Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Exploring Peru - Jungle Trekking & Machu Picchu

OK all, below is the next post in my retelling of our recent trip to Peru. You can catch up on the series by reading previous posts HERE, HERE and HERE.

Also, I've updated my "Peru" set on Flickr with new photos that are related to this new post HERE. Note that I've created another set exclusively on "Machu Picchu" with, well, probably more pictures of the ruins than you want to see! If interested, you can check it out HERE.


Dusty Downhill Day
Dusty downhill day
Our next day trekking after acceding to Salkantay Pass was actually downhill the whole way. While not without its charms - valley views, white water rapids to hike beside, a few humming birds to see, horse "trains" clopping by - I'd characterize the day as a "transit" hike to get us off the mountain and into the valleys and jungle environment that would lead us to Machu Picchu.

I'll note that this hike in particular is where the bandannas came in handy. Those of us who brought them on the trip were glad we did, and those who bought them in that village a couple days earlier acknowledged that our guide had been right. Why? Well, the trail all day long was very dusty...to the degree that you needed to tie on your bandanna "bandit" style across your face to keep the heavy, dirty dust out of your mouth. We spent most the day walking downhill and many of us commented that we felt lucky not to turn an ankle or worse.

Firing up the BBQ
Anyway, our efforts were rewarded with a fairly early arrival at the next lodge...early enough that a big late lunch BBQ was arranged for us following the standard wash up needed after hours on the trial. Now, many of the items put into the coals were your standard issue meats - chicken, lamb, beef. So were the vegetables. Can you guess what else was put in to cook? Yes, cuy. If you've been reading my previous posts, you know that is. That's right. Guinea pig on the barbie.

When it came time to sit down and eat, I grabbed one each of the meat types and a big bunch of vegetables. Everything tasted good, and at some point I turned my attention to the cuy. Should I eat it? Keep in mind, this was nothing like the elegant, minimal presentation of the same animal meat we had back in Cusco. No, this was basically a half of a guinea pig minus the head, tail and feet...BBQed up and ready to eat. I tried. But, you know, I gave up. Not because it was gross or tasted bad, but rather because it was really difficult to get any meat off the thing...and when I did, it was so small and bland that, well, why would I eat that when there's other great stuff on my plate.

The rest of the day and evening was spent resting, having a little wine and learning some more from Miguel about native culture. A late dinner helped cap off the night and we were off to sleep once again - sleeping the sleep of the exhausted but pleased hiker.

A 10 Mile Hike
Morning brought a 10 mile hike along the Santa Teresa River Valley. Most of the day, the trail went up and down, along the river, away from the river...valley views, river views, jungle views. One of the more interesting things was our lunch spot. Arriving in a clearing that featured a covered dining "hall" and a few other huts, we quickly saw the lawn out front was home to a host of animals - animals such as pigs, horses, donkeys, a couple friendly dogs and...yes...a big old turkey. Just like you think of on Thanksgiving. If you made a funny noise with your voice, the turkey reciprocated with it's own "gobble, gobble" call. Funny.

Turkey at the lunch stop
We continued on after lunch along the river, eventually arriving at clearing where we were picked up by a vehicle for a short ride through an area that, according to our guide, offered no views and where the trail was not well maintained. As we bumped and rumbled along, I thought to myself that this was probably the most dangerous thing we'd do the entire trip...riding in a vehicle on narrow, windy, poorly maintained dirt roads high up on a ridge. In fact...sadly...just how dangerous riding in a vehicle in the third world countryside actually is was proven anew in a story I read once we returned safely back home to Seattle. Unfortunately, a couple from the Seattle area celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary in a dream trip to Peru (actually in Peru the same time we were) were killed when the SUV they were traveling in plunged off a 1,300 foot cliff when their driver misjudged a corner of the road. Very sad.

Lady roasts coffee
Soon, we disembarked from our bus and resumed hiking - this time on a section of the actual and original Inca Trail. The track was mostly uphill through the jungle. After about 45 minutes of walking we pulled off to explore a small coffee plantation ensconced on the hillside. This was pretty entertaining. We saw the plants, viewed the small production line facilities (such as they were) and then entered a small hut to get a demonstration on how coffee is roasted, ground and served - hot and fresh. This in and of itself was neat, but while all this was happening...quite a few cute little guinea pigs scurried around on the floor near our feat as they chased after some leafs that had been scattered there for their meal. And speaking of meals, while these little animals are cute, they were not the coffee lady's pets. Nope. They were for sure a future meal for she and her family. Heavy sigh.
"Cuy" on floor of coffee hut

We bought some of the local coffee beans to take home and turned our attention to finishing the day and getting to our final lodge of the trek. Luckily, this wasn't far. Once there, Diane called it a day and retired to our room. I did the same, but did join the group for a meal and an after dinner beer.

