Machu Picchu

May 17, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, Peru, Uncategorized, Where two now?, Where we've been

Certain companies are the best for the service they provide and build reputations by doing so; Peru Treks was excellent in making certain that the Sacred Inca Trail would be an unforgettable experience for us. Our philosophy for this trip has been and will remain to use the best tour companies, not to cut corners, and spend the extra dollar (or whatever monetary unit in whichever country we’re in) to get the best service and the best equipment. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us of which I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

Day one of our four day hike was fairly easy. After a shitty night of sleep and being woken up by some loud drunks arriving at our hostel around 245am when our alarm was set for 430am I wasn’t too optimistic about the morning. We stopped in Ollantaytambo to have some breakfast. The drive was insanely beautiful and the breakfast was bread, lukewarm coffee, Styrofoam, and yogurt.

After going through the checkpoint, getting a souvenir passport stamp and crossing the bridge at km82 we were officially on the Sacred Inca Trail. The first day was mostly flat and getting us used to walking on the terrain; which was dusty, rocky, and covered in mule shit. In everything that I’ve ever read about Machu Picchu or the Inca Trail I had no preconceived notions of what I was expecting on the trail itself. Amongst prickly pears, organ pipe cactus, and agave were indigenous villages scattered in the lowlands with patches corn and potato fields. Massive mountains surrounded us and power lines hung overhead. Honestly in the first 30 minutes to an hour, I didn’t feel as though there was much sacred about it.

We seemed to stumble upon some stunning views and our first set of ruins. The name escapes me but it was shaped like a giant puma’s paw. I was hooked and enthusiastic of what was to come.

When we arrived at camp the first night, everything was all set up for us. Dinner was absolutely amazing. This is where we had a chance to talk with the cast of characters that we would be spending a lot of time in close proximity with. Mark from Australia was smart enough to bring a litre of boxed wine along. Estebie was meeting his friends Gemma and Andrew who were on month 11 of their year long trip. Dave and Charlene Blackpool fans who we hope to see on the other side of the world. There were 16 of us in all; each added something special to our group with ages from 26 to 52. After dinner we retired to our already made tents and climbed into our surprisingly fresh sleeping bags.

The second day was supposed to be the most difficult of the trip. We were to climb around four hours straight up until we reached 4,200 meters (13,779 feet). We stopped two times along the way and had a Snicker’s bar at each stop. I hadn’t had a Snicker’s bar in quite some time. Probably 5-8 years. I can tell you; when we were that far removed from everything, at that altitude, it was the best thing in the world. I will happily do the entire trail again wearing a Snicker’s jersey.
I was third in our group to reach the top. When I arrived it was miserable. The sun was nowhere to be seen and the rain was coming down like crazy. I decided to wait for Cori and some others before going down the other side. In that time I managed to eat a Snicker’s, see a couple get engaged, and watch young Irish people be young Irish people waving an Irish flag. As Cori arrived the fog started to clear and the sun was coming out. The view was amazing. It wasn’t that bad of a climb, I was anticipating the worst and was pleasantly surprised by how blown out of proportion all of the horror stories were about this section. Either way the work was worth the view (and the Snicker’s).

We then had to walk about an hour and a half to get to camp. This part sucked because the stairs were so large and was hard on the knees. I was looking forward to getting back to camp around two with enough time to have a siesta.

Now is as good of time as any to talk about the bathrooms. “They are good practice for India,” I keep telling my wife. The men’s bathrooms, because there are no female porters and men are literally 4/1 on the Inca Trail, are much worse than the women’s bathrooms. When I say bathroom I really mean a hole in concrete with a ceramic foothold on either side where people have no aim whatsoever, especially in the dark with no electricity.

Day three was divided in three. The first third was pretty incredible; we climbed up a steep single track to some amazing ruins with great views. It rained a little bit while my pancho was at the bottom and our bags were wrapped inside. Our legs were a bit like jelly so walking was fast and easy. The second part was nice rolling hills, easy ups and easy downs. The only time we stopped was to take pictures. Cori was in front the entire time. Lunch was served in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. Again the food was amazing.

After lunch we were instructed that we were to descend 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in two hours to our next camp. That is 8 1/3 meters (27 1/3 feet) per minute. The stairs we had to go down are aptly named, “Gringo Killers.” These things were murder on the knees. I wished at that point that I had purchased two walking sticks to make it easier on my already crappy knees.

