|Upon arrival in Cuzco it was clear to see that Peru was another surprise waiting to be unwrapped. Cuzco, at an altitude of 3500m, is a city that would not appear out of place in a listing of Great European Cities. The beautifully maintained lawns and flowers of Plaza de Arnas (Central Plaza) are ringed by imposing churches (which borrow the Inca ruins of the 1500's for their foundations), gourmet restaurants, funky bars, tourist shops and clothing stores. When walking through the centre and surrounding suburbs it is plain to see that the city unashamedly caters for tourists. However, through some miracle, none of the local Cuzconian traditions and flavours have been lost. The city is an incredible natural mix of traditional culture and modern progress, a model for sustainable tourism. Much of the original Inca city is still visible beneath and within the buildings that line the streets. In this way, the past forms part of the present ensuring that the achievements of the Inca can never really be forgotten in the way which monuments and stand alone ruins can be. The past lives in Cuzco!
Our first two days in Cuzco were spent exploring the city, watching the US Open and dining out at the many fine local restaurants that Cuzco has to offer (although I must admit that I may have slipped in a little visit to McDonald's somewhere along the line). This included an incredible dinner at one of Cuzco's finest restaurants in belated celebration of reaching the halfway point in our trip (any excuse to have a slap up meal which includes lamb). Due to an unfortunate missed flight situation, Edel, Nena's mom, had to spend two nights in Sao Paulo before joining us in Cuzco. The only benefit of this was that Edel was able to recover from her jetlag without her daughter forcing her up the nearest hill. Upon Edel's arrival, Nena whisked all three of us through the city on a whistle stop highlights tour. This included stumbling upon a Sunday ritual in Cuzco, a military parade by the Cuzco contingent of Peru's army, who were closely followed by students from the local military schools. Plaza de Armas, filled with well drilled and organised military personnel, present and future, was an extremely impressive sight to behold.
For Edel's second day at altitude we had booked an all-day tour of the nearby Sacred Valley, however, after a quick discussion on the morning thereof, we decided that running Edel up numerous hills was probably not the best way to acclimatise her for the Inca Trail and instead it was decided that the girls would enjoy a day of massages and coffee shops in Cuzco, while I, terrified of massages, would enjoy the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The Sacred Valley holds the impressive Inca ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, beautiful ruins, clinging to the tops and sides of numerous mountains, which leave no doubt as to how advanced the Incas were, even with regard to construction. I was fascinated by the Incas knowledge of micro-climates and astronomy and by the end of the day I was even more excited for the Inca Trail and convinced that the Irish were not the greatest inventors of all time. However, the highlight of the tour was my perfect and un-broken stream of spanish as I verbally defended myself from a woman on the tour who accused me of being late and then told me that all Americans were the same. She rapidly apologised and by the end of the tour we were inseparable. Nena would have been so proud.
That night we enjoyed our first taste of delicious alpaca steak (alpacas looks quite similar to llamas) but failed to sum up the courage to try cuy, roasted guinea pig, served on a skewer with teeth and all.
The next day was the 6th of September and I gleefully called home to wish my younger brother and sister (Chris and Caz) happy birthday, I do love when the one and a half year age gap is reduced to one year on paper. That night we listenend intently at our Inca Trail pre-departure talk and were left feeling both excited and nervous for the challenge ahead.
It was a nervous start to Day 1 of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Edel was looking more pale by the second and our impatience to start was only rewarded with an immediate steep uphill which left us breathless. After a few moments of panic we remembered that this wasn't the Amazing Race and slowed down to a comfortable pace at which we could appreciate the incredible nature and views within which we were bound. Our fantastic assistant guide, Eric, was quick to join us at the back of the group and showed no signs of panic as we fell slightly behind the rest of the group. Instead, Eric took the opportunities created by our more frequent stops to point out all manner of insects and flora, teaching us, and at the same time, cleverly distracting us from our scorched lungs screaming for the non-existent air at just under 4000m. After an hour or two of walking in this way I was absolutely sure that were all going to make it to Machu Picchu. After an hour's lunch (which breezed by in what seemed like seconds) we continued on the trail until the Night 1 Camp, used by the majority of the tour companies. We had been told in our pre-briefing that we would not be staying at this camp but would instead be getting a head start on the other groups for Day 2 and would thus be continuing an hour up the mountain to a cleaner and less crowded camp. After a full day of walking, the prospect of hiking up a steep hill for an extra hour was not exactly enticing, however, the subject was not up for discussion and so started one of the longest and hardest one-hour treks of my life. To my absolute dismay, the previous nervous and struggling Edel had vanished. Although Nena, Edel and I were still a distinct second group we were starting to pick up people who had fallen off the back of the first group. Our group of three had suddenly ballooned to eight and Edel was our leader, not only setting the pace but also the mood, a determined, measured and relaxed march. We were all exhausted and fed-up by the time Edel lead us into camp, the last rays of sun disappearing into the background. Incredible. That night we feasted on a delicious shambles of gourmet food before being offered a small amount of alcohol which finished us off for the day.
