Colca Canyon and Inca Trail

Trip Start Jul 15, 2004
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Trip End Jul 15, 2005


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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Hello Amigos,

It has been quite a while since I updated my travelogue and to say that a lot has happened in the meantime is almost an understatement. So sit back and relax...this may take a while!

Last time I updated I was heading off to the Colca Canyon from Arequipa, complete with a fairly stubborn cold. The trip to the Colca Canyon was long, but quite a bit of fun. Firstly we had a great guide, called Jesus...and a great bus...complete with a wonderful tape collection by our driver that had us singing along as we climbed and climbed in altitude. The landscape was again quite barren, although there were some fairly impressive cacti along the way. We got to see lots of llamas and alpacas by the side of the road in all sorts of colours. The drive took us by some of the active volcanoes that surround Arequipa. At one point we reached a pass that took us to the altitude of 5000 metres above sea level...there was even snow. Here I made a stone tower, a tribute to the gods, and there are thousands of them all over the place in these mountains, it is an Incan tradition, heartily adopted by all people who travel this way it seems. Some people had big towers...I stuck to a small and modest tribute. At this altitude I can tell you that your head just swims. We walked up a small hill and all of us went dizzy and short of breath. At this point, there were some markets too...we all bought something. Us girls all went for alpaca jumpers, and the boys for these great jackets, although they all blamed the altitude for them liking them! Seriously, they are nice jackets but probably a little louder than most people wear.

We arrived in a town called Chivay at the edge of the Colca Canyon, and went to this place that had an amazing buffet lunch, so much vegetarian food, it was lovely! They also had a band playing for us, and a little girl danced, and then asked me to get up and dance too. She was very young, and dressed traditionally...she was a pretty cool little dancer also. Completely wore me out. Chivay is the largest town in the area, and most of the people are indigenous and dress traditionally, which was fantastic to see. There are similarities in dress from Ecuador but lots of differences too in shapes of hats, colours and patterns of skirts and accessories.

Our hotel in the Colca Canyon was really nice, and had some resident alpacas who true to form tried to spit at the people patting them...charming animals really! So by this stage it was about 4.30 in the afternoon and we decided to go for a hike. So off we went, through the town, cobbled streets and locals herding donkeys, goats and cows, not something you see on your average afternoon walk. Then we started walking up the mountain, and suddenly I really felt the fact I still had a cold, in fact a chest infection because as we kept going up to an altitude of over 4,000 metres I thought someone had plunged a knife in my chest and decided to keep twisting it around. So much pain, I didnt even get a chance to notice if my legs were finding the uphill hard! I was also starting to wonder if I was going to manage the Inca Trail at this stage, especially as everyone seemed to think one of my lungs was going to be coughed up any minute. And I wasnt the only one struggling with the whole thing, so as we went up and past Inca and pre Inca ruins, it became obvious that the walk was taking longer than expected and it was going to go dark while we were still up in the mountain...Are you noticing a pattern here? So, it went very dark, no light and we are now decending a mountain path. I fell twice, and once grabbed something to my left to stop falling which turned out to be a large cactus, with huge spines...ouch. To say it was just cold almost seems like an understatement too! But, we made it, and then we were back in Chivay, in time to see a town celebration...with so many people and all dressed traditionally and a band playing. Once again it was one of those unexpected moments that we keep seeming to stumble upon. At one point standing in the corner of this square was a guy who was about the coolest character I have ever seen. He was in the shadows, pants, faded poncho, chin down with his hat on...I almost thought he had to be a statue until he moved. It was too dark to take a photograph unfortunately. We were all a little cold now, so went to the hot springs that were just out of the town. They were very nice, but it was so cold outside that the pool didnt seem to feel hot enough. I struggled to get warm, and enjoy the millions of stars that were there above us...the milky way and the southern cross so clear, and more stars than I have seen since I was very young. I think we just get used to the fact that the light around cities blocks off so many of the stars.

So, we had an early start the next morning to see what we came to see, the Colca Canyon and the giant Andean Condor. We got to the Canyon, which was very impressive and nearly 2kms deep where we stood. The morning was very crisp and we got to our Condor lookout point with about 400 other people. We are so used to not seeing a lot of tourists in any one place, this was such a shock for everyone. But, just as we got there, a condor appeared and they are large and beautiful and just soar above you, it was quite breathtaking. Trying to take a photo proved to be useless, and although I have a couple, they are just specks really. It is hard to tell a soaring condor to stop for a photo. All in all, we had about 6 flying around in the space of a couple of hours. Very lucky I think and they are endangered so it makes it quite a special experience. The Condor is a very important bird for the Andean people and seems to embody the spirit of the Andes itself.

We left after another quick hike, this time in daylight and thankfully less painful than the night before, and started out trip back to Arequipa. We again climbed high altitude, so we were all munching away on our Coca leaves and having a bit of a sing along again. Now, while I would say Coca makes you feel quite good, I dont think it is particularly mind altering or anything, however my travelling companions seem to disagree when I told them I could see the face of an Indian in the rock formation above us. It was there, seriously!

