Hiking the ‘Classic Inca Trail’ to Machu Picchu….

So, the day is finally here: Macchu Picchu here we come. For many, this is the thing to do during their time in South America, and while it was amazing, I think I’ve preferred discovering the less well documented, but no less impressive sights such as Lake Quilotoa or Rainbow Mountain. Nonetheless, it was an incredible four days and one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. Well, I say the day had arrived, but our first day actually consisted of a tour of the nearby Sacred Valley before a night in a nearby hostel, complete with resident llamas.

500 people are permitted to start the trail each day, but this number includes approximately 300 support staff in the form of porters, cooks and guides. I chose the ‘Classic Trek’ because the equipment is carried by humans who choose to do so, as opposed to pack animals which are used on other treks. The porters are truly incredible; they carry up to 30kg of equipment on their backs, while I struggled with my daypack weighing 7kg. Having finished our breakfast, we would set off on a day’s hiking, only to be overtaken by running porters who would then have lunch ready for us upon our arrival. This was repeated for dinner when we would arrive at the campsite to also find our tents and bed all set up. They ranged in age from 20 to 63 years old and none of the following would’ve been possible without them. They also managed to cook incredible food despite the rudimentary facilities.

DAY ONE: PISCAYCUCHO TO WAYLLABAMBA

Distance: 12km

Starting elevation: 2,700m

End elevation: 3,000m

Start time: 1103

End time: 1627

# of showers: 0

# of poos: 0

We started the Inca Trail at Km82 in Piscaycucho, where we met our team of porters and guides.  Having  shown our passports and permits, we crossed the Urubamba River, following the shoreline through lush farmland before gradually climbing for the next few hours. The walk today was relatively easy, and we were treated to some stunning views of Mount Veronica (named after a woman who went missing on the mountain and was never found).

DAY TWO: WAYLLABAMBA TO PACAYMAYO

Distance: 11km

Starting elevation: 3,000m

Highest elevation: 4,200m

End elevation: 3,650m

Start time: 0643

End time: 1429

# of showers: 0

# of poos: 0

# of coca leaves chewed: countless

Today was by far the hardest of the four days, with the hike being almost entirely uphill with steep inclines. The scenery made the effort worthwhile, although I had to consciously remind myself of that at times, especially when I felt the formation of several blisters on my feet. The group made good progress first thing and were therefore treated to a two hour lunch, during which I took the opportunity of a nap. However, upon waking I felt decidedly ropey but unable to put my finger on why. We started walking again, but I was quickly beset with a splitting headache. Lauren – a.k.a. Wonder Woman, on account of the fact she was doing the Inca Trail only three months after surgery to repair her ACL – confided that she was feeling similarly bad and we decided to try chewing coca leaves which we’d been told would help. The first taste was revolting. Having chewed five leaves, we stored them in our cheeks like hamsters and waited for them to work their magic. We were told to change the leaves every ten minutes and counting the time helped me concentrate on something else besides my throbbing forehead. The leaves are indeed magical as within twenty minutes, both Lauren and I felt much better, even putting on a bit of a spurt. We reached the highest point on the trek, Dead Women’s Pass, and stopped for some celebratory photos. Thankfully, it was all downhill to that evening’s campsite where, upon arrival, I promptly slept for several hours before dinner.

DAY THREE: PACAYMAYO TO WINAY WAYNA

Distance: 16km

Starting elevation: 3,650m

End elevation: 2,650m

Start time: 0635

End time: 1437

# of showers: 1 (if you count dipping one’s balls in a bucket of warm soapy water)

# of poos: almost 1 (despite repeated attempts in the bush)

Today was my favourite day of the trek. Up to now I could generally be found at the back of our group of 14, with one of the guides, Willian, who was great at making us take breaks and not go beyond our limits. However, today was mostly downhill which suits me much better. Several of the group struggled more on this day because of the impact on their knees, but for me it was much preferable than the ascents. At one point, a small group of us, inspired by the amazing running porters, decided to run down the ancient stone steps with them for about 30 minutes. It was exhilarating and I had a massive smile on my face when we reached our next checkpoint, the ruins at Phuyupatamarca and waited for the others, filling the time by doing some handstands above the valley. The drop in elevation meant that I felt fine and my breathing and heart rate returned to normal almost immediately upon stopping running. It felt bizarre given that I’m usually out of breath for a few minutes having run twenty seconds for a tram in Amsterdam!!

