Trek to Machu Picchu: Day 4

Waking up at 4 AM isn’t really so bad when you know you’re finally going to see the thing you’ve been waiting (and killing yourself) to see over the last three days: Machu Picchu. We dragged ourselves out of bed, put our luggage in storage , then walked in the pitch black, freezing cold up to the bus line, which at 4:50 AM was already a full block long.

I was seriously beginning to question everyone’s logic who suggested we get up at that crazy hour to be on the first 5:35 AM bus up the mountain, but I was already up, so that was that. The bus ride was dark but slightly nauseating so I didn’t get in the nap I was hoping for, but the adrenaline and excitement kicked in once we were finally at the entrance gate. Just after 6:15 they began letting us through the gates.

It was bizarre, yet incredible, to see this huge ruins site in person after I’d pictured it, and seen it in so many pictures, for so many years.

Juan Carlos spent the first two and a half hours of the morning walking us around the ruins, explaining the history and showing us the various temples on the site. We saw the sun rise, which was spectacular over the jagged peaks, and at around 8:45, Juan Carlos said his goodbyes and left us on our own to explore and wander. Mat had disappeared somewhere on his own, but the 5 of us found a spot in a corner overlooking part of the site and sneakily ate some of our snacks and bagged breakfasts the hostels had supplied us (you’re not supposed to eat at the site… oops).

From there we walked up toward the Guard House, which is where the perfect picture overlooking the ruins is taken. We sat on the edge of the cliff for a while and took too many pictures, then decided to let some other tourists in and made our way to the start of the walk to the Sun Gate, which is the very end of the commercial Inca trail where many hikers arrive into Machu Picchu. We were all exhausted and Juan Carlos had really been able to show us the entirety of the ruins, plus Dan’s leg was starting to ache, so instead of splitting up, we decided to pick a spot in the sun overlooking the ruins, sunbathe and enjoy the view.

We hung out and watched the crowds completely fill the site — hoards and hoards of gigantic tour groups were making their way up the stairs. I had to leave the ruins to pee at one point, and it was like working my way against Los Angeles rush hour traffic. Only then did I appreciate waking up so early to be at the site before sun rise — it was really great to be able to have a guide explain everything without being swarmed by other groups.

There really are no words for how stunning Machu Picchu is — there’s no doubt in my mind why the Incas chose the spot they did, nestled between beautiful mountains, overlooking the gorgeous river valley — but it’s mind blowing to try and grasp how they built such an intricate city at such a high altitude in the middle of nowhere. Where did all of the stones come from? How did they manage to be so precise, so many hundreds of years ago? The questions are endless, and as we were sitting taking it all in, I decided I had to read Hiram Bingham’s (the man given credit for discovering Machu Picchu) “Lost City of the Incas” when I got home.

After 6 1/2 hours in the sun at the ruins, we made our way down the steps to discover two llamas seriously goin’ at it. Be thankful you’ve never had to witness llama sex, it is one of those train wrecks that you can’t look away from. Hundreds of tourists were taking pictures, and the noises as we walked by were just… scarring. Apparently these two llamas like to get it on at the ruins, because as we lined up for the bus, one of the many Peruvian souvenir sellers tried to sell us the “llama sexy time” postcard. I guess humans are humans, wherever they are in the world, everyone is obsessed with sex, even llama sex!

Dan, Millie and I went back to our hostel, grabbed our bags then perused our way through the souvenir market on the way to the train station. Our Inca Rail train from Aguas Callientes to Ollantaytambo was quite luxurious — we had complimentary beverages and snacks, and a beautiful view through huge windows and smaller windows in the ceiling of the beautiful mountain scenery we had walked through the day before.

When we arrived in Ollantaytambo a van was waiting to drive us back to Cusco. We thought it would just be the three of us, but the driver and a woman assisting him crammed it full with locals looking for a cheap ride back to the city, so we were relatively crammed for the hour and a half drive.

The van dropped us off at the plaza just a half block from my hostel, so Dan and Millie came with me to grab my suitcase and re-check in. I quickly changed and stuck my stuff in my locker, then hopped in a cab with them down to the bus station in the southern part of the town. Instead of staying the night in Cusco, they were taking an overnight bus down to Puno that night, since they were only on vacation for just over 2 weeks, they wanted to save some time.

Being at the bus station was a big slap in the face — it’s so easy and so cheap to book bus tickets between cities in South America, prepaying for all my busses was not only a huge rip off but a big mistake. I wasted a ton of money booking my “hop” through Green Toad Bus, but of course I could have only known this after coming down to SA and doing the traveling myself. You live and you learn I guess — next time, I know!

Once they got their bus tickets we went back to their old hostel, grabbed their bags and got some dinner. My lasagna was relatively unimpressive, but they had some good pasta. Then we had to say our goodbyes, and I was off to my hostel to find my sweats, take a long hot shower and pass out!

The internet at my hostel is very slow, but I will try to upload the rest of my MP pictures ASAP! 

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!

Trek to Machu Picchu: Day 1

My jungle trek might have been one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done in my life: 40 kilometers of downhill mountain biking, rafting through Class 3 rapids, walking 26 kilometers up and down steep mountains… it was quite a challenge. That being said, my trek was also one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

I remember climbing into bed on my first night and looking at my watch, only to realize it had only been 14 hours since I’d left Cusco, but it somehow felt like days. I started the day with a 6:15 wake up call to take my last hot shower for four days — thank goodness there was hot water at my hostel that morning (another small thing you learn to seriously appreciate when you travel: a decent shower). I had to literally sit on my (er, Kate’s) bag to close it, I was taking so little with me on the trek. Two pairs of leggings, four pairs of underwear, a bathing suit, two sports bras, a long sleeve shirt, a short sleeve shirt, two tank tops, my fleece, a pair of sweats, face wash, toothbrush/paste, body wash, a small towel, my camera & charger, chapstick, and a flashlight. Damn good packing!

