Monday, April 18, 2011

Peru Pt. 3- Inca-riffic!

Off to Cusco, the center of the Incan empire/the "navel of the earth", and the continents oldest conti- nuously inhabited city.  Good reason, it is super charming! 

It must have been quite a sight back in the day when it was nearly covered in gold, but that was all plundered by Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors.

Before leaving on my trek to Machu Picchu I had to take care of a few errands and plan the rest of my trip, which is rapidly coming to an end.

In the evening I took a stroll around the beautiful town, walking to the Plaza de Armas which was full of activity as the lights lit up the churches, colonial buildings and surrounding hills.  It really is a perfect little town.

The evening was capped off with a lovely chat with Alejandro, a lovely Bolivian bartender at The Lost City, who made me yummy popcorn and a hamburger (which I haven't had in ages!).  No surprise I ended up staying way longer than anticipated.

I had a couple of days before leaving on the Inca Trail to explore town and acclimatize (Cusco is at 3326m) since I lost it after being at sea level for weeks. 

I headed out for an abridged walking tour of Cusco, starting at Mercado San Pedro which was pretty quiet given it was a Domingo.  For once Domingo (Sunday) worked out--- all those churches that are normally closed or charge admission are free when you sneak in during services (and there are a lot of them)!

Randomly outside the market I met Richard from Lancaster, PA who is embarking on a round-the-world trip.  He ended up joining me for the pseudo tour along the cobble stone streets and alleys (originally made for llama traffic), stopping at the plazas and churches, including the Cathedral and the Jesuit's Inglesia de La Compania de Jesus where we had a private tour by someone with a Russian name (he pointed it out as odd).

Oddly, we thought we were entering that church, but instead ended up on the edge of a building overlooking the square- this can not possibly be sanctioned by any authority! It was cool-- a good bird's eye view of the Plaza de Armas.

The Cathedral, started in 1559 on the site of Viracocha Inca's palace using stones pilfered from nearby Sacsaywaman, dominates the square.  Oddly the Cathedral is joined to two smaller churches on either side; Inglesia del Triunfo to the right is reportedly Cusco's oldest.

Seriously this city has a church on every corner--- why did the Jesuits, Dominicans, La Merced and Franciscans all need their own places?

Since yet another star gazing tour was cancelled, I was able to enjoy some tapas at Cicciolina with Richard-- I really think I may be able to get out of Cusco without eating any more rice- yay! :-)  

On the way there I couldn't help holding the baby alpaca the local woman shoved in my arms--  the locals here are certainly enter- prising. One boy chatted me up on the Cathedral steps and I was so excited I could converse with him in Spanish and answer his question of "what is my favorite animal."  I am now the proud owner of a penguin finger puppet (penguins aren't even my favorite, I just knew how to say it in Spanish!)

We also happened upon Qorikancha by the light of the full moon.  These Inca ruins now form the base of Ingesia de Santo Domingo, but were once the richest temple in the empire--- covered in 700 solid-gold sheets, each weighing 2kg.  Plus there were gold statues, alters, etc.  Again, damn Spaniards--- within months the temple had been looted and all the gold melted down.

A new Cocho Museum just opened and offers chocolate making class, so why not- I will need snacks for my trek.  Oddly an American girl from Vermont was the instructor and explained how and where the bean grows, had us roasting, peeling, crushing and finally creating our yummy concoctions with all sorts of add ins (next time less of the spicy chilies).

Randomly afterwards I ran into the Aussies from Pichilemu, Val and Ryan, and had lunch at a charity restaurant whose menus are storybooks and chairs occupied by stuffed animals (sounds cheesy, but was actually kinda cute and could be a big hit in Brooklyn!).  Instead of finishing my walking tour and wandering around San Blas I spent the rest of the day watching rugby.

5am came really early for my pickup for the Inca Trail.  Ouch! The couple hour nap on the bus wasn't quite enough, good thing I only have 4 days until another proper bed.

The next 43km from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu would be spent trekking with 13 others, our SAS guides Freddy and Jose and 21 amazing porters and cooks---- only a zillion steps and three high Andean mountain passes in our way.

Despite it being the end of rainy season, the weather was mostly good (it poured down while we were sleeping) and we stopped a lot on the way to hear about the Incas and the sites.

