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Machu Picchu and the like

Well, I we hiked 4 days and slept in the jungle/mountains for three nights in tents. We had porters that carried the tents, food and equipment but we carried our backpacks up the trail. Basically, we hiked close to about 30 miles for 4 days up to an altitude of 4200 meters (about 12600 feet) from an altitude of 2300 meters (6900 feet). In one day, we hiked to the top of a mile high mountain from the bottom in about 4 miles distance (so do the math, what is the incline on that bad boy? Too much.). I have never been so physically tired and haven’t laughed as hard as I did on this trip and with this group, in a long time. Below is what transpired.

Day 1:

I woke up early and went and had some breakfast in the time square in Cuzco after I got my shower so I could be all ready for the bus ride up to the point in mountains where we would begin our hike. The bus showed up at 8:30 AM and I hopped on and took a seat. They had already picked up about 15 people and we still had to pick up a few more. Around Cuzco we drove, which is no easy task in a bus as roads are very narrow and steep alley ways cutting between buildings in seemingly random directions. We finally got everyone, including my buddy Martin, and proceeded to park while they put the backpacks on the top of the bus. After about 10 minutes of this, they realized that our bus was screwed up (they had been messing with the front tire the whole time), so we switched to another and put our bags on the new one. From here, we began our journey to our hiking point. We passed a lot of stuff that Martin and I had already seen on our tour to the Cuzco Inca ruins, but it was still nice to see again. It seems that you see something new each time, as the mind can only observe so much when confronted with so much beauty.

After about 45 minutes up the mountain, we parked at some stores for a bathroom break and we bought some candy and visited one of the foulest smelling bathrooms I have ever encountered in my life. Ironically, the guy was really insistent on giving me soap to wash my hands…I guess he didn’t want me spreading whatever diseases he was harboring to the rest of the world. Thirty minutes later, we arrived at the site of some Inca ruins Martin and I had already visited and had a break of about 20 minutes while we waited for the road to open up so we could get to the hiking point. Martin and I walked around and bought a bamboo hiking stick (woven handle with strap and all) for about 66 cents. We also started looking for a cold beer, as we knew it would be the last we would have for several days. No one had one. Every store and restaurant said they would have cold beers later, but not at that time. When we finally tracked one down, it was time to leave and, sadly, we did not get to partake in its glory.

Off we went to the hiking site where we had lunch. It promptly started to rain and we covered all our bags with some plastic ponchos and put on our jackets. Was this how it would be the whole time? It was the beginning of the rainy season, but luckily, the rain stopped shortly after it began. And off we went, hiking a relatively easy trail for about two hours. The porters left us in the dust as they were pretty fit and we chugged along next to the Urabamba river, admiring the scenery. We would stop occasionally and our guide, Santiago, would explain to us some stuff about the Incas or the river or the mountains and it was all quite interesting.

After a while, we came to a sheer mountain wall about 300 feet high and I told Martin, “Hey dude, is that a trail cut into that cliff?”
“I dunno”, was his reply – and 5 minutes later, we were hiking up it. It was very very steep and was just wide enough to walk on. And it was just a slight taste of what was to come.

At the top though, we had a spectacular view of the mountains and the river, and we could also see the first Inca ruin we would encounter on our trip. Deep into the canyon were some huge farming terraces with the ruins standing on top overlooking a few houses below it all. At this point, our guide explained to us that the trail was going to be tough. The Incas made it tough so they could admire the scenery and go through a sort of “spiritual cleansing”; from the massive amounts of sweat one expires while hiking. He also explained that some guys had recently done the whole trek in about 4 hours. We would take 4 days. After this, we hiked down a little bit of the mountain and camped out at one of the many camp sites along the trail. By camp site, I mean someone had a little house/shack with some wild pigs, dogs and turkeys running around and basically let us stay in their backyard. The bathroom was in the field behind us and water could be gotten from the stream behind the tents (although you still had to add a tablet to sanitize it). We had a nice dinner in the dining tent and a few of us stayed up late getting to know each other. As for the bathroom, I remembered from somewhere a cool idea to make it easier. You basically take some string and put it through the toilet paper roll and so you can wear the whole thing as a necklace for easy access in the woods. Shortly thereafter, everyone had a fashionable toilet paper necklace and they served us all well in the proceeding days.

