¿Quien es mas macho?
(WARNING: This entry is insanely long. Not for the faint of heart.)
I awoke this morning to the earplug-muffled sounds of honking horns and yelling voices and car alarms emanating from the narrow street five floors below. It was a cold, rainy night, but my very thick blankets kept me warm enough and I was refreshed. I slept in Puno, elevation 3830 meters, or, at 3.3 feet per meter, 12,639 feet. That´s high. Puno is a harbor town on Lake Titicaca, South America´s biggest lake and the world´s highest navigable lake with passenger boat service. The lake splits Peru from Bolivia like Lake Tahoe splits California from Nevada.
From my strolling around Puno so far, I like the place. It´s compact and bustling in a compact, almost cute, way. Men in suits intermingle with women in traditional Peruvian dresses and bowler hats. My encounters with hotel and restaurant personnel have been pleasant. Mercifully, Puno is fairly flat in its center, a very welcome terrestrial feature at this altitude. I seem to be breathing better here than I had been in Cuzco, the last town I stayed in.
I arrived in Puno late yesterday afternoon after a six hour bus ride from Cuzco. Although Cuzco (at 3326 meters/10,976 feet) isn´t as high up as Puno, it´s hilly, and my hotel there was up a steep incline from the city center. I found myself huffing and puffing, and even hyperventilating, as I meandered through Cuzco. Sometimes the hyperventilating kept me from sleeping. Maybe my respiratory problems were compounded by an allergic reaction to something there–the dander of llamas or the haunting reverberations of the pan flute perhaps. Anyway, it´s nice to be back in a place where hyperventilating doesn´t seem to be as much of a problem.
Allow me to turn back the clock a few days. As I mentioned last time, after a 10-hour flight from Fiji to Los Angeles and a stop-over in L.A. for about the same length of time, I boarded a plane to South America. That plane departed late, at 2:00 a.m., and took me only as far as Panama City, where I switched planes. I was in the air for a combined total of about 10 hours before reaching Lima, my destination. By the time I hopped in a taxi in Lima, the sleep deprivation had begun to take its toll and I felt a migraine coming on.
Below: Lima´s Parque Central, two Cuzco locals, Cuzco´s Plaza de Armas, a steet vendor.
The Lima airport is on the outskirts of town, and the drive from there to the tourist-friendly Miraflores neighborhood was not a scenic one, especially not at first. The roads and buildings beside them appeared ramshackle and dirty, leaving no doubt this is a third world country. Eventually, though, we hit the coastline and ascended a steep grade similar to the California Incline in Santa Monica. After a 30-minute journey, the cab dropped me off at Hotel Monte Real, a pretty hotel my brother Daniel and good friend Perry had found. They arrived in Lima the day before and would be joining me on the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu.
It was late afternoon, and Perry and Daniel were eager to take me into town. They had hired a guide who showed them around the day before. Among other places, they visited a museum that had on display all sorts of ceramic fertility statues, and my compadres spared no memory card space in capturing images of the ancient smut with their digital cameras. After the porn viewing, we walked to Parque Central, which is beautifully illuminated at night. After some shopping and horseplay with mannequinns, we ate a lavish seafood dinner, including ceviche and pisco sour. Unfortunately, that was the extent of my experience of Lima, because the next day we flew from there to Cuzco. We were in bed by 11:30, but I couldn´t sleep, maybe because, as my mom often hypothesizes, I was “overtired.” Perry had the same problem.
Some hotel reps converged on us at the airport in Cuzco and ultimately took us to a really nice hotel called Midori, just up the cobblestone street from the Plaza de Armas, the hub of city activity. The Plaza de Armas is bordered by impressive Spanish colonial buildings and churches and a grand cathedral simply called “La Catedral.” Cuzco was once the center of the Inca empire and is built on Incan stone foundations. Hills surround the city, and at night the blue and yellow lights of the hillside houses twinkle like a second, horizon-hugging night sky. Well beyond those hills, some three hours away, towers the Andes mountaintop in which awe-inspiring Machu Picchu is embedded.
Our plan was to spend one night in Cuzco, complete the four-day Inca Trail trek, and return to Cuzco and spend another night together there. I would end up spending two more nights in Cuzco after Daniel and Perry had left.
Everyone who decides to take the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu must do so as part of an established trekking group. Ours was Llama Path, a group I´d recommend. At our orientation meeting, though, we learned that we would not be departing at 9:00 a.m. the next day, as scheduled. Rather, because of an impending bus operator strike, we would be departing at 2:00 a.m. This was not welcome news to my travel-weary ears, nor to the ears of my sleepy companions.
