Friday, August 29, 2014

Adventures in Peru - First Day On the Inca Trail

Adventures in Peru – 6/10/14 – Beginning the Inca Trail – KM 82 to Wayllabamba – 13 Km

Alarm, alarm, 4:30 a.m., pick-up at 5:00 a.m.  Final do-I-take-this-or-leave-this and we are climbing into the van of our outfitter, Xtreme Tourbulencia.  A couple of streets away we pick up four more sleepy people.  The sun rises as we drive out of town and begin creeping up over the mountains. 

At the little town of Ollantaytambo we stop for a simple buffet breakfast, a little small talk with our new companions whose common language is Spanish.  We are still all shy and hesitant, wondering just whether we want to do this thing or not.  I am so nervous, it’s hard to eat.  Be sure to use that bathroom, don’t know when the next one is coming or what it will be like. 

Another hour in the van, lurching to and fro on a narrow unpaved road squeezing past the occasional vehicle and people leading cows, and we arrive at the Beginning, known locally as Kilometer 82 (8,500 feet elevation).  Here we receive our sleeping pads and strap them onto our backpacks.  Local women are selling trinkets, bandanas and Gatorade.  Are we ready?  Will we ever really be ready?

Our guide is Washington, a 28-year-old Peruvian man (his mom named him after a soccer player).  He has a soft, modulated voice and a brilliant smile and tells us that we are now a family and will rely on each other.  We play a game of introducing ourselves around the circle.  Maria and Sergi are a young couple from Barcelona, Spain, and 18-year-old Cami and her mother, Francine, are from Switzerland.  Andy, Chris, Cathy and I are on our best behavior so as not to fulfill the stereotype of obnoxious Americans.  Alas, we only know one language, while our new European relatives are multi-lingual (Cami has us all beat at 5 languages).  Washington repeats everything in English and Spanish.

Vamos!  A phrase we will hear many times over the next four days.  Walking beside the Urabamba River towards the first checkpoint to show our permits and get our passports stamped.  The porters go through a separate checkpoint where their loaded packs are weighed to ensure that they are not carrying more than their limit, strictly enforced. 

Our first family photo at the check- point:  from left, Andy, Chris, Cathy, me, Cami, Francine, Maria and Sergi

The rules of the trail:  I especially like “Don’t fire” and Don’t’s Smoking”

We cross the Urabamba River on a wide footbridge that seems to burn behind me, no turning back.  I try to keep a lid on my emotions as they swing in a wide pendulum arc between despair and determination.  The sky is a vivid blue and the air is warm but tolerable (remember, we are from North/South Carolina, we know what humidity is and this ain’t it.)  Washington tells us how many hours we’ll be hiking between points and reluctantly, when pressed, tells kilometers and meters of elevation gain, so I practice my conversion skills to determine miles and feet.  In retrospect, this day is only moderately demanding, 13 kilometers (8 miles) and modest elevation gain of about 2,000 feet (but more than half of that in the last 4 km).  Otherwise my main job is to drink water, look for a place to pee, breathe, put one foot in front of the other and try to look around at the scenery.

A cemetery beside the trail, kinda like walking in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

There goes our trail

Looking down the valley at Mount Veronica:  inspiration

The Inca Trail is strictly regulated, about 500 start permits per day, including guides, porters, cooks and paying customers.  Our group of 8 trekkers is supported by one cook, one guide, and 7 porters that carry our sleeping tents, dining tent, food and cooking gear, including an enormous metal tea kettle for boiling all our water.   Each group is distinguished by its team color so it’s easy to find ours at camp at the end of the day, as well as cheering the porters along as they pass us hauling their unbelievably large loads.  Our team color is yellow and because we are half-English, half-Spanish speaking, we nickname ourselves the Spanglish Team (yet another nickname surfaced later).  There is also a red team, a purple team and a Green Machine team.  Some teams are twice or even three times larger than ours; we much prefer our small “family.”

Our cook, 26 years old, has been supporting Inca trekkers for 7 years

Our Spanglish Team porters, ranging in age from 18 to 59.  Most of them are farmers, working a couple of weeks each month as porters and then rotating back to take care of their farms.  So much respect for their smiles, their work ethic and their tender loving care.

The first five hours still feels like civilization, passing the local livestock grazing along the trail with the Urabamba flowing energetically alongside.  Washington leads our group as we stay together, stopping often to describe the native flowers and history of the area, distracting us from the gentle climb.  He encourages us to find a small stone to carry to the high point of the trek tomorrow, Dead Woman’s Pass, at 13,900 feet.

Stopping at local “stores” where we can purchase bottled water, sports drinks and snacks.  At some stops the toilet is free but the toilet paper costs one sol.  Good thing I brought my own!

