Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Week 6: Cusco, Salkantay Trek & Machu Picchu

Getting to Cusco was no easy feat. Remember earlier on this trip how I romanticised bus travel, well the luster is gone. After traveling across an entire continent by bus you can imagine our dismay when we arrived at the border of Peru and realised that we would be traveling for 36 hrs, 24 of those on a less than functioning bus. Our bus was an interesting cultural experience to say the least, and if you know us we revel in any cultural experience, but 24 hrs of being on guard can be exhausting for anyone. So let me share what would become the craziest bus ride thus far. We were the only foreigners on the bus, with no air conditioning or central heating, or functioning toilet, just a hole in the bus where you could see the pavement,oh and have I mentioned it's cold. Before we even got to our seats little old Peruvian ladies asked us if we would hold their shoes , at first I thought they wanted us to buy them so we politely shook our heads and said no we had shoes and the ones they were trying to sell us were a tad too big. They smirked and left looking for other takers. We sat in our non-reclining seats and another younger woman asked us if we could please help her by holding her shoes. Now this time I understood she wanted us to hold them and not buy them. Of course my first thought was "this is weird, but I've seen weirder." Minutes later most of the women on the bus were stuffing shoes down their shirts, pants, hiding them in the seats and in their blankets. Nate and I both started to chuckle, while racking our brains about what we were to encounter on this journey. The bus started moving and the baggage porter began singing and playing shells, for tips of course. All the excitement died down for a bit until we reached our first police check point. The shoe ladies visible nervous, they started shaking as the police walked through the bus and took bags from under the bus to a holding room without any notice to the passengers of whose bag had been searched and confiscated. A coupe of hours in, our bus broke down on the side of the road. It was fixed and we were on our way, but it would proceed to break down another 3 or so times. As the night rolled in, Nate and I took turns sleeping, to keep an eye on our stuff until we both couldn't take it anymore. We were awaken at about 3am when a several police boarded the bus for what can only be described as a raid. They pillaged through all the bags stored above, started reaching into these women's shirts and pants removing the hidden shoes. The women where yelling and grasping onto their merch, explaining that it wasn't to sell but for their large families. Not long faster the raid we took on more passengers than the bus had seats so that groups of people were standing in the aisles, practically breathing on our necks through the night. We finally made it to Cusco at 7am, unscathed and happy to be off a bus for 10 days, with a good dinner story we could later tell. We later found out that women often buy any merchandise they can from the border of Chile at a much cheaper price and then travel to the touristy places to sell them at a marked up price, but since they aren't legal vendors they aren't allowed to transport more than a few items, hence the hiding, asking travellers to hold items and the police confiscating the items (and of course some corruption in there too).

Once in Cusco we arrived in our hostel, bathed, and got ready to explore the town. Cusco is a beautiful city with cobblestone roads, stone buildings, alpaca artesanal booths everywhere, and the Andes in the backdrop. It is of course touristy due to Machu Pichu, but we felt that the city really does a good job managing it, though high-season begins in June. We walked to the San Cristobal church to get a panoramic view of the city, remarked at the famous 12 sided-stone, and visited the San Pedro Market, which was so big and rich with food it was delicious just looking at it all. It is incredible how much food was originally domesticated in Peru: corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, beans, sweet potatoes, chocolate, quinoa, peanuts, and the list goes on. Unlike the States where we favor only a couple varieties, they have over 3,000 variations of potatoes, hundreds that they currently consume everyday, as we'll as hundreds of variations of corn and tomatoes. Potato is such a staple that they boil it and peel the skin and eat it like an apple with no seasoning. The food here is very hardy and incorporates many vegetables, a welcomed change from the other countries we came from were staples were bread and cheese.

The view from San Cristobal

The 12-sided stone, created by stone tools. Remarkable!
San Pedro Market

Because we had such a hellish trip to Cusco and we were getting ready for our 4 day Salkantay trek, we opted for less Cusco sightseeing and more rest. Unfortunately two days before our trek I also got really bad food poisoning and could barely leave the fetal position, so we rested a bit longer than we had planned and missed out on a few mini hikes we had planned. Luckily, the hostels in Cusco are beautiful (Mama Simona...AMAZING) and most rooms have Direct TV, so it wasn't a bad place to rest and heal.

The day of our trek had finally arrived. We woke up at 4am and met with our guide Juve, our two porters, a horseman, and our cook. We booked this trip last minute to be able to hike with our fellow returned Peace Corps volunteer, Kristin who we had unexpectedly met up with in Mendoza. It turned out, it was just the three of us, so we were about to get one on one attention on this trek. Most people do the Inca Trail, but permits are hard to come by if not booked months and months in advance. The beauty of the Inca Trail is that you hike right into Machu Pichu on the last day. Instead our trek would drop us off in the town of Aguas Calientes, where we bused up to Machu Pichu. However, the Salkantay trek is considered one of the top 25 most beautiful treks in the world, according to National Geographic, and was originally constructed by the Incas as another route to arrive in Machu Pichu. Our first day we hiked 7.2 miles to an altitude of 15,000 feet just below the snow line. Along the way we stopped for lunch, but no ordinary camping lunch. It was a full three course gourmet meal that had been prepared by our cook. What he created on a two burner stove top was pure art. Not to mention that even at lunch they would set up a tent to eat and a small tent with a dug out hole for the bathroom. It was way nicer than any camping we have ever done. It was so nice to have shelter, because in the hour that we sat for lunch it we saw rain, sleet, and then snow! It got cold fast.

