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Machu Pichu & El Misti, Peru
3 August, 2000 - Cusco, Peru

Sitting here in a row of backpackers, shoulder to shoulder, typing on sticky keyboards, mindful of the escalating fees - seems like Africa was just a few weeks ago. Excellent, Junglerunning again. Delays this summer have been out of control, so our 30 minute wait on the runway "to avoid thunderstorms in the south" felt like a reprieve. Half an hour delayed into Miami, rushed through the terminal, ...pause at the b/w photo displays... oh yeah, and rushed through the terminal to the wide-body 767. Packed. Arrived in Lima at 4am. 

Not purchasing the ticket to Cusco on Travelocity turned out to be a shrewd move. The $200 fare in the States cost us $60 at the counter. Flights left almost every 15 min, so we had no wait at all. Thanked our tourist guide, paid the $4 departure tax, and boarded a Soviet era turbo-prop (seemed like a rip-off of the DeHavilland Beaver). Two hours and we were at altitude in Cusco. 

Located in southern Peru, Cusco is the jumping off spot for the Machu Pichu trek - South America´s premier hike. The town has evolved into a tourist mecca; gobs of stores with handcrafted stuff (not enough room in the backpack to buy as much as I'd like), restaurants ranging from inexpensive good food to truly dirt-cheap local grub, and plenty of cheap hostels. Touts are everywhere, "buy postcards", "you go rafting, yes?", "very nice Italian food"... Italian? 

Inca History
The Inca empire was founded in Cusco around AD1100 by the first Inca, Manco Capac, both a historical and mythic figure. Cusco owes much of its early development to the great Inca Pachacuti. Under his reign, Cusco supposedly took on the shape of a puma - the symbol of courage and commitment. Cusco become the capital of Tawantisnsuyo, a vast empire that in subsequent years would stretch from southern Columbia to Chile and Argentina. However, with expansion also came division and civil war. The Cusco faction thought lost, leaving the city in disrepair, but when a strange man named Pizzaro landed on the coast and executed the usurping Inca Atahuallpa, many in Cusco thought they were saved. And so began the Spanish conquest of Peru. 

Pizzaro entered the city a hero in 1533, looted Cusco´s temples, and installed the puppet Inca Manco Capac II. When Manco realized that the Spanish weren't leaving, he amassed an army of 150,000 and in 1563 attacked the colonists. During his siege the Inca´s army set fire to the city´s thatched roofs leaving Cusco in ruins. Manco´s subsequent defeat at Sacsayhuaman sent him retreating into the jungle at Vilcabamba, the last capital of a then-shrunken empire. In 1572, after a number of costly attempts, the Spanish finally took Vilcabamba bringing back the very last Inca, Tupac Amaru, whom they beheaded in the Cusco Plaza de Armas, extinguishing the once-great Inca empire for good. 

Acclimatization
We settled into a $15 double at a local hostel, scraped off the travel grime and hit the town. Cusco is at 11,000 feet so we'll spend a couple days walking around to get acclimatized. The 4 day Inca trail winds through some pretty extreme mountain terrain, the views are reputed to be spectacular, but we've had plenty of warning about altitude sickness and we have to carry our own packs (why did I bring a shortwave radio, madness). I was out of breath after putting on my boots this afternoon, darn McKinsey life of luxury - so its all slow and easy right now. I'm on the trip with David Berger, a friend from Wharton who actually played more golf than I did over the summer. Good grief - gotta get them platelets reproducing quickly. Here's looking at you kid... from the Mama Africa Internet cafe overlooking the Plaza de Armas. 

The Inca Trail

David and I determined to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu - a four day, 39 km trek with drastic changes in altitude through mountainside paths verging deep gashed valleys, in and out of cloud forest, past ancient Inca citadels and temples, to arrive at the Sun gate overlooking the mysterious city itself. We packed light, but even so were persuaded by Roberto our guide to hire a porter to carry a shared pack - ¨This is like no other hike you have done before, are you sure you don´t need a porter...¨. Three hours on the bus culminated in a smothering dust track and finally we arrived at Km 82, our starting point for the trek. The group was large, 21 people, and the mix of personalities would reveal themselves in the coming days. 

