the City of the Gods... Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain").  It's a very easy hike with views of the river below until you get to "The Gringo Killer," 50 steep steps leading up to the Sun Gate.  Once again I had somehow managed to end up near the back of the group and once again the Wolf Pack waited for me (and the rest of the group) so that we could all share our first view of Machu Picchu together.

The view was dazzling.  You are much higher up above Machu Picchu than I would've thought.  The ruins are nestled safely under the watchful eye of Huayna Picchu ("Young Mountain") and an entire range of massive mountains covered in wild jungle.

Hilbert told us that the sites of many of these ruins were selected by the Incas because the mountains were sacred as the providers of water which represented life.  The Sun Gate is exactly positioned so that on June 21st (the summer solstice) the light comes over the top of La Veronika, through the Sun Gate and directly in the window of the Sun Temple within the ruins of Machu Picchu. 

On that same token on Dec 21st (winter solstice) the "V" created by St Gabriel mountain fills with light and hits the Sun Temple through the other window of the building.  The light in both cases falls across a stone altar.  The combination of sun with mountain with altar is a deeply religious ceremony for the Incas.  From the Sun Gate you can also see four of the most sacred mountains. I'm always so intrigued by how ancient civilizations were able to create architectural features with so intricacies like this.  The position of the Sun Temple was SO planned it's crazy!  Just like the mathematical perfection of the Giza Pyramids in Egypt.  It stuns me every time.

I also learned a bunch of other interesting facts as Hilbert took us on a tour of the ruins:
  • "Inca" means "King" so technically there was only one Inca and the same Inca built Cusco, the Sacred Valley sites and Machu Picchu.  Granted they weren't all finished in his lifetime.
  • How did he accomplish so much?  The famous Inca tax!  Each person had to provide free labor to the Inca as a way of paying taxes.  Even then it took 50 years and 45,000 people to build Machu Picchu.
  • During the religious ceremonies the Incas only sacrificed llama, alpaca or guinea pig to the mountain gods for water.  Only in very dire situations like a massive, long lasting drought would they sacrifice a human life and only because they believed they had somehow greatly angered their benevolent gods.
It was all very interesting and Machu Picchu is truly gorgeous but I have to say I felt a little anxious once we were in the ruins.  I think I'd become accustomed to our little "familia" and the swell of the crowds around me bothered me.  I immediately missed the remoteness of the mountains and the silence of the trail.  When planning the trip I'd thought I'd want hours and hours to explore Machu Picchu but once I arrived I was ready to leave after the 1.5 hour tour.  Don't get me wrong, it is an amazing place but it made me realize I cherished my journey getting there almost more than the destination.

Spider-Man, Lil Sass and I soon tired and took the bus (included in the tour package) down to Aguas Caliente ("Hot Waters") to check into the Viajeros Hostel where we would be staying the night.  The hostel night is also included in the 4 Days plus one night tour package.  We drank beers and relished long, hot showers before heading to the infamous hot springs.

Everyone was in grand spirits upon arrival at the hot springs.  Don't think that they are hot springs in the traditional sense.. i.e. pools of water in natural rock warmed by the earth.  It was a building with a bunch of outdoor pools of varying temperature.  Even still we were excited.  We spent the next few hours getting fairly drunk in the hottest of the pools to the detriment of probably everyone around us.  I can't imagine they appreciated us yelling CARLOS! constantly (the name of the waiter... and no we are not really rude it says to yell because it's hard to hear from the bar upstairs).  I introduced everyone to "Drink Roulette" (the name of which doesn't make any sense but sounds good).  Basically you get to pick the drink for the person on your right and that person rolls the dice that you picked something good!
  • Lifesaver got the Laguna Azul which arrived bright blue with an adorable little umbrella.  He was not impressed.
  • Dr. Llama ended up with a Carnival Night which was fairly good but basic.
  • Spider-Man got the Machu Picchu which was multi-colored and somewhat too sweet.
  • Lil Sass and I both ended up with Toro Bravos which were EXTREMELY strong
  • Teach ended up with the Algarrobina which tasted like a chocolate milkshake
Teach and I experimented and when we mixed hers and mine together it was perfect.  Like a pisco mudslide!  The other groups around saw us having so much fun with this that they started doing it.  The more drinks the more intense the conversation became.  Dr. Llama admitted that he totally judged Lil Sass and I at the orientation.  He said that he thought we would either be divas or personal trainers and that we would either bitch the whole time or smoke everyone on the hike.  He said he was happy to have been wrong!

We spent the rest of the early evening trading stories.  Every once in awhile we would jump out and run to the coldest pool just for fun.  In my opinion jumping in the cold pool was equal to (-)1 drink!

Finally we ended our shenanigans and went back to the hostel for dinner.  Spider-Man, Selfie, Lifesaver, Lil Sass and I attempted to go out that night but Aguas Caliente is pretty dead.  We ended up at a pisco bar that I think is called Elantay.  It's on the corner of Calle Mayta Capac.  The pisco drinks were really tasty but we were all exhausted and the boys were hiking Huayna Picchu the next day.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Thanks to the Inca Trail waking up at 7:30am to make an 8:30 train was a piece of cake!  We found the station easily and jumped on.  The train was SO nice although the seating is really close together so hard to keep your stuff with you.  I slept most of the way although the scenery is lovely.

Since we took the early train it only took us to Ollantaytambo where we then had to catch a bus back to Cusco.  There are a ton of randos offering rides so we took one of those for 10 soles.  They tried to toss our bags on top of the car (without anything tying them down) and we were like "Uh no that't not happening" and finally let us take our bags in the car.  The main reason is they cram people into the car.  It was not a pleasant ride back to Cusco (2 hours or so packed in a tiny car with faulty AC).

Luckily, back in Cusco we found an amazing massage place where strong hands literally kneaded the awful car stress out of my back and shoulders.  Equally amazing were the street empanadas we snagged on the way back to the hostel.

We met up with La Familia at the pisco bar for a couple drinks and Lil Sass, Teach and I got to get behind the bar and make our own drinks!  This is actually how Teach got her nickname... because she had to translate the directions for the drink from Spanish to English so that I didn't muck it up.  The final result?  A damn good drink.

We then literally took over Rosa's for dinner.  I think the wait staff and chef at Rosa's was a little overwhelmed when 11 people walked in to eat.  We took up the entire restaurant!  And I forced everyone to order the Lomo Saltado with alpaca so they probably had to kill a full alpaca to feed all of us.

At dinner we learned about how Dr. Llama had almost fallen off Huayna Picchu earlier in the morning!  Thus how "Lifesaver" got his nickname as he swooped in to save his dad from certain death.  We each went around and said what our favorite moment from the trip was and discussed La Familia Vacation 2015 in Tanzania where we would all climb Mt. Kilimanjaro together.  Man I miss these guys!! After dinner we all parted ways after one too many hugs. 

So that concludes the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu portion of my trip.  I remember how annoyed I was when I found out that I couldn't see Machu Picchu back in 2010 when I first visited Peru.  I truly thought I'd never be back and that Machu Picchu would loom over me as one of my worst missed opportunities from my travels.  Turns out it was the best gift ever.  Had I taken the train up to Machu Picchu that trip I would've checked it off the list and probably never returned to Peru.  Instead, with Lil Sass' prompting, I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu instead and it has proven to be one of the best experiences of my life.  I HIGHLY recommend that everyone take this trip at some point.  It will test you physically and mentally but the rewards and the people you meet make it 100% worth it.

Check back tomorrow/Monday for some quick tips on Lima!

*Special thanks to Selfie, Teach, IHeartCanada and Lil Sass for the pictures I stole.

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