A highlight of the day is really a double feature, the Inca fort called Huillca Raccay and the Inca site called LLactapata or Patallacta (8,700 feet).  There is some confusion around the name of the latter.  On many maps it is labeled as Llactapata, the first “stop” along the Inca Trail after KM 82, but deeper research calls this place Patallacta and there is a sign at the site that says the same.  If you Google Llactapata you will see conflicting information and photos of differing sites, including the one pictured below.  It was first noted by Hiram Bingham shortly after his discovery of Machu Picchu but he didn’t spend any time exploring it.   Let me know when you finish your dissertation and final conclusion.  Anyway…

Patallacta is believed to be a stopping point for Incas making their way to the ancient city of Machu Picchu, a crossroads of trails at the head of the valley, possibly an agricultural station used to supply other Inca sites in the region, perhaps including Machu Picchu. The settlement includes over one hundred buildings, houses for the workers and soldiers, including five baths.  The site’s stepped terraces molded around the hillside are breathtaking from our viewpoint at Huillca Raccay, a fort built by the Incas which affords a commanding view up and down the Urabamba Valley and also controlled the entrance to the Cusichaca Valley.

If only I had a tape recorder to capture all of the information Washington imparted over our four days together.  Most of the time I was so tired that I couldn’t absorb the facts and details, but I do remember his passion for his country’s history.

Huillca Raccay

Huillca Raccay

Past Patallacta the Inca Trail turns away from the Urabamba River, crosses the Cusichaca River, and begins climbing.  Before we can get too fatigued we see Nestor, one of our yellow team porters, grinning widely and waving a yellow bandana.  He is flagging us down for our first meal on the trek.  The dining tent is set up and inviting us to rest and eat.

I’d heard about the food on these Inca Trail adventures and I can add to the testimony:  it is elaborate, fresh, delicious and plentiful.  Napkins and cutlery are laid out as place settings.  Our lunch begins with a slice of avocado topped with grated cheese and finely chopped green pepper and onion.  Following is asparagus soup, boiled chicken legs, a slice of cooked sweet potato and julienned vegetables in a lemony broth.  We pass small tin plates and cups around the table and serve each other from big platters.  I am a bit disconcerted when I realize the water is warm, and Washington explains that warm water is absorbed into the body much more quickly than cold water.  Before we eat our soup, Washington explains that it is customary to pour a small spoonful of soup on the ground to thank the earth for its generosity in providing food.  (By the end of the trip, we were all doing this.)  Despite the inviting sights and smells, I find it hard to eat more than a couple of bites of each dish.  All the meds I’m taking, plus the altitude, are having a major effect on my appetite, a problem I struggle with all through the trek.

A nap after lunch, right?  Sorry.  Now the hard work begins.  The group spreads out as the trail gets steeper and I slow down, pacing myself to a steady crawl.  I like the separation, alone with my thoughts, and I remember climbing Mount Whitney with reliable slow, short steps.  I notice that Francine is a little slower than me.  Do I take comfort in this?  At least I am not last?  The hiking order of any group gets set pretty quickly and then doesn’t change much.  I am okay with my next-to-last spot.  Over the remaining two hours of the day we gain about 1,500 feet in elevation. 

Nestor is waiting again with his yellow bandana at the side trail to our campsite and I cross the last bridge. 

At Camp Wayllabamba (10,130 feet) our sleeping tents are set up in a cozy row and other groups of tents are nearby.  As we dump our backpacks, the porters bring bowls of warm water and paper towels so we can freshen up before our meal.

Nearby is a bath house with flushing toilets… fortunately I had been forewarned by a friend who had done the trek.  One picture is worth a thousand words.  This is how much of the world works, friends.  Today it wasn’t so bad, but after the tough climbs and descents of subsequent days, my thighs were so sore that squatting over the toilets is a super- human feat.  Too much information?  Better to know before you go...

More pleasant things:  supper!  The evening meal is very calming, a sigh of contentment knowing that after eating I can lie down in my tent.  The menu features vegetable soup, fried local trout, cooked potato (did you know that Peru produces over 3,000 varieties of potato?), white rice in a tomato vegetable sauce, poached apple, and a special tea to help us sleep.  Cami is vegetarian and there are some alternative foods to accommodate her. 

During supper Washington answers questions and gives a description of tomorrow’s hike.  The distance will be 15 kilometers and includes two high passes, the first one called Warmiwanuska or Dead Woman’s Pass (13,900 feet) followed by a steep descent, and the second one called Runkurakay (13,100 feet).  Very intimidating, and my stomach begins churning. The first few kilometers are in the cloud forest, then breaking out above tree line into hot sun as we approach the first pass.  Washington explains that each person will walk at his or her own pace and he will walk behind us.  There will be many hikers tomorrow making their own pilgrimages up the mountain.