Passports were examined, logbook signed, we set out down the trail. David sidled up to a young pretty hiker as we set out, ¨So, Jennifer, that´s your name right...¨ Jen and Lara were from the East Coast, friends from school, and were soon chatting away - David is unceasingly social like a force of nature few escape. In the back of the line I encountered the Swiss contingent, two girls and their friend, already warming to their theme of the social inconsistencies of the third world and the moral recitude of contributing to the environmental pollution of the trail by participating in the hike - recognizing the benefits of tourism for the locals, yet bitter that the establishment would skim most of the profits... I moved up the line. Colorado was already falling behind. Well, their names weren´t Colorado, they were a cute, quirky husband and wife, and they had brought 50lb packs complete with their own food and supplies. It had been cheaper to register with an agency to have the services of a guide - but they wanted to ¨do¨ the trail. I passed Danica and Hester, from Oregon, young twentysomethings recently in Ecuador striding the trail packless in tank tops.

Up and down on the dirt trail and then to our first long hill, halfway up Roberto called a break, we flopped into the shade of straw roofed shacks. This was still low altitude (3000m) compared to the rest of the trail - though a lot higher than the sea level soup of Philadelphia. Mark and Kate promptly lit up cigarettes, he an Irish computer entrepreneur in London, she his long-suffering mate. If there was an opportunity for a low-brow comedic crack Mark made it, Kate rolled her eyes. Colorado (think plural) both straggled in 15 min later, alredy falling behind. 

To the top of the escarpment then down into a narrow defile and back onto a plateu, we paused as Roberto explained the ruins of Llactapata, ¨You see the circular construuuction...¨ Talk of imperial and pira construction styles, 318 types of corn, 3 levels in the city, delivered in a pausing earnest monotone that made it difficult to assimilate the information. To lunch. I waved Miles over to join our cross-legged crew - he is a biology teacher for boys 8-12 in a school north of London, fresh out of university, shy at first but with a wacky sense of humour. Dave was still on a roll, ¨...so Jennifer...¨. 

Undulations in the dirt trail kept us going up and down, more sweating, David and I had split the packs giving one to a porter but then I´d insisted on carrying the other ¨to see if I could do it¨. The whole group was nervous about Day 2 and the infamous Dead Woman´s Pass, an unrelenting climb up hundreds of steps to the spine of the mountain chain, 4200m high and precious little to breathe - so the exertions on the first day were worrisome. If I´m breathing this hard now...? Camp was set up in a sheep pasture on a hill, we ate chips and drank overpriced drinks sold by local villagers (llama packed in). Our tent was next to Mena, a Japanese woman who had come with her father. It was her first big climb, but he was a mountaineer from way back. Toche (his nickname) was a retired metallurgist from Tokyo and had been in Peru for a month, most recently having climbed the second highest mountain in the country. His english was not as good as his friend Sato, the third in the Japanese trio. Sato was a lean, good natured septagenarian - a quick chuckler and amiable heavy accent. The elderly men were typically quiet but so nice - I was charmed.

The agency had planned well and the tour was impeccable - Roberto directed tent placement and mats, we simply arrived and unpacked. Cocoa leaf tea was soon hot and ready, hot dinner in the black tent, and more chatting. For such a large group it was unusually nice - in the words of Mark, ¨not an arsehole in the lot¨.

Bundled up against the cold, it was a miserable night on the thin foam pad and lumpy ground. I found three positions all of which caused some limb to go numb after fifteen minutes. All night it was, turn, stare, hope for sleep, look at watch, turn again. A mad rooster started crowing at 3am - regularly. I did get some sleep in the wee hours of the morning. I´m told I snored. 

Day Two

For having an equally stingy amount of sleep, David was annoyingly cheery at our 5am wake-up. That force of nature thing. Cocoa tea was handed into the tents by the porters. Cocoa leaves are a mild stimulant when chewed, baggies of leaves are sold everywhere, and most of the group stuffed in a wad for the first time after breakfast, grimacing at the bitter taste. They purportedly would help regulate the heart at altitude and we were all ready for whatever help was available. 

Packs were slung on at 7:20 and almost immediately the trail was uphill. Up, level, up. The group slowed for a break and I pressed on at a steady moderate pace, non-stop, like I had been taught at Kilimanjaro, push forward keeping the weight on the hips - step, pause, step. The trail was disconcertingly steep and Incan design meant steps. I was breathing too hard. Changed cocoa leaves. David breezed past, blasted marathon runner, and asked if I wanted to give up the pack - of course not. Kept climbing steps, through the forest, steps, past moss coated trees and trickling streams, steps. Finally a plateau and camp, I thought I saw the top of the pass so I kept going, one more monster climb. Even slower now, pause to eat some Power Gel, more leaves, Jennifer went past, Toche gave me an encouraging grin as he motored by, step/breathe, step/breathe. The top! I sat on a tuft and unzipped the backpack, thought I´d have a snack and wait for the others. The Swiss girls went past cheerily and disappeared. Hmmmm. Slung the pack back on and rounded the corner... Sweet Mother of Pearl. The final climb was desperately severe, a dizzying ascent of pure steps. Consider for a moment, the climb to the pass was 1200m, that´s like a 300 storey office building - sling on a pack and climb 4800 steps in three hours, at altitude. The last climb was embarrasingly slow, ten steps then rest. I was trying not to hyperventilate since the guidebook was very particular about the need to take long deep breaths but I couldn´t stop gasping, my heart pounding triple time. Bit by bit I gained till finally I was up. 

