Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Inca Trail Day 4: On June 21st, That Cloud Looks Like a Puma

3:30am came not so bright, but plenty early.  Sadly, there was no daybreak tea served in our tents on the last day, it was all business.  We had 20 minutes to get dressed and pack up, and then breakfast was served.  It was sort of weird feeling—both to use a flashlight to go to the dining tent, as well as turning over our sleeping bags and mats to the porters, since we wouldn’t need them for the night and wouldn’t be carrying them that day. 

By 4:30am, we had finished eating, and we were on our way, flashlights in hand and packs on.  We walked a whole five minutes…and then we stopped.  We were the fifth group in line for the trail to Machu Picchu, and we sat and waited at the entrance for an hour until it opened at 5:30am. 

Promptly at 5:30, they began allowing people through.  We showed our passports and trail tickets, and began the still dark walk along the mountain side to get to the Sun Gate—what would be our first glimpse of the ancient city. 

Contrary to previous mornings, our entire group stayed mainly together, picking a medium-fast pace.  We all wanted to get there before the crowds.  (On the Inca Trail, there is a limit of 250 people and 250 porters allowed each day.  At Machu Picchu itself, there is no limit, and the site sees thousands of tourists each day). 

At 6:30am, we climbed the final stairs to the Sun Gate, excited to be there to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. 

We were greeted with this view:

Our guides assured us that we could wait as long as we wished, and that the fog would eventually burn off.  One guide guessed, though, that it would probably be 8:30 or 9:00am before the clouds cleared completely.  At around 7:20, our group made the decision to begin a very leisurely walk down towards Machu Picchu, stopping at the vista points along the way.

At our first vista point, just a few steps down the trail, our guide Cocamon told us, “Now, just imagine…to your right, the smaller mountain.  To the left, Wayna Picchu.  And below that, there are some buildings.  You see it?”  Several of us looked at each other, in complete disappointment to have come this far, only to see…clouds…and just started laughing.  What else do you do? 

Now, over here, you see...

At the third vista point, we camped out, dropping our packs and some of us taking seats on the rocks, and we waited for perhaps half an hour.  And, wouldn’t you know it…the clouds began to clear. 

After our first glimpses of half the mountain, we continued down to the actual site.  By the time we had reached Cocamon’s favorite vista point (away from the crowds, but with a great view of Machu Picchu) the clouds were almost completely gone, making for great photo opportunities. 

"We made it! We are condors!"

Cocaman's explanation

Mach Picchu

After ample time for distance photos, we dropped off our backpacks, had the luxurious opportunity to use the first western toilets we’d seen in four days, and embarked on a 2 hour tour of the city with Cocaman. 

Temple of the Sun

Temple of the Condor

Through parts of the tour, I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering.  I was hungry, the sun was beating down, and both my calves felt like fire every time I walked up or down the cursed Inca steps.  That’s not to say I wasn’t happy; I was ecstatic.  I just had the attention span of a two year old.  However, I did catch some of what Cocaman was saying—explaining the various temples and styles of architecture, showing off sculptures and certain rock formations that, on the winter or summer solstice, would cast shadows just so.  After all these explanations of symbolism, one of the members of our group murmered, “Did you know?  On June 21st, that cloud looks like a puma!” 

After the tour, we were given  about an hour of free time to either return to town or further explore Machu Picchu.  G-Money and I chose to find a spot on one of the terraces and just sit and enjoy the view.  We didn’t have the energy for much more exploring.  And how often do you get the chance to enjoy the view at Machu Picchu, really?? 

Then, it was the bus back to town…a meal with everyone from our group…a few hours exploring the small tourist town of Aguas Calientes…then a train followed by a bus back to Cusco.  We arrived back at our hostel at about 11:00pm.  We opted to hold off on a shower until the morning, and collapsed into bed, hoping our exhaustion from the trek would enable us to sleep through the hostel’s parties (it didn’t work, of course…but for $8 a night, what are you going to do?) 

On the train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo

We spent our last half day in Cusco the next morning meandering up and down the streets, visiting markets and tourist shopping, and having one last delicious meal.  A fantastic end to a fantastic trip!! 

