29 March 2015

Salkantay Day 4

Today was the hardest day. It took a lot of grit, determination and a few tears to get through. We woke up to rain on our tent (like every other morning). In fact, due to the sloped angle of our campsite it would be more accurate to say it rained on and in our tents. Breakfast was our last sit down meal cooked by the amazing Herman. After we appropriately thanked Herman and the three porters, we headed off towards Aguas Calientes.

Our first hour repeated the hike we had taken yesterday to see the view of Machu Picchu. Luckily we had been able to see it yesterday because today the sky was heavy with clouds. We continued another thirty minutes until we came to the Incan ruins of Llactapata (8,758 feet / 2,700 meters). Puma told us all about these ruins and hiked us through the undergrowth to see just how big this former city had been. This area, now covered in greenery, including bamboo taller than I, had been used for storage and as a “hotel” for travelers headed to Machu Picchu. The walls were completely covered and other than one small area which was completely exposed, it would have been easy to miss. 

We watched as the clouds moved across the sky through the mountains and eventually exposed Machu Picchu. Once again we were privileged to have the side view of Machu Picchu that most visitors don’t see.

After visiting Llactapata, we continued on, coming to a beautiful open space where Alpaca Expeditions used to camp, but due to governmental regulations no longer can. As much as we thought it was a nice space, we were glad that we had camped on the edge of our cliff last night. 

We then started what a sign claimed to be a 2 hour hike to Hidroelectrico. It consisted entirely of switchbacks, muddy, steep downhill switchbacks. I was going as fast as I could, but still my group, with their long legs, were way ahead. Quite frankly, it felt less like I was hiking and more like I was semi-controlling a downhill fall.  Speaking of falling, my butt hit the ground A LOT! 

Towards the end of this downhill switchback route, my guide Puma was playing his Peruvian flute for inspiration and I had the silly “just keep swimming” song from Finding Nemo in my head. 

Eventually I made it to the bottom and rejoined my group. We walked across an amazing, long suspension bridge over a raging river. The rainy season is nearly at it’s close, so the rivers and waterfalls are powerful, full and brown with sediment. Apparently this year’s rainy season was drier than normal, so I can only imagine what it must be like during a typical rainy season! 

We continued on our hike, taking an alternative route because the river covered some of our intended trail. We passed a massive brown waterfall that was feeding the river and finally we made it to Hidroelectrico.

At this point we began to encounter other tourists. Before this point we had seen very few Quetzal who live in the mountains and even fewer tourists. We had to cross through a barb-wired fence and a group of Israeli youth helped us. I must admit that as much as I appreciated their help, I immediately missed the solitude of our group and the trek.

Hidroelectrico (Hidro) is the checkpoint for entering the protected Machu Picchu lands. We checked in, then stopped to eat our packed lunches. After eating, we headed out for the final leg of our hike to Agua Calienties, also known as Machu Picchu town.

I blister quite easily and I had come well prepared to deal with them. I also have well broken in hiking boots. Over the last 3.5 days of the trek, my feet had touched a variety of terrain and had gone through a lot of mud and water. Despite this, I had only three small, well-managed, pain-free blisters. I was quite happy with this.

The three hour hike from Hidro to Agua Calientes changed that. Nearly 4 days of hiking behind me, up and down mountains, cold, heat, humidity, pouring rain and blazing sun; I had loved every minute of it, even when it got tough, I loved it. I hated the last three hour hike. We had faced danger with rushing water and falling rocks, but the last three hour hike had four bridges that I would say were not safe. The last three hours was, for me, miserable. This hike was alongside the railroad tracks between Hidro and Agua Calientes. Sometimes there was an established path, but often we were simply only the small, pointy, ankle-rolling, blister-causing rocks that lined the trail. We encountered the first bridge, it spanned the raging river below and was probably 50 feet long. Several of us immediately though of the train scene in the movie Stand By Me. There was a footbridge that ran alongside the tracks. One side had a rusted railing and the other was up against the trestle. Some of the metal planks were solidly welded, others had connections made by spot welding or twisted wire. Some of the planks were solid, others had rusted holes and/or ‘popped’ as we walked across. All of us were glad to get over and off the bridge. Later on we would encounter three more spots where the tracks crossed the river. These did not have set footpaths, instead we walked over active tracks and step from wooden beam to beam. Not all of the beams were equidistant and one was extremely high up. Like the first bridge, all of these crossed the raging river. Quite frankly, these bridges scared me.

