Well, it’s been a while…let’s just say I’ve been a bit busy this past week. Right now I’m sitting in the bar of the Pariwana Hostel in Lima, Peru, in Miraflores, touristy section of the giant capital city.
I really like it here; after today, I feel a bit more inclined to be here than I did last time we were here…hard to believe it was just over a week ago. But before I get to today, I have a lot of material to cover…
Last Thursday was our last full day in Cusco before our trek. We slept in a bit, had breakfast in the hostel, and hit the city in the late morning. The festival energy was still in the air, and the streets were still packed with people and food stands overflowing with Cusqueño beer and cuy…yes, that’s the Peruvian specialty, guinea pig. Skinned and roasted whole…yup, not the most pleasant site I’ve ever seen. But it all added to the cultural experience of it all, and I think we all could sense the energy as we weaved through the crowds, amidst the music and noises and smells and heat of the morning sun. Another cloudless day in Cusco…
Our first stop was the supermarket, where we picked out a few snacks for our trek. Even though snacks were supposedly included, some travelers we met in the Loki told us that there weren’t enough snacks on their trek, so naturally we thought if we were willing to carry it in our daypacks, it’d be better to have too much food than not enough. We also stopped in the San Pedro open air market, where we got some good deals on nuts, dried fruit, and coca candies (yes, made from the leaves of the coca plant used to make cocaine…but it takes some 100 kilos of the plant to make some four ounces of cocaine, so the amount we would consume was harmless). Then we made our final important stop of the day at an alpaca store a few blocks away from the Plaza de Armas. It was basically this giant warehouse with stand after stand of alpaca sweaters, scarves, ponchos, socks, hats, and other random artisanal items…let’s just say I did a fair share of my souvenir shopping there. It’s too bad I won’t be able to wear any of it till the fall…
After that, I hurried back to the Loki in anticipation of my city tour, the ticket for which I’d purchased the day before. I told the door guard, and he said he’d come find me inside when the bus arrived. So it was 2:30, and they still hadn’t come. I went out and asked the guard for advice, and he helped me out by calling the tour company’s phone, which was printed on my receipt. I was worried at this point because I knew I had to be back at the hostel by 6:00 for our pre-trek briefing, and by that point there was no way I was gonna make it back on time. One of the employees did come and inform me that we’d be leaving at three, at which point I negotiated with him to get my money back, or half of it…there was no way I was going to be back on time, and I guess I was just frustrated with myself for planning it in the first place when I knew all along that the tour was four hours and even if it left at 2:00 pm sharp it would’ve been doubtful that I would’ve been back in time…so long story short, the lesson learned was that it’s hard to do everything in a city like Cusco in three days. If only I’d realized then that my four day trek ending at Machu Picchu would completely make up for my lack of exploring the sites in Cusco. After all, the trek was why I came to Peru…it wasn’t worth my time or energy trying to experience ALL of Cusco before I had to leave for the trek.
Anyways, I was a little disappointed and went back to the Loki for a late lunch, after thanking the friendly door guard for his help. We had our briefing right at six, when our guide José arrived. All seven of us by that point had a room at the Loki, and we had our meeting in the reception area. Our first impression of José, a Lima native but a resident of Cusco for a decent part of his life, was that he was a very serious but experienced and knowledgeable guide. I think he wanted to make sure we were all aware of what we were getting into, but also not psych us out about how difficult or how not difficult the four-day trek is. We double-checked all of our passport information then he gave us each a forest-green duffle bags for our stuff and told us to be ready at 7:30 the next morning. I wasn’t entirely aware that all of this was happening…I could hardly wrap my mind around the journey we were a night away from undertaking. All I know is I perked up when he mentioned he loved to talk about the history of all the Inca sites, reminding me of my childish obsession with facts and dates and history…basically, I went straight to packing, excited and nervous about the day to come.
