Trek to Machu Picchu: Day 3

Our third day started with a slightly bizarre zip-lining adventure. Sadly, I didn’t take a single picture, so I’m going to try my best to describe the experience without any visual aids…

Before we could start ziplining, we had to walk for 15 minutes up a ridiculously steep hill. There were no stairs, just an enormous dirt hill, with paths so perpendicular that they handed us ski poles to use on our way up. I must have been severely dehydrated from all the hiking the day before, because I could barely make it up the hill. By the time I reached the first zip line, I was breathless, seeing black spots and convinced I was going to pass out. Luckily sitting for 5 minutes and drinking a lot of water helped, and I was able to keep going. Scary though!

I’ve done a handful of ziplines, including a canopy tour in Costa Rica and adventure zip-lining in Mexcio, and absolutely loved all of my experiences, so this was byfar the part of the trek I was most excited for. I love the feeling of flying through the air, your feet dangling and the air rushing by you, yet knowing you are completely secure and safe. I had fun on these ziplines, but didn’t love the experience as much as I had hoped I would, which was definitely disappointing.

The actual ziplines themselves were fine; we had great harnesses and proper equipment, including thick gloves to break on the cable.  Ironically, it was on the actual ziplines themselves that I felt the safest. The platforms we landed on after each zipline weren’t bolted to the ground/mountain — of course the cable we were on was well secured, but the wooden landing platforms were loose, so when I landed I felt very shaky coming off the line. Between ziplines, we had to walk along paths that were similar to the ones we walked on the day prior in that they were along the edge of the mountain, but they weren’t well marked and were full of lose dirt and gravel. I was more terrified on those paths than the ones I had been on the day before, and I felt more scared walking between ziplines than on the actual ziplines themselves.

I guess this just goes to show what expectations can do: I was the most terrified for mountain biking on day one, but it was by far my favorite of all the “extreme” activities. The zipline was the activity I was most looking forward to, but didn’t end up loving my experience.

On the last zipline, you landed in a platform in the middle of the air (literally, not bolted to anything, just suspended on the cable) and then were attached to a rapel line. The guide then rappelled you down into the jungle below, about 100 feet or so. I was terrified to land on the floating platform so I ended up breaking too early and pulling myself toward it instead. Dan, however, wasn’t told to break early enough and ended up smashing into the platform, right on his shin.

Immediately, a gigantic bruise/welt began to form, so huge we were all terrified he had broken his bone. He wasn’t in pain immediately because his body was in so much shock, so they took him to the urgent care in town to make sure he was okay. Luckily it was just a severe bump with a small cut, and they gave him an injection to prevent infection, some heavy painkillers for later and bandaged his leg. It did mean, however, that he couldn’t walk much on it during the rest of the day, so he had to take the train down to Aguas Callientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, and miss the rest of the day with the group.

After our rendezvous at urgent care, the zipline company drove us 40 minutes to our lunch spot. The van ride literally felt like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland — the road was so rocky and dusty, the van was literally shaking from side to side, it barely felt like we were moving forward, just rocking up and down. I have come to realize during my time in South America that drivers here — in all 5 of the countries I’ve been in — are absolutely insane. Peruvian drivers, however, are fearless. They will simply push on the gas pedal, with no qualms about the people or other vehicles that may be in the way.

We got to the restaurant for lunch relatively late because of Dan’s injury, so we were the last group to eat. I preoccupied myself with an absolutely tiny and adorable grey kitten, and there was a fütbol match on a TV in the corner, so all the boys were happy. Lunch was a sort of mystery chicken and potato in cream sauce, which was slightly strange, but they gave us two small scoops of ice cream, a very rich vanilla with chocolate chips, that did a great job satisfying my sweet tooth.

After lunch we had a 3 hour walk through the river valley along a set of train tracks. Everything was so picturesque that I kept stopping every 5 minutes to take pictures and ended up lagging behind the group. Juan Carlos stopped to join me, and we ended up walking together and talking most of the walk. We talked about everything from groups of Israeli travelers to relationships to his goal of going back to school to study Biology and eventually become a researcher in the Amazon jungle. I learned a lot about his life and about the Peruvian school system, which allows students to graduate from high school as early as 16. Turns out Juan Carlos went right to college to study tourism after high school, so even though he’s my age, he graduated from college at 20 and has already been working for 3 1/2 years.