Although exhausted the first night of sleep was like pushing the fast forward button on a video machine, lots of wake-ups but quickly back to sleep. These wake-ups were mainly as a result of being given the thinnest and narrowest matresses in the entire world. If you wanted to turn over you needed to roll onto your back, then jump into the air and rotate while pulling the mattress underneath you at the same time, think Olympic gymnastics floor routine. Anyway, nothing can stop the dead from sleeping.
A moment for the porters: Our group of 16 customers required 19 porters. These unbelievably humble and shy men, none of which reach my shoulder height, mostly hail from the town of Pisac and range in age from 23 to 56, although Eric told us that he knows a 72 year old porter who regularly assists on the route. Each porter is required to carry 25 kilograms over the four day route. These 25 kilograms consist of a combination of our bags, which are "limited" to 18kg's in weight, tents, sleeping bags, stoves, gas canisters, food and anything else which may be needed. The porters are also responsible for setting up the tent in which we eat and the tents in which we sleep, providing us with hot water and soap when we arrive at camp and when we wake up early in the morning and preparing and serving us our meals. Because these porters are responsible for setting up and breaking our camp, they have to leave after us and arrive before us, while covering the exact same route as we do, with 25kg's on their back. In fact, the porters basically jog past you on the route, when you hear the call of "Porters" you move quickly to the mountain side of the path and let them through, because they are running with a shifting, unsymmetrical, 25kg load on their back, up a 45 degree slope and it would be considered impolite to break their momentum. Add to this incredible physical feat the fact that the porters are always friendly, happy and smiling and you would be forgiven for thinking you had found 19 Clark Kents. An interesting fact is that in the annual Porter Race, where each tour company sends their fittest and fastest porters to complete the Inca Trail without the 25 kg load, the fastest SAS (our tour company) porter completed the same route that we do in four days in 3 hours and 45 minutes. That's 50 kilometres, in less than four hours, over hilly and unreliable terrain and he wasn't even the fastest porter. Eric also told us that the job of being a porter was not some familial tradition steeped in pride where you fathers father was a porter and your father was a porter, but mostly a job which is well paying enough to send their children to school and university in the hope of providing them a chance for a better life. What amazing people, the Inca Trail would not be possible without them.
Day 2 started with a cup of Milo and an excellent breakfast of quinoa porridge, fruit and even pancakes. The uphill walk, which we had started the day before, continued for another four hours up Dead Woman's Pass, topping out at 4 100m. The walk was extremely difficult and our group of three was once again joined by the three Australian girls who had followed Edel into camp the day before. Again, Edel was our leader and pacemaker, though her consistent pace through the tougher sections was not appreciated by all members of the group. Eric was excellent as usual, distracting us with interesting facts about surrounding vegetation and the possibility of seeing a puma, of which there is none. We were blessed with cool overcast weather and before we knew it Edel had led us to the summit where coca tea and snacks awaited. From the top of Dead Woman's Pass we enjoyed a spectacular view of what we had just climbed. I was so proud of all of us for making it to the top without an emotional breakdown, I was close. The one and a half hour descent from the summit was tricky and slow, for me, but like Hector re-born, Edel and Nena cascaded down the precarious Inca Steps, finishing up in our lunch spot, at the base of the valley, far before anyone else in the entire group and looking irritatingly spritely when I arrived exhausted and shaking ten minutes later.
Another excellent lunch was followed by another climb, of an hour and a half, to the top of the other side of the valley. Other tour operators normally do this climb on the third day, camping in our lunch spot overnight, but once again we were told that the camp over the next climb was cleaner and less crowded. Although we were all exhausted and stiff, there was no real struggle to reach the top. When I looked back at the valley we had just conquered, our lunch spot far below and the peak of Dead Woman's Pass directly across, I couldn't quite believe the distance we had covered. Thirteen kilometres (16km's by the end of the day) of seriously hard terrain and we were still smiling. After a few oreos we started the one and a half hour descent to our camp. On the way down I enjoyed a chat with Nilesh, an Englishman who works in insurance, on whether circumcised men should have reduced insurance premiums as they are less likely to contract HIV during unprotected sex. Nena, as you can imagine, was not pleased with the topic chosen for discussion. However, time flew by and before we knew it we were sitting on a pile of ruins 20 minutes from camp, listening intently to our guide Fred as he explained the discoveries made at this Inca site. Fred's interesting lecture was rudely interrupted by the most useless creatures on the planet, mosquitoes. These particular mosquitoes are called Puma Wakachis in the indigenous Quechua language, which directly translated means, the mosquitoes that make the puma cry. These flea size wakachis, quite literally, chased our silent and exhausted group into camp and would not stop attacking us until I whipped out a can of insect repellent, powerful enough to be used in chemical warfare, and sprayed Nena, Edel and all the porters in sight. After a delicious dinner we collapsed into our tents. With technique perfected, sleep was fast, easy and deep.
