Everything it was supposed to be, less & more…
Why Peru? Well Spanish speaking Peru is considered by many a guidebook to be the birthplace of ancient empires. It has a population of 30 million people and is considered the ultimate destination for culture seekers, adventurers, eco-tourists and me. No other country in South America has such an astounding archaeological history. Peru is usually visited to see the Nazca lines in the desert, Machu Picchu and to explore the remains of the Inca civilisation housed in museums, pyramids and ruined cities, many still unexcavated. It is a country of extremes with snow-capped Andes mountains, surfing beaches, towering mountains, deserts and tropical rain forests. Yet on the opposite side to its beauty, the country is plagued by extreme, volatile temperatures, droughts, floods, earthquakes and poverty. It is the epitome of 3rd world. So why did I decide Peru was the next country to visit? Well I had the need to go and do something completely different to clear my mind and hit the reset button. So Peru was the perfect destination for me on every level.
Lima is a 5 hour flight from Sao Paulo and is considered the capital of the new world with almost 10 million people. It is a city where according to my tour book rain seldom falls, earthquakes are common and the sky is usually dull grey in colour. As I stepped out of the plane into warm weather surrounded by the unique looking, easily distinguishable Peruvian people I knew that the next two weeks were going to be interesting to say the least.
I met pretty Liz from the UK at the airport and we shared a transfer to the Lima Wasi hotel in the Mira Flores area. We soon learned we were going to be on the same tour and became instant roomies. On arrival at our hotel the two of us dumped our bag and headed out to explore the city for the afternoon.
The unusual blue sky and warm weather gave the average looking city more charm than it actually had. As we wondered the busy streets we observed the stumpy looking, unassuming Peruvian people going about their day. They are rather unfortunate looking generally I thought but have adorable looking children with droopy “give me a bigger tip miss tourist” type eyes. They really must hate Brazilian or Argentinean people who were right at the front of the hot gene pool cue. In all truth though, my attitude towards their distinguishable look did evolve by the end of the trip.
The country is Catholic and so it is rich in colourful cathedrals filled with gold statues, dark wooden benches and traditional flower arrangements. We explored the Plaza Mayo, founded in 1535. It was an attractive, colonial looking square at the heart of the old town which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. We visited the Archbishop Palace and the cathedral. We received an exceptionally long, historically rich guided tour given in a Spanish accent of broken English that neither of us could even begin to understand.
Our guide did say 2 interesting, completely unrelated thing on our 2 hours tour. Firstly she explained how we should react if an earthquake hit while we were doing the tour as this had happened many times before. Secondly she told us that they were currently having elections in Peru. They were now down to 2 candidates and needed to choose between a militant dictator and a corrupt businessman believed to be involved in bribery, as their new president. The people of Peru are fined if they do not vote and so the decision was who was the less of the two evils to vote for. I checked her opinion with a few other Peruvians along the way who all shared her views.
We decided that would be the first and last dull museum type experience for the trip and proceeded to get directions from some soldiers to the San Francisco Monastery. This monastery has been lovingly repaired from the damage caused by earthquakes over the last 4 centuries. We however found ourselves on another longwinded tour explaining the Christian relics, robes, statues and the especially uninteresting mosaic tiles. What was interesting though was the old library. It was filled with ancient books that smelt exactly how you’d expect a library which housed books from the very first printing press from the 15th century to smell.
Our tour ended in the Catacombs which were stacked with skulls and bones of 75 000 bodies from the colonial period. The bone filled crypts were less impressive than the Roman Catacombs but it was a great way to spend a Monday afternoon!
We ended our city tour in the main square by having our 3rd cheese and ham sandwich for the day while watching the president do a speech, as it was election time. There were guards everywhere and snipers on the building roofs around us. All happy to pose for photos which we found a tad bizarre. We headed back to the hotel to meet our Gap tour group that we would spend the next 12 days with. We had a fantastic group of 16 awesome people on our tour : 2 couples, 11 ladies and 1 guy all travelling alone. Our sweet tour guide was called Maruja and she coordinated our lives for the rest of the trip. After the briefing we took a walk down to a lovely restaurant named Mango’s overlooking the ocean with a lit cross on a hill in the distance. We were instructed to have a light dinner due to the high altitude we’d be travelling to the following day. I settled on an artichoke, basil and bacon soup as it sounded like the type of dish Megs & Chris would prepare.
Everybody took some time to meet each other and explained how they’d been preparing for months for our hike collecting practical things like leech proof hiking socks, water proof bags, disposable environmentally friendly mini toiletries, torches, woollen gloves, sleeping bags for minus 10 degrees conditions and water purification systems. I suddenly decided I probably should have listened to Ryan’s packing advice as I decided I didn’t have much to add to this conversations except when asked whether I wanted to go for a run with the girls in the morning to train I said I don’t run unless I am being chased and said I’d packed a bikini, plasters and mini fluffy pillow in preparation for my hike. They laughed until I confirmed I was actually being serious. I decided not to panic just yet at the look on their horrified faces and changed the topic to what type of touristy trinkets they thought we’d be able to buy along the way – a topic I felt way more comfortable discussing. Emma bragged about her torch which had a red light so as not to scare the animals we may encounter and so I pointed out that meant she’d have the ‘porn tent’ and it may only keep certain animals away. Needless to say I was thrilled when Emma and I got to share a tent on the trail.