By the end of the hike my feet were a mess. I had gained four new blisters and enlarged an existing one. They were aflame. I really wished that the last group hike had not been one that was miserable, especially after everything else had been so wonderful. We finally made it to Agua Calientes (6,561 feet / 2000 meters)

Throughout the journey, Puma had spoken highly of the hot springs we could visit in Agua Calientes. We were all looking forward to it. We arrived at our hotel (a hotel? Yes, a real bed and not a tent in the rain — but let’s be honest, I knew I would miss the tent in the rain!), I quickly rinsed off with a hot shower and then Sandra and I headed to the hot springs, excited to soak. Much to our chagrin, when we arrived they were closed due to natural disaster. That’s right, the rain, mud- and rockslides had struck again. We returned to our hotel, and later met up with the guys for some Pisco Sours and Cervezas. Later that evening we had a celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant and were given “I survived Salkantay” T-Shirts. We headed to sleep, excited for our next day - our visit to Machu Picchu! 

Salkantay Day 3

 We awoke “late” at 6:30am. The day ahead of us was set to be shorter (hiking distance wise). After a night of pouring rain, the rain subsided  and we had a leisurely morning. The camp site we had stayed at, Playa, was beautiful, above a river, lush and green. 

Around 9am we headed off and began our hike. We went through town a bit then picked up part of the Inca Trail. We headed to a plantation. They grew coffee [three varieties], bananas, yucca, coca, corn and more there. We got to pick some coffee beans - the ripe ones are red, then we saw how they were shelled and roasted. We helped grind the beans and then we were served hot, fresh, dark coffee It was fabulous! Up until now we had only had instant.

We headed back on the trail. The landscape quickly changed to jungle. It was hot and humid! The sun was beating down, mosquitos were biting and we were all sweating as we headed uphill. We we hiking, and suddenly our guide Puma stopped us as he heard a noise. A few rocks came flying down the mountain over the path in front of us. We waited and then proceeded. As we started past this point, Puma began to yell “run”! We ran, just barely avoiding falling rock. Charlie and I were the last two, he said he saw a rock heading right towards his head. Scary!

This trip has truly been an adventure! 

Our day continued. It was long and arduous, but we made it to our campside and the view was worth every bit of the journey. The campsite was right on the edge of a cliff, with a panoramic view of the mountains. The four tents just fit and it provides a narrow walkway along the edge. Absolutely spectacular!

We at lunch then left our gear behind as we headed further up hill away from camp. This hike was muddy and slippery. I fell three times and nearly fell a fourth, but it lead us to a view of Machu Picchu. It was our first view of Machu Picchu, from a distance of about 15km, as the crow flies. We had a view of the historic site from a side that most see. Then we headed back to camp.

As night fell, the spectacular view of our campsite became scary, but good spirits and fireflies quickly lightening the mood. Our dinner was, of course, amazing and we learned to play the card game “Wizard”, which Sandra had brought from Germany. Another great day in the Andes. 

23 March 2015

Salkantay Day 2

5:30am, we were awoken to pouring rain and a nice hot cup of coca tea. As it was now daylight, it was easier to see the two mountains we were camped under: Umantay and Salkantay. After breakfast we headed off into the mud and rain. We all were wearing our bright green ponchos, and thus the rain stopped soon afterwards. Of course, the mud remained everywhere! Much of our hike was downhill. Our guide, Puma, pointed out local flora and fauna. He also took the time to tell us about local life and medical practices. Most fascinating of all were the uses of urine - everything from muscle soreness to washing hair!

Adjacent to the trail were a few local residences like the one pictured above. The building with the thatched roof would be used for guinea pigs and chickens. For warmth, the house has few windows, and the solar panel gathers enough electricity for a light or two. Behind this house was another building (not pictured) it was the local equivalent of a hospital/pharmacy. However, one does not see a doctor, it's just where locals treat and care for each other. They use natural remedies to cure most problems. Without access to modern medicine, the life span in this area is still 75 years old. I was quite surprised to learn this.

As we continued hiking, we saw locals working on the trails and even a few other tourists at a resort hotel that we passed. This area we were hiking through was known as the Cloud Forest. The vegetation is thick and lush and one begins to find more bugs and wildlife than in the upper reaches of the mountains. 

We had our lunch under a shelter in the small village of Colpapampa, at an altitude of only 9,087 feet (2770m). As we lunched, rain poured down, hitting the tin roof and stray dogs begged at our feet for some of the amazing food our chef had produced. Throughout the trek, I was always amazed by the quality and quantity of food served, especially given the "kitchen" conditions! 