I was told there were only 6 of us on the trek, so when our 16-seater van ended up completely full, I was less than thrilled. We were taking a 3 hour drive up into the Andes to start our mountain biking, and there were 9 Israelis who were going to be joining our group for the first half of the first day. Unfortunately, they were being typical Israelis, screaming and shouting and blasting techno music… at 7:30 AM. The other 6 of us looked at each other with frustrated and exhausted faces, silently thankful they were only with us for those few hours.

As an American Jew, it’s often hard to hear the reaction to the myriad of Israelis traveling in groups down in South America. Stian, one of the Norweigans in my trek group, simply said “I hate those people” on our way to dinner on our first night, and though I was immediately hurt and frustrated, I completely understood why his impression of Israel and Israelis was so negative. The 9 Israelis in our van made no attempt to speak English or communicate with us — they spoke over the guides when they tried to explain things during our drive, and they didn’t take us into consideration whatsoever. Of course there are exceptions to all the stereotypes, and I of all people know that not all Israelis are like this — for instance the great guy, Alon, I met on my tour of the Cusco ruins. I think when people travel in groups, it’s just a different situation.

Regardless of their obnoxiousness, mountain biking was quite the experience: serene, slightly terrifying, but overall, a few of the most incredible hours of my life. After my not-so-impressive biking experience at the Estancia in Uruguay, I was more than a little nervous to hop on a mountain bike and cycle 40 km (almost 25 miles) down a massive mountain. Luckily, our guide, Juan Carlos, was great at explaining all the functions of our bikes, triple checking everything worked, and then loading us up with the right gear: helmets, gloves, full top “armor” jackets with spine protection, plus full knee/calf protectors. I looked pretty ridiculous, but I felt safe!

Once I did a few circles around the dirt lot where we were suiting up, I immediately felt more comfortable on my bike than I had in Uruguay, but the first mile or two were still a bit of a struggle. I was the last in the group, ended up breaking a lot, and took the curves very, very slowly. As I got more comfortable on my bike, I eased up a lot. There was a steep drop-off on one side of the road, but even the parts of the road with hairpin turns were wide and well paved, and I was able to ease into the ride and a higher speed relatively quickly.

There is nothing more beautiful than descending from 4500 meters (just over 13,000 feet) above sea level, surrounded by beautiful snow-capped peaks, into a temperate jungle, watching the vegetation become more and more green, feeling the air get warmer and warmer, the sun on your face and wind in your hair. It sounds so disgustingly cliche, and nearly impossible considering I was navigating a two-wheeled vehicle down a steep mountain road, but it was such a freeing, relaxing experience. Ironically, mountain biking was the part of the trek I was most nervous for, but it was by far my favorite official activity of the four days.

After biking we had pesto chicken, rice and tomatoes for lunch at a local restaurant (unexpectedly delicious!), awkwardly changed into our swimsuits in the backyard of our restaurant, then got picked up for rafting. The sun was slowly sinking in the sky, and I realized it was already past 3:30. We ended up sitting in the van in town for nearly half an hour waiting for people from another tour group to join us, so by the the time we drove down to the river and got our lifejackets on, it was close to 4:15.

Firstly, I was expecting wetsuits, and there were none. Instead, I stayed in my leggings and tank top over my bikini, in fear of being freezing cold. Secondly, I somehow ended up at the very front of the 8-person raft. Our guide began to explain the proper procedures for catching the rope if you are thrown overboard, and how to duck into the raft when he says “Get down!” instead of the typical “forward” or “backward” paddling instructions. My heart immediately started racing.

I’d like to say the first, gigantic, bone-chilling wave of ice cold river water was the most shocking, but that would be a lie. Every time I got drenched, which was at least a dozen times in the hour and a half we were on the water, was just as cold and just as terrible. I was shivering, annoyed and mostly terrified. But halfway through, as we floated down a rapid-free section of the river with our paddles in our laps, I just couldn’t help but laugh. Here I was complaining, yet if this were any other normal day, I’d be sitting in my cubicle, complaining about how cold I was — from the AC — and how frustrating the CMA was being that afternoon. Instead, I was river rafting through class 3 rapids in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. How could I possibly be miserable?

After that, I kept a firm grip on the rope at the edge of the raft and dug my feet firmly into the foot-holds, but I smiled, even when I got a mouthful of water. I wish I had a picture of myself when I got out of the raft (or any pictures from rafting — I left my camera with Juan Carlos to take to our hostel) — I literally looked like I had showered in my clothing, there wasn’t a single inch of my body that wasn’t soaked. We towel dried and attempted to soak up the last of the sun, then helped the guides reattach our rafts to the top of the vans before they drove us back to our hostel.

By the time we were back at our hostel it was pitch black and not very warm out, so I was happy to have warm sweats and a dry fleece to change into. Dinner at a local restaurant was delicious, and it was wonderful to crawl into a bed (not a sleeping bag) and pass out!

Sad to report I took very few pictures on the first day — the few I did take are uploaded to Picasa here