I think on all of my trips and time in these various countries, the sites and cities have been really wonderful, but meeting local people and hearing about their experiences, especially when they welcome you into their lives with such open arms, is the most rewarding thing. Carla and Natalia at the B&B in Argentina, Monica and Miguel at their Estancia in Uruguay, even the hostel workers who took us to the soccer game in Montevideo. Yet another cliche, but hearing about local people’s lives and experiences really makes a country come alive.

Our walk was such a great way to end the trek into Aguas Callientes — of course my feet were still throbbing at the end, but it was nice to have a leisurely (and relatively flat!) walk to end the trek!

Because we had all booked the trip separately at different times through a variety of middlemen companies and for different amounts in different currencies (confusing, I know), Stian, Gene and Mat ended up at different hostels and restaurants from Dan, Millie and me on our last night. It was pretty disappointing after we’d had 3 great days hanging out getting to know each other that on our last night we couldn’t all be together, but I guess that’s what happens on these types of trips, especially since June is peak time in Machu Picchu, not everything was available.

After dinner, Dan, Millie and I officially decided to opt out of walking up the long set of steep stairs at 4:30 AM in the pitch black the next morning, and went to buy bus tickets instead. Even though I’m sure the walk up was a great experience and felt like a wonderful achievement (and I could have saved myself the $20 — Machu Picchu is expensive), I was so exhausted from all the physical activity of the last 3 days that I decided not to pressure myself to walk up. In my mind, it just wasn’t worth it, and I wanted to avoid being even more exhausted at Machu Picchu the next day.

We bought some very expensive snacks for lunch at the ruins the next day — Aguas Callientes is a very expensive, very touristy town since everyone has to pass through it to get to MP — and then went back to our hostel to pass out in preparation for our 4 AM alarms.

The rest of my pictures from Day 3!

I’m back! Catching up: June 12 in Cusco

Its only been 7 days since I last blogged, but I am still struggling to process all of the incredible things that have happened in just a week. My trek was absolutely amazing and I can’t wait to share all of the details, but I’m going to work backwards, starting with June 12, my last day in Cusco before my trek:

I was up relatively early to book a day tour through my hostel, a half day visit to five Inca ruins sites in the Cusco area. My tour didn’t leave until 1:30 PM, so I had the morning to myself to check out the city. I ate the very average free breakfast at my hostel — breakfast pretty much anywhere in South America consists of bread (in Argentina you get lucky and score Media Lunas, sweet croissants) with butter and jam, average coffee and cocoa tea. Over breakfast, I met a German girl who was stuck in a huge cast because she fell on one of the floating islands in Bolivia on Lake Titicaca and fractured her ankle. Luckily, she had friends living in Ecuador, so she was heading up north to meet them and take it easy, since she was stuck in her cast for 6 weeks, the duration of her time traveling. Her injury certainly put my tiny stresses of the week prior in perspective — having a vacation ruined by a broken bone is so much worse than anything I’ve had to face on my trip thus far, a good reality check for me!

Two of the girls staying in the same room at my hostel were American — one from Portland and one from San Francisco — so we immediately bonded. They had just come back from their Inka Trek, and wanted to spend the morning at the Artisinal Market. The market was also on my to do list, so I took them up on their offer to join them shopping for the morning.

The market was a pretty crazy sight — a giant warehouse filled with row upon row of tiny cubicles, crammed with hundreds of alpaca- and lama-knit sweaters, scarves, keychains, figurines and necklaces galore. Luckily we were there on a calm Tuesday morning, so we didn’t have too much company. Annie was a crazy bargainer, so she helped me snag an awesome lime green, knit alpaca zip-up for 30 soles ($11). It’s pretty out there, but now that I’ve worn it for the last few days, I’m relatively obsessed with it. One thing’s for sure; it will be very easy to spot me in NYC when I wear it all winter!