After lunch, we said goodbye to our horsemen, Alfredo and Christobol. The horses would not be used to port our equipment any further. We would especially miss Alfredo and his infectious smile. Our planned route also deviated at this point. The rainy season in Peru is typically January - early March. During this time, less people hike and Alpaca Expeditions actually suspends treks in February. We were hiking at the tail end of the rainy season, and still it was raining a lot. Part of the trail we had planned to take was washed out due to mudslides, so we would have to go around via the road. We were also told that we would travel the first couple of km in a van with our porters. Off we set, 15 people in a 12 passenger van. The road we traveled was along the edge of the mountain. It was narrow, high up, unsaved and lacked guard rails. After about 15 min, we were dropped off to hike. Our porters remained aboard to travel the remainder of the way to our next campsite. 

However, less than 20 minutes later, we came upon our porters and the van, stopped at a bend in the road. Rounding the corner, we saw exactly why they were stopped, and why we too would have to stop. Water had washed out the road, and brown, powerful water was still rushing across it, destroying it further and depositing rocks (pebble sized to small boulder sized) everywhere. 

Honestly the sight was both scary AND amazing to behold. The driver and our porters were standing at the edge of the road, watching the water. We joined them. The water was powerful. A motorcyclist drove up and joined the group. Risking his life, he walked into the water with a shovel (where did the shovel come from?!??)to see if he could move rocks and fix the road to make it passable. Realizing the futility of his shovel, he walked back across. Luckily for him, he made it back to safety before the water sent massive amounts of rocks down from the mountain onto the road. The landscape of this washout was rapidly changing. As we watched the further destruction of the road, two men in hard hats arrived and shortly after their arrival, a backhoe appeared on the scene. 

The driver of the backhoe and the foreman assessed the scene. While they were doing so, a huge rock/landslide occurred, leaving in its wake a pile of rocks, 4-6 feet high. 

Once it was deemed "safe", the backhoe started to do its thing, moving rocks. Approximately 3 hours after we arrived, the road was "repaired". The standards of safety were not exactly on par with OSHA regulations, but it was to par with local standards. It was declared drivable. The reality was that water was still rushing across the road and washout, landslide or falling rocks could have happened at any point. Because it was after 5pm and we still had 3-3.5 hours of hiking ahead of us, Puma decided we would not hike, but rather ride with the porters to our campsite. Truth be told, I (and most of my fellow hikers) were terrified as water was still rushing over the road, and I know it doesn't take much to wash away a vehicle!

We made it and continued on the winding mountain roads. But not 15 minutes later, our vehicle was stopped again. This time we got out to clear fallen rock off the road. We cleared it, continued on. Not too long thereafter, we stopped again. All of the Alpaca staff got out, but we were told to stay in. More water was rushing across the road. The driver decided to drive through it, we wanted to get out, but the driver kept going. The water was faster and deeper than the first washout point. Once we got through, the driver pumped his arm in a motion that conveyed the expression of yeah! Made it!

The Alpaca staff walked through this water and got back in. We continued driving until we came to our fourth road issue. We had to drive across a wooden bridge, half of its guardrail was hanging into the ravine below. Luckily after that, the rest of our drive was uneventful and safe. Our campsite for the night was at Playa (7,217 feet / 2200m). We helped the porters set up camp when we arrived. Charlie, the 7th member of our trek (part of the group of 5 guys) had been sick in Cusco when we departed, so he joined us here. That evening we had the opportunity to take a hot (lukewarm for a minute, then ice cold) shower and relax a bit. Josè Cuervo came out, we laughed and enjoyed the evening. We also found out that the road we had driven in on, is one of the most dangerous roads in Peru. 

We didn't get to hike as far as we had hoped, we only covered about 10 of our 18km, but we did get to hike the most beautiful part of it. Quite a day! 

22 March 2015

Salkantay Day 1

I love to hike, and when I learned of the opportunity to hike to Machu Picchu, I knew that I had to book a ticket and go! Many people hike what is known as the Inca Trail, however due to its popularity and governmental restrictions, access to it sells out quickly. For this reason, I chose Salkantay. This trek is much more physically taxing, a day or two longer AND visits much higher altitudes. In short, it was PERFECT! 
I booked my trek with Alpaca Expeditions. I chose them based on a friend's recommendation, but it's worth noting that they are #1 on Trip Advisor. They provide a guide, gear, porters, and a chef. They were amazing and if I hike this (or another route) again, I would definitely chose to book with them a second time. You can find them on Facebook or at www.alpacaexpeditions.com. The team was amazing, especially our guide Simon Puma and our chef Herman. 