My focus got me done with my packing in less than an hour, ending with my awesome North Face backpack as my daypacks and my duffle reasonably stuffed with my warm clothes and layers and miscellaneous items. We (me, Laura, Brooke, Forbes, and Jonny) met up with our other friends again for dinner at this place called Café Cafe, a neat but slightly more pricey restaurant a few tight blocks away from the Plaza. Our goal: carb-loading, so I feasted on some delicious tequeños (these stick-shaped cheese pastry things dipped in guacamole…whoa were they good) and some fettucini alfredo…what a killer meal. After that, Laura and I went back to the hostel, but not before buying some water for the next day, along with some ice cream…a great way to seal off my stomach. And then I pretty much hit the pillow after that…but much to my disappointment the bar and the partying that night were pretty crazy, and I don’t think I fell asleep until around two…and then I woke up with an upset stomach around 5:45, forty-five minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off. But I sucked it up and again, in a focused and careful manner, finished up my packing, ate breakfast, checked out, and left my main backpack in the Loki storage. José showed up when we were eating breakfast, and then we were out the door by 7:30.
We loaded our stuff into our private van, which took us out if Cusco and across this giant valley through extremely windy roads and then down into the actual SACRED Valley of the Incas. We drove through Urubamba, and then stopped in Ollantaytambo to stock up on some last-minute supplies. I bought a sweet cheap little flashlight, because I completely forgot my headlamp at home, some more coca leaves and candy, and, the cherry on top: an obnoxious tourist HOT PINK Machu Picchu sun hat…which I conveniently flipped to the all black side while trekking. It’s pretty ridiculous, but I figured it’d be a sweet but comically stupid souvenir after finishing up the trek. We walked briefly through the town, walking down a few Inca stone roads and stopping in a traditional house that had an entire barn of cuys…we arrived just as a young boy began feeding hay to a floor full of cooing guinea pigs…poor things, they’re all destined to become food. Except for the mothers, which José informed us were kept purely for their ability to produce more young. It made me a little sad, but at the same time I was proud to find that none of those guys was as cute as the guinea pig I had…Mo will forever be the cutest guinea pig to ever live, mohawk and different-colored ears and all.
We jumped back in the van and shortly after headed off the main road, through farmland and even passing a small parade of masked dancers, which supposedly symbolized the stupidity of Spanish conquistadors. A little while later, and we arrived at the start of our hike, which began alongside the Urubamba river, a few kilometers from the entrance to the Inca Trail. Because our first day’s hike was really short, José added in these few extra kilometers to fill up our day and allow our porters the time to get ahead of us and set up our first camp.
The walk was really beautiful; we climbed slightly until we were looking down upon the river, and across it we could see this field, like a patchwork quilt of crops, with some solely dirt sections, with workers using plows pulled by giant bulls to till the land. And above this fertile valley was the impressive Mt. Veronica, previously called the Lágrima Sagrada (or sacred tear), a gorgeous snow-capped peak, around which hung the only wispy clouds in the sky. It remained in few the whole time, as we traversed along the more barren, desert-like slope, and I found myself enchanted by it…it sounds corny, but I found that mountain absolutely beautiful.
We stopped for one snack along the river, and a second time at an actual campsite with functioning toilets, before we ended the first leg of our journey in the town right outside the entrance to the trail, Piscacucho. There, our porters had prepared for us our first meal: soup followed by delicious sandwiches with guacamole, cheese, meat, tomatoes, and cucumbers. This was only the first of some of the most incredible meals we’d had all trip. Maybe it was the fact that we were hiking, maybe it was because we were all so excited to be there, but seriously, we genuinely felt it was some of the best food we’d had in South America.
We rested for a bit in the sun on that farm after that, and then watched our porters set off with giant bags, which supposedly didn’t exceed fifty pounds…I felt a tinge of guilt at that point. My backpack probably didn’t exceed ten pounds, with my snacks, water, layers, and other random necessities. But José informed us that it was their decision to take on that profession, and that they were paid decently well. He also said it wasn’t necessary to tip them, but I think from day one we felt strongly about thanking them for their work. And as the trek went on, we saw more and more just how much they did for us.