Lima to Puno
We had the usual cheese and bread for breakfast and then just to do something completely different we headed to the airport. We flew over the 7 200km Andes Mountain range, the longest mountain chain in the world, stopping at Cusco before continuing to Juliaca airport. The turbulence flying between the Andes mountains was quite extreme and a few shrieks were let out loudly on our roller coaster plane ride. On arrival in Juliaca we were greeted by traditional pan pipe performers and then we travelled by a delayed bus for 2 hours to Puno. On route our bus had to travel off the road in some places due to rocks having been thrown in the road by miners who were on strike against foreigners taking their jobs. I found this all quite exciting and loved the adventure of it all.
We arrived in Puno, located 3 830m above sea level early evening. Puno is known for its traditional dancing and alpaca jerseys. Puno city is located in the SE corner of Peru on the shores of the magnificent Lake Titicaca and 126km from the border of Bolivia. Puno is not much of a destination itself but a necessary stop to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca. It is an agricultural, culturally rich region where they cultivate potatoes (there are 3000 types of potatoes in Peru), quinoa (a type of starch), cuy (guinea pig they eat!), alpaca and llama. On arrival in chilly Puno we put on all the clothing we owned and headed up to their main little street for a lovely dinner of spinach lasagne and ‘bear’ chicken, according to our menu. I started the shopping spree off by buying adorable fluffy blue alpaca gloves for a measly 8 Sol (R35). There was not a lot of shopping to be done in Peru and trust me I looked. The only things to buy were knitted hats and gloves on every corner, but you can only buy so many of those.
I woke up with a headache and sore neck for the 3rd day due to all the travelling I’d done but I decided to ignore this fact, took some drugs and carried on as normal. We had a usual breakfast of ham and cheese and then met our ‘limos’ to take us to the dock. We got onto tok-tok type vehicles where a covered seat is attached to the front of a bicycle with an enthusiastic Peruvian man peddling frantically at the back.
We took a speedy trip through town and raced each other to the docks, dodging pedestrians, bikes, other tok-toks and dogs along the way. At the dock we stocked up on rice, sugar, pasta, fruit and stationary to take to the family we were going to spend the night with. I joked & suggested we spice things up and take firecrackers, coffee and chocolate as by now those poor kids must have thousands of pencils from all the visiting tourists passing through their homes. I was obviously vetoed and our guide pointed out that the little communities do not have dentists and so we weren’t allowed to take any sweets for the children.
We set sail on the highest navigable lake in the world. Seldom seeing other boats and travelling so slowly that there was no chance of anyone getting motion sickness. We were now 3 827m above sea level and so everyone was battling with altitude sickness in some form or the other. I felt like I was hung over and my hands were shaking from the lack of oxygen. Breathing deeply was a bit challenging and getting up too quickly made us feel dizzy and wonky on our feet. A side effect of altitude sickness is that you’re supposed to lose your appetite but I felt constantly starving.
We travelled to Taquile Island where we spent most of the day. According to the oral Andean tradition, the founders of the Inca Empire emerged from Lake Titicaca, and this may be the reason why the Quechuas have inhabited these islands since then. Taquile is one of the Peruvian islands of the lake, located 35km from Puno. It has 2 500 residents of Quechua origin, language and way of life. Maintaining their rigid traditions and keeping apart from the influence of the evolved mainland culture. One of the most remarkable characteristics about their customs is the social organisation of the island, which is based on communitarian collectivism. The people have adapted to the harsh geographic and climate conditions in the area. Their copper skin withstands the inclemency of the glacial night and the strong, burning sun of the day. We went on an hour long hike (ok walk) to help us acclimatise in preparation for the Inca Trail.
I was yelling for oxygen after about 12 steps but once we were told lunch was waiting on the other side of the island we all picked up pace and hurried along. The island was silent and peaceful with only the odd bird and sheep to be heard in the distance.
We rested in the city square and were told about some of the local fascinating traditions. The women are only allowed to do the weaving or spinning as knitting is considered a man’s job. Yes really. They wear woven bands around their waists to support their backs while carrying heavy load and working on the land. When the men get married they get given a belt with their wives hair woven into it as a sign of ownership and belonging. The colours of their knitted hats indicate their relationship status. It’s like wearing your Facebook profile on your head. We all discussed this for ages as we imagined how much simpler life would be if we could walk into a pub and instantly know who was available, keen or not. Divorce is not accepted on the island and so couples live together before they get married. This can happen from the age of 15 and if they fall pregnant while living together then they are forced to get married. The intricacy of the man’s knitted hat is used as a way for women to select a husband, as the more detailed his knitted design, the more attention to detail he has and so the logic is that then the better husband he’ll be. This fascinating logic provided many entertaining discussions as you can imagine.
We wondered past the quiet and unassuming locals as we explored the island. The all sell exactly the same woven bracelets, finger puppets and knitted sheep. There are 20 restaurants on the island and they all sell exactly the same food. The only menu option is vegetable soup, trout or vegetable omelette followed by coco or ‘explosive’ tea. Our lunch was on a sunny hill overlooking the lake. It was beautiful and I remember someone saying it was the most exquisite food and setting he’s ever had a meal in and I couldn’t disagree at its serenity.
From there we had a 2 hour boat trip to Luquina on the peninsula of Lake Titicaca. We could see the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia in the distance and all wanted to go shopping there due to it being tax free. On arrival we were greeted by traditionally dressed Peruvians playing their pan pipes and loud, deep drums.