Jungle Pass: Final Day of Trekking
In the morning, we saddle up and started off on our last big hike of our trip. This time, we were to hoof it up an over the Llactapata Pass - topping out at 8,900 feet. This was almost exclusively up, up and up. For sure, an aggressive workout. We paused many times to catch our breath and take in views. Once over the top, we walked about a half hour to a clearing on a ridge overlooking the Urubamaba River valley. Here stood a small Inca building in ruins, a view across the valley to where Machu Picchu could just be seen hugging the top of one of the peaks...and a lunch spot where we settled in.

View from our lunch spot
Lunch this day featured perhaps the very best avocado we've ever had. Prepared with tomatoes, spices and, well, who knows what else...these things were divine. Throw in a beautiful view and you've got an astounding stop. We continued on after eating, this time going down the other side of the ridge we had just climbed. Down we trod, down through the increasingly hot weather on a twisty path, down through more lush green jungle trees, down past the occasional hut and a lazy dog or two and finally down to the Urubamba River where we crossed one-by-one over a suspension bridge and into the shade. The next part of the walk hugged the riverside. Earlier in the day, our guide Miguel mentioned that we'd made very good time. Now, he turned us off the trail and down to the river. Turns out, we had completed the pass hike and decent fast and had an hour to kill before we needed to catch the train that would take us into the town of Aquas Caliente - our home base from which we'd explore Machu Picchu.

Relaxing at the Urubamba River
The river respite was a welcome surprise given how hot the weather had become and how hard we'd hiked. Peeling off shoes and socks, rolling up pants and wading into the cold, clear Urubama felt like heaven. Achy feet relaxed, warm skin cooled and all felt better. A couple of the group did the full on dip into the river, but not us. Rest over, we walked another half hour to a little train stop where we sipped on some cold beer and then loaded up on the train for the ride into Aquas.

Sliding throughout he jungle, the train delivered our weary group to the town in the late afternoon - time enough for checking in at the wonderful Inkaterra Hotel, take a shower, get some rest and meet up for dinner. All of which we did, happy in the knowledge that we'd completed our trekking and tomorrow we'd see the famous Machu Picchu ruins. As we walked back from dinner a few drops of rain fell, which we ignored.

Machu Picchu - Holy Crap Part One
OK...so far in our trip, we'd experienced nothing but beautiful weather. Sun, virtually no clouds, warm daytime temperatures and all around goodness. It had occurred to me before we left for Peru that it could come to pass that on the one full day that we would have a Machu Picchu, it could rain, clouds could obscure our view or both. But, I put those thoughts aside in favor of optimism. After all, what were the odds?

Oh how naive I was. Those little rain drops we ignored on our walk back to our room after dinner? They turned into a massive rain storm that lasted all night long, into the morning and all the way up to our boarding the bus that would drive us from the valley up to the ruins at the top of the mountain. "Holy crap," I thought, "My worst fear has come true." The one f-ing thing that could turn this "dream trip" into somewhat of a disappointment was playing out right in front of our eyes.

Our fist "view" of Machu Picchu
Indeed, when we finally got to the top of the mountain and exited the bus, we were hit by an ABSOLUTE DELUGE of rain. We all had gortex or similar gear on, but we all were soaked instantly by what was happening. I cannot understate this enough. It was major, major rain combined with cold temperatures and wind. Oh, and clouds. Clouds that...guess what...obscured our view of the ruins. The complete quad-fecta of doom - wind, rain, cold, clouds.

I took pictures during this part of our visit, but I have to say that these photos do not capture how miserable that day was.

Slightly better view on day one
Our guide attempted to show us the sites despite all this, and bless him for doing so. He cannot control the weather and he knows we are there to learn what we can. But, things were so bad that even he conceded after about an hour in this stuff that the responsible thing to do was cut it short and head into the nearby restaurant outside the gates of the park to warm up, dry off and hopefully wait for the weather to clear. Guess what? It didn't. Or, at least it didn't for the next three hours. About half of the group, including Diane and I, decided to bail and go back to town to get a hot shower, get out of the rain and drown our woes in some lunch, drinks and shopping. This we did. The rest of the group decided to stay at the top none the less. Later in the evening we learned that about 4-5 p.m., the rain did stop up there and some of the clouds cleared...so those who stayed did get a pretty good view. I was, of course, bummed when I heard that. But, what are you going to do? Luckily, we knew that we had a full morning the next day up there, and we hoped that the weather would continue to improve so we could experience Machu Picchu in its full glory.

Machu Picchu - Holy Crap Part Two
Awakening the next morning, signs were looking good as, well, it wasn't raining! Also, we could see the tops of the surrounding mountain peaks. Our group gathered, ate and got on the bus once again. Slowly, as our bus made its way up the steep switch back road, we became more and more convinced that today would be good weather at the top. And indeed, as we got closer and closer, we started seeing things from the road that we had not a day earlier - peaks over here, remnants of Inca ruins over there, a valley showing through.

As we exited the bus at the top, the whole entry area of the park just looked different - open skies, people walking around a leisure, brighter. This was at about 7 a.m.We showed our tickets, walked through the turn style and entered the park. Following the path from the entrance to the ruins, we got our second - and far better - view of Machu Picchu. And this time, I was thinking, "Holy crap, this place is so spectacular."

