Aside from the Galapagos, the only other major site we'd planned to visit on this trip was Machu Picchu, which we'd decided to reach via the Inca Trail: a 4-day trek through the Andes following original and restored portions of a road constructed by the Inca people to travel between Cuzco and Vilcabamba (the last refuge of the Inca's where they hid from the Spanish). We arrived in Cuzco 5 days before the start of our trek in order to acclimate to the altitude (3400 m) and organize a few last minute things like sleeping bags. Cuzco is, not unexpectedly, a tourist hot-spot. It was strange being in a place with so many tourists after seeing only a few here and there in the other places we've been. The Plaza de Armas is swarming with touts proffering tours, sunglasses, handicrafts, paintings, and massages. It's a nice place though with pretty gardens and the architecture of the buildings surrounding the square is among some of the most beautiful we've seen in our travels so far. We just pretend we don't see the McDonalds and Starbucks....
|Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. Chris testing out his amazing new wide-angle lens. [NOTE: I believe if you click on this photo you can see a slideshow of all the photos. But that doesn't mean you can skip reading my blog! ;) ]|
|Chris and Neil in front of the catedral in Cuzco. I took this shot and I didn't even notice the people in the background... grrr... I blame it on the sun in my eyes.|
|Showing Neil the ropes shortly after his arrival in Cuzco.|
We started with a very early morning rendezvous near the Plaza de Armas where we were provided with scalding cups of strong coca tea and loaded onto a minibus with our trek-mates. The bus took us to the town of Ollantaytambo for breakfast and then on to Kilometer 82: the checkpoint for the start of our Inca Trail trek. There we got our first glimpse of the Red Army - our team of 21 porters plus a cook. We watched as the boss of the porters weighed each pack to ensure they were below the maximum 25 kg. This is a relatively new thing, brought about by new regulations instituted to prevent the mistreatment of porters that was apparently rampant in the past.
|The red army (our porter team) setting out ahead of us on the trek. They were so fast!|
|Ready to set out! We all look so eager, despite having woken up at 4am.|
The first part of the trek was over relatively flat terrain, passing through a couple of tiny villages and farmland along the Rio Urubamba. We stopped frequently so our guide could give us more information about the upcoming days and point out interesting features of the area. The hiking became increasingly difficult as the day progressed but it was such a gorgeous setting that it really didn't feel too challenging. When we reached our lunch spot we were amazed by the efficiency and organization of our porters. They'd erected a dining tent complete with stools and tables and had set out individual bowls of water for us to wash in before we ate. First class service! And the food!!! It was delicious!! We definitely picked a good company.
|Inca trail map showing distances, elevation changes, and points of interest. We stayed at the B campsites (in red).|
|In the dining tent!|
|These llamas were calm but shortly after this shot we were stampeded by some less tranquil guys and Chris had to pretty much throw me off the trail into some bushes to prevent me from getting trampled. Hazards of the Inca trail!|
|The mountains at sunset at one of our campsites.|
Each day of our trek offered breathtaking views of the Andes and the opportunity to visit ruins that are not accessible by any other means (unless you happen to own a helicopter and are into rappelling). We were incredibly fortunate to have 4 days of great weather, although it got VERY cold at night! Despite the persistence of my cough I didn't have trouble with the physical exertion during the day. A few coughing fits whenever we stopped for breaks or to visit ruins but I felt only a slight burning in my lungs when hiking. Nights were a different story. I barely slept with all the coughing and, considering the proximity of our tents (i.e. basically seam to seam), I definitely affected a few other people's sleep. Nevertheless, after a strong cup of coca tea and a few minutes of walking to loosen up the congestion in my lungs, I was able to go on (not that there was an alternative... although I do reckon I could've fit into one of the porter bags). It felt positively amazing to reach a peak or walk into camp to the applause of our fantastic porters.
|A few stops along the way and finally Machu Picchu.|
|Ruins along the Inca trail - can't see these sites unless you hoof it!|
|A little bit of the flora along the way.|
|Taking in the view. We hiked up from that river!|
|Our guide, Raul, giving us the scoop.|
|Terraces and ruins. They chose this site because it was relatively inaccessible and afforded views of the surrounding valley and mountains such that they had advance warning of any "visitors".|
|My handsome boyfriend. Oh, and some handsome ruins too.|
|At Dead Woman's Pass - the highest point on our trek. We came from the right and descended on the left.|
|Neil and I having snack time at Dead Woman's Pass.|
On Day 4, Machu Picchu day, we woke up before dawn (3:30 am) in order to be at the front of the pack waiting at the gate for admission to the final leg of our hike. The control point is relatively new, established after several accidents occurred with people hiking in darkness, rushing to be the first to the Sun Gate. Now the gate opens at 5:30 am, which is right about the time it starts to get light. Despite our fatigue, it was reinvigorating to know that soon we would set eyes on Machu Picchu itself. Compared to the previous days, the hike wasn't very difficult, consisting of mostly downhill except for "the gringo killer": a short but extremely steep stretch near the Sun Gate that actually required a bit of climbing with your hands. Reaching the Sun Gate and finally seeing Machu Picchu was indescribable. It actually felt sort of surreal. Luckily we had to wait there for quite some time in order to take photos after the first groups were finished so we had a chance to let the experience sink in. Then we continued down, stopping at a few other amazing viewpoints. The closer we got, the more people you could see in Machu Picchu and eventually we started passing people coming the other way to visit the Sun Gate. That's when we realized just how stinky we were after 4 days of hiking without showering!