Day 2:

At dinner the previous night, our guide had warned us of this day.

“Don’t worry about the pain and suffering. Use the time to meditate and think about your life in the company of nature.”

Was this guy for real? Pain and suffering? They didn’t mention that part in the brochure.

Yes, he was for real. After breakfast at 6:00AM, and a night of some intense rain in a tent with a hole in the top that kept dripping on Martin’s head, we set off on the trail. We would be hiking about six miles today, four of which were up hill (at 45-65 degree angles). We hiked and hiked and hiked. And sweated and sweated and sweated. The Incas had left some stone steps (huge stone steps) and the trail had since been recovered with more stones to make it last. After about an hour of hiking, I wanted to die. I had the heaviest backpack (as I had packed four days worth of clothes, unlike everyone else) and I was always last. We hiked through the jungle, where mountain streams drained along side the trail and vines and moss hung low from the shadowy trees. We hiked through more arid parts of the trail where you could see spectacular views of the mountains and how far you had hiked (and dishearteningly, how far you still had to hike to the top).

I would take a break occasionally (like every two minutes) so I could breath, give my aching muscles a rest, and let my heart calm down a little bit. It was intense and I was very slow. Eventually, however, I made it to lunch with three other slow people in the group (Martin included).

We rested a bit, had a nice lunch, and then continued on the death march. About three hours later, I made it to the top. And I was nearly dead. The three of us (the slow ones) admired the view for a little bit before heading down the other side of the mountain. The view was spectacular and we were high up in the clouds. The wind blew the clouds up the sides of the mountain peaks very quickly and seeing wisps of clouds flying straight up and over the hill we were on (it was like there was a huge fire on the side of the mountain and smoke was rocketing up) was a very surreal experience.

But going down was almost as difficult as going up, since the huge stone steps were very very steep. And it was cold and windy. With every step, my leg muscles quivered with exhaustion and my calves cried in pain. We were descending about half a mile on a mile and a half long trail. We could see the campsite below and it taunted us as we winded towards and away it on the path down and around the mountain.

When we arrived, we were buried in clouds descending down the mountain and the fogginess in the twilight of the evening was almost spooky. The bathroom was quite a hike down the campsite and everyone was too tired to go so we stood around (as there was no place on the ground that the clouds had left dry) and talked before dinner. Dinner was nice and after, we all went to bed despite the early hour. Our guide had given Martin and I a new tent (we all slept two or three to a tent) since our old one had a hole in the top. Our new tent, however, was even worse, as the zipper wouldn’t shut on the door and we soon found out that there was hole in our new tent as well.

Day 3:

I woke up in the morning with half my sleeping bag hanging out the front of the tent, but no worries – getting dirty was part of the fun. After packing up and having breakfast, we pushed our achy bodies up another mountain, although the hike up was only about an hour or so. There were some ruins half way up the mountain and after a pretty interesting explanation of them, we continued up to the top. The mountain had quite a few natural lakes and the top provided some more spectacular views.

Then we went down some more huge stone steps. Slowly but surely, we made our way past more ruins, through natural caves, over natural springs, past waterfalls and lakes hidden in the sides of the mountains and through narrow parts of the trail dropping off into a foggy abyss off the edge. After lunch, we kept going and eventually, made it to a campsite with hot showers, a restaurant, and beer. We took a hike to some ruins after arriving to the campsite and then went and took a hot shower. Dinner was in a wooden building (a nice change from the tent) and the cook had made a bunch of animals out of vegetables and we all got a good laugh. We ended up finishing dinner and going to bed – again early, due to the pure exhaustion. Before we crashed though, we took a trip down to the showers (actually, it was more like a hike in pitch blackness) since Martin had left his sunglasses in the showers. We pounded on the owner’s door until he let us into the showers but sadly, someone had already taken them. We figured would see someone on the trail with them the next day so we just went back to the camp and went to bed.