One surprising and welcome development:  we can pay extra to have porters carry some of our gear tomorrow.  In a flash the eight of us pool our resources to hire two porters to carry about 5 pounds for each person.  I could unload my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, my book (what made me think I was going to read anything?) and my bathing suit.  Most important is the psychological weight reduction.

Because we are close to the equator, sundown is near 6:00 p.m. and sunrise is near 6:00 a.m. and our wake-up call for the “big day” is for 5:00 a.m.  Yes, we will be getting up in the dark - again.  Cathy and I are sharing a tent.  We both struggle to get our gear organized to be ready on time in the morning.  I feel a little disoriented and have trouble deciding where to put things.  Will I need this before morning?  How cold will it get tonight and what should I sleep in? 

A cold and clear night. I think there are stars, but it is hard to see them with my eyes closed.

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, August 11, 2014

Adventures in Peru - Cusco and Sacsayhuaman

Adventures in Peru – 6/8/14 & 6/9/14 – Cusco and Sacsayhuaman

I have been on some incredible hiking adventures over the past several years, and on those trips we talk, talk, talk about future adventures.  If you’re sitting around the campfire or the dinner table at the right time, wondrous opportunities present themselves. 

Hey, whaddaya think about hiking to Machu Picchu?  You know, that place in Peru?  Sure, sign me up!

Our group of four – Andy, Chris, Cathy and myself - made plans for early June, flights, hotel reservations, booking a guided Inca Trek (you don’t just go there and start walking, it is all strictly regulated by the Peruvian government) and side trips for another week. The countdown began.

In May I got serious about training.  Running, walking, hiking, Stairmaster, etc.  Of course, nothing can train for high altitude lack of oxygen and I knew I wasn’t good at that (remember Colorado?)  Got the prescription for Diamox and all my immunizations were current.

Two days before departure it all slid sideways.  A serious health issue arose in a family member that took all my mental attention.  Then I developed diverticulitis (inflammation of the intestine), got antibiotics from my doctor, who didn’t think going to Peru was a good idea.  There was a problem with my smart phone and I couldn’t have global service, no phone calls to keep up with the situation at home.  Taken all together, karma did not want me going to Peru.  But I went anyway.

I began taking the Diamox the day before departure and all during the flight I felt as though strands of hair were brushing my cheeks, but it was a tingling side effect of the medication.  Other side effects I experienced were extreme dry mouth and loss of appetite.  All would get worse as the days went on.  The alternative was headache and nausea.  None of it was fun.

After 13 hours on 3 flights we arrived in Cusco, Peru in the early morning.  Passing over the sharp snow- covered peaks of the Andes felt surreal. 

One crazy cab ride later we rang the doorbell at Casa Elena, our accommo- dations for the next two days. Casa Elena is very conveniently located in the San Blas quarter known for its arts culture and is just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco.

 The owner served us coca tea upon arrival, the traditional drink to help acclimate to the altitude (Cusco is at 11,150 feet).

After a brief lie-down, we hit the streets in search of food and sight-seeing.  We had been warned what to eat during our acclimatization before our Inca Trek (bland food, potatoes) and what not to eat (guinea pig, a Peruvian favorite).  No problem with the guinea pig, but I would like to try it later in the trip.

Cusco is an intriguing small city, population about 450,000, modern and ancient cultures evident in architecture, food and clothing of people mingling in the streets.  Walking around the center city is fun if you have a little sense of direction yet are willing to get a little lost.  The Plaza de Armas is the happening heart of historic Cusco.

Iglesia de La Compañia de Jesús at the Plaza de Armas  

A big multi-day parade was going on in celebration of Corpus Christi.

After a meal in a safe-looking touristy hotel we admitted to our jet lag and went back to Casa Elena to crash for a couple of hours.  Later on we ventured out for another meal at Cicciolina, delicious food, elegant yet laid back atmosphere.  In Peruvian culture they do not bring you the bill for the meal unless you ask for it several times. 

After a hard night’s sleep under heavy blankets aided by Tylenol PM and ear plugs, we rose early and tackled the hotel breakfast:  liquidy yogurt, granola, fried eggs cooked to order, thick papaya juice, fresh pineapple juice, sweet coffee cake. 

Today’s plan:  climb the hills above Cusco to explore the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman and get up close and personal with Cristo Blanco.  These are two independent and vastly different cultural icons of Peru.  [And before you critique my spelling of Sacsayhuaman, we saw it spelled a myriad of ways and I chose one I could remember, even if it doesn't match the signage here.]  For a much better history lesson than I can give, see here.  In the briefest summary, the Inca people or Quechuas were doing just fine in central South America until the conquering Spanish came across the water in the early 1500’s, decimating the native culture, razing their religious structures and introducing/ imposing Catholicism.  The capital of modern Peru is the city of Lima, but Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire.  Sacsayhuaman is an amazing remnant of that culture. 

The journey started right outside our door, of course going up many steps. 