|We made it! And we don't even look too bad after nearly 45 km of trekking and no showers for 4 days!|
|Taking a tour of the Machu Picchu ruins.|
Our guide gave us a 2 hour tour of the major highlights of Machu Picchu and then we dispersed to wander the ruins ourselves. I was feeling quite sick but we'd prepurchased permits to climb Wayna Picchu - the cone-shaped mountain that overlooks the ruins and has several ruins itself. I decided to try climbing it even though my lungs were in a lot of pain. It was more challenging than I expected - really steep staircases and bits where you had to climb using cables bolted into the rock for support. The views were pretty amazing but not really superior to what we'd experienced from the trail leading from the Sun Gate. Also, it seemed to attract all of the most obnoxious tourists. Several times I got stuck behind slow hikers who were too rude to let me pass even when they stopped for (frequent) breaks. Neil was clapped at by a Japanese lady for apparently hogging the best spot to take a photo and Chris encountered a complete spaz of a woman while trying to come through a tunnel near the peak. Evidently she'd been waiting far too long on the other side and, and after not having success screaming for people to stop coming through, she shoved her way in and refused to turn back even when there was really only space for one-way traffic. Luckily Chris and his camera made it through unscathed. Overall, although Machu Picchu was absolutely overrun with tourists, it was still incredible to wander the ruins and bask in the success of completing a long and somewhat arduous trek.
|Neil and I looking out on Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu mountain.|
|We are all so attractive!|
Amid the curious stares of locals in the waiting area, I approached reception and explained my reason for wanting to see a doctor (in other words, I demonstrated my cough). The receptionist asked if I had insurance and, after inspecting my card, informed me that I would need to go to another clinic by ambulance. I tried to ask why but she didn't speak any English and I couldn't understand her Spanish. I finally agreed after confirming that there would not be a charge for the ride. The other clinic seemed a bit more modern, more like a hospital than a clinic. It took a while for the front desk to find someone who spoke English but I was eventually escorted into a consultation room with a young female doctor who spoke perfect English. I think she was from Germany. She examined me quite thoroughly and concluded that I had bronchitis, probably with a secondary bacterial infection. Yay... I picked up a new set of antibiotics and an expectorant along with a cough suppressant for nighttime and then took a taxi back to the hostel, ready for a nap.
The hostel I'd chosen to stay at was special. It's part of an NGO set up to help rescue indigenous girls from the slave-like conditions they have been forced to endure as domestic workers. This terrible situation is all too common in Peru. Girls as young as 3 or 4 are sent from their rural communities to cities with the promise of a better education and life opportunities but instead find themselves working day in and day out as housemaids for little or no pay. And they definitely don't get to go to school. A refuge was started by an amazing woman from Italy, Victoria, and has grown to accommodate dozens of girls, giving them the opportunity to go to school and work under better conditions. They broadcast a radio program throughout the Sacred Valley, providing information about about workers' rights and giving the girls a chance to share their stories. Read more here: http://www.caith.org/english/who_we_are.php
I'll admit it was a little strange being on my own after 4 months of having Chris by my side 24/7. I also felt a bit uncomfortable when I first arrived at the hostel because nobody really spoke English and they didn't seem very organized to show you around or even tell you where you are allowed to go. I had asked if there was anything I could do to help out during my stay and one of the coordinators, Andrea (a guy), told me I could help in the library. So, at 4 pm, I reported to what I expected to be a room with books that I could help sort or something. It turned out to be more of a daycare or after school program. There were only a few kids that day because the schools were on strike so most had stayed at home. The lady who ran the "library" was really nice but my limited Spanish skills prevented us from having much of a conversation. She set me up at the table with the kids where we colored for about an hour. Two of the center's volunteers were also there - Simone from Switzerland and Valeska from Germany. They both spoke English so I was able to visit with them a little bit.
Andrea had pointed me in the direction of the supermarket and I decided to make a quick trip there before dinner. It was kind of a ridiculous endeavor because it was really far and I should've been resting but I was eager to have an adventure on my own for a change. It wasn't hard to find but I wasn't totally sure I'd find my way back, especially as it got dark while I shopped. I could hear Chris in my head telling me to just take a taxi but there weren't any outside when I finished so I just walked back. I made it but was coughing like crazy by the time I made it back up the hill to the hostel. Oops.
I had decided to eat dinner at the hostel after reading about the great Peruvian/Italian meals prepared by Victoria herself. It turned out that Victoria is not particularly well these days so her staff does the cooking now. I arrived at the kitchen and felt conspicuously awkward and uncertain as the staff greeted me but then went back to their business without really telling me where to sit or acknowledging me further. I sat down in the dining area and watched the dinner preparations in uncomfortable silence. Eventually Simone noticed that I was still there and helped sort things out. The meal was good but everyone spoke Spanish so I mostly kept quiet and tried to understand as much as I could. Victoria made an appearance after we finished our soup. She is very old and clearly sick but she has a quick wit and is still commands the respectful attention of her staff.
I spent the entirety of the next day in my room apart from breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Taking some time to just rest did wonders for my cough and I was feeling much better by dinner time. I felt a bit bad for not doing anything around the center but it actually seems that they are not set up for short-term volunteering so I guess it was better that I just relaxed. The next morning I had breakfast with Valeska and then decided to join her for some shopping. She was looking for some warmer clothes because it's freezing up here at the center. I also needed to supplement my wardrobe with another sort of clothing item.... Bizarrely, my supply of underwear has slowly been depleting each time we use a laundromat... The situation was getting critical after the wash following our Inca Trail trek. Anyway, we spent the better part of the day visiting various markets and shops, finally stopping for lunch near the Plaza. It was nice to have some girl time! Valeska, who is incredibly bright and quite mature for only being 19 years old, is helping the center translate their website into English and German during a four-week stay. She's also gorgeous. Look out Peruvian boys!
The boys will return from the Amazon this afternoon and we will have one night here before we move on to Arequipa; Canyon Country.