Below: the start of the Inca Trail, the porters plus our wonderful guide Americo, sights en route on Day One.
At this point we had a number of strikes against us. First, it would be wet. January is the rainiest month of the year. (The trail would be closed completely for the entire month of February.) Second, it would be strenuous. We would be hiking continuously for four days, mostly uphill. This was more daunting to Daniel and me since Perry is as fit as a racehorse. Third, it would be literally breathtaking. We would be hiking at very high altitudes and did not have sufficient time to acclimatize. The Llama Path people “strongly recommend” that hikers arrive in Cuzco three or four days before the trek in order to get used to the thin air. Because of work schedules, we´d be starting the day after arriving in Cuzco. Fourth, we would all be woefully sleep-deprived.
We arose at 1:40 a.m., a meager three hours after we had gone to bed. I know I for one didn´t sleep a wink because I had to get up three times during the night. Maybe the high altitude shrinks one´s bladder, but I think a combination of nerves and the imbibing of much too much coca tea explains that freak phenomenon. (Local wisdom says that coca tea helps to energize high altitude trekkers, and I tried to get a jump on my intake.)
Our mini-bus was about 40 minutes late. When we crawled inside, a group of seven Peruvian men sitting in the back, dressed in matching red parkas, applauded us. They would be our porters for the next four days and they would applaud us a lot, no matter how pathetic our performance on the trail.
On the way out of town, we picked up another hiker, Sean. Sean would round out our small group into a foursome. Raised in Arizona, he now hails from Washington, D.C., and works for a government watchdog agency. He made an ideal addition, holding his own in the incessant banter and proving to be so extremely fit he was able to keep up with even the superhuman porters.
Below: my rugged brother, a local, a footbridge, me arriving at Dead Woman´s Pass.
We drove for over three hours in the night darkness, up over the hills that surround Cuzco and down into and across what is known as the Sacred Valley, an area chock-full of significant Inca sites. The driver was apparently as sleepy as we were and had to stop the mini-bus several times and walk outside in order to jolt himself into alertness. Once we were supposedly beyond the bus strike zone, the driver abruptly stopped the vehicle near a building in a small town somewhere, stirring up a cloud of dust, and promptly fell asleep at the steering wheel. Our guide, Americo, suggested we all take the opportunity to sleep. The porters heeded that suggestion–after a short while a chorus of deep breathing rose from the back. My brother swears he heard them breathe out the melody for “Smoke on the Water.”
We tourists weren´t so fortunate in flinding slumber. A number of concerns swirled through my head, some of which I whispered out loud for my brother´s amusement: I hope we´re not parked on train tracks. The angry strikers can´t find us here, can they? This isn´t a flash flood zone, is it? (The area bore an uncanny resemblance to the simulated flash flood zone at Universal Studios.) There´s been no violent coups here lately, right? Do they have zombies in Peru?
We survived the night and arrived at the starting point for the Inca Trail. The porters unloaded the provisions and made us breakfast, including abundant coca tea. (During the course of the trek, we downed so much coca tea not a one of us would´ve passed a drug test.) Day One, we had been told, would be easy. Fairly flat with some moderate “ups and downs.” As we began, the excitement surged. We were finally doing this! I felt momentarily confident. Until the first short “up,” that is. That reduced me to a panting ninny. Of our group of four, I struggled the most. But we all made it to lunch, albeit drenched in sweat. We still had another three hours to go, though.
Below: me, a porter, our chef and porters performing a culinary miracle, Daniel keeping on keeping on.
A word about the meals. They were simply incredible. Each morning, a porter named Silverio, who played the role of waiter, came to our tents while we were still in our sleeping bags, and served us tea. For every meal, when we had all managed to lumber into the dining tent, we would be fed culinary concoctions as pleasing to the eyes as to the stomaches. The chef, Wilber, did all of his cooking on the dirt floor over an open flame, yet presented us with hearty dishes like stuffed trout adorned with fancy-sliced vegetables and heaps of pasta and rice, plus breakfasts like vegetable omelettes and pancakes, and desserts like cream cake and chocolate pudding. We could never eat it all, as hard as we tried.