When we arrived back in Arequipa we ventured out to have a night out, and found this posh bar which was above the main square. Took forever to get the drinks and they were expensive but at the same time the view was worth it. I love the main squares in the cities and towns. In Australia people just dont seem to go out, but here people are always out, meeting friends, walking with their family, there are parades, music, always something happening everywhere. so everywhere just has this vibrancy and chaos that makes a city or town feel alive. I have to admit, it makes home feel a little too clean, a little too quiet and sterile...I think I love the chaos of South America.

From Arequipa we left the next morning on a Lan Peru flight to Cusco, which was quick and surprisingly smooth. Big plane too, but then Cusco is a pretty popular destination. Arriving at Cusco was an experience because it was so busy and there were people descending on you to sell you bags of Coca leaves for just 1 Sole (about 50c Aus). We stayed at a good hotel in the middle of the city, just near the sqare called Qosqo, which is the original name for this city and I believe it means 'navel' because this was the centre of the Inca world and a city of great importance. It is a cool little town, even though it is a bit on the touristy side. Shops everywhere, we all went a little nutty. Skye, Sze Fe and myself decided we wanted to buy some pants like Maria's so she took us to this store about the size of a broomcloset, which sold clothes, have a computer service and sold odds and sods. So I am there trying to try on pants with two people holding a sheet around me for 'privacy' and the guys all doing there best to pretend they didnt know we were changing and looking over it...it was such a silly situation and really very funny...you might have had to be there though! Anyway, mission accomplished, I got some pants...orange ones too, very funky!

The reason we were in Cusco though was to begin our Inca Trail adventure, something we had all been looking forward to so much. we met our guide Renee and got the briefing, a 4am start loomed the next day, so we had a quiet night in town, but at this fantastic cafe-bar owned by Aussies with some of the best food so far. Mind you, you really get hasselled a lot walking from place to place, especially at night as touters wait to get you into their cafe or club...lots of offers of free things...hmmm.

So, at 4am on a crisp Cusco morning 13 not so good morning people headed off to walk the Inca Trail....we got to Otyallambo first, and ended up having a fried egg sandwich and hot chocolates all round (somehow, stale toast at 4am just doesnt inspire for 9 hours walking). We then got back on the bus, and arrived at the 82km point along the trail, our starting point. We stocked up on the essentials...chocolate, alpaca socks, silly hats and walking sticks (little did we know the emotional attachment we would form with our sticks!) and met our porters for the trip. There were 18 of them, a guide and an assistant for the 13 of us...and the porters carried our sleeping bags, tents and small duffel bags for us...we could give them 7kg each to carry for us, the rest was in our day packs, but I dont think I quite had 7kg. Amazingly, each porter carries 20kg, which is now regulated, it used to be 40kg for some, I cant imagine it. I think we all felt a bit guilty giving them stuff to carry, it feels like a luxury to tell the truth. So, we had a start of the trail photo taken and got stamps in our passports and began the first day of the Inca Trail. It was pretty exciting, we were all buzzing by now.

The first morning we walked 9km, and it was fairly easy going and we were all feeling pretty good and walked quite fast. We got to our lunch spot and were amazed...we had a dining tent set up, there was a kitchen tent, bowls of water, soap and towels to wash our hands and feet and juice on arrival, and the porter who was the waiter...Santiago...wore a uniform! We had soup, hot drinks and a main meal....we were flabbergasted, and the the food was just SO good...leaves most cafes we have been to for dead. Anyway, we ate, rested and then the hard work came along about an hour later. We saw our first Inca ruins and then we started to go UP...and kept going UP, on the first part of Dead Womans Pass...and yes, I was wondering if I was going to be a dead woman at this point. There were steps, all shapes, sizes and conditions, for nearly 2 hours solid walking...and it was getting cold, really icy. I looked to my right, and the mountain just above had a lot of snow on it, so that explained the cold. The group had spread out at this point, i was about half way I guess, but you know, it doesnt bother you because all you want to do is FINISH! Finally I turned a corner of the mountain, and saw a camp site set up...I felt so happy, walked up to it only to discover it wasnt mine...luckily it was the next corner but those next 30 steps were really hard! Plus the wind was blowing, and it was cold, really really cold...my fingers went numb, time for the thermals! However, how can you complain when you have your tent put up for you, a blow up mattress set up and a gourment 3 course meal for dinner. what is more, on arrival at night we had afternoon tea of hot toasted buns, jam and hot drinks! We spent the night all getting warm and cosy in the dining tent, playing eyespy and some other silly games and getting a very late night (8pm). I slept like a log, although I somehow managed to twist my sleeping bag upside down so the hood was over my face and almost strangle myself with my sleep sheet (this is why I generally dont camp...I am much more of an indoor girl, lets be honest).

But in the morning we were woken up with coffee at our tents, bowls of warm water, and a view when you opened the tent to die for...a valley below, a snow capped mountain just next door and mountains stretching on and on. Yes, we were doing it tough.