Miguel took us next to a series of places we had not visited the day before in the rain - the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor, the Inca king's apartments and a few other such notable areas of the ruins. We went up stairs, alongside still-functioning fountains, through narrow passages, underneath doorways, around corners, skirting building facades and always looking to see something new. We learned about the construction of the ruins, saw the differences in the type of rocks used and observed the results of different techniques deployed by the Incas for building the walls. And we learned that the whole structure was a royal Inca retreat - a "Camp David" for the Inca king if you will. We also picked up the knowledge that the city had very likely been abandoned about the time the Spanish showed up in Peru, and that this played an important role in the place not being rediscovered until the early 20th Century. This was our walk. As we went along, the clear but still gray ski gradually started turning blue as the sun came on to do its job for the day. This had the effect of "lighting up" the ruins and surrounding mountains - not only bringing their color to life, but also putting them into greater relief. What a view!

After an hour or so of this, we had a decision to make: should we continue rambling around the main part of the ruins or should we hike up the close by Huayana Picchu peak for an unbelievable view back down on the ruins? There were benefits to both of course - don't hike and get to explore more of the ruins, do the hike and get the exercise and the unique views. We opted to do the hike and went for it. Let me just say this...that is one STEEP ass trail. This was steeper than anything we'd hiked on our trip to date, and in parts dangerous if you weren't paying attention. Also, keep in  mind that you are still at 8,000+ feet above sea level. But all the huffing and puffing, sweating and pulling ourselves up along the cable handrails was worth it because when we neared the top we were rewarded with one of the most jaw dropping views we'd ever seen. Check it out below right.

View of Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu
That's right, that stuff way, way down there that kinda looks like it might be a town? That's the Machcu Picchu ruins we'd just been at. Woah. It's like you're flying in an airplane and looking down on it.

Now, the other thing about being way up high on a steep peek is that...well, you are way up high on a steep peak. It doesn't exactly make for comfort. You literally feel like you could fall to your death with one wrong step. And, the ledges and edges around you are on such a steep incline that the only thing you see over their edge is the massive drop off. I say you feel that way, but in reality most places on the trail were not literally on the cliff edge. If a person did slip, they might hurt themselves, but probably wouldn't plunge to their death. Probably.

We made the final push for the very tippy top. In doing so, we had to crawl through a narrow cave and up through a hole back into the sunlight. Once through that challenge, we were at the top. There were more people up there than you'd think! We decided that we weren't going to linger because we wanted to get back down and look around the ruins some more before we had to leave. So, that's what we did...slowly. We precariously made our way down the steep steps and trails and eventually made our way back to where we started a couple hours earlier.

By this time, the sun had really come out to bathe the ruins an bring out the brilliant green of the grass and the colors of the rock. Also, a few friendly llamas had now strolled out onto the grounds and were in various stages of lounging, grazing or scratching. We went back to a few places we had been the day before, but wanted to see again in the good weather. This was well worth doing because 24 hours earlier, all we could do was concentrate on staying warm and dry rather than what we were looking at. In our re-visit venture, we knew we had to make our way back to the entrance to catch our bus to the bottom of the mountain by 11:45 a.m. So, we tracked along and made it back to a beautiful viewpoint looking back on the ruins. Here we stayed for a while just soaking up the views...and the sun. Below is a picture I took then. I think you can see why we lingered...

Machu Picchu in all its glory
View from train taking us toward Cusco
After that, we said our goodbyes to Machu Picchu and exited the park. Just before doing so, we stopped at a little desk where you can self-stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp. Kinda neat.

On the bus, down the mountain, back to the hotel, change of clothes, a civilized lunch and then onto an afternoon train that would take us about half way back to Cusco - and in doing so, give us a tour of the sacred Urubama Valley.

Off the train, into a private vehicle, ride the second half of the way to Cusco through the valley - passing through towns, villages, crossroads and even a city. Political slogans painted on the sides of buildings, stray dogs, Inca ruins on some of the hillsides, run down houses, snow capped mountains, and people walking on the sides of the road made for an unending supply of visuals to look at as we cruised onward back towards the town we started our adventure in.

Our tour completed its loop when our bus pulled up outside the hotel where we started nine days earlier. After unpacking and checking into our rooms, our group met in the lobby for a farewell to our guide and, at least officially, to each other. Each of us said our goodbyes to Miguel for his expert leadership, knowledge and friendship as our guide. I think a great guide transforms a trip like this from being an sight seeing trip into a full fledged adventure...and I thanked Miguel by telling him that I thought that's what he did for us.

And that was that...at least in terms of the tour. Diane and I would spend the next day and a half in Cusco and then head south to visit another part of Peru and relax following the hiking portion of our trip. All of which will make up the last two posts in my series recapping our trip. So, come back for those over the next few weeks.

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn. No use of any kind is permitted without prior written permission from Marc Osborn.

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