After grabbing a quick light lunch of bananas, granola and peach drinkable yogurt (strangely delicious) at a local supermarket, I made my way back to the hostel for my tour, which ended up starting much closer to 2 PM than 1:30. I panicked slightly when the guide began to make his long, Spanish introduction that I didn’t clarify earlier that morning that I needed a bilingual or English tour. Luckily, there were a handful of other people who needed the tour in English, so the 5 of us bonded while the rest of the group talked and became restless and rude when our tour guide switched to explain things in English for us.

One of the biggest downsides to traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language is the lack of accessible information at museums and ruins — very few signs are in English, especially at less popular tourist destinations, which can be relatively infuriating. Luckily, we had a good guide, and I was able to grasp most of what he was explaining to us.

Alon, a 30-year old Israeli TV journalist, and I started talking immediately and spent most of the tour chatting — we also made friends with three other girls, one from Sweden, one from Switzerland, and a student from Davidson College in the states.

The two words that immediately come to mind when I think of all the gorgeous Inca ruins I’ve seen over the past week are humbling and mind-boggling. Looking at these gigantic stones, some of them 15 feet high and weighing in at close to a ton, built up perfectly on these beautiful grass plateaus, completely isolated from everything, really blows your mind. How did a people, who lived in such rocky, steep terrain, and who didn’t use the wheel, manage to transport and beautifully carve such massive stones, close to 700 years ago?

It was also heartbreaking to hear about how much of the Inca civilization is a mystery to our generation because the Spanish destroyed so much of the Inca’s structures, precious metals, and culture when they came to conquer South America.

Though it’s the most bizarre of all the ruins sites, I found the Qorikanca Temple in downtown Cusco the most aesthetically fascinating. The Spanish built their church directly over the Inca temple that they partially destroyed, so the site is a strange mixture of Spanish architecture and beautiful Inca-carved stones. We also made our way up into the hills of Cusco to see Saqsaywaman, a gigantic Inca situated on a beautiful grassy hill that overlooks the entire city of Cusco. We had a clear view of the Plaza de Armas, just a few blocks from my hostel, and our guide explained that Cusco was originally meant to be shaped like a Puma, one of the three sacred animals to the Incas, and that Saqsaywaman forms the head of the Puma.

Because our tour started so much later than scheduled, we ended up seeing the last two sites after sundown, so we didn’t get the best views. I was relatively annoyed, but have to admit it was really neat to see all of Cusco lit up below us once it started to get dark.

Us English-speakers all opted for a nice dinner at Inka Grill on the Plaza after the tour — a bit pricey, but my goat cheese and spinach stuffed chicken breast was delicious, and so was the chocolate tart we all split afterwards.

When I got back to my hostel I was exhausted from being in the sun and high altitude all day, but completely anxious and wired for my trek the next day. I accidentally left disc 1 of Friday Night Lights in my laptop when I moved, so after I packed and separated my stuff, I watched an episode and then promptly passed out!

Country number four: Peru!

After yet another airport mishap (I guess it’s bound to happen when you take 4 flights in 3 days, right?) I am alive, in one piece, and settled down in Cusco, Peru — country number 4!

I got in my cab at 6 AM this morning, this time to the right airport (ha), and when I checked in at the Santiago airport, I found out that LAN had automatically changed my connecting flight to Cuzco (you have to fly through Lima, the only international airport in Peru) up an hour, so I only had a 50 minute layover. I asked the LAN attendant checking me in if this was enough time and she said yes, no problem, so I stayed on the earlier flight. Mistake.

I get to Lima and discover that not only do I have to go through customs at the Lima airport, but I also have to claim my baggage and re-check in for my second flight. Our flight from Santiago left 15 minutes late, and there were multiple international flights landing in Lima when ours did, so I wasn’t even close to making my connection. Three LAN attendants and a lot of sweat later (I was layered up for cold weather and the airport was SO hot!) I got a seat on the flight I had originally scheduled. Ridiculous, but it ended up working out fine, thanks to a very nice LAN attendant named Angel (ironic, I know). Security in Lima was super confusing — I got in a line and had all of my stuff in bins on the conveyor belt before someone told me that the line was men only. When I got to the other line and it was both men and women, and the person who ended up having to scan me after I went through the metal detectors was also a male? Very confusing. All of this travel has also helped me realize that South Americans, regardless of the country, have no sense of your personal bubble. When you’re in line, they’re 3 inches from you at all times, half walking in front of you, half shoving you forward. It was irritating at first, but now its (mostly) entertaining.

