Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

Yesterday I finished the 4 day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu! I will just come out and say that it was one of the most difficult and rewarding things I have ever done. I am so, so happy I did it, and just feel so lucky to have had the opportunity!

I was in a group of 17 people. That´s a bit sketchy because supposedly there is a 16 person limit, and most are 7-10 people, but mine was 17. It was 12 Argentines from Cordoba, all 19-20 year old Scouts traveling together, then a French couple and an American couple. Everyone was pretty cool, though I could have done without the French (sorry, it´s true, they were anti-social and wierd). There was a bit of a language barrier, as the American couple didn´t speak Spanish and none of the Argentines spoke English, but you know me, I was happy to chat with everyone and play translator. We also had a team of 3 guides and about 10 porters, the guys who carried the tents, food, and equipment. They are incredible! It´s just insane how fast they an go carrying so much weight. We, however, all carried all our own stuff, like clothes, water, sleeping bags, mattress pads, and snacks. Wooooo it was heavy!! But hardcore, and you know I love being hardcore.

So we set off on Thursday morning bright and early form Cusco. In another sketchy turn of events, our group was thrown together so last minute that there were no official camp spots left for us that first night, so we had a really short day 1, which meant we had an insanely long and difficult day 2. Day 1 we walked only about 2-3 hours, then arrived at a camp area next to a river, before even entering the national park area, and just chilled out for the evening, enjoyed the first of many delicious meals prepared for us by the cook (each meal begins with a soup, always yummy, and then we usually ate rice with chicken or meat and some kind of vegetable, plus coca tea-- and pancakes!!-- in the morning and herbal tea before bed), and then headed to bed at 8. My first night I shared a tent with 2 of the Argentine girls... the other two nights I was thrown into a tent with 2 of the boys, the two biggest ones no less. What a spectacle we were, 3 of the tallest people on the trip! They were super nice though, so we had fun and made it work.

On day 2 we woke up at 5:00 am and began the longest and hardest day of the trek. We climbed from 2,400 meters all the way to the highest point of the trek of 4,200 meters, and then we climbed all the way back down to 2,800 before stopping. It was by far one of the most physically challenging days of my life, especially given the altitude, which makes it harder to take in air. I´m thankful that I never felt sick though, as others weren´t so lucky. But I will tell you that after 4 continuous hours climbing thousands of stairs, my legs were absolutely killing me and I thought my lungs would explode. I never stopped eating the entire day, and still was ravenous at the end. All day I snacked on nuts and granola bars and fruit and drank tons of the water I was purifying (don´t drink the water in Peru!!) and just tried to stay motivated. It is an incredibly psychological trek, and requires you to really WANT to finish. I really, really did, and pushed through the pain. Arriving at the 4,200 meter summit was so amazing I almost cried. We all hugged at the top once everyone had made it and were so proud of each other. However we still had about 3 more hours of hiking DOWN the steps before we could camp. And I must say, going down thousands of steps is in many ways harder than going up. My knees were killing me, and my legs were shaking, but we made it.

Along the way we saw so much gorgeous scenery and many ruins, and our guides gave short explanations, though I´ll admit they weren´t very helpful. I mostly just enjoyed taking in the breathtaking views and enjoying being in a place so green and bright and fresh. It´s rainy season right now, but we were so lucky it rained very little. The gods were on our side!!! Or as the guides told us, La Pachamama (Quechua for Mother Earth) liked us. It was cold on the second night, but other than that the climate held out pretty well, and I was fairly comfortable with my t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and one hoodie. I actually packed very well, especially for me, who is a notorious over-packer. Knowing I had to carry it all for 4 days helped a lot...

Day 3 was very tough too. It was a lot of climbing again and then hours and hours of decending. One section involved over 3,000 stairs going down, so you can imagine how that was on the knees. Couldn´t stop thinking of my dad, we just had knee surgery last week to have his knee replaced. Oh man, it´s a killer, but I did it! Just thankful I don´t have any existing injuries. The scenery and fresh air makes it all worth it though, and the company was great too. I became friends with everyone on the trip and we all motivated each other a lot. Plus it was nice to have yummy food to look forward to 3 times a day. Honestly I was surprised at how well organized everything was.

The third night, everyone on the Inca Trail, which is about 400 people or so, all camp at the same big campground, which has a bar and showers. I was weak and paid 5 soles for a shower, because I smelled soooo bad and it was so tempting. I also had a couple beers because, well, they were there and sounded delicious. We were treated to the best dinner of the trip that night too, a smorgazborg of beef, chicken, rocoto relleno (a traditional peruvian dish of stuffed hot peppers), rice, pasta, yucca, and grilled vegetables. I ate myself silly before passing out at a less reasonable 10pm.

