Have you ever taken a trip to a different hemisphere on two days' notice? If not, then I'm one up on you. Read on. (Besides, it will give you something to do while the graphics load.)
On Easter Sunday of this year, I was at Easter Dinner with my girlfriend's family (she was not actually in attendance, which she no doubt regretted later when she realized what I had gotten myself into). I was casually chatting with her brother-in-law, Nick, who mentioned that he was leaving on a rather exotic voyage the following weekend. It seemed that Nick had two weeks' vacation time coming which needed to be used, but his wife did not have such a luxury. Nick is a lot like me in that he has a history of taking random solo road trips to bizarre locales; this time around, he had booked himself a flight to Peru to hike the Inca Trail through the Andes. He gave me a little background about his trip, then added the dangerous words, "You ought to come with!" My mind immediately started rolling around the possibilities; I immediately agreed, we cut our fingers, and swore a blood oath to do it!
Okay, so that wasn't QUITE the way it went...I actually said, "Yeah, that would be fun," and sort of dismissed the idea. I didn't really think I'd get the time off work, plus I really couldn't afford it, but I did think it was a pretty cool idea. I mentioned the idea to Kathy later and she thought I was nuts.
The next day at work, I was sort of rolling the idea around in my mind. As a joke, I said to my boss, "Hey, I might need to leave for Peru for two weeks starting Saturday." He sort of rolled his eyes when I explained the whole thing to him, but told me that we could probably "find a way" if I needed to go (I should point out here that I had two things going for me- one, that my boss was fairly new but had been quite impressed with my bartending prowess in the month he'd been there, and two, the company had recently pulled the rug out form under a two-week, work-related trip to Palm Springs that I had been scheduled to take until they cancelled on me three days before I was supposed to leave; my bitterness over this latter turn of events had, in my inimitable style, had been frequently and vocally expressed).
Anyway, at some point that week, word got back to my stepdad, Andrew, that I was mulling over the Peru idea. Andrew had given me some frequent flier miles for Christmas of '99 that I had not yet used (for more on Andrew's frequent flier mile gifts, see my Europe '98 adventure); he said it sounded like an "interesting" idea (and I should point out that he used the word "interesting" much like one who is forced to describe a really nasty food when the chef is still in the room). In any event, I still had no real intention of going on Wednesday when Nick emailed me some information about the Inca Trail. I looked it over for a bit, made a mental note, and went about my business for the day.
Thursday is when it all happened. That morning when I had logged on to check my email, the info form Nick popped up again. I thought, "Hmm. I could at least make it look like I actually tried," so I emailed Andrew and asked him if the frequent flier miles were still there. He replied that they were, so (still not actually planning to go!) I responded with the joking question "How many miles would it take to get to Peru?" That afternoon, I got a voice mail form Andrew informing me that I had a ticket to Peru departing on Saturday. I nearly wet myself.
To make a long story (which this is becoming- sorry!) short, I managed to officially get the time off, find out all about Peru, and pack over the course of two short days. I should also point out that I had to miss my best friend Yvette's wedding (to email her your sympathies and to remind her what a schmuck I am- not that she needs the reminder- click here), but how often does one get the chance to go to Peru?
Moving ahead a little, I connected with Nick in Houston and we boarded the red-eye to Lima. We caught a connector flight to Cusco, the second-largest city in Peru and former Inca capital. I had never been to a third-world country before; as the plane descended into the Cusco airport and I saw the surrounding city, I thought, "Dear Lord, what am I getting myself into here?" Fortunately, the pilot refused to "turn the plane right around" as I had asked, so Nick and I hopped in a rather sketchy-looking taxi to make our way to the Hotel Ninos.
The Ninos, at $30 per night for a double occupancy, is actually QUITE pricy by local standards. However, all the proceeds go to the orphanage that the hotel runs (it is thus very popular with big-hearted Americans). We had to acclimate ourselves to the altitude in Cusco for at least three days before hiking the Inca Trail, lest we risk succumbing to "el seroche", or altitude sickness (Cusco's altitude is 3400 meters above sea level, or nearly two miles!). I admit, I thought this was a load of garbage at first, but as I lay in bed the first night nearly hyperventilating, I soon reconsidered.