Dozens of hikers had clustered in their groups at the top and I joined the half dozen from my team that were already up. As hikers rounded the corner hundreds of feet below a cheer would go up from their group, and they would look up wearily, climb a few more steps, then stop and lean against the hill. A Swiss family had joined our group with two young boys, Michael (6) and Patrick (9). Knowing how strenuous the hike would be, we´d wondered about having the two boys in the group. But only twenty minutes after I reached the top, Michael rounded the corner, bouncing up the stairs in front of Roberto our guide - a big cheer went up from the crowd - Michael smiled and waved. Twenty minutes later Patrick arrived with his Dad. Mark struggled up breathlessly and seeing Michael seated with group muttered with Irish grace, ¨good god, I´ve been beaten up the mountain by a 6 year old lad¨. 

It took two more hours for most of the whole group to assemble at the top. We went down the backside of the pass to a nearby valley for lunch - sprawled lifelessly on the ground, we composed inspirational songs... ¨Colorado, why don´t you come to your senses, you´ve been out riding fences, for so long... you need a porter, on this Inca trail, you gotta let somebody help you, before you die young¨. Word passed that Colorado had hired a porter, and finally there they were - three hours late but finally over the pass and down to the lunch site. We´d all made it. In the triumphs and strain we were becoming quite a tight group.

Rain forced us down the trail quickly to camp and the sanctuary of our tents. There was a real bathroom that flushed! though still no toilet seat or paper. Cold and tired, we squatted in the dinner tent for soup, rice and chicken. David and I played cards with Jennifer and Lara in our tent afterwards but we were so tired it didn´t last long. David and I crawled into our bags and we laid there hoping for sleep. He turned his head and chuckled, ¨You know my mom was giving me a hard time about going on these trips, she said I´d never meet a nice Jewish girl on some mountain. And guess what, Jennifer is smart, cute... and Jewish.¨ We had a laugh. You never know. ¨So you´re interested¨, I asked. ¨Yeah, I really think so¨, said David, ¨the question is, what is the strategy¨. We set to planning. 

Day Three

Another couple hours of pitiful sleep. Though supposedly an easy day, we set off vertically almost at once, 500m up to a ruin of ¨circular construuuction¨. Up to a wind whipped pass and down again - another ruin. Patrick demonstrated his talent show winning ¨Mambo No. 5¨ impression. Down the mountain on the stone paved trail and up again to lunch.

Cloudforests are so named because of their elevation - similar density of species and vegetation to the rainforest, but they exist because of a freak of topography and climate. The high mountains trap moist air and despite the altitude create a temperate zone on the deep valley walls, almost constantly watered. The Inca trail wound along the valley walls through dripping vegetation that I´d only ever seen in zoo exhibits before. Giant mossy sedges in deep red and green, like coral reefs, with delicate ivory tendrils clinging. Original stone paved trail, damp with humid air, winding through bamboo groves, natural rock tunnels, under pattering waterfalls. I took deep breaths of liquid air, damp and mossy, alive with vagaried scents. Toche and Mena walked with me for awhile but gradually pulled away as I stopped again and again - I'm taking more pictures than a Japanese tourist I grinned to myself. It was a highlight of the trail. 

Michael and Patrick were determined to beat everyone to next camp, so David and I set off with them at a dead run after the last stop. After a couple hours down stairs and steep turns they slowed, we walked and chatted, I held Michael´s hand. ¨Why are you telling me where to step like a doggie?¨ he asked at one point. ¨Well I want to make sure you don´t fall down¨. A few minutes later he slipped and would have fallen but for my hand. No arguing after that. The four of us made it down to camp first and they had orange pop waiting for the rest of the group. Sometimes, I wonder what life would be like married, with kids. Those two mop-headed kids gave me a glow coming down the mountain. You never know.

The third camp was even more crowded, it included the two-day hikers. The group was loud and sentimental at dinner. I´d picked up a stomach bug so I stayed up late in the warm dining hall huddled in a chair unwilling to face the cold and the dark climb down to the tent. Around midnight I had to make an emergency dash to the privy and ran into David and Jennifer coming back from their own personal night tour of the ruin. Interesting. 