Two hours crawled by slower than we did. We came up to our next set of ruins which was phenomenal. Like in all of the documentaries, a giant step farming sight which we were free to roam.

The third night’s camp site was notorious for theft, expensive beers, and having 500 people squished into a space the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This was our last supper. I had taken a Vicoden to deal with my leg so when the beers at the store ran out Cori was relieved to hear I had only had one. The rain was now coming down pretty hard as we were eating birthday cake for Dave’s 30th birthday. Our briefing for the next day was simple; wake up earlier than you ever would if you didn’t have to and see what you came and paid to see.

The fourth day we awoke at four in the morning to ice cold rain. We sat at the bar / dance hall / place that ran out of beers before dark the night before waiting for the park to open at 530. The mood was tense and no one was in a good mood. The place smelled like 500 people who hadn’t showered in four days. Literally; (The place was filled with 500 people who hadn’t showered in four days).

The walk to the Sun Gate was somber; in part because of the rain, part because we were tired, and we hoped Machu Picchu exceeded our expectations. Upon our arrival I realized how massive Machu Picchu really was. This was an enormous city. I thought that something called the Holy City would be smaller because it was so holy, I was wrong. The view was perfect. The pain in my knees dissipated, the smile on my face grew, and I had finally seen something I had always wanted to see.

Walking from the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu seemed to take forever. There were people walking the opposite direction who wanted to see it in the early morning light. We were warned that there would be a lot of people already there, but I didn’t take the warning seriously.

Swarms, hives, droves, throngs, flocks of cheaters with clean shoes, showered faces, and thundering voices all converged on the same place we had planned so far in advance and worked so hard to see. I felt like they didn’t deserve it the way we did; these people flying from wherever to Lima then to Cusco instead of riding on a bus for 22 hours. These people, these cheaters taking a luxury bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo at a comfortable hour, being fed a marvelous meal on the lavish Hiram Bingham train then gingerly shuffled uphill to make a checkmark on their bucket lists next to ‘ see one of the manmade marvels of the world’ irritated me to no extent. They polluted the place with snarky comments, looked at us like we were homeless, and stood in our way while taking pictures. These people, I felt, not only cheated us of out our experience, but cheated themselves out of it as well.

So many documentaries, stories on National Geographic, and blogs have been done on Machu Picchu. This trip, my trip was all about the journey, not necessarily the destination.

Peru Pensamientos

May 10, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Peru, Uncategorized

So we left Peru last week (April 29 to be exact) to move on to Bolivia, but I enjoyed the country so much that it didn’t seem right not to post something in the blog about it. So here are some highlights, memories and photos….

I have to say, I feel like we shortchanged Peru a bit, at least the northern part.  After spending several more days than expected in Ecuador (waiting for my new passport to be made, argh) we crossed the border on April 5 and had to be in Cusco (in the southern part of the country) on April 11 to start to acclimatize ourselves to the high altitude for our Inca Trail hike that was set to begin on April 15. So we basically raced through the country taking super long bus rides. We went from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Trujillo, Peru on an overnight bus (16 hours), then decided against staying in Trujillo (still technically a city and we just wanted a small, safe town) and took a cab right from the bus terminal to a nearby low-key beach town called Huanchaco. Best known for surfing (even though when we were there it was way too chilly to swim in my opinion AND we don’t surf), we basically remember it as a town that had pretty bad food and where Brandyn wasn’t feeling great so we just sort of sat around for a few days, which was actually quite relaxing. Random memories:

  • La Casa Suisa (which we didn’t stay at but should have) had an excellent breakfast with warm, soft, fresh homemade bread – a welcome relief after so made dry hard rolls. So good that we ate lunch there too that same day (pizza – also very good).
  • The owner of “Chill Out” (a hostel/bar/restaurant across the street from our place) was an Irish guy probably in his mid-50s but looked 10 years older due to his chain smoking/drinking who had a pet baby Falcon he had rescued and just kept talking and bragging about his success with his hostel, how much he drank the night before, how catastrophic the upcoming elections were going to be and how great the party was going to be that night, etc. We politely nodded, didn’t fall for his drama, and still went to bed at 8pm every night. They did serve a good curry dish though.
  • Our craving for Mexican food that was met with grave disappointment. My fish taco was supposed to be battered freshly caught fish, shredded cabbage and some white sauce. Tasty, right? Instead (after 30 min or more of waiting), I got a big folded tortilla made out of some fried dough filled with CANNED TUNA and some cooked peppers. What?! And of course, no acknowledgement that what I ordered did not in any way match what I got.
  • My victorious search for a scanner! I had to send our Inca Trail travel agency scanned copies of my old passport, new passport and police report (so that they could submit a special request to the government to switch my registration information to my new passport number). Easier said than done. I asked about 3-4 people where I could find a place with a scanner (all locals) and answers ranged from shrugs to “there are no scanners in Huanchaco” to “I have a copier, no scanner” to various vague waving of hands in the direction of down the street to point to a possible location. After much wandering I found a laundromat/internet place and the super nice woman scanned and emailed me all my docs.

