I wanted to go to Machu Picchu before I knew where it was. Well, not exactly, I knew it was in South America somewhere, so that was a start. My friend, Lisa, and I hatched the plan during the Society of Toxicology meeting (Washington DC, 2011). It wasn’t really a plan, more like a “we should do it” conversation that materialised into one of the greatest vacations I have taken so far. I am using the term “vacation” a little loosely. There were moments when the only “vacation” thing about the trip was that I was still getting paid but not sitting in front of a computer and my blackberry was on another continent.
Day 1- Connecticut to Lima (altitude 0m/0ft)
My flight took off at 6 am from JFK with a connection in Costa Rica. Early flight meant that I had to leave Connecticut at about 2:30am. Sleep was out of the question. My connection in Costa Rica went quite smoothly….. almost. At some point I went through the gates and was on my way to find my seat on a plane bound for Havana. The gates looked the same and were not numbered and the person checking my boarding pass was probably working on the assumption that “what are the chances?”. I was finally on the correct flight and landed in Lima several hours later. Lima airport is a crowded hot mess. Its like Heathrow, just newer.
Lisa came in from California and was already at the hotel in Milaflores when I arrived. She had spent the on a pre-arranged biking tour. Food, shower, bed – and Day 1 was done.
Day 2- Lima (Altitude: 0m/0ft)
Free Day in Lima, spent partly in bed, partly at the local mall by the sea. A co-worker had connected me to her cousin, Claudia, who was kind enough to pick us up and show us around. Lima is interesting. Being from a third world country myself, I was surprised that Lima was a third world country. I had never been to South America before, so I came in with the expectation that proximity to first world should at least have some efficiencies rub off, besides McDonalds, KFC, Starbuck and other parasitic investments that tend not to improve the lives of people. Lima central, outside of the government buildings is not pretty. The remnants of the colonial era are still evident. The highway exits have no numbers or names, you just need to know the exit you are coming off. I am from Zimbabwe though, technically we don’t have a real highway and definitely no exits, so this was a big improvement.
We ended up at a restaurant called Astrid & Gaston in Milaflores. Allegedly one of the top 50 or 100 restaurants in the world. I can believe it. I am not a “foodie”. Eating is highly inconvenient for me and I exemplify the “eat to live philosophy”. So for me, to say this place was amazing – it was amazing. I was introduced to a basil-mango-passion-Pisco drink. Holy cow! The food was Peruvian though the presentation was beautifully artistic.
I had Cuy (guinea pig) that night and shared a variety of yummy looking and yummy tasting dishes with my co-eaters. Service was outstanding and we even got a picture with the cooks in the kitchen. Claudia is certainly well connected. After this highly satisfying meal, we went to bed to pack up and rest before another early start.
Day 3 – Cusco (Alt ~3000m/11000ft)
We were up early again with a pick-up at approximately 7am. We were back at Lima airport (joy)…..to pick up our flight to Cusco. We were to spend three days acclimating in Cusco before hitting the trail. The air is thinner up there! I was a little dizzy and exhausted. Doing anything seemed to take a little more effort than was necessary. About half a million people, Cusco was the capital of the Incas and home to the Inca Kings (except Atahuallpa). As you go through the city, the impressive Inca style stone work is still evident and forms the foundations of many buildings. Also in the city is the Spanish style influence including the numerous churches. The Peruvian-Spanish combination is very cool and a great reminder that I am somewhere I have never been before. The streets were maintained from the Incan time, so they are typically one way, reminiscent of the alleys they call streets in Rome. Cusco is SPOTLESS. There is no rubbish anywhere which is amazing since its a half day project to find a rubbish bin anywhere!
We were given Coco leaf tea when we arrived, which we drank and made a note to Wikipedia it later. Everyone swears that it helps with acclimating to the altitude. Yeah…anything with cocaine and associated alkaloids would probably help you to not worry that you can’t breath. We had a free afternoon in Cusco and we wandered around the town, doing some window shopping as there were markets selling things everywhere. I was introduced to Cause (cowzah), my new favourite dish and I tried to have that every time I sat down for a meal. Lisa and I walked around and I tried to feel not so tired.