My time in Peru was absolutely amazing, and I would do the entire trip again in a heartbeat.  (Of course, if given the option, I would probably choose a different trek the second time—but only because I want to experience more of the Andes rather than seeing the same views again).  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Inca Trail Day 3: 3000 Steps Down

It was with some trepidation that our group embarked on the trail on Day 3.  None of us slept well on Night 2, despite being tired down to our bones.  The ground was hard, we slept on a hill, and the night was cold.  To top it off, despite being told that Day 3 would be “Unforgettable,” and probably our favorite day on the trail, we knew the day started with a 500 meter climb to our 2nd pass, and ended with 3000 steps down.  Curse the Incas and their beloved stairs. 

The first climb of the day, everyone in our group (except our marathon runner, Katie, who finished the last leg of Day 2’s climb (the part I finished in about 80 minutes) in 46 minutes) was moving considerably slower and stopping more often.  It was rather nice to have a larger group of us hiking together.  Another bonus was that G-Money was finally feeling better and was able to carry her own pack again. 

It took us perhaps three hours  to reach the top of the second pass, with one  20-30min stop along the way at a set of Inca ruins.  Though the climb was hard, because it was so short, and we took it so slowly, I didn’t feel the same strain as the day before.  The view at the top was, once again, worth it all.  Our group got together, and Cocaman gave us each 3 coca leaves and guided us in a prayer and offering to the Pachamama (the mother earth).  I won’t say it was a spiritual experience; it felt rather forced and touristy to have all of us following along, not really knowing the meaning of the Quechua words Cocaman was saying, but it was evident that Cocaman believes deeply in everything he showed us, and that for him it definitely was a spiritual event.  And that part was very cool. 

After the pass, we spent about an hour walking downhill to the next Inca ruins.  These steps were much more bearable for me, and G-Money and I spent our time chatting amicably.

After our talk at the next set of ruins, it was a short half hour walk through the beginnings of the cloud forest to get to our lunch spot.

Cloud forest

Our cook, Apu, wowed us all at lunch when he presented us with 2 cases of what was clearly magic.  First there was pizza.  How, we pondered, does one bake a pizza with no oven?  And then the meal finished with jello (or as those from the UK and Australia called it, “jelly.”)  How did he get that to set up with no refrigerator?  Maybe he made it the night before?  But wouldn’t it have frozen overnight?  Perhaps it did freeze, and that’s why it didn’t melt in the heat of the day?  We were confuddled.  As my sister says, clearly our cook was actually a wizard. 

As we were heading out from our lunch spot, G-Money stopped on a low bridge and tried to make way for a porter to pass.  In the process, she more or less…stepped through it.  Her foot found passage between the slats and she ended up with one foot approximately 3 feet below her, under the bridge.  Well, you know…no sickness to bring her down; she had to scrape up her foot and arm to make up for it.  ;)  Thankfully no serious injuries were sustained. 

Llama in the path...and in the distance, the bridge that
G-Money stepped through.

The last part of the day was truly beautiful.  We continued on a mainly flat path, with just a slight uphill climb, to get to the third pass.  Then it was a short downhill climb to the next set of Inca ruins.  And then, it was the steps down. 

Once again, knees started shaking if we stopped moving downhill.  So G-Money and I picked up our pace, and we powered through those 3000 steps down.  

3000 Steps Down

As a result, we couldn’t really stop and enjoy the beautiful forest scenery on our way, but it was a price we had to pay.  We made it to the last set of ruins quickly.  We were only the third group of two to reach the site.  This provided us with nearly half an hour to sit and wait, chilling with the llamas on the terraces there.  And that, too, made our speedy descent worth it. 

Intipata terraces

After a brief explanation of Intipata (the llama terraces) we continued on to our campsite, rolled out our sleeping bags, and then left again with Cocaman to go to one last set of ruins before the sun went down.  Wiñay Wayna was the coolest set of ruins we’d seen so far—a combination of immense terraces and houses and temples—but because the sun was setting, I didn’t get many good pictures.  The ruins were the most extensive we would see before Machu Picchu.

The night was an early one, due to a very early wake-up call the next morning.  We finished with one last delicious meal.  Apu baked us a cake (say what?! Again…no oven!) and we bid all our porters and cook good-bye, as they wouldn’t be joining us again.  And then, we all retired, visions of Machu Picchu dancing before our eyes.  

