Peru — trip #1

Stop saying “that was a trip of a lifetime” because that makes it sound like my last big international adventure — and I swear it won’t be.

It was my first trip to South America, but 10 days just scratched the surface of so many destinations and opportunities there, not to mention the fabulous welcoming people, inexpensive travel and gorgeous landscapes. I used to love visiting Europe and wouldn’t sneeze at doing it again but seriously? Screw $50 lunches and people who’d rather spit at you than help you, I’m looking south from now on.

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I signed up with Bioandean Expeditions about 10 weeks before going, and started running harder to train. Despite a couple bike crashes and stuff I felt like my aerobic capacity and leg strength had improved enough to tackle the trip — part of the issue would be altitude, the other the significant 4 day hike we planned to do. And I couldn’t be upstaged by my 20 year old daughter and translator, Grace, who was flying from Rio, Brazil to meet me.

Let’s get the useful information out of the way first: altitude sickness feels like a hangover. We attempted to acclimate in Cusco, Peru for a couple days before the trip, walking up and down the city’s stair-lined streets and sampling local delicacies like grilled alpaca.We tried to stay away from Cusquena, the local beer (the “black” version is really good) but they had great 2-for-S/12 deals on 620 ml bottles in our hostel bar (it’s the approx equivalent of $4 for 4 beers)… so by day three I had the altitude headache AND THEN we got picked up by a van at 4am to start the trek and the twisting turning roads took a toll on my stomach as well..

So my antidote to altitude sickness was puking on the side of the road with 10 groggy strangers watching from the van. After that, I never had another altitude sickness headache or any symptoms. I’m just wondering how to market that cure — relabeling bottles of Ipecac?

The challenge: 4 days of trekking

Cusco is at 11,000 feet; our trek with Bioandean would take us to the Salkantay pass at 15,000 ft in two days, then down into a jungle and back up Machu Picchu (7,900 ft) and Huaynapicchu (8,900 ft). The days were divided roughly into 7 hours, 9 hours, 5 hours and 3 hours of hiking respectively. Our guide said the first three days amounted to about 35 miles of walking. (He had no estimate of the number of photos I’d take… 368??)

the pack horses knew what they were getting into but did we?

day one: the pack horses knew what they were getting into but did we?

The first day included a lot of steep uphill climbs into the foothills.. and our guide had said this was “easy peasey”?? Not really, but it provided some insight into the psychology of getting people to do what their bodies might balk at. He warned us repeatedly that the second day would be really tough, three hours straight up, then two hours to the lunch spot and 4-5 hours downhill. Gulp.

 

me and my trekking partner, 20-year-old Grace who is living in Rio

me and my trekking partner, 20-year-old Grace who is living in Rio

So at the end of our first 7 hour day, the group (a Dutch couple, a Brit, a Swiss woman, a Brazilian couple and four Americans including Grace and me) had chatted and bonded and despite the aches and pains, relaxed over dinner (I must say the Expedition company provided excellent food for us along the way, carried by pack horses). A few expressed concerns about the 3-hour uphill forecast for the next day.

a tiny outpost along the way -- the Andean 7-11 selling drinks and candy bars (no slurpees)

a tiny outpost along the way — the Andean 7-11 selling drinks and candy bars (no slurpees)

The morning of Day 2 included a great breakfast of pancakes decorated with flower designs (in syrup) and accompanied by hot fruit cocktail. We had hot cocoa and nescafe coffee and wedges from a big round loaf of bread smothered in butter and marmalade. Carb heaven for hiking! They passed out snacks of apples and packages of cookies for us to carry to our first break spot, a lagoon high in the mountains, about 2 hours into the hike. The weather was cloudy, literally. We were up in the clouds. Clouds are misty and cool, but they made for dramatic scenery as dark jagged peaks were briefly revealed when the clouds were wispy.

Reaching the summit

Now I have to get a little philosophical. There’s hiking, and then there’s hiking. This trip was definitely both. When you’re setting out, you’re just hiking, putting one foot in front of the other, burning fuel, enjoying the scenery. But when you’re feeling new muscles  with every step, when you’re walking alone through the mist for an hour or so with nothing in particular on your mind, when you realize that the rocks around you have been there for millennia, the activity becomes a meditation. You don’t think about emails and relationships and the bills you have to pay. You focus on the three feet of muddy, rocky earth in front of you and the peace and calm all around. Of course the cocoa leaves our guide taught us to chew might have nudged this illumination along.

the snow-capped mountains were just the icing on this meditative trek

the snow-capped mountains were just the icing on this meditative trek

Around this point, we reached the summit we’d sought. It was more than a physical achievement and I’m not ashamed to say between getting there and the amazing Incan ceremony our guide led us through (prayers to the Pacha mama and the protector mountains) brought a tear to my eye, not to mention that it was accomplished alongside one of my daughters. If you don’t have a transformative experience on such a trek, I have to ask if you are capable to having one at all in your life — if you’d know a transformative experience if one ran you down?

Getting beyond the aches and pains was one aspect of the transformative achievement. Believe me, after a couple days of long hikes on this sort of grade (both up and down) one becomes intimately acquainted with body’s many muscles and ligaments. In a moment of humor, our guide Tony said, “If you are sweating it’s your fat crying.” I’ll keep that simple sentiment in mind.

The jungle

Day three, we had descended back into a reasonable climate with clear skies and had a good night in a family’s campground/back yard. Like most of these remote outposts they sold bottled water, beer … and for the first time, hot showers for about $3.50. After my shower I bought two beers off a little girl of about six who was sent into the family bodega because her mother couldn’t be bothered.

