The Machu Picchu trekking saga

Trip Start Oct 08, 2007
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Trip End Dec 16, 2008


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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Thursday, August 14, 2008

Machu Picchu is beautiful. After five days of trekking, I finally arrive here in a misty morning, just after sunrise, sniffing, limping and scratching. The top of the hill is covered in clouds that move faster than a dream in mid-night, revealing 30 sec snapshots of the site, so true to the original post-card perfect image in my head, it is unreal. Snif. Those cold nights and dusty roads really got my nose running. Snap a photo. Scratch. I itch everywhere from bug bites that are infected and swollen and red, an itchy like hell. Snap. Limp closer. Snap again. My right knee is killing me. So is my left thigh. More specifically, a muscle in my left thigh I didn't know existed until yesterday. It is the one you use to go downhill, sideways, right leg first (to protect right knee).

But let me start from the beginning. After three weeks in Cuzco, my energy levels, hugely supplemented by the daily doses of coca tea followed by café con leche, had risen to levels acceptable to venture outside of the city. In fact, Machu Pichu is at lower elevations than Cuzco, so had I been willing to take the tourist train to Aguas Caliente, the small town just below the ancient Inca sight, it would have taken me 3 hours to get here and I would have felt better at once. Nay, I wanted to trek it. The numero uno tourist trek, The "Inca Trail", not being available because of its popularity and being booked for six months ahead, I opted for the alternative Salkanty Trek instead. It was supposed to be tougher, but more plentiful in the vistas department.

After a day of tramping on dirt roads that we share with the occasional car or a horse, however, I am unconvinced trekking is the best Peru has to offer. We arrive at the first camp in a valley surrounded by snow picks and a glacier in the foothills of Sulkanty mountains. It is enchanting, but it is cold. And it’s going to get worse. According to our guide, it is going to fall below -25C tonight. Just the though of it makes me shiver.

I am of course the only female traveling solo, and so, I have to share a tent with one of the guys. There is one single tent, but one of the guys is already spreading his stuff in it. He also doesn’t have a partner, he says, and he is entitled to the tent just as much as anyone else. Fair point, none the less, not very considerate. To be fair, I’m not concerned about sharing with the opposite sex. I graciously tell the apologizing guide that it is not a problem at all to share a tent with an unknown man and he, the guide that is, is very appreciative. The other guy, the usurper of the single tent, moves on to complaining about something else.  Good Lord, I am thinking, what a job this is to be a tour guide and to have to deal with cords of whining brats all day long. Some people are intolerably annoying and disrespectful. They fly half way around the world supposedly to experience different cultures, but end up wining about the service and the sleeping conditions all day long, and in general, behave as if the world owes them special treatment, just because they hold a first world passport. You get what you pay for. If you pay $140 for 5 days of trekking – food, porters, transport and tour of one of the 7 wonders of the world, included, what exactly service are you expecting? And why are you talking down to the guide with this tone. How much do you think he gets paid for his 5 days of work?     

It is -10 C and it is not even midnight. I have literally all my clothes on, 3 (three) pairs of alpaca socks, 2 pairs of alpaca gloves, an alpaca hat, a scarf, two hoods and 2 sleeping bags – my own and a rented one. I’m the only one in the group who has spent the extra $20 to rent an extra sleeping bag, and the only one who survives the night unfrozen. Still, when the guides wake us up at 4:30 am with a cup of coca tea, I’m ready to get up and get going. So ready in fact, when I spill some of my tea on the sleeping mat, it takes me 30 seconds to take it out of the tent, where the drops of hot tea cool and freeze before my eyes before wetting the fabric. I turn my misfortune of being outside at such ungodly hour into an opportunity to stage a few photos of the sunrise. I take the memory card and the camera battery out of the inside pocket of my jacket, where they spend the night to keep them warm and get the camera ready. None of the shots turn out great, but my memory card also freezes, therefore loosing some of the good shots of the day before and the days to follow. That’s how cold it is.   

The second day of trekking is spectacular. It goes over steep uphill, through a charmed alpine valley, again up a steep, steep uphill that leads to the Salkanty pass at 4,800m, and finally descends sharply to 3000 m, almost to the edge of the celva. All in all - 21 km. By the time we make it to camp No.2, my camera’s memory card is half full and my knees are aching. The evening is uneventful, everyone is tired and we all go to bed, or rather go to tent early. It should be warmer tonight, around 0 C, so I put on only two pairs of socks.