Friday, July 27, 2012

Inca Trail Day 2: Dead Woman's Pass

On Day 2, G-Money woke up still not feeling well.  When we reached camp for the first night, she got pretty sick.  Day 2, she felt shaky and still a little nauseous.   Definitely not a good start to our most arduous day of hiking.  But what else do you do, but start up the trail? 

Day 2 was the day of Dead Woman’s Pass, a 1200 meter climb to the highest point on our trek.  (The pass, by the way, is named for the rock formation at the top—though I am sure more than one trekker would believe it has claimed the life of at least a woman or two).  Right out from the campsite, we started climbing uphill. 

The pass as seen from the other side.  The woman is lying on her back,
her face pointing to the right.  She has a large forehead, nose, then
her chest and belly follow.  

After a solid hour or trekking up the hill, we came to our first resting point, and waited for everyone in our group to catch up.  I was by no means the fastest person in our group (one of the slowest, as far as uphill trekking goes), but I still had a nice 10-15 minute wait as the few people behind me—G-Money included—made their way to us.  After others in our group asked me where my friend was, I explained she was with the guide at the back of the pack because she wasn’t feeling well.   When G-Money made it to the clearing, the 2 couples from the UK went over and basically told her there were four of them, all healthy and feeling good, and they would be distributing her things among them and carrying her pack—as long as she didn’t mind them re-packing things a bit.  She acquiesced to that, and her sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and pack were divided amongst the four of them.  Christine, who had previously been carrying a very small daypack, actually strapped her bag into G-Money’s larger pack and conquered the hike. 
What amazing people!!

Carrying 2 packs instead of one.

After that, G-Money had it a bit easier.  It still wasn’t a walk in the park, but she began calling herself our tortoise and adopted the mindset of “slow, but steady,” which got her through to the end of the day.

The next two hours were spent climbing uphill…again.  I spent these hours getting to know Rose, an Australian woman who was on the trail with her daughter.  Rose was the oldest person in our group, but you wouldn’t know it by the way she hiked.  She’s friendly and interesting, and I really enjoyed my time hiking with her. 

The next stopping point was the lunch spot.  We had about an hour to wait before lunch was ready, and we spent this time stalking the llamas in the field, playing cards, or taking naps.  Then lunch was served—a delicious 4 course meal, as per usual—and we were given 20 minutes “for digestions” before starting off on the last, hardest, leg of the climb to the top of the pass.  We had 500 meters left to go.

During my last hour and a half of the climb, I was on my own, as everyone picked their own pace.  For a while, I tailed Alli (Rose’s daughter) like a mirage.  Alli would stop on the trail to catch her breath, and I would see her and think, “I’ll stop when I get to her.”  But as soon as I got close, she would start moving again.  I still took a break, and never did actually catch up for more than 15 seconds, but bridging the gap was good motivation.

That's the path on the left...Dead Woman's Pass is in sight.

Looking back down the trail

I found that completing the hike was much like completely the San Blas Half Marathon (read about that here) in February.  I focused my efforts on not stopping, and the task became feasible.  Speed was not the goal; finishing was.

The last leg to the top.

After one hour and 20 minutes, I dragged myself to the top of the pass.  I just had time to catch my breath, take a few pictures, and marvel in the jaw-dropping view of the way we’d come, before I ran back to the path to cheer G-Money on as she completed the final steep steps up to the top. 

Once we were all together again, we took a few group pictures, and then we crossed the path and began walking downhill for the last 2 hours until camp for the night. 

You would think walking downhill would be a welcome relief, after nearly 5 hours of hiking up.  And it was…at first.  But very shortly, the uneven, often large Inca steps took their toll on my knees.  If we stopped for even a fraction of a second, my knees began shaking.  On the way down, G-Money and I walked together—both of us tortoises, bringing up the rear and making it to camp last. 

Going slowly has one great advantage—you get plenty of time to enjoy the view.  And the views that day were absolutely breathtaking.  I leave you with a piece of what I saw.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Inca Trail Day 1: Don’t let a burro push you off the path.

On the first day of our trek, our team was picked up from each of our hotels between 5 and 6am, and then we drove to the town of Ollantaytambo.  We stopped for 40 minutes to pick up last minute essentials (water, walking poles, snacks, etc) and to allow for those who wanted to to eat breakfast.  Then it was back to the bus, to drive another hour and a half to Kilometer 82, where the trek began.  The last few miles of the road were one lane wide, and several times our bus had to stop and back up to a point where an oncoming vehicle could pass us, or vice versa.  It was quite the interesting ride. 