Here is where we discovered a serious disconnect with the world: our group of hikers had collectively spent thousands on wicking clothing, high-tech boots, telescoping poles and breathable rain gear to do this trip once while some of our guides made the trip over the mountain many times a month in jeans and sneakers. No joke.

the high tech gear that a couple of our guides wore (and they do the mountain several times a month)

the high tech gear that a couple of our guides wore (and they do the mountain several times a month)

Instead of the Lord of The Rings scenery we had on the back side of the mountain, we were now in lush jungle with waterfalls cascading across the path and beautiful flowers everywhere. Swarms of orange and black butterflies flew overhead. And then came the bugs. Grace had warned me about the mosquitoes and she wasn’t kidding — the little monsters could do a number of any amount of exposed skin. They weren’t in our faces, but for those who dared change to shorts they quickly chewed on legs and ankles, leaving itchy, nasty welts.

our final campground where hot showers were $3.50

our final campground where hot showers were $3.50

The jungle is where our guide, Tony’s, skills shone: he had answered many, many questions about history and culture (and Quechua language from Grace) along the way, but he clearly enjoyed discussing the plants and animals of the jungle. He cut us each a portion of mare’s tail (looks like bamboo) so  we each had a “flute” to play while another group trekked through (obviously not having as much fun as we were). He warned us against drying and smoking leaves of a particular plant with medicinal properties because other tourists had done it and “were stoned for a week” — thanks, I hadn’t thought of that!

plant used in ancient brain surgery, Tony said -- don't smoke the leaves!

plant used in ancient brain surgery, Tony said — don’t smoke the leaves!

We split from the rest of the group (who were on a 5-day cycle) and took the train to Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. It was a smart move as the alternative was a three-hour hike along the train tracks. The mountains here changed from steep and conical to steep and pointy with sheer rock walls plunging to the Urubamba River.

 

the jungle trek was long but much easier than the mountains

the jungle trek was long but much easier than the mountains

 

we experienced a series of climate changes on the trip, ending in the steeply conical mountains near Machu Picchu

we experienced a series of climate changes on the trip, ending in the steeply conical mountains near Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Everyone back home was focused on Machu Picchu — “you’re going to Machu Picchu!” — but it was just the terminus of the trip, not really the high point. We did the tourist thing and got up at 4am to Grace’s alarm playing the theme song to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” How appropriate. It’s about a 20 minute walk in the dark to the gatehouse that opened at 5am to let hikers cross the bridge to the steps up the mountain. Tony had warned us that his last count totaled 1,600+ stairs and it was definitely on our minds as we started out with hundreds of others in the pre-dawn hours. It wasn’t much fun to join this herd and move up the steps as one giant caterpillar with thousands of legs after our wonderful, isolated trek in the mountains.

getting to Machu Picchu means climbing at least 1,600 stairs

getting to Machu Picchu means climbing at least 1,600 stairs

Machu Picchu was not the serene hike we were used to, it attracts thousands of tourists a day

Machu Picchu was not the serene hike we were used to, it attracts thousands of tourists a day

Then the buses started, disgorging dozens of tourists at the site so by the time we reached the top at 6am there was already a long line to get in. No surprise it’s on the UNESCO list of endangered sites.

Of course the historical and archaeological aspects of the site were staggering, but so was the number of tourists. Tony gave us a great personal tour, including the temple of the condor, the Intihuatana stone that acts like a compass, and the history of Yale professor Hiram Bingham’s location and excavation of the jungle to reveal the walls and terraces we now see.

I don't mean to downplay the beauty and impressiveness of Machu Picchu but it wasn't really the high point of our trip

I don’t mean to downplay the beauty and impressiveness of Machu Picchu but it wasn’t really the high point of our trip

Our last uphill hike was to Huaynapicchu, the gorgeous spiked peak that overlooks Machu Picchu. It took some fortitude (and snacks) to prepare. Our legs were quite sore from the days of hiking and the morning of ascending steps, but realizing that only 400 people a day are allowed to climb to this secondary peak, we knew we had to do it.

There are few ways to describe the steps to the top of Huaynapicchu. Scary is one word. Rustic is another. They clearly don’t have the same liability concerns that American tourists sites have. We could have fallen off the side of the mountain at any time and tumbled the 1,900 or so feet to the Urubamba river — and nobody would even know. When we reached the top there were even more scary, tiny steps — ladder-like — alongside the stone structures at the top. And a cave we climbed through on the quest for the summit.

Finally we found a place to relax at the summit, right where the “path” to the exit was literally a crease in a sheer rock face. The view of Machu Picchu was great, about 1,900 feet below us, but the prospect of unclimbing all those stairs (first Huaynapicchu to Machu Picchu then down to the town) was painful to consider. We conjured a vision of pizza and beer and got going. Fortunately there was a woman along the way selling big slices of bundt cake (no joke) which was a good way to fortify.

descending from Huaynapicchu -- you wouldn't want to stumble or you'd end up in the river about 2000 feet below

descending from Huaynapicchu — you wouldn’t want to stumble or you’d end up in the river about 2000 feet below

My opinion: GO. See the places, enjoy the people. Get away from the good old USA for a while and unplug from the up-to-the-minute news. Gain some perspective on life from ancient cultures. But let the journey be your destination.

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2 Responses to “Peru — trip #1”

  1. AnaLuciaSilva Says:

    Great shots =)

  2. Kathryn O'Leary Says:

    Next best thing to being there!

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