After a few days in Huanchaco we cabbed back to Trujillo and took another night bus, this time to Lima (about 7 hours). Sorry Lima, nothing really interesting to say about you. We stayed only one night, at an okay hostel in Miraflores (suburb of Lima) and met some other nice travelers (a few lived in Park Slope – yay Brooklyn!!). It was Election Day (Sunday) and the city (the whole country in fact) was under “la ley seca” which prohibits the sale of alcohol for the whole weekend. Luckily, our hostel served beer (some loophole because they are a private residence??) Anyway, the best part about our stay in Lima is that we went to a mall and bought a camera to replace our stolen ones. Yay! Same brand, slightly lower model but still a good camera for our needs. Bought it, raced back to the hostel and took a few victory pictures. Oh, and Lima is perpetually covered in some kind of fog/smog.

From Lima, we left the next day at 2pm to take another long bus ride, this time all the way to Cusco – 20 hours. It sounds awful, but we were on Cruz del Sur which is a luxury bus with “bus cama” seats which are big, leather, and recline 160 degrees. So it’s actually quite comfortable, and they give you some food (not good, but sustenance at least) and they play a lot of movies which for me is bad since I never can ignore them and sleep and feel like I MUST watch them to the bitter end no matter how bad they are. Anyway, the ride was fine until around midnight or something when we were going through a very curvy and steep road winding around mountains and it was making me so nauseous and bus-sick feeling so I ended up NOT sleeping and sitting up all night willing myself to not throw up. Not the best ride.

Arrived in Cusco Monday morning April 11 and spent the next 4 days getting used to the altitude (about 11,000 feet) which basically entailed lots of resting, not too much walking around, drinking lots of clear liquids like water and coca tea, and no alcohol. I definitely felt more lethargic than usual, and had less of an appetite (who, me?) but other than that felt okay. Cusco is a beautiful city. Our hostel was a short walk to the main plaza which had a huge fountain and was surrounded by a gorgeous cathedral and another church. We had perfect sunny weather and the city just seemed so crisp and clear. We were starting to feel more confident/comfortable taking our new camera out and though I kept being paranoid (or freakazoid as Brandyn calls me not-so-affectionately) about people wanting to rob us, we managed to take a lot of cool pictures. Memories of Cusco:

  • Leaving the hostel one morning and running into a parade that was celebrating Cusco’s anniversary (forget which number). Costumes were colorful, ornate and the dancing and music-making was so celebratory. Hard to capture on film, but it was great to witness.
  • Discovering sopa criolla which was a beef broth with milk, noodles (looked like spaghetti), chunks of beef, tomato, and hard-boiled egg. Sounds weird but it was absolutely delicious and hearty and comfort-food like. Somehow I found the appetite to eat that. : )
  • Not being able to walk down the street without being accosted by someone selling paintings (which honestly I would have bought if I weren’t on the road for the next 8 months) or saying “Massage? Massage?” We probably said “No gracias” 15 times a day, no joke.
  • Finally venturing out to do some exercise to warm ourselves up for the Inca Trail…walked about 30 minutes north of Cusco to an Incan ruin called Sacsayhuaman (pronounced in Spanish it sounds like “Sexy Woman” in English which apparently is super funny to a lot of people). We had a university student guide us through the ruins (for free plus a tip) and we learned a bit about how amazing the Incans were at building structures and fitting stones together so perfectly, how the Spaniards came and conquered Cusco and killed so many innocent people, and how Cusco is shaped like a puma, with Sacsayhuaman as its head, Cusco’s main plaza as its heart, and its tail where the city’s two main rivers meet. Steep walk, great views, time well spent.