Bright and early at 3:45 we had our wake up call for the final day. I forgot to mention that each morning our guides brought us coca tea in bed in our tents, which was sooo nice and so helpful to wake up. Such service! In the dark we all scrambled out of our beds and got ready for the final push. Had a big breakfast of pancakes and bread with jelly and coffee and hot chocolate, and then made our way to the main gates. At 5:30 they opened, and after all showing our passports and tickets we headed in for about a 2 hour hike up to Machu Picchu. We arrived at the Puerta del Sol (the Sun Gate) around 7:00 am. It´s supposed to be one of the best views of Machu Picchu, but we waited around for a while and the clouds never cleared away. In the rainy season it gets very cloudy, and I was nervous we wouldn´t end up seeing anything, that it would just stay foggy all day. Bummed, we left the Sun Gate witout seeing anything, and continued maybe another hour to Machu Picchu.

Along the way the clouds began to lift and I could start to make out some forms in the distance... it was it!! I started getting really excited and I could feel my feet moving faster. It felt like out of nowhere that suddenly, after 4 long days of walking, Machu Picchu was there in the distance, nestled between us and the bigger Wayna Picchu mountain. The clouds started to disappear and I suddenly had a perfect view of Machu Picchu below. I couldn´t believe my eyes. Was that really it?? It was huge and beautiful, and so much better than any picture I´d ever seen. We came in high above it and enjoyed one of the best views I´ve ever seen in my life. I took a bunch of pictures of course, but mostly just had a moment of giving thanks for my life and how special it has been. I thought about my family and my friends in that moment and wished you could all be there to share such beauty with me. I really was taken aback by the whole experience, and just appreciated every little detail... the clouds lifting... the crisp morning... fewer tourists during the low season... and no rain... 4 days of walking was absolutely worth it, and I´d do it again in a heartbeat.

I wish the story ended there, but it doesn´t. That´s the good part. After taking a tour of Machu Picchu and learning more about the area, the idea was that we´d walk 45 minutes downhill to Aguas Calientes, the city that lies below, and then would have lunch and take a train back to Cusco. However, when I finished the tour I was informed that my tour company never bought my train ticket. Errggggggg!!! So I walked all the way to Aguas Calientes in the rain.. yes right at that point it finally started raining.. and when I got there the guide told me he´d been calling the company over and over but that they weren´t answering the phone, and that I´d probably have to buy another train ticket. Which I´d already purchased. The best part is that I was about 20 soles short of the cost of the ticket, so I started worrying that I was stranded in this lame, overpriced, tourist town of Aquas Calientes. I had planned on enjoying the afternoon before the train ride soaking in the hot springs there, but instead I spent the entire afternoon calling the agency over and over and finally (you know me, I make things happen) getting someone to fax me a train ticket. Problem solved! I made it back to Cusco fine, although I lost the afternoon and came back much later than expected. The good news is that it was an adventure, and I also made some new friends while waiting around, a really nice Argentine couple on their honeymoon (it´s like Argentina is following me!!) and another cool American guy on the train who is teaching English in Peru. So of course I made lemonade out of lemons and all was well in the end.

Overall I had an absolutely amazing experience, and I would recommend the real deal Inca Trail to anyone who has the opportunity. It´s hard and it´s not glamorous, but it´s beautiful, fulfilling, inspiring, and will whip your butt into shape, and in the end you are rewarded with Machu Picchu. This is something I have wanted to do my whole life, and I´m just absolutely humbled by the experience. Yay for my life.

I´m back in Cusco and planning on staying here through X-mas, and then heading back to Arequipa to be with Kieran for the 26th and 27th... we´re going to have a Christmas celebration together then. Today I am taking it very easy, had a pedicure and an hour long massage this morning for a whopping 35 soles total (about $12 USD) and have just been hanging out today enjoying this gorgeous city. Can´t wait to see what Christmas festivities they have! Peruvians tend to celebrate Christmas Eve more than Christmas (actually I think that might be all South Americans), so I think the 24th there will be a lot going on in the city. I hear there is a big craft market that day and fireworks at night. Also, apparently everyone goes out that night, so ¨when in Rome¨!! It´s my first Christmas out of the U.S. and in summer, so I´m sure it will be interesting, and I´m looking forward to seeing what happens. I will miss you all at home very much though, and will be thinking of you. xo


Guillermo said...

So inspiring, detailed and full of emotion!
Thanks for sharing, it's a pleasure reading about your journey.

Hi, I'm Erica. said...

I'm glad I went when I did! This is so sad for Peru... and so terrifying for the tourists!