Big Rocks, Stone Steps and the Incas

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
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Trip End Mar 30, 2006


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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

After leaving Huancayo we spent three nights in Lima. The capital doesn't have a great reputation among travelers but we enjoyed it. We stayed in an upscale suburb called Miraflores in a family home/bed and breakfast. It gave us an opportunity to eat falafel and good pizza while still making it into the hectic colonial center and other funky suburbs. From Lima we flew (airplane!) to Cuzco, saving us the fun of a 27 hour bus ride through the mountains. Cuzco is the hub of tourism in Peru, and some say in South America, as it is the closest city to one of South America's most famous landmarks - the Incan ruins of Machu Piccu. Cuzco was also the capital of the Incan empire and is a beautiful mix of old Incan foundations, colonial architecture and narrow cobblestone streets. We spent a total of eight nights in Cuzco or around Machu Piccu. We enjoyed being in Cuzco, though it is a tad touristy (actually, very touristy), but the real highlight was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Piccu and seeing other Incan ruins just outside of Cuzco.

The Inca Trail is a four day, three night, 48 km hike along an old stone pathway that was constructed by the Incas and used by messengers and pilgrims between Cuzco and the holy city of Machu Piccu (or at least that is everybody's best guess - the Incas didn't have written language and the Spanish didn't concern themselves much with preserving the Incan heritage post-conquest). The Inca Trail is now a pilgrimage for travelers in South America of all styles and ages. Although people used to be able to hike it on their own, it is now required to travel the Inca Trail using a tour agency. Our group consisted of the two of us, three other Americans (including our hero Bill, who at 65 years old never wavered on the trail's challenging ups and downs), two Swiss, two Swedish, three Irish and an Italian. We also had two Peruvian guides for our group and a total of 16 porters/cooks. The Inca Trail is very challenging, because of high altitude, unpredictable weather and lots of steep climbs and descents (including steps - imagine four hours on a greased up Stairmaster in the rain...) But the Inca Trail also is sort of hiking-lite. Porters carry all of the tents, food and cooking gear, and hikers have the option to pay extra to have porters carry most of the rest of their stuff (sleeping bags, clothes, etc...) The two of us opted not to hire extra porters (putting us in the minority in our group), which made the trip that much more challenging for us, though in some ways more gratifying (just to have been able to do it).

The first day our tour agency picked us up from our hostal around 6 a.m. and we took a bus to a town along the way for breakfast and to buy walking sticks, ponchos and coca leaves - chewed by the locals to ward off fatigue, hunger and the effects of altitude - don't worry, they are legal. We then took the bus further to the trail entrance (known as Kilometer 82). After distributing sleeping bags, sleeping pads and snacks and passing through the first checkpoint, we hit the trail. We hiked a total of five or so hours the first day, stopping for lunch along the way. We were all in shock when lunch (our first meal on the trail) was served. The porters, despite the towering loads of goods strapped to their backs with ropes (a minimum of about 40 pounds each), travel much of the trail running and had arrived before us. We were expecting pretty typical camp food, but were instead served a stuffed avocado appetizer, an excellent soup, and trout with vegetables and rice as the main course. Crazy! And that ended up being the norm for every meal - more food than we could possibly eat and better than we could have ever imagined. And the craziest part was that they cook everything on four gas burners - and using these burners they managed to cook pizza one night and lasagna another. It was among the best food we have had in South America.

The first day was the easiest and got us warmed up for what was to come. It was also a pretty walk and we passed some large impressive Incan ruins by a river along the way (see photo). The second day is infamous. It involves a 1,200 meter (4,000 feet) climb of a mountain pass, starting at an altitude of around 10,000 feet. It takes most people about 4 hours to make it to the top, and that is without any appreciable breaks of flats or downs. And to add to the fun, much of the end of the climb is on stone steps, which is unimaginably hard on the legs - and then it started raining for the last hour and due to the altitude it got pretty cold. When we finally reached the top of the pass, we were rewarded with a huge gust of wind coming up over the mountain and the change from uncomfortable rain to downpour. From there we got to go downhill for about an hour and a half on more stone steps. The change to downhill was nice for the first 10 minutes or so, but then we realized it was just fatiguing different muscles (even more so because we had to spend so much energy stabilizing ourselves on the slippery stones). Despite these conditions, the porters continued to run past us down the steps, in sandals made of used tires, their insane loads covered by ponchos that were flapping in the wind. Unfortunately, one of our porters (there are many other groups other than ours - each day about 200 tourists and 300 cooks, porters and guides start the trail) fell on the steps and had to pop painkillers the rest of the trip. Finally, though, we made it to camp and crawled into our tent to change into dry clothes (and whatever else we could find to keep warm - see photo of Allison with sarong cape and towel turban). We spent much of the rest of the day in our sleeping tents or food tent hoping the rain would pass so that our wet jackets, shoes and hats could dry out for the next day, but no luck on that front. Just had to put them all on wet the next morning.

We woke up the third day to better weather, but bad news from one of our fellow hikers. Martina, from Ireland, had gotten a really bad case of altitude sickness and had been up all night sick. Our guide had us all wait an extra hour to start the hike in hopes that she would get better and be strong enough to walk, but she was too dehydrated and weak, so our guide had one of the porters run back to a checkpoint to get a stretcher. Four porters ended up carrying Martina on a stretcher the whole third day... Luckily, she improved by the night, as we had descended quite a bit, and was able to walk the fourth day.