In happier news, Cuzco is beautiful. When we landed, I was literally breathless watching the snow covered mountains and the gorgeous green hills surrounding the city — I had beautiful weather today, and the sun lit everything so perfectly. I made a friend, Harold, from Austria, on my flight from Lima, and we ended up on the same Cuzco flight despite my whole mess, and shared a cab to our respective hostels. Always good to have a buddy who speaks English!

A view of the surrounding hills from the Plaza de Armas, 3 blocks from my hostel!

My hostel is huge, but really great — much cleaner than the place we stayed in Montevideo, and there are dozens of people staying here in several large rooms. I’m in an 8 bed female room with a bathroom ensuite, but so far 5 of the 8 beds are empty. After I checked in, I wandered through a few of the plazas that are right near my hostel, had a delicious quinoa salad for late lunch, then went for my pre-departure trek briefing. I met my guide, Juan, and another couple from London (yay English speakers!) who will be trekking with me. Our guide, who has been leading treks to Machu Picchu for 4 years, said there were 3 other people on the trip who were being briefed tomorrow, so I’ll meet them Wednesday when we leave.

My itinerary is pretty intense, and though I’m still a bit nervous, now I’m mostly excited. I’m glad I’m challenging myself and not just taking the train to Machu Picchu — I know doing the trek will be so much more rewarding in the end, but I’m also more than thrilled that I’m not going to be sleeping on the ground in a tent for four nights.

The Catedral in the Plaza de Armas

The first day of the trek we take a 3 hour bus ride from Cuzco, then go from an altitude of 4100 meters all the way down to 1500 meters… on mountain bikes. I think this is the part I’m most nervous for — riding a bike on a wide, paved road in Uruguay was a big enough challenge for me! Our guide assured me that I could stop as often as I wanted and that 80% of the road is asphalt, so that made me feel a bit better, but it will definitely be nerve-wracking. After the biking we take a short bus ride, then go river rafting. I’ve been warned we’ll get wet and it will be Class II and III rapids, but they’re providing wet suits, and said we’re supposed to have great weather, so hopefully I won’t freeze to death. After the rafting we arrive at our first hostel in Santa Maria, where I will most likely pass out from total exhaustion.

Day two is 7-8 hours of hiking, part of which is along the Inca Trail. I was told originally that we have to carry all of our stuff, but our guide told us we can pay 5 Peruvian sols (less than $2) to have our stuff carried instead, and even though I’m packing light, I’ll probably take advantage of the cheap porters! After a long day of hiking we’ll get to relax in the hot springs, and then get to our second hostel in Santa Teresa.

Day 3 is what I’m most excited for — zip-lining! I can’t wait for this part of the trek — it will definitely be my motivation during 8, very long hours of hiking on day 2. We walk for a few hours (9km) after the zipline, then get to our third and final hostel where, dun dun dun, we get a hot shower! (The two other hostels are in towns where no hot water runs, period.) We’ll get to bed early and then be up at 4:30 AM the next day to get out to Machu Picchu, where our guide will show us around for the morning. Then we have the afternoon to ourselves at the ruins before we get on the train back to Cuzco. I’m booked in the same hostel for another two nights after my trek, so I can relax, do some souvenir shopping, and let my sore muscles relax before I take a 10 hour bus ride down to Puno at Lake Titicaca. The plan for tomorrow is to take a guided half day trip to four or five of the ruins sites outside Cuzco — that way I don’t wander aimlessly and misunderstand everything I’m seeing.

I can’t believe this part of the trip is finally happening — it’s so surreal, and probably won’t feel real until my muscles are aching from all the rafting, biking and hiking. Cross your fingers for me!