DAY FOUR: WINAY WAYNA TO MACCHU PICCHU

Distance: 4km

Starting elevation: 2,650m

End elevation: 2,430m

Start time: 0330 (!!!!)

End time: 0730

# of showers: 1 (upon return to hotel at 1930)

# of poos: lots (also upon return to hotel and its functioning, clean toilet)

The porters woke us up at the ungodly hour of 0300 to start the short walk to the Sun Gate and our first sight of Machu Picchu. When I booked this trip, the brochure said we would arrive at Machu Picchu at sunrise, but this wasn’t entirely true. We walked along the jungle path for fifteen minutes, before joining the queue of hikers who were waiting for the path to be opened at 0530. Ian ‘entertained’ us with the five jokes he has memorised for such an occasion, our polite laughter the only sound piercing the early morning silence.  The gates were promptly opened at 0530 and we began the 75 minute walk up to the Sun Gate. By this time, sunrise had come and gone, and after climbing the final super steep steps, we were treated to our first sight of the famous Inca city of Machu Picchu. Except we weren’t. A mist had rolled in at exactly the worst moment, and all you could hear were the disappointing sighs of smelly and tired hikers. Thankfully the sun worked its magic and the mist soon cleared to reveal the ancient stones. It’s a truly remarkable sight and it’s hard not to be impressed by the spectacle.

After the obligatory photos, I was craving some alone time, so I went for a coffee and sandwich before playing with the numerous well-fed pooches who hang around the entrance of the sight hoping for scraps from tourists. Ian and I then caught the bus to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes (literally Hot Waters) and celebrated our achievements with a couple of litres of beer and WiFi. I’m not sure Ian felt much of a sense of achievement given that he said he thought it was a lot easier than he’d imagined (needless to say I thought it would kill me at one point on the second day), or perhaps his achievement was managing to cope with me as a tentmate for three nights without killing me. Either way, the beer went down a treat.

The whole group met for lunch after which we took the train back to Cusco. Following dinner, copious amounts of celebratory alcohol was consumed before a corresponding amount of dancing took place on the bar of a local club. I decided to call it a night at 0430, 25.5 hours after I’d awoken.  I was shattered.

The walk home was probably my favourite part of the evening, the sense of camaraderie was strong, especially once Ian and I had discovered Cusco’s slippery stone pavements.

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Trekking to Machu Picchu isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, that honour still belongs to Rainbow Mountain, but it will live long in the memory and I feel privileged to have done it.

Challenges in Cusco….

20171119_112509939091199.jpgThe main reason for visiting Cusco was its location as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but we’d also heard there was a great trek up to Rainbow Mountain, known as Vinicunca in the Quechua language, and having ogled the relevant Instagram hashtag, four of us decided it was definitely worth doing. I’m not quite sure how or why we reached that conclusion given the following:

* The day trek requires a 0400 wake up call for a 0430 departure, and we’d return to the city at 1930;

* The hike would take us to 5,200 metres above sea level, by far the highest we’d been on the trip so far, and altitude sickness isn’t fun;

* We would be doing the 4-day Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu after Rainbow Mountain, with only one rest day in between.

Like I said, I’m not sure how we decided it would be a good idea, but nonetheless we paid the fees and off we went. It took three hours by minibus to reach the start of the hike which is located at 4,700m above sea level (Cusco is 3,600m). On the way we stopped for a very hearty breakfast, but as those close to me already know, I can’t eat anything before ten in the morning. I managed to swallow a few bites of a bread roll while my fellow hikers scoffed cereals and panqueques, a far more sensible preparation for what was to come.