We had been dreading the 2nd day, the rest of Dead Womans Pass, and oh boy, did it deliver, although I think we all did amazingly, and if I think about it now, I took it easy, made lots of stops, had my trusty walking stick and I made it. When you get to the top you are just over 4200 metres above sea level and have climbed an amazing amount of steps at a fairly steep ascent. Everyone cheered each person as they made it to the top, a great feeling for all of us, and a good spirit and feeling of support. I have been travelling with the most amazing group of people and the support and care for each other is more than I could have ever expected. What a treat to spend this experience with these people!

So, the next phase was a bone crunching down hill tramp, again thank you walking stick, although I did provide some amusement for Byron who I was walking with at this stage when I was attacked by a persistent bee and went running with my hands over my ears and trying to wave my stick over my head at the same time. He thought the coca and altitude had really got to me this time...but really, there was a bee! We had another unbelievable lunch, and then another pass to conquer, almost harded to do psychologically because going UP was just not something we wanted to do. But this was really all the hard UP bits done, and that night we again had an ridiculously good dinner, and night together in the tents. We were all on a high, lots of laughing and silliness before we went to sleep. This time I managed to sleep in my sleeping bag the correct way, but it got so cold. When we woke up, we found out why....it had snowed just above us on the mountain and once again, the view to wake up to was spectacular...I dont know if I will ever wake up to a more magical surreal scene....we were looking out across the Andes, snow capped peaks literally ringed the campsite and the morning was beautiful. What is more, it was Anthony`s birthday, and the porters had decorated the dining tent with streamers and balloons. We attached some of them to his backpack for the rest of the day too. The days walk was easier except for the 2 hours of going downhill which really was challenging. You think uphill is hard, but we all found the downhill bit harder on the knees, ankles (yep I had a tumble) and feet...but again, we made it...in good time too. According to our guide Renee, we were a very fast bunch...

The campsite on the third night was a huge one, the others had been smaller and quiet, but this was the big one...there was even a bar there, and of course we had to treat oursleves and Anthony to a beer! Also, there is a large Inca Ruin and a waterfall called `Forever Young` which some of us walked to after lunch and then jumped under...it was pretty cold, but felt fantastic and is supposed to keep you `forever young`...so I expect not to age at all anymore! That night was then just brilliant....unbelievably, the food just kept getting better and better with each meal, and this last night was exceptional...they even made Anthony a birthday cake! We ended up having a ceremony with the Porters and guides, and gave them tips and personally said thanks and it was a good moment all around.

The fourth day is of course the big one, Machu Picchu...so we started again at 4am, and headed off for an hour to the Sun Gate. It was great to walk along as the sun came up, and we climbed the many steps to the Sun Gate to see Machu Picchu, but on this day the weather wasnt with us...we woke up to rain, and in the valley the cloud settled and was keeping Machu Picchu secret from us, we saw it briefly, but despite waiting the cloud didnt lift, so we kept walking towards the city itself and hoping to be able to see it fully. Although it was a bit disappointing, the cloud and the way it moved and would reveal the city fully was quite magical and special too. And when you see glimpses and then finally the whole city, it is a very moving experience, which could have a lot to do with all those steps...but still you feel it and it is a very special place. If you cant do the walk, then get there anyway by train....you wont regret it.

Well, I have written so much about this, but this was such a brilliant and major experience I feel like I have left so much out. We walked around the city, and it was fascinating and baffling too. The Incas seem to have just loved building, and the extent of the cities and towns all along the trail seem to defy belief in terms of time and effort to build them. The terracing alone is mind boggling in volume and the engineering required to build. Machu Picchu gets very busy by midday and we were having a big laugh because after 4 days of walking, camping, not showering and looking pretty grubby we were getting some strange stares from the groups of fresh clean tourist groups who had arrived via bus in their very bright white shoes (their clothes looked so new, so in turn we were having a chuckle at them for looking SO ridiculously clean!). We had to leave our sticks outside of the site, and it was a sad goodbye for all (sounds daft I know, but we really were happy to have them). Thanks to Peru Rail we couldnt get back to Cusco as planned that night and stayed in a town called Aqua Caliente (literally Hot Water) and stayed in a suspect little hostel for the night, where the third floor was still being built...room 307 which Charlie and Kenny stayed in was still being built, but we went to the hot springs and relaxed and had a night of celebrations...later that night I found myself dancing in a very tragic nightclub and remembering I had to be up at 6am to get back to Cusco...ouch!

So, this is the tale of my Inca Trail adventure, all 50,000 words of it! And now I am in La Paz and seriously behind in writing about the last week since we got back. In summary, we partied a little too hard on our return to Cusco and spent a lot of money shopping! We visited the very cool Inca Museum and Temple of the Sun and then had our last night in Cusco...which unfortunately went a little bad for me, as I got hit by a very nasty case of food poisoning...which found me being loaded onto our bus to Puno one very sick person and apparently looking as white as a ghost and not being able to make a coherent sentence...BUT thanks to lots and lots of drugs, I got over it and now feel fine. So, fingers crossed I have now had all my problems! OK...I promise you can stop reading now and go back to the things you need to do...I am sure the day has all but disappearred after reading all this...but thanks for reading! Keep the emails coming, I miss news from home.

take care
Sarah
xx
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