They marched us up a hill and it felt exactly like we were about to be sacrificed to their sun gods or roasted over a large potjie pot as we all walked in silence between their barley, potatoes and rice fields. This paranoia of mine was not shared by anyone else apparently. On arrival at their little community centre Gap had built for them their local soccer team was waiting to kick our butts, which they promptly did. We obviously blamed it on the altitude.
We were introduced to our host families for the nights local home stay and were taken to little homes scattered across the valley. Liz and I stayed with Antonio, his wife who had very few teeth, their 3 children and a grandmother. Melissa our little 13 year old sister, who had a contagious laugh, took us on a walk around their farm to meet their animals who were all living in horrific conditions. I contemplated joining Sal and Han on the vegetarian side of life for at least 12 minutes. The kids then led us up a path to a tranquil lookout point over Lake Titicaca. We watched the sun set as we played cards with the 3 kids. Nobody in the family spoke a word of English and so luckily my Portuguese helped us communicate some of the basics.
We spent the night in a tiny out room with 2 concrete beds and a table. I felt like I was spending the night in Diepsloot, with a view. We were thrilled to see we had an on suite bathroom, although we soon realised it was a false sense of security as there was no water connected and so none of it worked. Somehow mentally we panicked less just knowing it was there so the psychology of it all I found quite interesting. We spent the evening playing different card games until dinner arrived and the kids ate with us in our little room. We never got to go into the main home. Dinner consisted of potato soup, followed by rice, more potatoes and tea. All carbed-up we got dressed into their traditional outfits consisting of 4 layers of brightly coloured, thick material skirts, a jacket, sash, pompoms, plaited hair and a black bowler hat which they’d adopted from the Pommies many years ago and they’ve just never moved on from there.
We all headed to the community centre and suddenly I really wished I’d listened to Ryan as Liz and I had to walk across the farm fields in the pitch dark with only cell phone light for guidance. The locals must have thought we were mad as we giggled and shrieked away. We spent the evening being taught to do a very basic Peruvian group dance which was less than creative or flattering. You really can only twirl and show off your colourful skirt so many times before you get dizzy. It was loads of fun but still adjusting to the altitude we were all in bed exhausted by 21:30. Roomie Liz was on spider killing duty which she had to do 6 times under my pedantic watch. To my dismay as nobody else found a single bug in their rooms. I slept under 6 heavy llama blankets concentrating to keep my mouth shut as I was convinced I was going to swallow a spider as the ones we’d found were all near my bed – obviously.
We awoke to another fresh, beautiful day with blue skies and an icy wind. We brushed our teeth with our bottled water and ate boiled eggs and fritters with our host dad who didn’t have much to say except smile and ask in Spanish “why I am not a negro if I come from Africa.”
It was an awesome stay and something very different to do. These people truly have nothing, work very hard and live exceedingly difficult lives under extreme conditions. This was just further reinforced when we saw the kids walking 3km to school and our host dad taking a bath in a tiny basin of cold water in the cold garden before heading off to do his farm work. Phenomenal experience, I pray never to have to repeat. We said farewell and got back on our boat all sharing our stories about our host families.
It was a two hour cruise on the tranquil lake without another boat in sight on route to Uros, the famous floating islands. By the time we arrived we’d all stripped down out of our winter coats and hiking boots and into our sun bathing gear. We were greeted by song and warmly welcomed to the little islands by the local community. Our guide gave us the run down about how people had run away in times of political unrest and to escape paying steep taxes. As water started to rise they began to layer reeds and tie them together. They anchored them to avoid waking up 5km away from where they started. These little communities now live on these reed islands, replacing the reed floor every 15 days before the water starts to seep through. They live on fish from the lake, catch the wild birds and eat their eggs. A “supermarket” boat came past selling a few basics from the main land like potatoes, fruit and my favourite – cellphone recharge vouchers. Sorry Nix, no MTN in Peru. Their market is dominated by Claro.
We saw the little reed huts with 1 bedroom where the mom, dad & 3 kids all slept together in 1 reed bed. A few huts had solar panels which meant someone in that community might have TV. There were floating medical islands, primary and craft school villages. Due to the co-op nature of the islands they rotate the visiting of the tourists to each of their islands so that everyone can have a chance to see their handmade goods of woven cloth, mini reed boats, mobiles for kids and colourful jewellery. We loved the uniqueness of the islands, the friendliness of the people and the preserved tradition. We took a large boat made completely of reeds between islands for 5 Sol drinking Inca Cola along the way. After the French Canadian Sarah took a swim in the icy water we had a usual lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches before returning to Puno. My mom spent a year of her life backpacking through South America more than 30 years ago and when comparing notes it seems that Uros has not lost its charm but is a lot more commercial now as tourist flock to see it.
My mom remember locals throwing stones at them to try to chase foreigners away but now we were welcomed with song and on departure we were waved off with a chorus of ladies saying “asta levista baby”. Although I loved the novelty and culturally rich experience of Lake Titicaca I did find it touristy as this was now one of the main forms of income for these communities. Kids often had their arms outstretched when they saw us and too many people wore their traditional dress in certain areas for it to feel genuine and not on show.