Once at Kilometer 82, our sleeping bags and mats were passed out, and we figured out how to tie them onto our packs in a comfortable manner, then set off.

Our guide, Saul (or more often called by his trail nickname, Cocaman), gave us a few pointers before heading out.
1)      Don’t get in the way of the porters.  They have to get to camp before us to set up the tents and make our meals, so move to the side if one is coming up behind you.  (Side-note: porters are nearly superhuman in what they can carry and how fast they can move.) 
2)      If you come upon a burro on the trail, take the inside path and force the burro to walk on the outside.  Don’t let the burro push you off the path.  This has apparently been an occurrence in the past. 

It’s quite safe to say that on Day 1, we were all a little nervous and very naïve as to what the trek would bring.  We knew that Day 1 was supposed to be the “easy day,” and so when we saw our first minor uphill climbs, our nerves took over.  However, we all survived quite easily.  We would only realize the next day that we didn’t know the meaning of tired.

Day one was really quite pleasant.  The views were beautiful, following a river valley, most of the walk was rather flat, and we spent time getting to know one another a little bit.  After dinner at the campsite that night, many of us stayed up talking, looking at the stars, or passing around a beer to celebrate a good day’s hard work.  The simple fact that we had the energy to stay up past 8:30pm was in and of itself a testament to the difficulty of the day’s walk; it was the only night of the trek that most of us would stay up after dinner’s completion. 

Starting at Kilometer 82

Our first set of Inca ruins

I think all of us—except G-Money, who was unfortunately struck sick that night (more on that later)—went to bed quite content that night.  

View from the campsite on Night 1

Friday, July 20, 2012

Dreams Come True in Peru...even when the trip starts out roughly.

The next few blog entries will be devoted to the 8 days I spent in Peru this summer; there’s no way I could fit it into one post.  (Well, I could, but no one would read it, because it would be 20 pages long.) 

Ever since I read about the Incas in History 101, my freshman year of college, I’ve wanted to go to Peru and see the ruins, as well as visit Machu Picchu.  This summer, my friend G-Money and I decided to make the dream a reality.  We booked a 4 day/3 night trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, got our plane tickets, and went. 

To say the trip was good is a severe understatement.  From the minute I stepped off the plane in Cusco, I was reminded why I love Latin American culture, and why I wanted to teach internationally in the first place.   And then there’s the fact that Cusco is a beautiful city, and on the trek I not only pushed myself physically, but was also surrounded by breathtaking views in every direction at each moment.  The experience is not one I’ll ever forget, and I’m excited to share it with you. 

Before we get to the good stuff, though, I have to tell you about the first 36 hours of our trip.  Not everything went smoothly, but it all ended up making for a pretty good story. 

First of all, when we went to the airport, G-Money could only get boarding passes for her first 2 flights (we had 4; it’s quite a process to get from Wisconsin to Peru) because we switched airlines midway through.  Not a big deal, but enough to make us a little anxious. 

Then, our first flight was running 20 minutes late.  Not a big deal either, except for the fact that our first layover was only supposed to be an hour long.  Thankfully, we made it to the connecting flight with no problems.

When we got to Miami, G-Money got her boarding passes for our last 2 flights.  …And we discovered that we were no longer on the same flight from Lima to Cusco.  We asked if we could get this changed, but were informed it couldn’t be done until we were in Lima. 

In Lima, we had to pick up the one bag we had checked and run it through customs, then visit the ticket counter and see if we could get on the same flight.  All of this, plus passing through security again, cut our 1.5 hour layover down to a 20 minute wait at the gate, and we both arrived (on the same flight) in Cusco, 2 hours earlier than anticipated. 

We took a taxi to our hostel and dropped off our bags in their storage room, as our beds wouldn’t be ready until noon (and it was only 9am).  We set off to pay off our trek balance with the trekking agency and then explore the city. 

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

However, I’d made a bit of a mistake in my logic in planning out how much cash to bring with me.  I’d forgotten, or didn’t think about, the fact that my bank only allows me to take a certain amount from an ATM per day.  After I’d taken my limit, and used the cash to pay off the trek balance, I no longer had any cash for the day.  G-Money was better off than I was, but was also having trouble withdrawing more money.  So we spent the afternoon wandering around, looking for things that were free, would accept US dollars, or accept Mastercard.  Perhaps needless to say, our options were limited.  We spent good amounts of time sitting on park benches in the sunshine, pondering where to go next and enjoying the beautiful weather. 