Day Four 

Up at 4am for a quick breakfast so we could make the final hike and see the sun rise on Machu Picchu. A long line of hikers wound around the stone trail - of the thousand visitors a day to the city it seemed like 400 of them were on the trail. Just before the Sun Gate there is are 50 almost vertical steps, a great defensive position but an exhausting final hurdle. Then at the top, wow. The city is far below, perched on the knife edge of a mountain jut, impressively complete with terraces down to the vertical cliff sides. Until the government built a curving road up the sheer cliff, there was no other way to reach the mountain city except by the Inca trail. We descended a kilometer down the mountain flank to the city. Temples, houses, a maze of alleys and rooms. Level after level, Roberto telling us about the culture and history. I was fading fast, too little sleep, we were all too tired. Mark farted and it took ten minutes for us to regain our composure. Poor Roberto, he wanted so much for us to understand the details, we were just too beat. As we filed out of the city Mark and Kate nudged me and winked - David and Jennifer were holding hands. 

Piece by piece the group had to come apart. The Swiss family were staying at the hotel in Machu Pichu - I ruffled Michael´s hair goodbye, Patrick grinned. Winding down the switchback road to the valley, we dove down in elevation to Aguas Calientes. Lunch in a local restaurant - I kept forcing pizza on Sato till he laughed. Toche, Mare, and Sato were staying in town below Machu Pichu - they would go up again the next day for one last look. Now fewer, we all jogged with backpacks to catch the train back to Cusco. Two hours on the rails and another three by bus. By the time we arrived in town I was shattered. Goodbye Colorado, other quick goodbyes, and a jog to the hostel, teeth chattering. I went to bed for 14 hours. 

Arequipa 

 The trip after the Inca trail was in more bite sized pieces. A day in Cusco to recover, scrape 4 days of unshowered grime off, get laundry done. Mark, Kate, Miles, Jennifer, David, and I had dinner then next evening and laughed till very late. Promises to visit. Miles joined Jennifer and Lara to travel with us to Lake Titicaca - floating reed islands, six hours of slow chugging around the lake. Jen and Lara continued with us on the 12 hour night bus to Arequipa, Peru´s second largest city. The most beautiful stately town yet. Great restaurants and white lava block buildings. 

Climbing El Misti

We signed up for a two day ascent of El Misti, a volcano that towers over the city (5822m). It didn´t look that big, but I should have done the math - the mountain was almost as high as Kilimanjaro. We climbed from the base (3000m) to the first camp (4200m). The appeal of the mountain is it´s pure conical shape, an ascent is relatively straight forward, unrelentingly up. 

Night was freezing and the four of us slept head to feet in a small tent, huddled against the cold. Wind whipped to a shriek in the night and tore half the tent fly loose. The next morning, bundled in layers with hats and gloves, and a full chaw of cocoa leaves we continued the ascent. For six hours we ground up the scree slope, criss crossing. One by one, David, Jennifer, and I became dizzy and nauseous. Glucose and water kept us going. I recognized that feeling again from Kili, when there is nothing but exhaustion and pain, motions are automatic, only determination to keep you going as the air gets thinner and thinner and your heart is beating as though it would burst out your mouth. We made the summit. The descent was a thing of beauty though.

The volcanic scree is made of fine rocks and extends all the way down to camp one - so we descended like skiers, pumping our legs in a controlled slide down the 60 degree slope. Six hours of agony up - 45min back to camp. Lara had waited for us so we told war stories while we packed, ate a bit, and headed with our guide down the second scree. After several thousand feet of descent the scree turned to fine pure grey sand with hillocks of grass. As we plunged down into the thicker air, energy returned, and I grinned at David and raced down through the sand and soared off a hillock. With a 60 degree slope a good sized jump will take you a long way, there were several seconds of pure flight before I landed shin deep and cartwheeled into the drift. David faceplanted after doing a 360 off a hillock. We got to the bottom of the mountain covered in sand with pearly grins. The radio in the guide´s truck was tuned to an oldies station playing nothing but Streisand and the Bee Gees during the two hour ride back into town. The girls sang, the guys grinned through the sand, we were tired but happy back at the hotel. 

Fine food and sleeping in have made me love this town. I haven't told you about the old nunnery over a hundred years old that is a city within this city whose narrow streets and halls are so beautiful that photographers stay all day to play with light and angles. Or the Plaza de Armas with its stately plaza of white two storied shops that border the magnificent cathedrals. But this e-mail is already too long. I hope you enjoy the read. Off to Rio tomorrow for a whole new set of experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com