Back in Puno we had a free afternoon. Most of our group headed to the Coco Museum, Internet cafe or to the pub. Not allowing my poor roomie a moments rest I dragged Liz off on a tour to Sillustani Archaeological Site dating back to 200BC. The guide was brilliant and made the pile of oversized rocks we were staring at really come to life. He told us that these massive burial chambers were created for nobility. When the man died his organs were removed and replaced with a variety of herbs to preserve his body. For the next 7 days people from around the land would come to visit the body and pay their final respects by leaving food, animals, jewellery and in some cases slaves. After the 7 days they placed the body into the foetal position by cutting their tenants. They were then mummified and placed in layers of high quality woven cloths. They are placed in the giant bricked burial chambers shaped like a uterus so that they ‘leave’ the world as they’d ‘arrived’. My favourite part was that they were often buried with their jewels, their wives and a few slaves who were all sacrificed so that when they awoke in the next life they’d have everything they needed with them. For this reason slaves and women would take good care of their masters as his death would mean their own. I left there being pretty glad I am single and living 2211 years later. I guess the concept of wife is not quite what it used to be, thank goodness!
The trip around these funerary towers was beautiful as there was a vast lake in the distance on one side and llama’s grazing on the other. On the way back to our hotel in Puno we stopped at a local familys’ tiny stone home. They had a little outside kitchen and a back yard of future dinners of llama, alpaca, cuy, chicken and pigs. We took photos with their ‘dinner’, bought some grey alpaca gloves and avoided being spat at by their llama, but only just.
Back in Puno we waited in a busy local restaurant for 2 hours for our dinner to arrive. Chereen and I shared alpaca with coco leaves which was tasty. We drank vinho ceinte (mulled wine) and the best hot chocolate ever. The guys headed to the pub but by now we were quite expectant of our early nights as we were still acclimatising.
Puno to Cusco by bus
We set off early in the morning on our 7 hour luxury public bus trip. It was a double decker bus on bumpy, windy roads that seemed to keep climbing through the Andes. We passed many villages, snow-capped mountains, green valleys, flowing rivers and farmers herding llamas. Cusco means ‘navel’ in Quechua, because the Incas considered the city the centre or source of their universe. It is 900m higher than Machu Picchu, was founded around the year 1250 by the Incas. Their splendour existed in the city for almost 100 years until the Spanish conquerors arrived. During this period they built a vast multinational state, conquering thousands of kilometres and hundreds of local kingdoms. They reached a great level of development with advancements in art, architecture and social organisation. Today it’s a beautiful city riddled with contrasts between the indigenous styles and the modern western world. We arrived in Cusco late afternoon. Liz, Rob and I took a walk around the city and went to the main market consisting of rows of vendors all selling identical knitted hats, gloves, scarves, ‘llamasutro’ t-shirts, carved bowls and woven fabrics.
That evening we had our daunting briefing on the Inca Trail. It left us all terrified and suddenly the task ahead of us seemed far too real for my liking. Our guide kept saying horrific things like ‘waking at 4am’, ‘extreme temperatures’, ‘dead woman’s pass’, ‘8 hours hiking a day’ & ‘3kg’s of luggage’. Somehow knowing the guide was carrying oxygen did not comfort me but wonder WTF I was doing when I could have chosen a beach holiday! Liz left the briefing in tears and I felt extremely anxious for the challenge ahead of us. What scared me the most not being able to shower for 3 nights as I found the idea of being dirty far scarier than the idea of hiking through the Andes at extreme temperatures in the rain, apparently.
Liz and I skipped dinner with the group and treated ourselves to potentially our ‘last supper’ at a romantic restaurant on a softly lit balcony overlooking the main Cusco square, Plaza se Mayo. I had an orange juice, honey and banana shake with chicken rolled with asparagus in parma ham and some form of potatoes. We returned to the frenzy of packing, weighing our tiny duffel bags repeatedly to make sure they were not more than 3kg’s. Emma my roomie for the trail played an effective Hitler role and tossed out half my bag as apparent 3 types of foot cream, enough snacks for 6 weeks and 8 shirts were supposedly unnecessary. Luckily she in time proved to be right and after having to carry so much on the trail I was thrilled that we had agreed to even share toothpaste and bug spray.
Cusco to Ollantaytambo
We set off early in the morning on a bus tour of the Sacred Valley, along the Urubamba River, visiting some local villages and Inca ruin sites along the way. We were told about the various ancient civilizations with their gold temples and superior agricultural techniques. I loved the tiny stone towns, markets and being outdoors far more than the long-winded, history-filled mostly guessing about these ancient times, as so little is factually known about them. Our guide Demas was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He takes groups on the Inca Trail up to 4 times a month so he was a tad more fit than the rest of us. Having gotten to know each other quite well now I took a small amount of comfort in realising I was not the least fit or most accident prone person on the tour.
My favourite village we visited in Peru was called something like Pisac. It was tiny and we only stopped there for an hour to explore their massive market underneath a towering tree. There was a snow capped mountain in the distance, the people were authentic and not putting on a show for the tourists, we ate chicken pies we found in a tiny back cobble stone street and explored the interesting local stores. This was the first town that made me feel how I’d expected and wanted Peru to feel. It was raw, calm, authentic and beautifully textured.