In the middle of the night I dream that a dog is chewing on my hand. I snap out of my dream, eyes wide open. It is darkness. The chewing continues. I take a breath and turn on my flash light. Non-sense! My tent-mate is squeezing my hand. I laugh somewhat nervous and say loudly: “Dude, you scared me!”. Glance at the watch – 1:30 am. In my half asleep state, I conveniently assume that he must have been mid-dreaming of his girlfriend or something. I turn off the light and try to go back to sleep. The chewing starts again. This time I flash my light in his face. He is greening. What the fuck! “Just stop it!” - I hisss very, very, very annoyed, turn away and go back to sleep. What the hell is he thinking?! And when exactly did I say or do something to encourage this midnight amorous behavior?! Let’s re-cap. Just as a background - the guy is Brazilian, from Chinese descent, engineer from Sao Paolo. He loves his job, he told me, without me asking. And what did I say or do? I chatted to him on the first day of trekking. I said that I’ve been to Brazil, that I loved China, and that I know how to say “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Toilet” in Chinese. Hardly a “Come on” behavior in my view. I also gave him a friendly look while he started a patronizing round of applause, when I finally made it to the pass - last in the whole group. Actually, I waved and smiled and said “Hello everyone, sorry to keep you waiting”.  That’s it. What do you think? Never mind, let me tell you what I think. This is B.S. I gave no signs whatsoever. There are too many guys with big imagination and complete lack of common sense. And even if I was giving out signs left right and center, why the hell did he decide I wanted to be awoken at 1:30 am? And what exactly were we supposed to do at 0 C, in a thin tent in the middle of a camp site. Huddle into each others arms, 3 layer of sleeping bags between us, and talk quietly about life? At 1:30 am?

Since I’m on the subject, let me say one more thing. Annoying number of individuals think that solo female travelers are out for a trouble. If I was a guy traveling alone – not a problem,  how wonderful, what a macho thing to do, go out there and explore the world, like a real man, out on his own. What a wonderful adventure! But wait, why would a woman be traveling alone? She’s ought to be looking for a trouble. Doesn’t she have a boyfriend to watch out for her? Where does this come from?! The movies? The children’s books? How many stories about male travelers are there – countless. And girls – just one – Alice. And she was only traveling, because she got lost in Wonderland. And wasn’t she chasing after a rabbit? We all know what rabbits do, don’t we? Not only are these people narrow-minded, shortsighted and sexist. Most of all, and that annoys me at a professional level, they lack any financial sense. If I’m out for a quick affair, why would I need to buy a ticket around the world for $5,000? All I need to do is walk to the nearest pub, take a sit at the bar, flip my hair and smile. Okay, maybe it is not so easy. Maybe I need to say “Hello” and make a small talk about the weather, but believe me, I wouldn’t need to tramp 40km uphill to get laid. So why am I here then? Like all the other people, for the challenge, for the adventure and to enjoy the nature. And I am talking about nature that still looks spectacular at 0C, if you know what I mean.

On the third day of this adventure I am dragging my right foot down, and down and down again, 20 km downhill to what appears to be a base camp three. I am way behind the group and the assistant guide is walking with me and teaching me Quechua – the language of the Incas that is still widely spoken in the highlands around Cuzco. The people here are very proud with their indigenous heritage, and prefer to teach you Quechua instead of Spanish. Once again, I’ve chosen the wrong place to be learning Spanish. After a while, the guide starts singing a traditional song in Quechua to demonstrate the versatility of the local culture. Very loosely translated, it goes like that:” Oy, oy, you woman, what are you doing in my corn field. I can see your red skirt from here. What are you doing in my cornfield? I’m gonna tell you father and let’s see what you gonna say then.” I wonder if this is the kind of song that local children, primly dressed in traditional outfits would sing for the tourists, or the kind of traditional song that youthful companies would sing around a campfire after too many cups of chicha (fermented cord drink that I haven’t tried yet). I bet on the latter, but I sing along any ways.  

After lunch, we are told that the camp is an hour drive down the road. The bus is not here for unknown, but surely legitimate reasons. Lucky for us there is a truck. I can’t possibly walk a minute longer. I get in the back of the truck with the other guys and galls from my group. Just when I’m thinking that it is not so bad, 30 other trekkers get in the truck behind us. And finally two dogs, for a good measure and on their own accord. We all laugh and joke that we are just like a cattle. If the truck was to slip and to fall down the steep cliff on the left, we are all dead, 100% guaranteed. And when the world press reports the accident after the medal count form the Olympics and before the weather reports, people from all over the world would be thinking “What were those idiots thinking?” Still, I can’t walk any more, so I spend the next hour pressed between a photographer from New York and a graduate student from Austria. One of the dogs is huddled on top of my bare feet. While trying to not lose my balance and step on the dog, am praying that the 80% deed mosquito repellent I spread over my legs half an hour ago protects against dog parasites. Finally, it all ends well. We arrive at the camp to the sight of few Brazilians singing and clapping a tune of Bebel Gilberto, one of them dancing with her hands stretched out as to embrace the World. As we disembark, the English galls have the most sensible reaction – light a fag and spent the afternoon drinking beer. “Tonight”, I announce to my guide, with a no-further arguments tone “I am sleeping in a tent alone”. He is a sensible guy, there is no further argument.        

When we finally make it to Aquas Caliente, covered with dust from the tourist busses that the saner tourist have taken, everyone is aching. The columniation of the hike is the day after - a 5 am steep climb to Machu Picchu, which take us to the site just in time to breath in the fumes of the first arriving bus. It is drizzling.   

  
 
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