Day 1:
At 3:45am my alarm went off, I ignored it. 3:50am it went off again and I dragged myself out of bed and under the shower. A little under an hour later I was loaded in a van and on my way. The adventure had begun. 
We drove through Cusco, leaving the cleanliness and safety of the tourist zone, higher into the mountains. Debris, shacks and stray dogs, another side of life in Peru was clear to be seen. We drove and slowly the sun rose into the sky. Around 6am our van stopped to give us our first view of The Wild Mountain, Salkantay, covered in snow. 

Onward we drove. Several times we were stopped at police checkpoints. Surprisingly in the town of Limatambo, they required the IDs of all the Peruvians aboard, but were uninterested in the IDs of us gringos. This checkpoint was especially notable as there was a police officer sitting at the very end of a long bench, and curled up in front of him, taking up more of the bench than he did, was a stray dog. 

After 3.5 hours of twisty-turny, nausea-inducing roads we arrived at Soraypampa. The Alpaca team quickly sprung into action, unloading gear, loading horses and preparing for us the first of many amazing meals. The quality, variety and taste of the food that Chef Herman produced throughout our trek was amazing. This food could be served in the most fanciest of fancy restaurants. 

After breakfast, we had quick introductions of our team, learned how to chew coca leaves to combat the effects of the altitude, took a group photo (sans Puma, our guide) and then we were off. We began around 9:30am. We started at an altitude of 12,795 feet (4100m).

The day was beautiful and the weather was cold. Our hike began at a nice pace, however within about 5 minutes we were all stripping off our warm gear as the sun peaked out of the clouds. That morning we hiked through all types of weather, from sunny and cold to light, gentle rain. Around 1:30pm we reached our lunch spot, Soyroqocha. The altitude here was 14,435 feet (4400m). Our super porters (yes they are Super Porters - it even says so on their pants - except those that Alfredo wore, he fooled us by wearing pants that said Super Shef) had arrived at the site well ahead of us, and had set up and prepared everything for lunch, including personal buckets of warm water so that we could each wash our hands, it was heavenly! As we sat an ate lunch, it was clear some of us were starting to suffer some of the effects of the altitude. Some members of my group felt a bit light-headed, one was having difficulty breathing. I had an upset stomach and appetite loss. During lunch rain started pouring. Our table was set up under a tent and we stayed mostly dry. 

No time for a rest, after lunch we continued uphill. We pushed our way up to the highest altitude point of our trek, Abra Salkantay. The terrain was rough and the altitude was killer. One member of our group, Curt, had to ride a horse due to breathing issues. I thought I might be the next one on that horse, I was not having significant breathing issues, but my stomach was killing me. I took a break to catch my breath and focus my mind. Puma helped me out with words of encouragement, and an alcohol rub on my face to open my lungs. Finally I made it, 15157 feet (4620m)!!!!

Abra Salkantay is a sacred place. Piles (towers) of stones are all around. They are set as mini altars to give thanks to the mountain. Being there, one has a real sense of accomplishment. Our group set up our own pile, then rested and watched the mountain as Puma played his wooden, Peruvian flute. Additionally we could hear avalanches on Salkantay in the background. It was an amazing site, sound and feeling. 

Afterwards it was all downhill, a beautiful, muddy downhill. After the slower pace of our ascent, it felt like we were racing through the descent. As dark was falling, we reached our first campsite, Huayracmachay (12,467 feet / 3800 m). It was the most welcome site ever! I was so exhausted, that I didn't even manage to stay awake for what I heard was a great dinner. It poured rain most of the night, but I slept snug and warm in my tent, excited for day 2. 

Cusco Cuzco

I arrived in Cusco after flying all night from Indianapolis to Peru. Needless to say, I was shattered, but this was my opportunity to see Cusco before heading on my trek, so after showering off at my hostel, I headed out. Cusco is a city at an elevation of over 12,000 feet, and so it takes us flatlanders a day or two to truly acclimate to the altitude. Additionally it is a city built in the mountains, so the streets are steep and many sidewalks are steps. 

I headed downhill to the Plaza de las Armas and began to explore. The plaza is lovely, the sun was bright, the water in the fountain sparkled and people sat around enjoying the day. 

Off of the Plaza is the Basílica Catedral. This cathedral was recently restored. Inside, I was given an iPad to use for a self-guided tour. During this tour I learned that Cusco was built by the Spaniards to serve as aseat for which they ruled the colonies. The main altar within the cathedral is made of cedar and sycamore wood and covered (not painted) with leaves of 24 carat gold. The Basílica took over 100 years to construct. Inside were a number of beautiful altars and paintings. I was not allowed to take photos.

Afterwards I continued to wander the city and explore some of the other small squares. It was a nice city to explore, but I know that I really only saw the tip of the iceberg.