Day 4: Cusco and Sacred Valley Tour
We had booked a private tour – Sacred Valley full day tour that took us through various Incan settlements in the Sacred Valley, which is a series of ranges connected by the Urubamba river. This tour took us through Pisac, where we were educated on the history of the last Inca Kings ( the 10th and his two sins Huascar and Atahuallpa) and the eventual decline of the Incan Empire with the arrival of the Spaniards. We also went to Ollantytambo (tambo is like a resting place). This was pretty interesting to see innovation at work. The large….sorry – humongous, rocks stuck together without cement/mortar were then constructed to withstand earthquakes etc – with some sork of a stone gap in between these large rocks. I pictured the empire’s geologists and archeologists figuring this out…hundreds of years ago. We had lunch at a restaurant that looked like an old colonial house overlooking a river and mountains. It was stunning and the food as usual was amazing. We finished at Chinchero and it was really dark by the time we were dropped off at a restaurant.
Day 5: Cusco City Tour
This one was shorter (half day) although we saw as much as the previous day because we didn’t have to drive to so many places. We started at Korikancha in Cusco proper. A rich Incan temple dedicated to the sun where everything was basically made with gold. Although the parts of the temple built by the Incas are still clearly evident, the Spaniards built a church around it (and I imagine grabbed the gold). Around Cusco we visited Qenqo where they embalmed the bodies. Its a cave-like structure and naturally refrigerated. The rocks were ice-cold. Next stop was Puca Pukara (Red Fortress) – likely military or sentry (like stop point before entering Cusco). Across from Puca Pukara is Tambomachay where you can see water “taps” that apparently runs all year round. The origins of the water are not really known. We rounded back to Sacsayhuaman (sexywoman) before making our way back to the city.
We bought gifts and mentally prepared for the next day. I think I took a long nap in the afternoon. Later that night, we met with our guide, Edwin, the night before to go through details. Boy did we frustrate him. But both Lisa and I are from scientific backgrounds and “stuff” just need to make logical sense in our heads. If you tell me I shouldn’t worry about it – I need to know why. Typical to me, I had done zero research on Inca trial, Machu Picchu etc. I was too busy at work I figured I would find out when I got there. However, Edwin told us that Day 2 is the hardest…
Day 6 – now DAY 1 on the Inca trail (12 km/7 miles)
We had an early start…..again. The thing about being on vacation is that I shouldn’t have to wake up earlier than I do when I go to work (ie 7am). we were ready for pick up at about 6am. ie showered, packed, checked out of hotel and out the door, so wake up was at 5:30-ish for me (low maintenance). Lisa and I had somehow manage to telepathically communicate from between California and Connecticut and ended up with the same clothing (not just the colour). It was hilarious. We detoured to pick up the other two girls on the tour who had braved a farm stay outside of Cusco prior to hitting the trail.
Our starting point was kilometer 82 by the Urubamba River. We were all pysched. I had a pretty back-back that I had carefully chosen. Also geared in my pretty pink shoes and matching grey Athleta hiking trouser things. My cameras (three), ipad, extra snacks, camel back, clothing for about 6 days = 12 kg/25lbs rucksack. I actually did the suncream – seriously…who puts on sunscreen? SPF 1000 or something – spray on. Maybe the first time I actually remember buying sunscreen. The rest of our “needs” were carried by the porters (about 7 plus a cook) from Wayki Trek. This included tents (plus dining tent), food, sleeping bags and matts etc and a 20 pound propane tank – amongst other things I didn’t know were being carried.