We got to the main entrance, where they looked at our passports, ISIC cards (International Student Identification Card), and tickets. And with that, we crossed the slightly shaky bridge across the Urubamba, and were on our way. We followed the river for a while, Mt. Veronica at our backs by now, and then gradually climbed a bit, away from the Urubamba. I don’t remember much about the scenery that day, other than that the Andes around us were less green than the Ecuadorean Andes we saw, and more dry and yellow…it was a random observation, but I guess I just found it interesting how the vegetation changed throughout the trek.
We stopped at this sort of outpost, or I guess a tiny little village, where we lathered up on the sunscreen and bug spray, and used the ever so lovely squat toilets. After that stop, we went for maybe another hour, climbing ever so gradually away from the Urubamba, before we caught site of our first Incan ruin, Llactapata, or terrace-town. It was just that, a network of terraces lining the slope across the valley from where we were on the trail. It was then that José informed us that THAT was where we’d be camping; across the stream from an Incan ruin. No big deal. We descended into the valley, where a handful of families still live and till the land, and arrived at our campsite, essentially in the backyard of one of the small farms, across from Llactapata. And we were the ONLY tour group there. The only other people we’d seen on the trail that day was a giant group of Brits who were just doing a day-hike, and the inhabitants of the outpost and the valley. Definitely not what we expected after reading Lonely Planet, which warned us of the crowds that would swarm the trail and Machu Picchu…let’s just say we lucked out with the amount of other tourists we encountered. Plus it was Friday, June 24th, the day of Inti Raymi, the festival that that whole week had set the stage for, which would be celebrated until the wee hours of Saturday morning Cusco. So while we missed out on that, we also were fortunate enough to have been relatively isolated and at peace along the trail. The pictures perhaps can convey this better than my words….
We dropped off our stuff, then headed across the river to explore the site. Llactapata, as José informed us, was built to help supply Machu Picchu, which wasn’t self-sufficient in terms of food and resources. It consists, as the pictures show, of rows of terraces built of stone, that incorporate existing gargantuan boulders into its design. And because the Inca didn’t use ladders, they used these “floating ladders”, or stepping stones jutting out of the terraces. And we also got to see the site of restoration; essentially, workers would remove the stone, number them, restore and maintain them, and then return them to their exact natural position. It’s crazy the amount of work that would entail…I don’t know how I would deal with that sort of responsibility. Another fun fact involved the presence of lichen on the stones…José said that the specific type of lichen on those stones had a lifespan of 3,000 years, and that’s how the site was dated; also, the stones with a certain color and age of the lichen were the original, untouched stones, while the lichen on some of the other stones, based on the way it looked and had aged, was on stones that had been refurbished. I was impressed with the amount of information José imparted upon us; he really knew his stuff.
We went back to our campsite just as the sun was setting, and changed into some warmer clothes, as the temperature had clearly dropped. We had tea time around five or six, accompanied by these delicious crackers with butter and jam, and then dinner shortly after. Every lunch and dinner consisted of a soup followed by a stronger main course, and that night it was chicken, vegetables and rice. Every day, we would just rave about the food; it really was incredible. And we always ate in our dining tent, with a table and little camping stools, with a lamp they’d hang from the ceiling. Isaac was our chef, and one of the less shy porters who could speak a fair amount of Spanish (most of the porters spoke Quechua as their first language) and Carlos was our waiter; he had just about the biggest most adorable smile I’ve ever seen. If we had had more time on our trek, that’s what I would’ve liked to have done, gotten to know our porters better. Almost every day I doled out coca leaves to them, which José said was something they’d always appreciate, and I did my best to learn their names, but I wish we’d had more time to get to know them. They really did take such good care of us.
That night after dinner and some late night tea, before calling it a night, I spent a couple minutes just gazing up at the stars. The sky was perfectly clear, and I swear those were some of the brightest stars I’ve ever seen. They quite literally twinkled. And as my tent buddy, Jonny, and I were reminiscing before we slept, it was quite a magical day. We were the only people on the trail, we had eaten some of the best food we’d eaten on the entire trip, the scenery was absolutely gorgeous, and we were camping alongside a five hundred year old Incan ruin. Day One of our trek was a complete success, and we had no idea that things were only going to get better.