The hike the third day was really beautiful - we descended into semi-jungle and had amazing views from much of the path. We also could appreciate the beauty and construction of the stone Inca Trail much more in the sun than in the rain. We arrived at our third campsite tired, but happy to find it pretty warm - pretty much the lowest altitude on the trail. Also enjoyed the great view of white-capped mountains in the distance and some of us also got up to the energy to walk a short distance to another ruin located near the campsite - a huge terraced fortress down the side of a mountain (more photos).

Day Four is the final part of the walk to Machu Piccu, and most people like to arrive at Machu Piccu just before sunrise to watch the sun come up behind the ruins. The Incas built a structure located away from the rest of the city seemingly for the purpose of admiring the sunrise (now known as the Sun Gate). The Incas worshipped the sun and much of their architecture was related to its movements. Anyway, to get to the Sun Gate at sunrise, it is necessary to leave the checkpoint outside of the campsite at 5:30 when the control opens. And to do that, it is necessary to get up even earlier - our group was up at 3:45. So, we were the second group in line at the checkpoint and were off in a flash when the gates opened. We basically speed-walked for about an hour, part of it in the dark, and arrived at the Sun Gate right on schedule. The view was... unforgettable. But for the wrong reason - an immense fog had settled on the valley and we could barely see 10 feet in front of us. The one benefit of being the second group to arrive was watching every successive group's reaction when they walked through the gate. The whole crowd hung out for awhile hoping the fog would clear, but it became apparent that it was going to be long past sunrise before we would be able to see anything, so our group started walking down the path to the main part of the ruins. Since the fog prevented admiring anything far away, we spent awhile looking at the broad array of beautiful flowers that grow along the path, including some huge orchids.

After checking our bags at the main gate our group started a two hour tour with our guide. Machu Piccu is truly impressive. One of the most memorable features is its setting - because the Incas worshipped the sun, they built their holy city on the top of a steep mountain, surrounded by other equally steep mountains covered in green vegetation. The city also was strategically placed on a mountain located at the bend in an important river, adding to the dramatic scenery. The buildings are also impressive for their architecture. The most important buildings were constructed of carved stone blocks that were fit together without any sort of cement, but between which you couldn't slide a piece of paper. They also built their buildings using protruding portions of bedrock, which provided stability to their buildings as well as eliminated the need to get rid of the bedrock. In over 500 years these buildings have survived numerous earthquakes and the effects of time remarkably well. The Incas also used some parts of the bedrock for altars, although these portions were carved to suit their purpose (sacrifices of llamas, upper-class virgins, etc.). Some other interesting aspects of the site: a rock that was carved so that on the winter solstice, the rising sun would cast a shadow in the shape of a llama; certain rocks that were carved to point in the cardinal directions; and other rocks were carved to mirror the shape of mountains on the horizon. There is also one important building believed to be an important temple (the Temple of the Sun, if we remember right) with windows that directed light from solstices directly onto a carved altar.

After our tour, the two of us and three women from our group challenged our bodies further by climbing up one of the mountains that flanks the main portion of Machu Piccu (although the two of us felt like we were walking on air since we didn't have our packs on). The mountain is called Huayna Piccu and contains more ruins at the top, though, come to think of it, nobody ever told us what their significance was. But the climb to the top was well worth it as we had an aerial view of Machu Piccu and the surrounding valley.

After our climb down we spent some more time around the ruins and then met up with our group in a nearby town for lunch. (Side note - we haven't been able to avoid strikes in Peru, no matter where we go. But this time it worked more to our benefit than not - the trains had been shut down most of the day we were in Machu Piccu, which meant that the 1,000s of visitors who come in every day on the train were not there when we were - just the Inca Trail folks and a handful of tourists who had been in town the night before.) After a late lunch we took a four-hour train ride back to Cuzco (the trains had started running that night after the strikes subsided for the day - only put us about an hour and a half behind schedule).

We stayed in Cuzco three more days after returning from the Inca Trail. The first day post-hike we did practically nothing, as we were pretty tired. The second day we did a horseback tour to some ruins right outside of Cuzco, which, though smaller than Machu Piccu, were pretty interesting. One in particular, Sacsayhuaman, was impressive due to the immense stones that were carved and set into place to create it (see photo). The site also had the entertainment of some unique glaciated rocks that lend themselves to being used as slides and some Incan tunnels that our guide led us through - one of those few occasions where you experience absolute darkness.

We opted to stay one day later than we had originally intended because our main Inca Trail guide (Carlos) had invited those of us who would still be in town to attend his two-year-old daughter's baptism and the reception that followed. It was a great opportunity to witness such an event in a different culture (the ceremony was unique for the two of us, it being both Catholic and in Spanish). Also, the reception that followed was more like a wedding reception, complete with a head table and a four-tier cake. The effect of little Itala in her white bride-esque baptismal dress completed the similarity. The difference, though, was apparent when the clown showed up to get the festivities going. At one point we were pulled into a conga line that turned into what appeared to be a Peruvian kids game - sort of a combination of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and Simon Says. Unfortunately, though, we were pretty committed to taking an overnight bus that night to our next destination, feeling that we had already spent more time in Cuzco than we had planned, and that morning had learned that the latest bus that we needed left at only 8 p.m. So we left the reception with much still to come. It was too bad to have to leave so early and if we had known what was in store, we probably would have just put off leaving till the next day. C'est la vie.

Hope everyone is well - we'd like to hear what is going on in your lives... Email us and fill us in - we are always happy to get updates!
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