We started off fine around 10:30am or so. We first had to get out passports checked and stamped. We were then officially allowed into Inca country! It was like a regular hike. Elevation was lower than Cusco. The weather was beautiful. The mountain views were outstanding. The path was flattish and part downhill. Easy as eating pie (if you like eating pie). Piece of cake. For me anyway. We had a stop at the ruins of Llactapata. Lisa had some cacophonous pandemonium happening in her belly so she was struggling towards the end of the day, missing our lunch stop to get to the campsite so she could lie down.
The rest of us reached the first campsite Wayllabamba along the Urubamba river, at about 5pm. I was still full from my 4 course lunch and was worried that my 4 days of exercise will mean I will be rolling back to Connecticut. I was a little tired. I stunk. I was sticky with sweat. I realised on the trail that if you cant shower, its always the first day that is bad – you acclimate quite easily to your own stench Im sure. Thanks to lazy mothers and Johnson and Johnson, I took baby wipe baths. The bathroom situation was acceptable at this site. It was still a pit latrine (if you don’t know what that is, figure it out). We were not allowed to drop toilet paper down the toilet so its usually piled in one of the corners. Yes, TMI, but thats detail I would have liked to know before I left CT. I only found out about the not bathing thing about three weeks before we left! I thought there would be rivers you could swim shower. There was always a river…a glacial river with run-off from the pit latrines minus toilet paper. Baby ass-wipes it was.
Day 2 on the Inca Trail….(11 km/7 miles)
I slept well. I must have been tired. I was dreading day two. All information that had filtered my way said the day would suck. I refused additional water refill in my camel back. Water is overated. I’m a camel. A clever one. Less water means less bathrooms and less weight on my back. We woke up again at 5:30am to hot coco tea and hot water to wash up. Plus huge omelette and bread and coffee if need. I declined the coffee – no encouraging the bathroom thing for me. From Wayllabamba, we went through a second checkpoint and we hit the slope…Yeah. The high point of day 2 was at Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman’s Pass) – 14200 ft/ 4200m in altitude. Probably about 6 miles into the hike. The views were outstanding. We were walking on the side of the valley and the valley floor was occupied by some farmers and you could almost make out al pacas hanging out there. It was a little cool but weather still perfect.We passed through the rain forest first. I heard that there is often mist, making it eerie, but there was none when I walked though. Much of the walk consisted of uneven stone steps going up and up and up and up. The most frustrating thing was that you could not see where it would end. It seriously felt like I would be climbing steps for the rest of my life. Eventually we cleared the rain forest at Llulluchapampa. We stopped for a snack and Lisa was still not doing well – or seemed to be doing worse. She is a trooper though and she carried on after a short break with soup and gatorade.
I made it to Warmiwanusca. Alicia and Lauren got up there first. Cor Blimey!!!!!! That was harder than I thought. I am not sure it was the altitude – I imagine that didn’t help – but I was carrying 24 pounds uphill for 6 miles. On what planet would that not be hard. I was wiped out physically but really really happy that the hard part was over. I was elated and it was almost like I had already reached Machu Picchu. Dont get me wrong – I am not a couch potatoe but I should have done more pre-training…a couple of dumbells here and there…maybe…some laps..I don’t know…
It was cold at Dead Woman’s pass and we didn’t stay for long. Lisa and Edwin came in right behind us and Lisa was feeling better. We did a quick downhill walk to out second campsite, Pacamayo. We arrived at around 2 pm and I remember sleeping for the rest of the afternoon. The bathrooms were Dodge City. Five hundred people could do that to 6 bathrooms. I have never been so unhappy about being a woman.
Day 3 – 11 miles/ 15 km
One interesting aspect of Pacamayo was that we could see the route to the next ruins. It looked like it was going uphill. I was thinking, damn, I thought we were done with that crap…so “Edwin, that road looks like it’s going uphill – whats up with that? I thought we were done with that crap” Edwin smiles and says “Yes, just the first part and then it flattens out.” Flattens out my ass. Day three was harder than Day two because I didn’t expect to have kept some reserve mojo for the second Pass – Runkuracay pass.
