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