From our spot on the park bench.

And then, around dinner, we both started to get headaches.  I figured mine was from dehydration; I didn’t drink nearly enough water during the day.  Unfortunately, dinner for me was accompanied by a loss of appetite and followed by nausea.  Altitude sickness.

The city of Cusco is situated at around 3400 meters (11,200 feet) above sea level.  Trekking agencies require people to get to the city at least 2 days before treks in order to acclimatize and hopefully avoid altitude sickness.  Because I was stupid and didn’t drink enough fluids, I got it. 

Consequently, I went to bed sick at 8:30pm.

…And then I discovered what it means to stay in a party hostel. 
I could have slept through bar noise.  But I couldn’t sleep through the noisy conversations held in our room, with lights on, in the middle of the night, when I was already sick.  Or the couple engaging in intercourse in the bunk directly below mine.  Or the woman from the hostel who summoned G-Money and I at 6am telling us our guide was here for our trek and requiring us to go down to the front desk with our trip receipts and explain that no, we were not leaving until Friday, no matter what it said on HIS sheet. 

Nonetheless, when I got up for good in the morning, the altitude headache was nearly gone, the sun was shining, and our second full day in Cusco promised to be a great one.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

O Summer, Where Hast Thou Gone?

In less than 3 weeks, I’ll be back in PR! Yikes!  Where’s the time gone?!

Short version of what I’ve done this summer:
I have:
-worked at Wettstein’s
-attended 2 weddings, and one funeral
-taken a mini-roadtrip to Illinois
-spent a day in Wisconsin Dells
-showed Kelsey around La Crosse
-had many great nights with old friends, and made some new ones
-eaten at a lot of restaurants
-seen people I didn’t think I’d get the chance to see
-indulged in ice cream
-gone running to burn off the ice cream
-hiked up the bluffs
-read 3 books (so far)

Longer (more detailed) version of my summer:
The past 5 weeks at home have been great.  My first 2 ½ weeks were super busy.  I began my summer working at Wettstein’s again.  I’m so grateful that they were willing to take me on for such a short period of time and that they found work for me to do.  It was a great way to stay busy, see old friends again, and of course make a bit of spending cash.  During those first few weeks, I also spent most nights catching up with friends and seeing people as well as touring all of my favorite restaurants in the area.  I think I’ve been to all my favorites now…some of them more than once.  I’ve spent great evenings talking with people I’ve realized will probably be friends forever. 

Riverside Park, La Crosse

Baking with my sister

Next up on the summer whirlwind was a trip to Ottawa, Illinois, to visit Kelsey in her hometown.  We stayed for 3 days, and I had a fantastic time meeting her friends, hiking, going to the drive-in theater, and even attending the wedding of one of her friends.  Then Kelsey followed me north, and we spent a day in Wisconsin Dells with one of my friends from home.  After that, we spent 2 days in my hometown, and I showed her all the sights, hiked the bluffs, and took her downtown to experience La Crosse nightlife.  We, too, had an amazing time. 

Hiking at Starved Rock

Kelsey loves Pirate's Cove in the Dells!

Ice cream at the Pearl, in La Crosse

After Kelsey went home, my cousin Deanna was in town from San Diego.  Seeing her was an unexpected surprise.  Though she was in town for the funeral of a close friend, which was sad, the fact that we got to spend time with her was really nice. 

And the same day Deanna left, my friend G-Money (nickname…her real name’s Amanda) arrived in La Crosse after a year in Taiwan!  I spent two days glued to her side as we enjoyed La Crosse’s highlights and saw as many friends as we could pack in in such a short time. 

out for a hike

Re-united.  :) 

A great group of friends!

Today, I have a day to myself to catch up on all of the things I’ve been putting off all summer long.  Working on my Professional Development Plan to keep my Wisconsin teaching license current, printing photos for my album, and reading.  Tomorrow I will run a 10K and then spend the day with my mom. 

And on Monday, I go on my next big adventure: Trekking in Peru!!  Blog posts are sure to follow.  

Wearing my pack for a hike to prepare for Peru.