Friday April 15 we left for our 4-day hike on the Inca Trail, culminating in our arrival at Machu Picchu. There are few words to describe this trek other than absolutely amazing and challenging and awe-inspiring. We met fantastic people (in our 16-person tour group), learned a lot about Incan culture and the surrounding flora and fauna from our incredible guide Percy, and were constantly stunned by the jaw-dropping scenery in the form of craggy topped mountains, lush valleys, carefully constructed Incan ruins, acres of farmland, rainforests, endless stone steps, and more. It was enough to make you forget that you were sometimes ascending or descending 1,000 meters in a day, sweating like crazy, trying to suck in the limited oxygen, and smelling pretty bad. For more reflections and of course, pictures, I’ll have to refer you to Brandyn’s blog which is still being created (but I’ll link to it when it’s up).

After the Inca Trail victory (and celebratory beers with our new friends in Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu) we went back to Cusco by train to shower for the first time in 4 days, get some sleep, and pick up our bags. We weren’t ready to leave the general area yet, but wanted to get out of the city, so we headed to a small town in the sacred valley called Ollantaytambo on a series of local buses where we were the only gringos on board and our bags were tossed up top and roped onto the bus/van. Three hour trip, worth the 8.90 soles it cost us together…a little less than $3.  We found an ADORABLE place to stay called Hostel El Tambo which looked like nothing special from the outside but had a huge flowery courtyard with great views of the surrounding mountains and ruins. Peaceful, clean and airy, it was just what we needed after the fast pace and dirtiness of trekking the Inca trail.  Cost for a private room (shared bathroom) with window views of the ruins? 50 soles…or $18 a night.  We unloaded our filthy clothes to be washed, grabbed an excellent almuerzo del dia of soup and grilled trout, and let the relaxing begin.

A few days later we decided to hit the road again and head to Arequipa, a city further south that was reported to have big Easter Celebrations (we were right in the middle of Holy Week or Semana Santa as it’s called here.  Another night bus + curvy hills = more nausea and no sleep. Arequipa, which we had heard so much about, frankly was a bit of a disappointment. Called “the white city” due to the fact that many of its buildings are made of sillar, a pearly white volcanic material, Arequipa is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and thus we were expecting something sort of amazing. But Arequipa turned out to be just another city, sort of crowded, with taxis that we were instructed not to take off the street (by the Tourist Information office) since many of them rob tourists. Yuk. BUT the city is in a valley surrounded by three huge snow-capped mountains – El Misti volcano (5,822 m), Chachani (6,057 m) and Pichu-Pichu (5,669 m) –  so anytime when you were feeling like the city is ho-hum you just had to look up and see a huge awesome backdrop. We dubbed them the “invisible mountains” because no matter how many times we tried to take pictures of the view our camera for some reason wouldn’t capture the mountains…or they’d just be an unimpressive faint outline. So google image search the names of the mountains if you really want to see what they look like.

Our hostel in Arequipa was fine – a place called Hostal Solar – but the staff weren’t that helpful and the place had few common areas to meet with/learn from other travelers.  Plus we arrived on Good Friday and most of the attraction (museums, churches, etc.) were closed.  Oh well. We caught the tail end of one procession on our first night there, but it wasn’t that great…certainly not the huge festive event I had in mind. The next day we decided to go on a double-decker bus tour of the city and surrounding countryside which was sort of cheesy and poor quality, but was a fun way to see a lot of the city that otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to get to. We also did research on what tour agency to use for a trek to Colca Canyon (which was the other reason why we wanted to go to Arequipa, due to its proximity to the Canyon).

Quick aside about Colca Canyon – it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and is surrounded by massive mountains and snow-capped volcanoes (different ones from the ones at Arequipa – Sabancaya and Ampato). Big attraction in the area for travelers – we had several recommendations from people we met on the road to spend a few days exploring the canyon.

We signed up for a 3 day/2 night trip with a tour group called Land Adventures which was highly recommended by several different sources. Left our big backpacks at our hostel and were picked up on Easter Sunday at 3:30am (UGH) to head to Chivay (3,500 m) a town near the Canyon about 3 hours from Arequipa where we had breakfast and breathed in the cool high altitude air. Then back on the bus to Cruz del Condor, a fantastic lookout for duh, condors. Wasn’t sure what to expect but it was AMAZING. Basically we were standing/sitting on a mountain ridge where about 8-10 condors were swooping down into the valley again and again. These things are huge! Wingspan can get to about 10.5 feet, and their heads are super weird looking and ugly (kind of like a turkey I think) but they were mesmerizing to watch. We took a bunch of pictures but (of course) they do not at all compare to the real thing.