A moment for the food: Simply put, the food was fit for a king, delicious, fresh and well made. We feasted on everything from stuffed peppers to pizza and on our last night we were even presented with a congratulatory cake. I have no idea how these feats were accomplished but I suspect magic. Especially when you consider that there are no kitchens or ovens and that the chef is one of the very same porters who performs the tasks I described above.
Day 3 consisted of a four hour, undulating walk, to the ruins of Intipinku and Winya Wina. Lunch was spent enoying the fantastic valley views from Intipinku and after an afternoon sleep, in our nearby camp, we explored the ruins of Winya Wina. That night we bid farewell to our fantastic porters. They would be extremely busy the next morning as they had to pack up our camp, run to Machu Pichu, leave our bags in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes and then catch the train to Ollantaytambo where the trail would once again commence for them at 10:00am. We hit the sack, ready for a 4:30am wake-up and sound in the knowledge that Machu Picchu would be waiting in the morning.
A moment for the toilets: The toilets on the Inca Trail can best be described as "Porcelain moulded around a hole in the ground". If you want to use the toilet you have to squat down, aching legs buckling and shaking, trying not to fall to the side, backward, forward or down into the toilet, while simultaneously ensuring that your feet are not to close to the toilet edge and your pants are not about to dip into the toilet hole. This need to ensure that you "Don't touch anything" can only be as a result of the following scenario: A person is squatting, muscles burning, trying to relieve themselves when a dog bursts in and attacks them. The dog drags the person, still trapped in the squatting position, by the arm, around the cubicle. In short, people can't aim and this coupled with the fact that the toilets are only cleaned once a year with a low pressure hose leaves what you can imagine and I can describe as the worst toilets in the entire galaxy. If aliens arrive on the planet and see those toilets within the first year, we will be exterminated without a word, the damning evidence, a picture of the Inca Trail toilets.
The final day of the Inca Trail started with a quick breakfast and a speedy walk to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. Upon arrival at the Sun Gate you are confronted with a truly spectacular view. Bathed in the golden rays of the rising morning sun and completely void of any human activity the view of Machu Picchu is incredibly beautiful and too much to take in all at once. This different and ancient world, with the peak of Huayna (Wayna) Picchu rising ominously in it's background, takes our breath away. Suddenly, there is no four day trek, there are no tents and there are no toilets, there is only Machu Picchu.
After a slow trek down from the Sun Gate we arrived in the ruins themselves. The detail and forethought with which Machu Picchu was constructed could challenge any modern architecture we have today. From earthquake proof walls to underground communication systems we are blown away. Our two hour tour flies by and before we know it, Nena and I are being led away from the rest of our group to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. I am not exactly sure what we were thinking when we decided that we would climb a mountain just after completing a four day hike. Eric, our assistant guide, walked us to the check-in point at the base of the mountain. Upon arrival he coolly told us that this was the hardest mountain to climb around Machu Picchu and that we should take a picture for him from the top as he had never climbed it in his previous 5 years of guiding. Then he mentioned in passing that we would need to ascend and descend the 3-4 hour route within two hours or possibly miss the train back to Cuzco and most importantly, lunch. With Eric's kind words as motivation we started the near vertical trek. After 5 minutes of climbing Nena complained that I was going to fast and suggested that she lead the way and control the pace. That pace left me gasping for air in her dust. After 55 minutes of interminable steps we arrived at the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. At the summit we were greeted with a panoramic view of the entire area, including the valleys we had trekked over the previous four days. We were higher than even the Sun Gate and the views of Machu Pichu from entrance to exit were breathtaking. After photos and a few snacks we made a break neck speed descent to arrive in the ruins of Machu Picchu within 45 minutes. It suddenly hit us that we had completed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and although it was one of the best experiences of my life, my hiking boots are going to be retired for at least a month.
We made it to lunch and back to Cuzco and that night we met up with the rest of the group (every single one of them awesome) for one or five celebratory beers, Pisco Sours for the girls.
Our last two nights in Peru were spent in the little town of Puno on the beautiful and immense Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. We visited the floating islands of the Uros tribe, which are man-made from reeds stacked layer upon layer to a depth of 17 metres and later visited the harsh but beautiful volcanic island of Taquile.
Peru was incredible. The people we met and the adventures we had are some of the highlights of our trip. Next....Bolivia!