The first couple of kilometres were relatively flat so we declined offers of ascending on horseback – something I came to regret later – and we set off purposefully, the rhythmic clack clack of our walking sticks the only sound to be heard. The inclines got steeper after the third kilometre and it became a real struggle, especially as we had to reach the summit by a certain time in order to be able to descend in daylight and return to the city by early evening. There were horses available at various spots on the mountain and Ian came up with the mantra of ‘every horse you pass is a victory Gazza’ which really helped by appealing to my competitive nature. However, by the time we got to the fourth kilometre, that competitive streak which has served me so well throughout my life decided to desert me when I needed it the most, and I finally gave in to the idea of completing the trek on horseback. The only snag, however, is that horses were forbidden from going any further from where I currently stood. I stopped and wondered what I’d done to deserve such a cruel fate.

The final two inclines were only another 400m or so, but were undoubtedly the hardest physical activity I’d ever asked my body to undertake. To give you some perspective, the summit of Rainbow Mountain is only 125m lower than that of Mount Everest Base Camp. Thankfully, on this final descent the level of camaraderie really swelled and there were lots of encouraging ‘you can do its’ and ‘you’re almost theres’ from not only the group, but complete strangers who knew exactly how I was feeling. They definitely brought on an extra spurt of energy and the sense of elation on reaching the summit was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. I think Ian and Matt were a little taken aback by the bearhugs they were subsequently treated to.

The view from atop the summit was something unique to me. So many different coloured soils were exposed, hence the name Rainbow Mountain. It was amazing to look back from where we had come and the realisation hit of what we’d achieved. After 45 minutes of celebratory back slaps and selfies (including one sitting on our guide’s shoulders, at his insistence!) we began the descent back to the start. The downhill terrain was much appreciated and we were making good time when I started to feel a bit ‘iffy’. It began with a splitting headache, and was soon followed by an upset stomach. Matt (who thankfully I’d shared rooms with already on this trip) and I sped up once I told him that I needed to reach the dreaded drop-toilet that we could see in the distance asap. We arrived just in time, however, upon squatting into position I realised that not only did the rickety door not lock, it did not even close shut. Poor Matt stood guard as my stomach fell out of me at quite a rate of knots, no doubt wondering what he’d done to deserve such a fate. I could see the hiking boots of fellow trekkers trudge by, and their footsteps increased in speed once their ears and noses were assaulted by indescribable sounds and smells. As I exited the shack, rather sheepishly I have to admit, Matt asked me if I felt better for the experience at least. I don’t think he was expecting my response to be in the form of projectile vomiting near his feet, and to be honest, neither was I. The combination of no breakfast and drinking lots of water meant that a constant stream of bright yellow liquid landed on the mountain for the next five minutes. Unlike in the drop-toilet, this time I could see the sympathetic faces of my fellow trekkers. It didn’t make me feel any better.

Matt, ever the gentlemen, accompanied me for the entire descent and I’d never been more glad to see a minibus in my entire life. Ian tried to make me feel better by telling me that another guy in our group had also puked, but I was too busy wallowing in my exhaustion to pay much attention. The drive back to the city was the best medicine and for every kilometre we descended I felt much improved. So much so that upon arrival in Cusco, I felt like I did at the start of the day. We treated ourselves to a carbtastic dinner and red wine before collapsing into bed, telling ourselves that it was good prep before Machu Picchu the day after tomorrow. My body was not convinced.

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Chasing condors in Chivay….

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We had our shortest truck journey so far on this trip (five hours), to reach the town of Chivay. I actually quite enjoy the long journeys on the truck; there’s time for reading, chatting, sleeping, contemplating and gazing in wonderment at our constant companion, the Andes. I’m not sure I’ll feel the same way after nearly four months on the road, but ‘vamos a ver’. We arrived in town on the same day that the Peruvian national football team were attempting to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years. I wouldn’t usually watch a Peru vs. New Zealand football match, but national fervour had been evident everywhere we had been in the past week. Everywhere except Chivay it seemed. I thought it would be a fun experience to see the game in a bar with locals, but they were nowhere to be seen. Instead I settled for pizza and an early night as we were up at 0500 the next morning.

