Thursday, 17 May 2012

Inca Trail & Cuzco

This blog post has been a wee bit delayed because we've done so many picturesque things in the past 3 weeks that Chris would've had to work night and day to keep up with the photo editing. And that was impossible because we haven't had any down-time! Until now. Now we are having marvelous down-time. But more about that later... first, let's get caught up!

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. 
Our friend Neil arrived a few days after us and it has been a nice change of pace. As I mentioned in the last blog, his excitement has helped "resensitize" us to the novelty of travelling. Also, Neil brought Chris a new wide-angle lens, an external hard drive loaded with movies and tv shows, an electric razor, and a bunch of other things from Canada so it felt sort of like Christmas!

Showing Neil the ropes shortly after his arrival in Cuzco.
The night before our trek was to begin we attended a briefing session at the tour company office where we met our guides and the other 13 people in our group, all of whom turned out to be very easy to get along with. I'd developed a chest cold and cough the day before we left Lima and it was worsening every day so we stopped at a pharmacy to pick up some medication. I demonstrated my cough and, after asking me a few questions, the pharmacist recommended an expectorant and sulfa drugs! The latter are antibacterials rarely administered to humans since the discovery of penicillin and subsequent development of second and third generation antibiotics. Furthermore, since I hadn't had a fever or any other symptoms of bacterial infection I didn't really see the point of taking antibiotics. I did take them though... because I figured if I did have a bacterial infection it was better to start treating it immediately rather than waiting until after the Inca Trail and potentially having my symptoms worsen when I was out in the middle of nowhere.

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!
Everything was going fine until the other Angela in our group was given her ticket - for some reason the tour company had registered her as "Second Person". Entrance to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is stringently controlled - we'd received several warnings to check and recheck our names and passport numbers to make sure everything was correct. Unfortunately for Angela, the tour company had neglected to update her booking even though she'd informed them of the error. It took a while to work things out but eventually they let her through. I think the checkpoint guards mostly wanted to give the tour guide grief and there wasn't really any danger that Angela would be turned away.

Ready to set out! We all look so eager, despite having woken up at 4am.

Happy trekkers.

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!
As with Galapagos, Chris's photos do a better job of showing our experience than any words I could use to describe it. We really enjoyed meeting the other people in our group and listening to our guide talk not just about the Incas and Peruvian history, but about current events in Peru and South America. I would highly recommend the trek, especially after visiting Machu Picchu itself.... But I'm getting ahead of myself.

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!

Yes. Amazing. 

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'd elected to spend one night in Machu Picchu town (aka Aguas Calientes) on the advice of some travelers we met in Quito. It ended up being mostly a waste of time and money because we'd left Machu Picchu around 1:30 in order to meet the rest of our group for lunch and farewell, leaving more than enough time to go to the hot springs (the main reason we'd planned to stay in addition to possibly visiting MP again the next day) and still catch the train back to Ollantaytambo that night. The town appears to be 100% funded by tourism so it's full of overpriced hotels and identical eateries. I think I also disliked it because I'd finally used up the adrenaline from the hike and was feeling more sick and exhausted and just wanted to get back to Cuzco. The sulfa drugs had done nothing to alleviate my symptoms so we sought out another pharmacy in the hopes of getting something else to help me. We found a drugstore tucked in the back of a convenience store/internet cafe where the attendant gave me a bronchodialator and lozenges containing a cough suppressant. I was skeptical about the former but took it because I was desperate to feel better. I'm not sure it did anything but at least I didn't react to it! We visited the hot springs the next day and that was alright. Soothing for our sore muscles and probably good for my cough as well. But after that we were pretty much out of things to do. The most ridiculous thing is that the hotels make you check out at 9:30 am! Luckily our hotel receptionist let me nap on the couch while waiting for our train departure... at 6:45 pm. She even turned off the saucy Spanish soap opera she was glued to when I first laid down. Meanwhile, Chris and Neil found a computer cafe and played video games for a few hours. Yes. They did.

We are all so attractive!
Back in Cuzco we had one full day together before the boys departed for the Amazon and it happened to be Chris's birthday! We spent most of the day shopping in various markets and then having another adventure at the post office trying to send our purchases home. In the evening we went for a nice dinner at Greens Organic near the Plaza. Chris and I both had alpaca dishes - so tasty!! Chris had originally wanted to find somewhere to watch a hockey game (an Irish pub in town advertises that they'll show any sporting match upon request) but we were all tired from wandering the markets so opted for an early night instead. Such party animals! The next morning, after another night of violent, painful coughing, I decided I should probably visit a doctor. It had been 12 days since my "cold" began and it seemed to be getting worse instead of better. I was having chest pain while breathing and speaking more than a few phrases led to vicious coughing fits. So, after saying goodbye to the boys, I took a taxi to my new hostel to drop off all the bags (I kept everything Chris and Neil didn't take to the Amazon) and then to a clinic recommended by our travel guide.

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:

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.


    :D :D :D :D

  2. Salkantay trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.