The one time I paid for an “authentic” photo.  This lovely native Peruvian woman was less than five feet tall.  She charged one Peruvian Nuevo sol, which equals about 35 cents in American currency. 

Llamas roam freely around Inca ruins as part of the grounds- keeping staff.   Andy didn’t charge me for this photo.

First we hiked up to the Cristo Blanco (White Jesus) statue.  The story I found goes that it was erected as a display of gratitude by a group of Christian Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco in 1945.  The statue is 8 meters tall but seems much larger.  Its proximity to Sacsayhuaman and yet its position slightly higher and turning away – symbolic of what?

Cristo Blanco

Looking down at Cusco from the base of the statue

Looking over at Sacsayhuaman from the base of the statue

An example of dry stone wall Incan architecture.  The ancient builders did not have the concept of the wheel to help move the heavy stones and they did not use mortar to bind them in place.  They cut notches in corners and shaped stones to fit together so tightly that a blade of grass or piece of paper cannot slide between them.  During an earthquake the walls could shift and resettle without collapsing.

We spent several hours wandering around Sacsayhuaman, not really understanding the details of the history, but enjoying the sunshine and the energy and learning to breathe at 12,000 feet.

Looking across the great plaza, a gathering space for thousands of people for ceremonial activities


An intact building with a reconstructed thatched roof.  After the siege of Cusco in the 1530’s, the Spanish used the site as a quarry for stones for building Spanish Cusco, and within a few years Sacsayhuaman was largely demolished. 

A hint of steps to come

Llamas on the move

Looking at Cristo Blanco from Sacsayhuaman

Exploring tunnels

Nooks and crannies

Another wrong decision, easily corrected:  I had bought a new non-toxic, eco-friendly sun screen for the trip, and during our walkabout of Sacsayhuaman I got fried even with multiple applications.  Later in the day at a local pharmacy I found something better (friendly to me if not the environment) and had no more problems with the sun.  At such high elevation, don’t take any chances on sun exposure.

Walking back down to town was SO much easier!  Intricacies of red slate rooftops

We ran into some fellow Virginia Tech Hokies – boy, did I cheer up at that!  Turns out they were here to do the same four-day hike to Machu Picchu (different outfitter) and we saw them in the coming days on the Inca Trail.

Back in town, we ate a delicious lunch at Limo, recommended by friends – heavenly mint lemonade

We explored the Mercado de San Pedro that the locals use (not the touristy one), fascinated by the fresh food, meats, lack of refrigeration.  My photo taking was surreptitious because I didn't know if I would be asked to pay for them.

A juice bar like you’ve never seen

Beans and spices and herbs – oh my!

Local fruits

We wandered on a circuitous route through the city, following Cathy as she hunted for a good deal on an Alpaca jacket (she found one eventually), then back to Casa Elena to rest some more and meet with a representative for our trek to begin tomorrow.  For dinner we found a place nearby called Justina’s, tucked away in a courtyard, kitchen downstairs just large enough for a wood-fired pizza oven and five tables upstairs and – surprise - bluegrass music and Southern rock on the sound system.  One of many surreal moments in Peru, eating excellent pizza and listening to Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” and Ralph Stanley’s “Man Of Constant Sorrow.” 

Okay, now for the serious trip preparation. 

Part of our guided expedition included porters who would carry all the food, everything for food prep, and our tents for sleeping.  Each participant was responsible for his/her own sleeping bag and mat, clothing and personal items. [Note if you are planning a Machu Picchu trek:  the mats were provided by the outfitter, wished I had brought my own which is smaller and weighs less].  What will I need for 4 days, 3 nights, with highs in the 70’s and nighttime lows in the 30’s?  I had my 15-degree down sleeping bag and a silk liner, chose my heavier fleece jacket and Primaloft jacket, long underwear top and bottom, one pair of hiking pants, gloves, hat, a couple of short-sleeved hiking shirts, a new little inflatable pillow, a book, head lamp, toiletries, multiple medications, camera, bandana, a bathing suit for the hot springs at the end (more on that later).  Another wrong decision:  I chose to carry water bottles rather than my Camelback, thinking I would keep better track of my water intake if I could see it.  While that was true, it was a much bigger pain to use them and I probably underhydrated because of the aggravation factor.

Packing, repacking, taking things out, putting things back in, the normal chaos before an extended backpacking trip.  My pack was not as light as I wanted, probably 18 pounds with full water bottles.

I was able to text back and forth with Jim at the hotel, nervous and preoccupied about things back home.  Cathy kindly let me use her global ready phone for a couple of calls.  My normal pre-hike anxiety was increased exponentially and I went to bed with racing thoughts and waited for the alarm to go off at 4:30 a.m.

Are we having fun yet?

“Take a walk outside – it will serve you far more than pacing around in your mind.”  ~Rasheed Ogunlaru