Day 4:

I woke up at 2:00 AM in to the sound or rain on the tent. I quickly grabbed my soaked backpack and shoes from outside and covered them up. I took my damp camera out and put it in the sleeping bag to dry (I didn’t turn it on to see if it still worked because I didn’t want it to fry). Two hours later, we were woken up so we could get to Machu Picchu in time to see the sunrise and before all the tourists arrived. It was about a two hour hike to the top of another mountain which overlooked the famous ruins and gave a perfect view of them in their entirety from above. I was of course the last to arrive, which was nice since the trail was only half way up hill and I got a lot of time to enjoy the beauty of the canyons and river below alone (although drenched in sweat since we were in the middle of a really humid rainforest).

When I arrived, we were rewarded with a white abyss where our spectacular view should have been. Disappointed, we started hiking down the mountain towards the stone city with hope that lower down we would get a better view. Then it started to rain. It rained off and off as we hiked down and accompanied us for the first two hours of the Machu Picchu exploration. Eventually, however, it cleared up and became a beautiful day. The ruins were incredible and after our tour, we were free to explore on our own. We hiked through tunnels, caves, a maze of rooms and temples and terraces, and took a hike to the ancient Inca bridge about 45 minutes from the site. You couldn’t actually go on the bridge as the path to it stopped about 100 feet before you got to and the path beyond it was overgrown with trees and shrubs (and was about 2 feet wide and cut into the side of a really high mountain).

After we got back from the hike, it was getting late and the tourists were leaving so we decided to take another journey through the ruins. I split off (about 4 of us were exploring together) and just kind of wandered around. The place is really pretty incredible. Even though I had already been through, it was like I was seeing again for the first time. The huge stones, religious sites, stone steps up the terraces winding around and mountain, narrow pathways leading here and there and rock quarries were mind blowing. You could almost imagine daily Inca life there and getting lost in the immense stone maze was like a sort of meditation. Llamas wandered around as well, munching on the grass in the terraces and, and as the sun set, the shadows cast on the buildings made for some awesome pictures. This place is something that words cannot describe and you really have to visit it to understand.

After we finished wandering (actually, it was more like our bodies couldn’t take walking anymore), we took a bus down the mountain to a small town called Aguas Calientes. We (the 5 of us that had become a group of friends) got a room (5 bucks a night), got dinner (about 3 bucks) and went out playing pool and drinking. Still though, we went to bed fairly early, as Martin and I didn’t yet have a train ticket and we had to get up early to beat the crowd and secure a seat on the train back to Cuzco.

Day 5:

Up early, we got our ticket and took the hour long train ride to the bus station so we could take a bus into Cuzco. We hopped on the bus, got to Cuzco, checked into a hostel and then went out and had lunch. After lunch, we slept a few hours and then went out to get dinner. I had bought some postcards so when kids came up to sell me postcards, I turned the tables and offered them a great deal (about 1000% more the price that they were selling them for) before they could say anything. Most laughed, some walked away confused, and some left as though they thought I was really serious and they wanted to avoid such a bad investment. It was great, and they left us alone. We ended up running into a few Canadian girls from the trip and went to a few clubs with a bunch of free drink tickets (they hand them out to get you to go to their club). At about 2:00 AM, and about 5 clubs later, we all went home pretty drunk and went to bed. In one of the clubs, I was in the bathroom and two guys came in, shut the door, dumped some cocaine on their hands and snorted it up. I turned down their offer for me to join in. Outside, we ran into some girls (who were between about 5 and 7 years old) selling puppets, chocolate and postcards and I made the mistake of giving the few of them a coin each. They ended up harassing us for 20 minutes and the confrontation ended with one of them telling me that other “gringos” give her 10 soles, not just 1 like I had. Insulted, I told her to give it back then at which point she throw a coin on the ground in the dark. I walked away in dismay and one of the other girls picked it up and ran off.

I think it’s wiser just to buy something off of them so they leave you alone and you still get to help them (pride, youth, hunger, and desperation make for some interesting behavior, as I’m sure you can imagine). There had been another soccer game projected on a big screen in the town square and there were still several hundred people in standing around doing nothing. We all stumbled home and went to sleep – a perfect end to a pretty incredible week.