Cusco itself was a neat town, once you got used to the idea. You can get a good (by even American standards) dinner for about three dollars, if you're paying more than ten bucks a night (unless you're being charitable, of course) for a hotel, you're getting hosed, and there are several neat markets throughout the city. I was quite fond of the markets, actually, going a bit overboard with my llama and alpaca souvenirs. Everything is negotiable, too, form the postcards that every kid on the street is trying to sell to the fresh-boiled corn-on-the-cob that old women have for sale on every corner.
The Peruvian government makes a good deal of money off of the tourists hiking the Inca trail ($50 for a permit), and they pass the gravy on to the locals by requiring that all hikers have guides for the four-day journey. After a bit of looking, we settled on SAS Travel, highly recommended in both the Lonely Planet and Let's Go guides. The Inca Trail runs through the Andes and used to serve as a means of transportation for the Inca Empire; it connects roughly 29 separate Inca ruins and ends at Machu Picchu, the one-time religious center of the empire.
We set off on the first morning in a rather long bus ride to the starting point for the trail, kilometer 83 of the Trans- American Highway (which, at points, is just a BUMPY two-track...). We were part of a group of 18 hikers form a diverse array of places: four form Ireland, three form Australia, four form great Britain, one form Austria, four form Colorado, and the two of us. In addition, we had a local guide named Hilbert and a number of porters who came and went each day as the hiring needs arose. Day 1 went rather smoothly. We had adjusted pretty well to the altitude, and the ascent was quite gradual until the end of the day. I somehow managed to chip a tooth at lunch, but aside form that, no major calamities.
Day 2 was the dreaded day of the hike, mainly because it involved some SERIOUS climbing. Our main objective that day was to reach Dead Woman's Pass: at 4200 meters (or 2.5 miles), it's the point of highest elevation on the entire Inca Trail. I'm proud to say that yours truly made it to the pass first, by a good half an hour, mainly because I got in with some porters early on who set a WICKED pace. Of course, then I had to wait around for the rest of the group, during which time I nearly caught the flu (it is mighty chilly at 2.5 miles). But after two hours, we set off down the mountain, making camp just in time to avoid a rainstorm.
Day 3 started off with more uphill hiking (much to the protest of everyone's aching legs), but we reached the next pass in about an hour started downhill again. We descended most of the afternoon; having started well above the treeline, we passed through several tropical rainforest zones on the way down, finishing the day in a near-jungle area. However, this evening was different form the others in that we stopped in a settled area. This was sort of a traveler's way station, with amenities including showers (I use the term loosely) and -get this- BEER. Nick and I had developed quite a taste for Cuzquena, the local brew, in our time in Cusco; after three days on the trail, that "taste" turned into an "all-consuming desire". Aaahh....
Anyway, Day 4 began VERY early (3:30 AM), because tradition demands that hikers reach Machu Picchu in time for sunrise. After another hour-and-a-half of hiking, we came to our first view of the city, an ancient gate, built by the Incas to cast a specific shadow on the vernal equinox. Here we celebrated the birthday of one of our fellow hikers with a champagne toast, which I must say was pretty cool, especially as we gazed down on the city. Another two hours, and we were in Machu Picchu, well ahead of the tourist crunch (vehicular traffic to Machu Picchu isn't allowed to begin until 10 AM, which is supposed to be incentive to do the hike).
The city itself was quite impressive. It was built in the late 15th century, but was abandoned by the end of the 16th as a result of the Spanish conquest. It was "discovered" in 1911 by a Yale archaeologist (much to the dismay of the two families who were living there at the time) and is one of the few pre-Colombian centers found in a nearly-intact state. The city is about five square miles in area and is quite fascinating. It was divided into three major zones: an agricultural zone, a religious zone, and residential zone. The Temple of the Sun here (each Inca city had one) is pretty cool, because the Incas built structures several miles away (see above) to focus a sunbeam to exactly enter one its two windows during the solar equinoxes ever year. This let the Incas know when it was time to plant, when it was time to harvest, and of course, when the new model year started for chariots.