It was a short uphill walk to Runkuracay. Was likely an army barracks of some sort. I was loving the neat, clean geometry of the Incan architecture. It was beautiful. There was actually a lot of thought that went into building these structures. The sun was creeping up as we were there and at the same time, the mist was moving in. It was stunning. It was like I was transported somewhere else and in the vastness and beauty of the Andes, it was was an awe-filled morning…again. There were no blackberries, computer VPNs, interwebs etc and best of all, I didn’t care or even think about them. It was the free-est I have felt in a long time.
From Runkuracay, we headed UP to Runkuracay pass. This was brutal. I was exhausted by the time I got up there. I almost felt more tired than when I got to Dead Woman’s Pass. We offered a offering to the mountain at the top before continuing on the trail. We walked through breathtaking views. At times the mist was rolling in and at times it was bright. It was a long walking day but it was going downhill or flat. After around Phuyupatamarca, we started really going downhill via stone steps. Edwin said he had counted them, there are 2000 steps. Tiny stone steps not made for a size (US) 10.5 shoe and long legs. For some this is harder on the knees. But I loved this. It was rough on the joints but it was downhill.
There were beautiful mosses and orchids that lined the trail. This part of the trail was not as crowded and for most of the morning, I walked alone. It was amazing. We did not get to Winaywayna ruins, but I reached Intipata ruins late in the day at about 5pm and briefly walked around before making my way to our campsite at Winaywayna. I was actually hungry and I was over stairs of any kind. Lisa was already there and waiting for us to saunter in. An hour later, it was confirmed, my calves had given out and I could not walk without drama/vocalising. And here, somehow the bathrooms were worse. I am sure I inhaled some juiceys while I was standing there trying to decided exactly how necessary I thought using a bathroom at that moment was. Of course it was.
That night was the ceremonial good-bye to the porters (tipping etc). The guide, chef and porters from Wayki Trek were awesome. They had been so good to us the whole trip. It was a saddish goodbye and I was ashamed I had made no effort to learn Spanish since they didn’t speak English.
Inca Trail Day 4: Machu Picchu
This was tricky. We had to wake up at 3:30 am. Moments like these were when I wondered about the current definition of “vacation”. We ate early, packed up to allow the porters to run down to their 5:30am train to take them back to Cusco. I was sad to find out that most of the porters had actually never seen Machu Picchu. There is something wrong with that and it made me feel a little guilty. There was a third checkpoint that opened at 5:30 am. We were one of the first ones out and we hit the last 3.5 miles/6 km with some pain. We walked the first half hour or so with headlights on. At about 6:30a -7:00a, we reached the Intipunku, the Sun Gates.
There was a thick cloud covering the city although you could see the characteristic mountain next to the city. The sun was coming up and the mist was slowly lifting. It was as if mother nature had her curtain down and was in control of when the show would start. I am sure we waited at the Sun Gates for as much as 45 minutes. The curtain lifted with the rising sun and the city came into view, applauded by the collective gasp from the audience waiting high up at the Sun Gates. I was stunned. It was beautiful, tear-worthy and definitely 4 days-no-shower-worthy without a shadow of a doubt.
We had to walk another 2 miles or so to the official end of the Inca trail and to the city. There were a few people walking up to the Sun Gates. It is entirely possible to see the city via a three hour train ride. If you are capable of walking, definitely consider the trail.
This was the official end of trail and I had shed my crap. It was a truly great feeling to have done it. Completed it. Seen the views and had a great site at the end of that journey. There is no better way to visit Machu Picchu. If I was to do it again, which is likely, I will walk it once more. A different trail, but would still walk it.
We finished the day off with a two hour tour of the city, followed by lunch in Aguas Calientes, said goodbye to Alicia and Lauren and took our 3 to 4 hour train ride back to Cusco. maybe more 3 than 4. It was hard to tell, my legs hurt.
I left Cusco and my amazing trip the next day and back to reality. It was a question of whether it was the journey or the destination. I don’t know. Its hard to tell.