Monday, August 20, 2012

Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

Hello from Puno and Lake Titicaca!! Let us regale you with a tale of Incans, pumas, condors, snakes, coca leaves, dirt, sweat, blood and tears. Since we last wrote, our friend Vivian arrived from America and joined us. The day before we began our trek we took her to some of the highlights of Cuzco, including Cevicheria El Pulpo, and the mercado. That night we had a meeting with our Jungle Trek guide, Edwin, to go over particulars. At 7:00 AM on Thursday morning we met up with him and the other trekkers - in total nine, two German girls travelling together, a Dutch guy, a French-Canadian girl, and a Dutch girl, all travelling individually, and us four Americans - and started driving up to the top of the Abra Malaga mountain pass. There, at an altitude of 4350 meters we suited up for some downhill biking.
This was by far the coldest part of the trek, at that altitude it was quite chilly and we were almost at the snow level. We rode downhill through the Vilcanota mountain range for a several hours taking pictures and enjoying the Andean landscape, saying hello to some friendly mountain goats on the way. After about four hours on the bike we arrived in Santa Maria at a mere 1250 meters. All of a sudden we were really hot with all our gear on, and ready to have lunch. We relaxed that afternoon in our luxurious accomodations, had dinner, and got to bed early for a big hike the next day.

Friday we woke up at 6:00, ate breakfast and hit the trail. About half an hour in we literally were face to face with the death as we hugged a mountain side with barely any footholds and nothing but a rocky drop to our deaths below.
Luckily this only lasted about 45 minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime. Our guide assured us that the rest of the trek would be much less death-defying. We hiked on until we came across a coca plantation where we relaxed a bit and had a cold drink. We also had our faces painted with Achiote, a traditional red plant that is also used for many natural cosmetics. Around lunchtime we stopped in a small village to eat, and then continued onwards. After hiking about 22 kilometers, the village of Santa Teresa was upon us, but first we had to cross a river in a very, very sturdy looking cable car. Then we had to hike up the river and were rewarded with a glorious hot spring. We all went for a dip in the hot springs for about an hour, and then caught a collectivo to our accomodations for the evening. We had a very special dinner since it was Sarah's birthday. We had brought a small bottle of champagne, enough for two glasses, and a chocolat bar, but our tour operator was kind enough to organize a cake and a round of "Inca Tekila," as well as a resounding chorus of Happy Birthday. Our fellow trekkers were also kind, even though they had known Sarah for just two days, the German girls bought her a small birthday muffin with candels (not knowing the tour operator had organized the cake) and the other two girl gave her a "good luck banana" to take to Waynapichu. Afterwards, we decided to skip going to the club and went to sleep early.
We woke up on Saturday with Machu Picchu in our minds and desire in our hearts. We could practically feel the Incan "buenas vibras" all around us as we hiked up into the IntiHuatana ceremonial site. Along the way we learned about the ancient Incan messengers called Chuskis. These messengers would run through the mountains going 25 kilometers at a time transferring information from the extremeties of the Incan empire to the king at Machu Picchu. Edwin, our guide, also told us how at one point there was a race up the Inca Trail a few years ago in which competitors came from all over the world. Keep in mind that tourists normally do this trail in 4-5 days, the winner of the race, a Peruvian trail porter, did it in four and a half hours. Edwin also told us that once he ran the Inca trail just for fun with a friend and did it in seven and a half. Anyways, we arrived at the IntiHuatana reserve, got more stamps on our passports and eventually joined up with the train tracks that we would eventually take back home. We walked up the train tracks until we got to Aguas Calientes, where we had dinner and tried to get to sleep as early as possible.

Sunday, the great mountain is upon us. We rose at 3:30 in the morning, with the intention of climbing the mountain slowly but still arriving at a reasonable hour, but disaster struck!!! As I was tying my shoe, my shoelace broke apart into two pieces! I was able to tie it with one of the pieces, and soldier on. Our plans to enter early and climb slowly were thwarted by the gate at the base of the mountain which does not open until 5:00 AM. At about 4:50 the guards finally opened the gate, checked our passports and tickets, and let us in. The ascent began! Sarah was counting off the steps (her final count was 1691), and as we approached the upper entrance, streaks of light were beginning to filter through the Andean haze. We reached the entrance of Machu Picchu around 5:45 with plenty of time to spare and lined up to get into the main gate just as the first buses were arriving. We met up with our guide and began our tour. We walked through the various rooms, temples and terraces, and were sitting on what must have been an agricultural terrace hundreds of years ago when the sun rose over the mountain tops. With cameras in tow we basked in the glory of the Incan sunrise, and continued our tour of the complex. Our group of four had tickets to Huayna Picchu as well, and around 8:20 the guided tour was over and we went to Huayna Picchu to begin another several hundred meter climb. We had been warned by some people (mostly our parents) that this was another death-defying climb with nothing but 9000 feet of sheer cliff between you and your bloody death below, but compared to what we did on our first day of hiking, it was "pan comido." They were even kind enough to install some guard rails/cables to hold onto on the way up. We made it to the top of Huayna Picchu in about 45 mins and took in Machu Picchu from above.
After hanging out at the top of Huayna Picchu for a bit, we climbed back down, and wandered around some of the other parts of the Machu Picchu area. Considering we had been up since 3:30 in the morning, and it was now getting to be noon, we were quite tired, and decided to be lazy tourists and take the bus down to Aguas Calientes. There we actually went into the hot springs to soothe our sore and aching muscles. We caught the train back to Ollantaytambo where our tour operator had arranged for a car to take us back to Cuzco. In Cuzco we caught the night bus to Puno. For anyone planning to take the night bus from Cuzco to Puno, bring very warm clothes and blankets, ice formed on the inside of the window last night. We saw the sunrise through the icy window over Lake Titicaca, and here we are relaxing in Puno! Puno is at 3800 meters above sea level, even higher than Cuzco, so we will definitely be taking it easy for the next few days.

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