We got up on the morning of Day Two around 6:30, but it wasn’t just some boring old wake up call. Carlos came around to each of our tents and brought us hot water, and tea or coffee, and then a second porter came around with our bright lime green hand washing bins filled with warm water to wash our faces and stuff if we wanted. They did this EVERY morning; we all felt so gracious and privileged. The trek was without doubt the best $500 we’d ever spent. Breakfast this time was outside the tent because the weather was so nice; bread with butter and jam, and basically grilled fruit; apples, grapes, and pineapple. Isaac hit the spot again. We packed up our stuff, and headed out around 8:00, climbing first up to a viewpoint above the Llactapata ruins; the early morning light on the ruins and the mountains around it was just stunning. We then headed down a bit into the valley, following a river (which may or may not still have been the Urubamba…I forgot to ask) and ending up in the tiny town of Wayllabamba, where we took a snack and bathroom break, before ascending a bit more to the campsite area of Ayapata, where we ate pasta with vegetables and cheese under the scorching tent; the sun’s rays were really so much stronger out there. Buying the ridiculous hat was the best decision I could’ve made; despite the heat that beamed down on us for most of the trek, I never once got burnt…which was nice because I was still recovering from my Montañita burn…my stomach is STILL peeling.
And it was after lunch on the campground of Ayapata that we began a legit ascent, the very beginnings of Warmi Wañusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass. It consists of stairs, stairs, and more stairs, the sets upon sets of stone stairs and switchbacks that most tour companies have their trekking groups do all in one day, on Day Two. Our itinerary was different; on our Day Two (last Saturday), we only climbed half of the way up Dead Woman’s Pass, camping that night at our highest elevation campsite at Llulluchapampa, with incredible views:
I found that the steps weren’t necessarily difficult physically per se, but midway through, I was definitely feeling the altitude, and the need to breathe more frequently and more deeply…I started to get a headache at one point too, but luckily José, as a trained and prepared EMT, had some medicine that he gave me for the headache. I also drank loads of water and sucked down a bunch of the coca candies, which totally helped me in the end.
When we got to our campsite at Llulluchapampa, we had a couple hours before tea time, so I sat on a giant rock in front of Brooke and Laura’s tent, wrote in my diary, and listened to good ole Sigur Ros. And literally within an hour, I consciously felt the temperature drop a good ten degrees. Before the sun had even set, I was layered in two sets of longjohns, my hiking midweight shirt, a down jacket, and then my scarf, hat, and gloves, and I was STILL cold. But we huddled up in the tent shortly after for tea, popcorn, and tequeños (those delicious cheese pastries) and then for dinner of quinoa soup followed by meat, rice, and potato puree; Isaac’s cooking again blew us away, and many of us had full second helpings. We had some good conversation over tea, played some cards, and then pretty much passed out of exhaustion. It was a pretty cold night, but I was pretty cozy in my sleeping bag and cocoon.
The next morning our porters woke us up again, but at 5:45, because we had our longest day ahead of us. After breakfast, we loaded up and began the steeper part of our ascent of Dead Woman’s Pass, which, despite being numb with cold, we completed in just under two hours, arriving at our highest elevation of 13,800 feet.
We had some fun taking pictures and marveling at the mountains as the sun continued to rise, snacking on some celebratory chocolate and watching a few other groups pass by. Then a few of us followed José up to another viewpoint, which got us up to 14,00 feet, higher than the highest capital in world (La Paz, Bolivia) and probably higher than I’ll go for a good long while.
After that, we began our descent…which although it didn’t require as much breath as did the ascent, took quite a toll on our knees…mine and Brooke’s were shaking midway through, and would continue to do so as we completed our second pass later that day. We made it down it good time, having lunch number one at the Pacaymayo campground, of sandwiches and cookies. Without much more of a break, we started the second pass, stopping briefly at another set of impressive ruins midway up the slope, then continuing up the steps which seemed even steeper than those of Dead Woman’s Pass. But after our morning achievement, we completed this one in no time, and headed straight down the other side because it was colder and mistier on this one.