Getting ready to start the trek, notice how clean and chipper I look.

Peace Corps hiking team

Luckily, they carry all of our gear for us. Trust me, it´s needed.
Our lunch tent, fancy shamcy

Our Quecha guide Juve

Our lunch spot
That night camped next to a glacier and for dinner ate fresh trout that had been caught in the river by our porters near our campsite. We didn't stay up long as it was freezing, we were tired, and I was still a bit sick with my stomach bug (thank goodness for Nate's dad, Charlie, who was so clutch giving us antibiotics before we left just in case either of us got sick, because without those magic pills I don't think I would have made it through the trek).

The highest point, 15,253 ft

Our first camping spot

The crew
Glaciers in the backdrop, making it so cold  we slept with a long sleeve shirt, sweater, jacket, hat, thermals, gloves,  feet wrapped in scarves with two layers of thermal socks ontop, in a sleeping bag. 
The next day the weather had cleared a bit and we awoke to beautiful glacier covered mountains, warm coca tea, and water to wash up delivered to our tents and then a gourmet hot breakfast. I'm telling you we felt like British explorers in the 1900s with our fancy setup. We began hiking that morning at about 7am for what would be our most gruelling day. We left the tundra and descended to cloud forest and then entered the rainforest. The views were spectacular and we had them all to ourselves. There was only one other group of trekkers that we encountered on the trail. That day we hiked a distance of 10.8 miles, though most of it was downhill (a total descent of over a mile and a half) so you can imagine the state of our knees by the end of the day. That's the equivalent of hiking from half a mile above Denver, CO to sea level in one day. Our guide, Juve was truly a gem. He is one of only seven guides that is from Inca decent of the 3,000 guides in Cusco. He spoke Quechua to his team, all of which are from the highlands. He spoke impeccable English and Spanish and was a true historian and botanist. Nate was in heaven. His company, InkaTrekkers, is one of the few companies that aren't foreign-owned and his wealth of knowledge on Machu Picchu and the different Inca trails was truly astounding. So if you ever want to do the Salkantay, Lares, or Inca trail, look this guy up, you won't be disappointed.

Second day of hiking
Second lunch spot

Second camping spot
Our cook, Mario, working magic on a two burner stove
On the last day of our trek we got rained out and our knees were busted, so our hike was minimised to three hours as opposed to 9 hrs. We made it to touristy Aguas Calientes and b-lined to the thermal baths to help our muscles recover. After three days and 22 miles of hiking we were just a few hours away from experiencing one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, Machu Picchu.

The next morning we woke up at 5am and were entering the gates of Machu Picchu by a quarter to 7. The view was well worth the blisters we had endured. What a magical place. Juve walked us around for 2 1/2 hrs explaining the different structures and giving us the ever-changing history of Machu Picchu. Ever-changing because new Inca remains are still being discovered. Just two years ago a large Inca wall was discovered and they believe there are hundreds of structures still to be found. With the help of local farmers, Hiram Bingham, an American from Yale, rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, its believed to have been the second administrative capital of the Incas, a spiritual location, and where the King lived. When it was rediscovered there were two families living in some of the structures and using the ancient terraces to farm. Incas are such mysterious people, very little is known about them as they had no written language and were so thoroughly decimated by the Spanish arrival. But one thing is for certain, their structures are remarkable. The stonework is so perfect, their isn't even mortar used to bind them, they just fit like a jenga puzzle. And they did it all without metal tools or machines. And despite all the earthquakes that have occurred over the centuries, while all of the new structures crumble, these Inca structures endure. Just remarkable! After our tour, we found the famous "postcard view," posted up, and just stared at the entirety of the structure for hours. It was humbling.
Our first view of Machu Picchu

Terraces are used for three reasons, medicinal/decorative plants, agriculture or foundational. These are ornamental.

Tight stonework was usually found in temples and the Kings accomodations. This is a door to a temple.

This curved rock is one of a kind. Nate believes it was Masons way of leaving their mark and showing off their skill. Pretty impresive. 

Below is where we hiked to get to Aguas Calientes.

Original aguaducts built from a spring in a higher mountain

The temple of the Condor, one of the most important temples

I carried a rock all the way from our first day of hiking, Salkantay, to offer a Pachamama to Machu Picchu. A Pachamama is a gift to mother earth where you ask for good health and security. I gave my offering underneath the Condor´s belly. 

Our postcard spot

That afternoon we headed back to Ollantaytambo on the train where we got stuck in a patron saints parade. According to Juve, it was a Catholic tradition brought from the Spaniards. The costumes were beautifully creepy. I just don't know any other way to describe them. I tried to look up what they all meant, but couldn't find a clear explantaion. It was a cool ending to a once in a lifetime trek.

The Catholic Parade in Ollantaytambo

The strangest costumes

Till next time. 

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