The reason for the early start, and indeed the reason we were in Chivay, was to visit the incredible Colca Canyon and it’s famous Andean condors. Colca is the world’s second deepest canyon, and is almost 3,400m at its deepest point. And for all you geography buffs, no, the Grand Canyon isn’t the deepest canyon in the world. Colca is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, but the world’s deepest canyon is, in fact, the nearby Cotahuasi. Anyway, that’s enough geography for one day. We stopped at some truly breathtakingly scenery, before trekking to the best viewpoint for condors spotting. Our guide was very knowledgeable and sensed that the giant birds would in fact come to us and lo and behold, within five minutes of hiking, we saw  shadows being cast on the foliage by the giant wings of a condor. A collective gasp went up when it glided directly above us, using the early morning thermals to get lift.

We continued hiking to the designated viewing platforms, but it wasn’t necessary given the show the birds were putting on for us throughout the walk. As it was a sunny day, and as we were technically not on a major road, we could ride on the roof seats for the journey home. We were treated to an incredible five-condor flyby while marvelling at the landscape from the unobstructed rooftop view.

The following day we drove to a small Quechua village called Raqchi, where we were treated to a homestay with a local family. I was a little anxious given that my Spanish is virtually non-existent, but I needn’t have worried; Papa Peo and Mama Concepçion were full of warmth that required no words, and one of our Peruvian guides was staying with us and helped translate where needed. Listening to Mama and Papa tell their story, I was filled with happiness as their eyes sparkled reminiscing about how they met and fell in love. It also gave me an appreciation for everything I have in my life, although it did make me miss my partner, Ken, and home.

Any homesickness was quickly dispelled when Papa signalled for us to change into one of his ponchos, and we headed to one of the other houses for a traditional ceremony to honour Pachamama, a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Pachamama is the earth mother, and is toasted before festivities by spilling a small amount of beer before drinking. The indigenous community believe that we should give back to the earth before taking, and only taking what is appropriate. It made me think that I, and perhaps many of us, could do better at this. Once the solemn ceremony had been performed,  the music started up, which in turn meant the dancing commenced around the fire. It turned into quite a raucous affair and everyone went to bed in high spirits. 

The homestay was probably the one part of the trip that I was most anxious about, but my fears were completely unfounded. It turned out to be the most educational and thought-provoking; not so much in what we were taught in historical terms, but with regards to the local folks’ ethos for life, something I hope to apply to some degree upon my return home. 

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Acquired tastes in Arequipa…

Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru and is known as the ‘White City’ on account of it being built with ‘silla’ or white volcanic rock. It sits on the Peruvian altiplano at 3,500m above sea level and is truly beautiful. Its main square is a breathtaking sight, especially in the evening when complementary lighting shows it at its best. After a relatively relaxing drive, we checked into our hostel and headed out for dinner to a restaurant that had been recommended to one of the group. It had an amazing view overlooking the square and the ponchos we were handed upon entering soon had us feeling cosy. This feeling started to dissipate, however, when two of us decided to share a meal of guinea pig and alpaca. It probably didn’t help that we were sat next to a committed vegetarian.  Sorry, not sorry. The guinea pig was served whole and the appearance didn’t really help make it appealing and to be honest, I wouldn’t order it again. If you like eating the skin of a roasted chicken, then you’d like the skin of these rodents, but there was little else to get excited about. The alpaca steak on the other hand was delicious and much needed to be honest.

The following day was free so a few of us decided to go to a museum to see the ‘Ice Maiden’ Juanita, said to be one of the best preserved mummies in the world. The young teenage girl was sacrificed as an offering to the Inca gods sometime in the 1400s and discovered in 1995 on Mount Ampato. Imagine stumbling across that on a hike!!