At the bottom of this pass, we came around the ruins of Sayacmarca, right at the edge of a vegetative transition into a cloud forest, which a) José believed to be the prettiest section of the trek and b) LITERALLY reminded me of Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar…no joke, I literally half expected a giant blue person to cross our path at some points on the trail. The rest of the time we felt like we were hobbits journeying to Middle Earth…oh, the many silly juvenile inside jokes that came out of this trek…
We spent some time exploring the giant ruins, before descending through the forest to another campground for lunch.
The sun was probably the most powerful as we ate, and once again the dining tent was scorching. We had soup again, despite the heat, with quiche, rice with veggies and chicken salad, followed by a sweet little salad of beets, apples, and carrots. I doled out some more coca leaves, to Carlos, Isaac, Mario, Francisco, and Melquiades, the head porter, to their gracious thank-you’s, and then we continued through the Pandora-esque cloud forest, which quite literally was weaved with wispy clouds, along with more exotic-looking foliage and flowers. This part of the trek also consisted of an eerie tunnel along a giant boulder, and a small cave site slightly off the path that we literally crawled to get to, one that supposedly only José and a few other guides knew about. We finished off this last chunk of our day extremely quickly, with a new burst of energy despite the long day of up and down stairs. It was cool to sense how we moved as a group, and we had a particularly cool sync going on as we finished off Day Three, arriving at our final campsite at Phuyupatamarca, Site #11, the highest and purportedly the best campsite of the whole sight, according to José. I guess I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
And Torben said something that night that totally summed up the trip up to that point for me: we were talking about how incredible the trek had been so far, and essentially he said that even if Machu Picchu were to explode or just completely fall to pieces, the trek still would’ve been worth it. A ruin or two a day, stunning panoramic views, incredible food, and incredible endorphin rushes. Plus the company of truly wonderful people. I don’t know about everyone else, but I know at least for me, I was on such a high for those four days.
After a spaghetti dinner, we played this fun dice game José taught us, and Isaac and Carlos joined us. It was most definitely a fun way to spend our last night.
After my best sleep of the whole trip, we were woken up again around 5:45 to delicious, hot, non-instant coffee, and, sadly, a damp, cloudy morning. We’d been hoping for an incredible sunrise, but even in its absence, we were happy and excited for the day, which we began with pancakes and thick caramel/condensed milk-like sauce…SO good. We then thanked our porters and tipped them, and they all kindly shook our hands and thanked us; it was a really sweet moment.
We headed out, first down the steepest stairs we’d encountered on the whole trek, stopping first at the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, and then continuing down to the site and the ruins of Wiñay Wayna, which literally means forever young…I really liked the sound of that name for some reason. It was another giant set of terraces, offering a stunning view of the backside of Mt. Veronica and a giant river valley, through which the Machu Picchu train weaves. We went through the campground and ate lunch at the final site before Machu Picchu, Inti Pata; there were no other people there. Also, those ruins were the site where the over-aggressive Machu Picchu llama now resides; saw him rear his head a couple levels above us.
And then we set off on the final six kilometers to Machu Picchu; Jonny and I led the way, and despite being tired and sore, our group pace was faster than it has ever been. We reached the final set of stairs in no time, a steep set of 56, and then arrived at the Sun Gate shortly after…I can’t describe to you the feeling of approaching it. I had tucked away my poles and was half-running those last few steps, my quads and knees threatening to give out, and then I crossed the threshold…I heard Brooke and Laura shouting behind me, asking if I saw it, and then I stumbled to the left and my breath escaped me as my eyes took it in for the first time. The tears made their way into my eyes for a brief moment, before I stumbled back to yell back that yes, we had made it.
Let’s just say there are dozens more pictures, but by far these ones on my iPhone are the best. I’ll get more into our three hour tour later…we learned so much, and I was so completely in awe the entire time, to the point where I wasn’t thinking anymore and was just completely absorbed in my surroundings…what better place to lose oneself…
It’s been a blur since. Dinner in Aguas Calientes, train plus a van ride back to Cusco and the Loki…flight yesterday to Lima, where I’ll be till Friday…exploring the Centro today and eating a killer dinner at Cafe Beirut…I’ll get into more details later, I’m still kind of in shock that we did it. We trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Easily one of the top five experiences of my life. Hands down.