After an interesting buffet lunch we arrived at the starting point of the Inca Trail, Ollantaytambo. Two words form its name : Ollanta, the name of an Inca soldier who fell in love with an Inca princess and Tambo, meaning places of rest. This was an equally adorable town in a valley at the base of a large range of mountains in between Inca ruins. After several days of perfect weather it now started to drizzle. The guide took us up to a ruin, with far too many stairs for my linking, and after 6 minutes I wondered how on earth I was going to cope over the next 4 days. The view from the top was awesome and overlooked the village and ruins in the distance. My brave group decided to do a walk up to the other ruins which I happily skipped and spent the afternoon wondering through the village by myself. I loved the peace and thought of not having to hike. I spent a few hours in the main square at a little cafe listening to the locals and watching the tourist busses pouring into this tiny town. I sat drinking hot chocolate and eating caramel pancakes overlooking the awesome view, with the odd glimpse of my group up on the mountain. It was great to finally spend some time by myself as that’s what I’d gone to Peru for after all. I sat writing in my journal all afternoon until it was too cold and dark to continue. I skipped dinner with my group and savoured the last night we had in the hotel having a hot shower, painting my nails and blow drying my hair. It was as if I thought I was leaving to go to a Vietnamese jail for 617 years the way I was savouring all our little luxuries we take for granted every day. So silly now in retrospect.
Inca Trail Day 1
Mentally prepared and acclimatised we awoke early feeling positive, excited, happy and energetic. Ready for our adventure to begin we took a 45 minute bus trip and were one of the first groups to start the trail. After showing our permits we crossed a little bridge at the start of the 50km hike. We spent the day walking along a well-trodden path with several steep climbs and out of breath moments. We spent most of the day climbing upwards while dodging rocks & donkey poo. We stopped for lunch and had a 3 course meal prepared by our porters which was the tastiest meal with the best service any of us had yet experienced in Peru.
After lunch we hiked for another 1.5 hours in the soft rain wearing our ponchos. The weather had changed dramatically from hot sunny skies to windy to rain in a matter of minutes. As we hiked we could see the dreaded and infamous Dead Woman’s Pass in the far distance but we all just chose to focus on staying alive today rather than worry about how we’d die tomorrow. Taking one step at a time we eventually arrived at our campsite in the middle of nowhere. We had made good time and somehow even managed to beat some of our porters – this was the first and last time that would happen on our hike. We were quite proud of ourselves as the guide assured us we’d made record time and so he was now certain we’d all survive the next day, considered to be by far the worst stretch of the hike.
We all stayed in nifty little red 2 man tents. I shared a tent with Emma who is SO interesting and ridiculously cool. She is a heavy metal loving Pommie who told the best stories. We had hired mattresses and ground sheets, which, along with our clothes, were carried each day by the porters. Whenever we arrived at camp our tents would be up, meals would be ready and our bags were already in our tents. Although very basic, the trail was a lot more comfortable than I’d expected which was more than a pleasant surprise. At the end of each days hike our porters would bring us buckets of hot water and roomie Emma and I would have a lovely little bath with exfoliating face wash, wet wipes, our micro absorbent towels and disposable, expanding face clothes. The whole organised daily process was quite fun and I never felt dirty on the trail.
Night 1 our campsite was peaceful with only the sounds of birds chirping (no mom I don’t know what kind), the river flowing and my group of 10 laughing. We ate delicious food, had great conversation and enjoyed dressing up in our llama wool beanies, leg warmers and gloves. At 5pm we were given coco or cinnamon tea, popcorn and played uno. Dinner consisted of soup for starters followed by a Peruvian chicken dish. After dinner we all had an early night as our wake up calls were set for 5am. It wasn’t a bad night’s sleep considering it was in a tent on a slant in a sleeping bag. I did wake up at one point with my nose touching the side of the tent and so shuffled back closer to roomie. We awoke before sunrise and could hear the frogs, birds and river nearby.
Inca Trail Day 2
The super human porters woke us up at 5am on the dot with sweet hot coco tea. After a breakfast of porridge, hot chocolate and vegetable omelettes they folded up our tents in the rain and ran ahead of us in their sandals to set up for our hot 3 course lunch. After which they’d run ahead to set up our tents and prepare dinner. Pure brilliance!
They must chuckle to themselves every day at the useless fat tourists traipsing up the hill as they seem to take no strain as they floated on by us each carrying 20kg of our luggage. The youngest porter was 20 and the oldest was a fit 57 years old.
We’d all awoken quite nervous as we’d been told that day 2 was the worst and most intense day with 8 hours of hiking before lunch and the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass to get through. We set off in the rain walking uphill as we needed to climb an additional 2000m taking us to a height of 4 250m. The walk was pretty and through a forest for the first few hours. I really battled with the climb and fell back to a more comfortable sloth pace trying to keep my heart beat down. I paused every few steps to catch my breath and tried to take in the view in between my hyperventilation. We hiked in the soft rain and through the low clouds, which annoyingly kept us company for most of the day. The scenery changed every few minutes and the airy clouds between the mountains were truly beautiful. I arrived at the first official stop exhausted with all kinds of pains, just thrilled to be able to sit on a wet rock for 10 minutes. 2 of the girls were in tears and it was clear that everyone was taking strain.
We braced ourselves for the hours of torture that lay ahead. I put my ear phones in, a smile on my face, ate some of the lovely snacks we’d been provided with, took a few deep breaths and decided to rather focus on the breath-taking view ahead. I set off mid pack and walked at my own pace so I could still enjoy the beauty around me and take it in. Seeming as I was not hiking with my dad, I enjoyed not needing to run through this experience. Taylor Swift kept me company for the next few hours and supposedly the most difficult part of the trail turned out to be my favourite. Knowing I was in the Andes and not running to a meeting made me SOOOO happy. I eventually reached the top of the stone path to see my group cheering me on and was greeted with high 5’s once I reached the top. It was an awesome sense of achievement and I felt really happy and energetic which was a surprise as we’d been told that we’d probably feel faint, have terrible headaches and possibly need oxygen at such a high altitude.
