Peru Travelogue, Part 2

Inca Trail: Day 1

We woke up at 0dark00 and took a bus full of trekkers and porters (15 trekkers, 21 porters, two guides) out to Ollantaytambo, where we ate a quick breakfast and bought a couple of walking sticks for the hike.  Our guides were Victor and Cesar, nice guys who seemed pretty knowledgeable.  Back on the bus, which dropped us off at Kilometer 82, the start of our trail.  We started hiking along the Urubamba river, which is big and pretty.  The terrain was flat to start with, with views of glacier-clad peaks.

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We stopped pretty frequently.  It became clear that the amount of hiking per day, and the pace, were not going to be problems -- we took very frequent breaks as folks got used to the trail.  Our group was mostly Americans, with one Kiwi and an Aussie.  Mostly everyone got along fine, though there were these two women with extremely long hair that talked constantly and moved glacially who wore on everyone's nerves a bit. 

We saw our first big ruin on the trail, Patallacta.  It had extensive terraces but not much in the way of buildings.  The wavy shape of the terraces was meant to represent a snake, and also it helped to slow down the waters of the Urubamba.

The whole time we were hiking, we were constantly being passed by porters under heavy loads, moving quickly.  They ranged in age from about 18 to about 65 -- the oldest porter for our group was 62 years old!  For the most part our porters seemed to be treated well, but one thing bugged me.  Some of our group had hired personal porters -- each trekker was supposed to hand their porter a bag weighing no more than 6kg, and the porter was supposed to carry no more than 25kg total.  Some people had brought bags that were way too heavy and acted pretty put out when they had to take back some weight; Victor told them they would only have to carry their stuff until the first checkpoint, after which the porters' gear would no longer be weighed.  Pretty scummy, and I think pretty much all the outfitters do it.

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We reached camp easily in time to have dinner and bum around a while until dark.  Dinner was wonderful -- our cooks really knew their trade. 

Day 2

The second day was definitely the hardest -- only seven miles, but very, very steep, with lots of steps.  The terrain started out like the first day had been, relatively dry with sparse vegetation, but we passed through several different microclimates on our climb.  There was more and more vegetation, some areas very lush indeed.  The views of the mountains and the clouds were breathtaking.

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This day was also the coldest -- we had hats and jackets on for much of the hike.  As on the first day, we weren't actually walking on stones laid by the Incas -- that started on day 3.  These stones were placed by the Peruvian government on top of earlier Inca foundations. 

We reached the highest point of our trek, Dead Woman's Pass, at just over 14,000 feet -- so named because, if you squint just right, the rocks take on the appearance of absolutely nothing recognizable.  On top of the pass were dozens and dozens of Peruvian school kids on the world's best field trip.  Then we went down and down and down and reached our campsite with a wonderful view by 1PM... it was a difficult day, but only about five hours of hiking!  Lunch included an excellent quinua soup, and we hung out and played games until dinner, then hit the hay.

Day 3

The third day was mostly downhill, and absolutely gorgeous, with some beautiful Inca ruins.  First was Runkurakay; then we climbed to the second pass.  Then down to two more ruins; Sayaqmarka, with its elaborate water system, and Concha Marca, inaccessible and mostly unrestored.  It was a cloudy day, and so approaching each ruin was a mystical kind of affair, as the clouds would part so you could just barely make out the stonework ahead, then close back over the walls. 

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We reached the third and final pass, with its panoramic views and the world's most unpleasant bathroom.  Then down, down, down.  From the third pass it's pretty much all the way down to Machu Picchu, down more then 3,000 steps called the "Gringo Killer".  We started to get our first views of Machu Picchu town (which is known as Aguas Calientes, after the hot springs) and Machu Picchu mountain itself. 

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We reached camp, which was a disappointingly modern affair -- there was a restaurant, some electricity, flushing toilets.  It was pretty disconcertaing passing power lines on the trail after having been so remote for a few days.  Shortly we hiked a small distance to Winay Wayna, a ruin with extensive terraces above and below the main complex.  We had some time to wander around the ruins on our own as it grew dark.  Something about these ruins that have sunk into obscurity and then been reclaimed from the jungle conveys a sense of greater age than European ruins that are twice as old. 
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Day 4 (Machu Picchu)