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As has been common during my trip, it was a sunny day so a few of us decided to have a couple of afternoon drinks at a pub close to hostel. I don’t know if it  was the copious amounts of coca beer or the euphoria from besting everyone at darts, but I somehow found myself stumbling home at 0130. Definitely not part of the plan! Having forgotten about dinner completely, needless to say I woke up with my first South American hangover; it wasn’t pleasant. Thankfully, my roommate, Ian, is a diamond and when I eventually rolled out of bed at 1000, I saw that he’d collected my laundry from down the road. Like I said, he’s a diamond. Luckily our drive didn’t start until 1200 so I had time to down a Starbucks and some unsatisfying Turkish sandwiches. Arequipa was a bit of a blur but I’d love to come back, even just to correct all of my food choices!

 

Sandboards and sunsets in Huacachina…..

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Immediately following the boat trip to the Ballestas Islands, we jumped back in the trucks to continue the drive to the desert in Huacachina. Upon arrival, we took a short walk down to the lagoon in the middle of the small town where the calm waters, surrounded by palm trees, brought immediate relaxation.

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The reverie didn’t last too long though once we’d exchanged our trucks for dune buggies and a local driver. He whizzed us to the top of the surrounding dunes, chicaning where no chicanes should ever be chicaned, to the delight slash screams of my fellow passengers. At the top, two of my new buddies (Charlotte and Matthew) and I decided it would be a good spot for a jumping photo. Now, if you’ve read my blog about Queenstown in New Zealand (and in case that was an oversight on your part, or if you just want to refresh your memory, you can do so here) you’ll know that I love any excuse to jump off things. Unfortunately, as the pictures below testify, it’s rather hard to do so on sand. However, as you can see, there were lots of giggles and that’s kinda the point right?

The jumping shenanigans were brought to a finish, mainly because the photographer lost patience when she realised we’d never manage to jump in sync ‘on three’, and we got back in the buggies for the short ride to the first sandboard slope. After what can only be described as a perfunctory training – which is being pretty generous given that it lasted all of twenty seconds – we were tipped over the ridge off the dune.

The sandboards fairly flew and the adrenaline rush was incredible. About halfway down I started bricking it when the board wobbled slightly, before remembering to brake with my feet. As soon as the board came to a stop though, I was itching to go again. Thankfully, that’s exactly what our ‘instructor’ had in store and over the next couple of hours we rode increasingly bigger dunes until we were spent. I filmed some of the descents on my GoPro (my attempt to justify buying it for this trip), and managed to rip a large patch of skin off my elbow in the process, but it was totally worth it.  There are no pictures of that as it still looks kinda funky.

Our guides then drove us further up the dunes from where we were treated to a beautiful sunset. Everyone seemed really content, and with the boat trip from the morning, the newer passengers especially were raving about their first day. It was pretty different to ours that’s for sure! Once the sun was gone, we were taken to a dip in the dunes, where we found a humongous barbecue sizzling away on a camp fire. A feast followed and the continual pouring of pisco ensured a good time was had by all. We set up our sleeping bags on the sand and gazed at the stars. With little light pollution, they were dazzlingly bright and I fell asleep with a big grin on my face, thinking how lucky I was right then.

The following day saw us drive to Nazca, home of the Nazca lines. The only way to see the figures is from the air and in small planes, but being conscious that I’m away for nearly four months and would be undertaking the Inca Trail in just over a week, I decided to take an activity break and instead, I took up residence by the hotel pool (a first so far on this trip) and enjoyed some me time: reading, sipping a beer and pretending to swim lengths. It was bliss and set me up well for the next few days in Arequipa 

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The sights – and smells – of Islas Ballestas…

Our departure from Lima was at 0500, something which didn’t seem to faze the new passengers too much. In fact, I felt a little sorry for them as their growing excitement having boarded the truck for the first time was not met with the same enthusiasm by us ‘oldies’ who promptly fell asleep due to the ungodly hour. The early departure was required to avoid the heavy traffic in Lima which seems to have peak times of 0000 – 2400. Peruvian drivers also appear to have no concept of lanes despite the clear road markings. Thankfully the journey out of Lima was much nicer than the one we undertook to enter the city. After a short time we stopped at paradise, which in this instance was a petrol station that served delicious coffee, had clean working toilets with plenty of loo roll, and a nice view of the mountains to boot. We felt it necessary to warn the newbies to not get used to such luxuries.