The top presented many surprised as I skipped and jumped around. Rob took us to see the view from the top of another peak where we placed rocks on a pile to celebrate the highest we’d ever been.
We’d been told by the guide to keep walking once we reached the top as it was so cold. However our group was so great that we all waited for everyone to make it, cheering everyone on despite the icy wind and swirling clouds. We realised how special it was to share such an experience will lovely, like-minded people who all got on so well.
After a few team photos we had another 2 hour hike down the pass to our campsite for the night. I much preferred the slower hike down and had great company. On arrival at our campsite our tents were up and lunch was ready. We had one of our multi-step bucket baths and then a lovely, well deserved nap. We awoke with a few aches and pains but feeling great considering what we’d put our bodies through. I think just as stiffness even thought of setting in we got going again and being so active all the time kept any thought of muscles playing up away.
Inca Trail Day 3
We were awoken to the now familiar sound of our efficient porters bringing us hot water and coco tea at 5am. Emma and I awoke laughing and freezing cold. The sleeping bags were meant to keep us warm at temperatures of minus 10 degrees but I’d frozen all night long, even though I’d slept in leggings, alpaca wool gloves and hat. At breakfast we wished Canadian Elizabeth a happy 26th birthday and we had pancakes with caramel smiley faces to celebrate. If I’d left SA knowing I’d awake to caramel pancakes I would have done the trail years before! We all sang a very excited happy birthday and then set off on our 8 hour, 16km hike through the steep Andes to explore forests, spot orchid found only found in that region, see snow-capped mountains and pass through a few Inca sites along the way.
The weather was not great. It was cold and we spent most of the day walking in the clouds cutting down our visibility dramatically. By lunch time we’d walked 11km my hair was dripping wet from the mist. At lunch time we were officially introduced to the porters and each of us had to tell them whether we were single or not. Liz was presented with a magnificent iced birthday cake and we spent most of the meal trying to figure out how the hell they’d baked it out in the wild with no oven.
That afternoon I was dragged up an extra Inca site I’d hoped to skip to watch the clouds whisk through the valley changing every few moments. We had a good laugh as we watched an entertaining Chinese guy who thought everything he saw was exceptionally thrilling. After that we tacked the never ending 3 000 large, rocky steps down taking much concentration not to topple over a cliff. I heard a fascinating story about an Alchadian Alpaca which was most entertaining. We eventually arrived in the final camp, limping as my knee was tired of the abuse I’d given it. This was a VIP campsite and if you were happy to cue, which we did for over an hour, then a hot shower and a cold beer was the reward. The shower was less than hygienic and I stood on top of a bench to dry myself as I couldn’t bare the idea of touching the floor. That evening our guide took us for an early evening walk to a nearby site. The site was beautiful and overlooked a river and the mountains. Our group were all in good spirits, especially after the treat of a shower and a few beers. I got cellphone reception for the 1st time and read that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
Although I’d been thrilled to finally have contact with the world, it had also been so awesome to have been with no link to the outside world. Coming into camp we saw telephone lines which made me feel anxious as it signalled that our trip was almost over and then it would be back to the bustle of our lives.
After dinner I did a thank you speech to our porters and guides which made us all feel quite emotional as we’d all grown remarkably close over the last few days together. We spent the evening playing cards, feeding each other M&M’s and laughing. This campsite was the final stop over so all the different groups on the trail stayed at the same camp. We were by this point quite clicky and stuck together. We had an early night in our now homely slanted tent and we all went to sleep a little sad that the following day our adventures on the trail would end.
Inca Trail Day 4
There was commotion in our campsite from 3am and we were eventually summoned out of our tents at 4am. We all rushed around in an unawake daze like little ants, filling up water bottles, preparing duffel bags and gulping down breakfast. We set off to get in cue long before the gate even opened at 5:30. It felt quite ridiculous yet exciting to be cuing all rearing to go in the dark, armed with head lamps, back packs and walking sticks. Eventually the gate opened shortly after 5:30 with many people already ahead of us who’d been in the cue since 4am. We were all hoping to get to the Sun Gate in time for sunrise over Machu Picchu.
The pace of our trail changed dramatically as now it was as though we were in a race. We sped through the forest on a narrow path between steep cliff faces. There was no time to take in any of our surroundings and no point either as we were walking in thick mist. We raced up the ‘Gringo Killer’ stairs as they’re known, and did not dare stop for a water break. After the most magnificent 4 day hike, we arrived at the Sun Gate, all buzzing with excitement and panting with exhaustion. Only to see… clouds. It was the most underwhelming and disappointing non reveal imaginable. We were left with our imaginations to fill in the gaps of the view we were supposed to be seeing. Realising I could still be in bed, not have had to run through the beautiful forest, still be in bed, not have had to risk falling off the narrow path and still be in bed, made me considerably cynical at this point! There was nothing appealing about this cold, damp blanket of white.
This disappointment continued for the next hour as we walked down the final part of our trail and I finally arrived at Machu Picchu limping from an injured knee. I’d always believed the best and only real way to discover Machu Picchu was to do the hike but this view point dramatically altered as I watched streams of freshly showered tourists walk past me who had just caught the train in. On arrival at Machu Picchu I could have tripped over it, as the cloud cover was still thick.