After our hike ended, we moved on to Aguas Calientes, a town so named because of its hot springs. After a stay at a rather unique hostel called Gringo Bill's (the murals in each room need to be seen to be believed), we moved on to the town of Ollantaytombo, which is hard to say and even harder to spell. We headed back to Cusco the next day, where I regrettably contracted a case of Montezuma's Revenge (which plagued me for the next ten days), but otherwise had a good time. At one bar, we even got to see Charlie's Angels in Spanish!
A few other highlights I should mention are the town of Pisac, which is partly known for its well-preserved ruins (a pretty good hike in itself) and partly known for its thrice-a-week open-air market. Can you say "Christmas shopping?" I also had some pretty unique foods, too. I tried alpaca (a cousin of the llama), which was quite good, and "cuy", a.k.a. guinea pig, which actually tasted like pork. I know, you're sitting there gasping, but it is a pretty common local dish. I think I'll skip it next time around, though. Oh, and the Inca Cola bears mentioning, too- a soft drink made partially out of corn; it tastes a lot like Faygo Rock'N'Rye (or a little like cream soda, for you non-Michigan types).
All in all, it was a great trip. We saw some amazing scenery (I love the mountains, as my many trips to the Rockies will demonstrate), met some unique people, experienced a totally unfamiliar culture, and managed not to fall victim to any "strangle muggings" (apparently a big problem in Cusco). To top things off, with the low cost of living and the great exchange rate, I actually spent LESS money on the trip than I would have spent had I stayed home! How often can you say that about YOUR vacation?
Thanks for reading. Enjoy the photos.
At the Plaza de Armas, in dowtown Cusco.
Also at the Armas.
Nick eating the local delicacy "cuy", which is actually guinea pig! (I must confess that it was really mine; Nick, who is a vegan, made a "cultural exception" and tried a bite).
The city of Cusco, from up on the mountain.
In the ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Sachsayhuaman (pronounced "sexy woman"- Really!).
The plain in the middle of Sachsayhuaman, which was littered with bodies after a decisive Spaniard victory over the Incas, in the 1540's.
At the Macondo restaurant, our favorite hangout in Cusco, with our friend Andreas, the owner.
At the ruins in Pisac, another ancient city.
The Incas mastered the art of terrace farming, which was essential, given the mountainous Andean terrain.
Taking a break during the Pisac hike.
The Incas built things to last...
Nick and me at the start of the Inca Trail, our raison d'etre (in Peru, anyway).
A scenic spot on our first day of hiking.
At the 3000 meter mark (1.8 miles) with Chrissy and Damian, our new friends form Denver.
At the top of Dead Woman's Pass, elevation 4200 meters (2.5 miles!).
Our entire group at Dead Woman's Pass (I made it to the top first!), the highest elevation on the trip (but by no means the end of the uphill hiking).
Nick and me at the pass. I got rather cold waiting for everyone else (did I mention the elevation was 2.5 MILES?).
At the second-highest point (3800 meters) on the morning of Day 3.
Day 3 saw us start well above the treeline and descend into a tropical forest zone.
Night 3 we made camp at a travellers' way station, the first sign of civilization in 3 days...
...and also the first sign of a bar!
The goal of the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, was now only an hour's hike away.
A better view of the town, on approach.
Inside Machu Picchu itself. The city was an ancient Inca religious center.
One of the modern inhabitants.
Inside Machu, with the view as seen form the high priest's private area.
At Ollantaytombo, another half-ancient, half-modern city (and wholly difficult to say!).
Some of the terraces as Ollantaytombo.
One of the hundreds of hands of rummy we played during our nine-hour wait at Lima's airport.