We woke up at 3:30AM.  No coca tea in the tents today -- instead we ate a quick pancake breakfast and walked five minutes down the trail to be the first ones in line for the control station, which in theory opened at 5:30AM.  We sat around for a while in pitch black, and the control folks relented and let us through around 5.  Then, we hiked fast .  It was still almost full dark, slowly getting lighter, as we practically raced for the Sun Gate, to jockey for the best sunrise-watching position.  The trail was pretty steep, too, especially as we neared the Sun Gate.  We finally arrived, and... no sun, clouds everywhere.  We sat there for half an hour before giving up and proceeding at a more leisurely pace down to the upper terraces of Machu Picchu. 
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Approaching Machu Picchu was magical... the clouds would close in and recede unpredictably; sometimes our view would be completely obscured, and seconds later we'd catch a glimpse of temples and peaks.  We reached the terraces and settled in... the clouds were thick at this point, so we waited a while, and gradually they began to burn off, giving us postcard views of the city below.

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Then we went into Machu Picchu itself.  Victor gave us a cursory overview -- sun temple is here, school is here, nunnery is here -- and we began to walk around the huge complex.  It's quite large.  The two focal points are the sun temple, which rises directly out of the living rock, and the sundial, which sits on top of a small rise and was used to predict the approach of equinoxes and solstices.  Victor told us a couple of stories -- early in the 20th century the king and queen of Spain had landed here in a helicopter; to facilitate the landing they had a large, presumably sacred rock removed from the field in the middle of Machu Picchu.  More recently, in the 1990s, Cusquena beer had filmed a commercial here and had cracked the sundial.

Most poignantly, though, Machu Picchu is sinking at some fast-sounding rate -- under the feet of a thousand tourists a day, and with inadequate drainage from the site -- and the government doesn't really seem to know what to do about it.  They've started raising ticket prices, though, and Victor thinks that visiting the site is going to become more and more a privilege of the elite as the years go by.

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Then it was time for Waynapicchu, the peak just outside of Machu Picchu.  We got lucky and squeaked in at the end of the early admission group -- only 200 tourists are allowed in the Waynapicchu area at any time, for reasons that would become apparent.  We started up the trail, which had a steel guide rope bolted to the rock for most of its length.  Early on we passed a guy who was helping his, I kid you not, two-year-old kid climb the mountain (look closely at the blown-up version of the first picture).  We hiked for 45 minutes or so; eventually the trail became one-way and we headed up a very steep set of stairs and then a ladder to reach the top, which was a surprisingly small cluster of boulders encrusted with tourists.  The views were just spectacular, especially of Machu Picchu.
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After that, we headed back to Machu Picchu and gave ourselves one more quick tour.  Then, it was time to head for civilization -- bathrooms and beers.  We took a bus down the mountain into Machu Picchu town (popularly called Aguas Calientes, after the hot springs).  We met up with Victor, Cesar, and the gang at a restaurant, ordered half the menu and hove to. 

Then it was a long train ride back to Cusco... we got off early and caught a bus back, saved an hour or so.  We got back to the hotel and enjoyed some long, luxurious showers.

Some observations on the Inca Trail:

Cusco Again

Our last day in Cusco, we took it relatively easy.  We caught a bit of a parade on the Plaza de Armas, then checked out the Contemporary Art Museum.  The museum was closed, but the guard let us walk around the courtyard.  It turned out the beautiful tapestries on display were for sale, and when I started talking to the guard about them, he opened up another room so we could see some more paintings.  Eventually the guard called the tapestry artist, Choquecahua, who came over; I bought the beautiful tapestry below.  In the afternoon we took a long walk southeast of the center of town, walking by the walled, guarded Cusquena beer factory.  I called a taxi driver in Lima that we'd heard about from one of our fellow Inca Trail trekkers, and I arranged for him to meet us when we got off the plane in Lima the next day.  We had a wonderful dinner that night, beautiful Peruvian food and excellent wine.
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We woke up early, caught a taxi to the airport, and arrived in Lima by mid-morning.  Eduardo met us after we picked up and stowed away our bags, and we were off on our day tour of Lima.  We started off with an archaeological museum, the Larco museum, a wonderful collection of stonework, textiles, jewelry, and other Inca and pre-Inca artifacts.  Then we drove to the center of town and checked out the catacombs at the church of San Francisco, where the bones of thousands of people are artfully arranged for your viewing pleasure (frankly, though -- and I'm something of a connoisseur -- it's got nothing on the ossuary at Sedlec , in Czech).

Then the gold museum, where we saw thousands of artifacts made of gold and slowly ran out of steam.  By this time it was getting dark, so Eduardo took us out to the Miraflores suburb, where we enjoyed one last Peruvian meal.  Then it was back to the airport and a long couple of flights back home.

Peru Observations