We exited the World Heritage Site and made our way, without a single sighting of Machu Picchu, to the little coffee shop. Although disappointed our spirits were still high as the biggest challenge which most of us had ever been brave enough to undertake, had just been achieved. The rest of the group who we’d left behind in Cusco arrived and it was like we were being reunited with a child who had been missing for several years judging by the mass hysteria and excitement which unveiled. Before settling into some fantastic hot chocolate to warm us up we all made a trip to a real bathroom. This everyday task was literally a highlight of our trip. There were shrieks of horror as we saw ourselves in the mirror for the first time in days and within seconds makeup appeared from dirty back packs. We exited ready to take on the world.
By this point the clouds has started to dissipate and so we headed back up to finally see the fabled city, Machu Picchu. As we came around the corner, there it finally was. I got an instant smile on my face and felt myself exhale. Machu Picchu, meaning ‘Old Peak’ is huge. No picture can ever do its size and grandeur justice.
It was impossible to believe it had been completely hidden just moments before. All we wanted to do was wonder around and explore but Dimas our guide tortured us with a 2 hour long guided tour which nobody could focus on. As he spoke, saying interesting things I am sure, the clouds continued to reveal more and more of this 7th wonder of the world, decreasing our attention spans for a detailed history lesson considerably. We did learn that this archaeological complex remained hidden behind the mist of a humid forest of vegetation until American explorer Hiram Bingham made public the finding of the ruins in 1911. It was believed to be a sacred city where the chosen resided, probably the Inca nobility, craftsmen, servants, priests and the mamaconas or virgins chosen to dedicate their lives to the sun god. It was a city of streets, aqueducts where crystal clear water still runs, of liturgical fountains and walkways. The fate of the city remains unknown as the difficult access to the area made it secure and the scenario around it gave the enigmatic character it still has today.
Excavations have only added to the mystery surrounding this city. The skeletons of 173 people were found, 150 of which were women. No gold objects were discovered. At the tomb of the high priestess the remains of a woman and a small dog were found with some ceramic objects, brooches and woollen clothing. The woman had suffered from syphilis. The only entrance to the city in ancient times was the narrow doorway at the Southwest section of the citadel.
The city’s cultivated land was farmed on narrow terraces on the steep slopes of the mountain top and the thousands of steps connecting them have survived for centuries. The city is divided into sections : the cemetery, jails, small dwellings and temples. The Temple of the Three Windows allows sunlight to pass through its windows to the Sacred Plaza. Higher up is the astronomical observatory and Intiwatana, a curiously shaped stone believed to have been a solar clock used to plan seasonal activities and religious ceremonies.
Some of the buildings in Machu Picchu were two stories high, originally topped with sharply peaked straw roofs. What amazes architects today is the precision with which building stones were cut and assembled.
By the time our guide allowed us to finally go explore the clouds had all disappeared and we were left with a sunny blue sky. I think that one of the main contributing factors to the hype of Machu Picchu is the setting. Besides Machu Picchu being vast and elaborate, it is situated in a majestic setting which completes the magic. It is surrounded by tree filled, green mountains, the raging Urubamba River and various Inca ruins as far as the eye can see.
There is no official limit to how many people can visit the Machu Picchu site in a day and this is something UNESCO are wanting to start limiting going forward. This fact had concerned me initially as I’d read it may be over crowded with the usual Chinese & American tourists. However I found the vastness of the site made it feel uncluttered and seldom did I have to wait for people to move to get a clear photo. I found Machu Picchu more of a relaxing, visually impressive place than a spiritual place. Although I could easily see why people often feel it is.
After our tour and a quick explore Liz, Nikki, Rob & I decided to be ridiculous and retrace our steps back to Sun Gate. The rest of our group decided we were mad and they decided to explore, rest and head down to the village for some lunch and beer. Liz and Nikki made it half way satisfied with their achievement and their view of Machu Picchu. Rob and I were on a mission and after taking some of Emma’s fantastic drugs for my knee I felt no pain and we ran up the mountain with the sun now beating down on us and our dirty back packs. Out of breath, panting, dripping in perspiration, exhausted, stiff, dirty, happy, excited and satisfied we arrived back at our starting point, Sun Gate.
We finally saw the splendour we’d missed a few hours before and decided the return trip was completely worth it. We sat eating our cheese sandwiches chatting to the other tourists, watching the bus meander up the mountain to the Machu Picchu entrance and admiring the picturesque view. The mountain range I found as impressive as the Inca site in the distance. We took tons of silly photos and enjoyed the setting with a happy and youthful energy surrounding us. We braced the hike down for the second time that day and eventually flopped down on a little terrace, took off our shoes, lay in the sun resting and getting a tan while taking it all in. We were entertained by the llama mating habits and watching the tourists wonder calmly around the site with their noses in guide books. Our friends James & Marge joined us and announced they’d just gotten engaged. I jumped up and downs and acted more excited that the two of them put together and was thrilled to take their first “official” engaged photo.
I could have sat there all week and not moved, but eventually it was time to head back down to the little town where we were catching the train. We got our passports stamped when exiting Machu Picchu and I felt really sad to be leaving it and knowing this was now ticked off on my list. Sometimes the excitement of looking forward to something and the anticipation of experiencing it far surpasses the achievement of accomplishing it.