Places like Cruz del Condor have this odd contrast…they have this beautiful natural feel from the untouched nature that you’re looking at, yet are also super touristy  (there were about 15 tourist buses and hundreds of people there watching the condors when we were there). And also there are the local indigenous women in their gorgeous native clothing sitting there selling handicrafts, bottled water, and candy bars like Snickers and Twix. An interesting juxtaposition, but for some reason the crowds/touristy feel didn’t bother me – probably because you just couldn’t take your eyes off the valley and the condors.

We left the lookout and continued on to another town Cabanaconde (2,200 m) where we met up with our guide, Joselym (pronounced Josel) and started our trek. Day one was a pretty intense downhill route, on a dusty and gravely trail – not easy on the knees. We were zigzagging our way down through the canyon and stopping to take pictures along the way, but unfortunately our guide was forcing us to walk fast, saying we ‘had to’ reach the bottom of the canyon in two hours. No easy feat – it was tough to keep a quick pace (and it was sooo hot out) and I felt like I was missing out a bit on enjoying the gorgeous views since we were concentrating so hard on our footwork. We reached the bottom of the canyon, had a celebratory soda and some avocado (Josel said it would help our knees recover quicker) and then hiked up for a change for about another few hours to the village where we were spending the night with a local family. Absolute bare bones accommodations – tin roof, concrete walls and dirt floor, but it was interesting to essentially see what the family there lived like and to do the same. The town was small, peaceful and mainly comprised of farmers (fruits and other crops). In the morning we went out with the sun to the fruit trees to pick some avocados, oranges and lemons (which I carried). Then we were on our way again for 2 hours to the real bottom of the canyon to a place Sangalle or the Oasis as it’s called. There we got to swim, eat lunch, rest and prepare for the hot and steep walk up out of the canyon. We needed to climb from 200 m to 2,200 m….and our guide said it would take about 3 or 3.5 hours.  It was STEEP!! Constant uphill, gaining altitude, glaring hot sun and an unsympathetic guide that was not eager to stop and take breaks/pictures. But we did it! Slow and steady we made it up in about 2 hours and 45 minutes and then had another 40 minutes of walking back into town. We showered, went out for a celebratory beer, ate dinner and passed out to rest our aching muscles, joints and blisters.

After returning to Arequipa post trek, we decided it was time to leave Peru and make our way to Bolivia. We had many conversations about the border crossing (since U.S. citizens need a visa to enter Bolivia and we had been hearing mixed information about what we needed to have ready besides the cash fee…photos? Copies of passport? Hotel reservation? Who knows?) We then caught a bus to Puno, close to the border with Bolivia and stayed there for the night, since crossing the border that day would’ve been cutting it a bit close time-wise. Cute town, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, had a great lunch, a good walk around town, bought a few alpaca wool scarves, had a few beers at the hostel, and then went to bed since our bus out of Peru and over the border was leaving at 7:30am the next morning.

So that was Peru. When I look back on it, I have two strong and favorite memories that aren’t really particular moments in time, but rather just general essences of the country. The first is the spectacular mountains and valleys in southern Peru…from the Inca Trail to the Sacred Valley to Colca Canyon, every step of the way whether it was on a hiking trail, out our bus window, or our view from the dinner table was just so incredibly picturesque and magnificent it was like living in a postcard.

My second memory is of the indigenous women.  I had seen some of them when we were in Ecuador (in Otavalo in particular) but really saw most of them in Peru. They just look so amazing and proud and strong and colorful. They usually wore these gorgeous dresses or skirts made of beautiful woven and embroidered fabrics, had long braided hair, and then some type of hat depending on their specific tribe/culture…from intricately embroidered hats to tiny bowler hats, they were truly the pièce de résistance of the outfits. Oh, and 9 times out of 10 these women were carrying something (or someone) on their backs in a colorful woven fabric that was tied around their shoulder like a satchel. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, but also didn’t want to be rude and take too many pictures of them, but managed to get a few covert ones. As cheesy as it sounds it was like stepping back in time to see them since they have been dressing this way for hundreds of years. Just incredible.




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