The second half of Day One was nothing short of punishing. Sean did fine. But the rest of us were hurting. I found myself counting off paces before stopping to catch my breath. Fit-as-a-racehorse Perry slumped over his walking stick at every break, practically falling asleep while standing. Over dinner, he expressed doubts about being able to continue the next day. Day Two is reputed as being the hardest day of all. And we had just finished the “easiest.”
But a night´s sleep did wonders and we hit the trail again somewhat reinvigorated the next morning, although roundly humbled. We would attempt to ascend two peaks that day. The first, ominously known as Dead Woman´s Pass, marks the highest point of the entire four-day pilgrimage, looming at 4200 meters or 13,779 feet. The second stands at 4000 meters or 13,123 feet. (We would descend to 3580 meters, or 11,700 feet, between the two.)
Below: me on the 3rd day descent, Perry and Daniel, an Andes Mountain vista, an anonymous porter.
We gained Dead Woman´s Pass by late morning, I clearly the least macho in the group. One person after another passed me on the way up–phenomenally fast porters wearing open sandals, guides, young athletes, thin 30-somethings, fat people, the elderly, the crippled, newborn babies, people in wheel chairs, the handicapped with prosthetic legs, spare prosthetics hopping upwards although inanimate, a legless gumselling beggar who pushed himself along on a canvas mat, a talking alpaca, a herd of bandicoots who jeered at me with high-pitched Munchkin laughter. Okay, maybe the coca tea made the experience a bit David Lynch-like, but the point is I was really slow.
It rained heavily after lunch that day, and that part of the journey entailed hiking up a small waterfall. At camp, we were soaking wet and cold. Worst of all, our boots were wet and stayed wet all night. The next morning, we followed Sean´s lead in wearing plastic bags over our socks to keep them dry. Actually, Perry didn´t need to do this. His boots miraculously remained dry. I don´t know how. Mind you, he had by far the heaviest backpack, carrying in it I don´t know what. All I know is that during the trek he seemed to have a different outfit to change into for even the slightest variations in temperature or precipitation.
Day Three was scenic, enjoyable and not terribly taxing. But it did involve a very long descent over stones of different shapes and sizes, which was murder on the knees. My brother had it the worst, eventually using two walking sticks to temper the pain.
Below: at Machu Picchu
On Day Four, we got up at 4:00 a.m. and began the final, relatively mild climb up to what is called the Sun Gate, from which one can catch a first glimpse of Machu Picchu. But when we reached the Sun Gate, we did not see Machu Picchu. All we saw was a big white cloud. My brother, whose knees were still killing him, let loose with a sarcastic diatribe about the unbearable sacrifices he´d made to get to this point only to be rewarded by the unremarkable view of something as mundane as a cloud.
But as we ambled our way down toward the famous Inca site itself, the clouds partially cleared and we had our reward. By the time we reached the site proper, the sun was blazing in full glory, and we gratefully peeled off layers of sweaty or rain-soaked clothing and basked in the warmth. Americo led us on a tour, displaying his considerable command of the history and culture of the Incans and explaining the significance of some of the structures. Amazingly, the ingenious Incans managed to build Machu Picchu–its many temples, tombs, houses, plazas and terraces–in under 80 years. The “lost city” remained unknown to all but a few indiginous Quechuas until 1911 when American historian Hiram Bingam stumbled upon it. Now it´s the most popular archeological site in South America.
Below: drying off at Machu Picchu, on the rails, the river beside the train tracks, Perry and Daniel say goodbye.
After the tour with Americo, Sean and Perry, who had now found his stride, opted to ascend yet another peak, Wayna Picchu, which looms behind the ruins. Once they returned, the four of us took a bus down the snaking road to the town of Aguas Calientes, which sits at the base of the mountain. There we met Americo for celebratory food and drinks, said our goodbyes to him, and hopped the train back toward Cuzco. The train followed a mesmerizing, violently churning, chocolate-milk colored river. We alighted the train and took a mini-bus the rest of the way in order to save time. We drove under a big, vibrant blue sky through brown adobe villages and past yellow fields and over rolling green hills. These majestic colors of nature seemed to fade into the status of a backdrop whenever local Andeans came into view, their traditional garb dominated by unmissible reds and pinks, dotting the villages and fields like sprinkles on a cupcake.
As for the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, I´m sure glad I did it, I´d recommend others consider doing it, but I´m never doing it again. Next time I´ll take the bus.
Tags: Aguas Calientes, Cuzco, Inca Trail, Lima, Machu Picchu, Peru, Puno, South America, Travel