We caught a bus trip down and crossed our fingers we’d make it to the bottom of the mountain alive as we almost had a few head on collisions on the steep path. In the village we ate the well-known Peruvian dish called Ceviche which is raw fish soaked in lemon juice. Quite a different, pleasant at first but then overwhelming, acquired taste. We caught a 2 hour train ride to Ollyantaytambo and then a 1.5 hour bus trip back to Cusco. Luckily the company was great and so the afternoon of travelling went quickly. That evening we went to a lovely restaurant where we ate the best burgers imaginable and celebrated surviving the Inca Trail and the engagement with several cocktails.
Most of our group booked to go on adventurous activities like horse riding, cycling or paragliding. Having decided I had done more than enough athletic exercise to last at least 18 months I skipped anything that sounded like work and decided to rather stay and explore Cusco city at leisure instead.
Rob and I had by this point become great friends and so it was very cute when he asked me to go on a date with him. When I stopped giggling I realised he was being serious. So we went out with his tour book to explore the city and then after realising neither of us had eaten by almost lunch time we decided to turn it into a lunch time date. He insisted we end our city tour to return to the hotel where he googled the address of a restaurant he’d seen on some travel programme. This effort alone impressed me. We made our way across town to the Fallen Angel restaurant for lunch. Having not eaten we ordered quickly along with a selection of colourful cocktails – as you do on a brunch time date. While sipping on his green apple martini commenting on how over the top, completely strange the décor was, Rob suddenly realised to his horror and my complete amusement that we were at a gay restaurant. Now there would have been nothing wrong with this, except only realising it mid banana and mango daiquiri unexpectedly was apparently reason for him to break out into a panic attack and for me to laugh until I almost cried. A few cocktails and a tasty lunch later we left pickled at midday and still laughing. It was the funniest, most ridiculous and fun first date I have ever been on.
I now took over as tour guide leader, throwing our tour book away shortly afterwards. We explored the ancient city of Cusco appreciating the churches, markets, narrow roads, humble people and cobble stone roads. It is a busy yet calm, tourist saturated city. We fell in love with it and loved every moment of our uncalculated and unplanned explorations. We went into the Inca Museum as we decided we better learn something about this nation after travelling all the way to Peru. Something I’d highly recommend after a few drinks as the clay pots, tiny gold statues and random rocks on display all seemed far more exciting.
What took our friend Sarah 3 hours to explore took us 6 minutes as we literally ran through the museum pausing only to look at the mummies. The museum was disappointing as most of the artefacts of any real value sit at Yale University as many of the sites were discovered by their explores. This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the official discovery of the lost city of Machu Picchu and during this celebration many artefacts are expected to be returned to their home in Peru.
We eventually found the famous 12 sided stone in a narrow pedestrian alley and took random funny pictures with it. We got moaned at by the policeman who asked us to please not lick it. This famous 12 sided carved stone is famous for its size, workmanship and because it is found on Eery bottle of Cusquena beer. We had such a comical afternoon doing silly things like infiltrating Chinese tourist groups, high fiving sign posts, random poses everywhere, property shopping, street food eating and a photo shoot with random builders. It was one of my favourite afternoons with such carefree, innocent silly fun that I am sure I will always smile whenever I think back to exploring Cusco.
That evening the group went for a farewell dinner. We were taught how to make Pisco Sours which is anything but a mild and pleasant drink. It’s like tequila with egg yolk as a long drink. Yuk but effective. I ordered Alpacca as my final meal and then we ordered Cuy (yes that’s adorable guinea pig). There are two ways to cook Cuy in Peru – stuffed with herbs and roasted or fried where it is covered in ground corn and fried in oil with a stone on top to ensure the meat get cooked all the way through. It was a horrific mental experience but in truth I thought it tasted great. Most of our group ran away when it arrived at our table so we had much fun terrorising them with our dinner. After dinner we went to a Peruvian night club, which played music like the Spice Girls.
After a few Pisco Sours we all realised we still remembered the words to this music from the ark and had such a fun evening. I ended up on the bar with our tour guide Maruja – still not quite sure how. Rob asked if we could date for the last 6 hours of our tour which at 3am I thought was a great idea and so we walked home in the middle of the night calling each other endearing terms just for fun. After 1.5 hours sleep I woke my poor roomie Liz up for the 2nd night in the row. The 2 of us said sad farewells to everyone and we headed to the airport. The rest of our tour group continued to the Amazon while we took 3 delayed flights and a lot of hours to finally get home.
On arrival in SA with my new manicure, pedicure and blow waved hair (the flight delays were long and there was a spa so we used the time effectively!) I was fetched by my mom. She dropped me off at home and my friends all streamed to my house and after 3 bottles of wine they convinced me to go to visit other friends after 2 days of no sleep. (hopefully my mom has stopped reading by now).
It took me a long time to settle back into regular life, adjust to our time zone and consolidate all the thoughts I’d had over my 3 weeks spend in Brazil and Peru. Brazil was where I found a renewal in my spirit and happiness flooded my eyes every moment of everyday. Peru was where my mind rejuvenated and my heart felt fresh. I was happy to return to the luxuries in my life back in SA and excited for the next adventure I would no doubt be planning soon enough. Thank you Lord for the blessed life I am afforded.
“Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to the eternal fusion with the cosmos; where we feel our fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America. A resting place of butterflies in the epicentre of the great circle of life. One more miracle”