By 1030, we had reached Paracas from where we took a speedboat out to the Ballestas Islands for a spot of bird watching. The excursion should really be entitled ‘bird smelling’ for the odour emanating from the impressive rock formations was, well, impressive. Of sorts. This guano was historically exported as fertiliser and if you are so inclined, there’s a great article here with details of the history and process.

It was great to see tiny penguins next to huge pelicans, and we were also treated to some snoozing sea lions. My favourite part was on the return journey when we watched cormorants divebombing the fish below, one after another.

The Ballestas Islands are often referred to as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ which seems rather harsh given the rich abundance of wildlife on show. This biodiversity is the result of two merging currents in the Pacific Ocean: the warm waters of El Niño and the cooler waters of the Humboldt (named after the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Hi Humboldt who also has a penguin named after him), which create the perfect environment for plankton and phytoplankton.

And here endeth today’s lessons. This stuff had better turn up on Pointless at some point or I’ll be fuming!

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Living for Lima…..

If you’ve been following my blog, you probably won’t be surprised to read that the 11 hour drive to Lima was pretty spectacular. We passed through incredible mountainscapes (is that a word?) and the trash that littered previous roads gave way to a verdant valley which was being farmed. It’s intriguing to see that the farming here is still all done by hand, with nary a combine harvester in sight. Truly back-breaking work in the heat. I got to ride up front with the driver and was afforded some unforgettable vistas.

Lima is the second biggest city in South America, by population, with 8.9 million inhabitants (São Paolo is the largest with 12 million) and it felt like most of them were driving into the city at the same time as us, despite it being 3pm on a Wednesday. The city is very clean and by far the most modern on the trip up to this point. We also had the luxury of staying in a centrally located hotel which, after a few nights of hostels and campsites, was most welcomed. I was happy to be sharing a room with Sebastian, one of the guys I went rock climbing with in Baños, as it was his last night with us before flying back to Germany. I now know how Take That must’ve felt when Robbie Williams left the band. We were also joined by some new passengers which resulted in us now having two trucks to accommodate the enlarged group. Unfortunately, this also meant that our original group would be split across the two vehicles which was a shame as we were just starting to really get to know each other.  Now we’d have to start over again with the new people. I suppose that’s the nature of a trip of this kind though and I didn’t dwell on it too much. As it was the original group’s last night together, we had a group dinner at which some awards were given out. I was nominated ‘Party Animal’, however, given that I’d not stayed out past 2230 on any night thus far, I assumed it was ironic. S’funny how a few years ago I would’ve gotten it for the right reason.

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The following day, Ian, Sebastian and I spent the morning exploring the Miraflores district and the beach. I got my first sight of a Starbucks and the taste of a soy latte after three weeks of truck-stop slop was like manna from heaven.  Don’t judge me. Miraflores is a beautiful part of the city and is a strong contender for favourite place so far, although it’s heavily weighted due to the fact that the stunning, landscaped gardens are also a cat sanctuary. Thus far, South America seemed to be the domain of the stray dog, so it was nice to see some feline friends frolicking so carefree and contentedly.

Ian and I went to visit some ruins where the assigned tour guide, Jorge, imparted information with a barely concealed eyeroll. It wasn’t particularly interesting despite his antics (although I  did wolf down the best mac and cheese of my life at a nearby restaurant, so it was totally worth it) and we ended up talking a lot about our respective childhoods and relationships. It was a real bonding moment and I’m glad that Ian and I will be on the same truck all the way to Buenos Aires.

On our final evening in Lima we watched a ‘Magic Light & Water Show’ in a park near the national stadium. The amount of work that must’ve gone into choreographing to music and producing the spectacle was pretty mind-boggling and it was a great way to sign off our time here. Unfortunately, a 0430 wake up call the following morning meant that we couldn’t replicate the antics from the night before, when we gatecrashed a Peruvian open-mic rock night, but with the Peruvian football team playing New Zealand in a world cup qualifier in a few days, I’m sure there will be a chance to celebrate / commiserate* with some Pisco in the days ahead.

*delete as appropriate