We didn't expect much, but our first glimpse at the porters in action was impressive.  There were kitchen and dining tents where we enjoyed delicious soup and a chicken curry.  These guys have to drag all this stuff up on their backs- amazing!

In Nepal it was the Yaks, on the Inca Trail you have to watch out for the Alpacas-- much faster than you would think.

After a few hours uphill we arrived at camp and added more clothes as the temperature quickly started to drop. It was early to bed (with Calum, my super tall Scottish tentmate who didn't really fit in the tiny tents) since we were all tired from the early start.

It was very early as we were woken to coca tea and Freddy's “Hola Chicoss." Ready for day 2, the dreaded hardest day.

Before leaving we met all the porters and learned what they each carry.  Egg man- huh!  Decided I wouldn't want to be the guy that carries the gas tank.  Freddy told me waiter was really the best gig.

Day 2 is pretty much all uphill and steep downhill, crossing two mountain peaks.  After probably 2 1/2 hours up you reach the first peak known as Dead Woman’s Pass-- wow that last 10 minutes was a killer!  This is the highest point of the trek at 4,198m.  The next 1 ½ hours downhill was hard on the knees.

After lunch it was more uphill, passing the ruin of Runkurakay where we had a long lesson in the rain- I can't tell you anything about it since I just wanted to be somewhere warm and dry.  It reportedly has good views.

One more steep ascent and descent over the next several hours and alas at camp on the eastern Amazon slope where things are a lot lusher.

That night the hot toddies led to some loud drinking games which didn't really do it for me, thankfully I had a dry tent to escape to.
Part of the reason we hiked over both passes on day 2 was to reach the cloud forest before it got totally fogged in.  In was certainly a stunning view upon leaving the tent, but by the time the two Germans we waited for arrived (and then refused to leave with us--- it did not make them popular) things were pretty well fogged in. Grand views of the Rio Urubamba valley- no!  The ruin of Phuyupatamarka and its beautiful ceremonial baths- sorta.  Hundreds more Inca steps downhill- most definitely. :-(

It did clear up just in time for us to visit the terraces of Intipata before arriving at camp 3 for lunch and our first shower in days.  Ahhhhh!

Nearby was Winay Wayna, named for the orchid that grows here year-round.  It was probably the best Inca site we had seen so far and a good warm up to Machu Picchu the next morning.

Our final dinner was quite nice as we said goodbye to the porters. These guys really could not do enough for you and always had a smile on their face.  They even baked us a cake---god knows how they managed that given the facilities.  I do love my postre!

The 330am wake up call was much less enjoyable.  In order to be among the first to Machu Picchu you have to get in line around 430am, sitting on a poncho on the cold ground, to be ready to practically run to the Sun Gate when the entrance opens at 6am.

I personally hated this part since it really was a very quick one hour walk to Intipunku, the Sun Gate (having to pee the whole time), but had no real problem with the “gringo killer” at the end.

I will say, seeing the sun come up while above the clouds was pretty cool. 

But the real event was from the Sun Gate as we watched the clouds lift and caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, literally in the middle of nowhere. Pretty amazing!

About 45 minutes more downhill and we were finally there.  4 days and 43km later, in rain, uphill and down, it was all worth it.

Machu Picchu is an ancient city that was never found by the Spaniards and lost until American Hiram Bingham found it in 1911. Since there are no records, no one really knows what it was used for but speculate it was a trade nexus between the Amazon and highlands and a ceremonial center.

Of course we needed a team photo, but “the Germans aren’t coming” since they never really caught up. We were completely exhausted, but the proper bathroom really improved our spirits (just like in Nepal!).

Freddy's "mucho cool"  tour of the site was very extensive, but at points I thought my legs were too sore to go up one more flight of steps. Calum really got into the thousandth explanation about the many sided stones that perfectly fit together and those carved for sacred areas.

Forget the hike up Wayna Picchu- enough is enough. I caught the bus back to Aguas Calientes for some rest and lunch before taking the 5pm train towards Cusco.

The train was surprisingly fun as we compared tips (we were extravagant) and shared a few cervesas with the other groups. The real fun began when we met at Paddy's Pub (very Peruvian, eh!) for team drinks which turned into a 5am dance party at one of the discos.

I felt bad waking Coco up at 5am to let me in, but at least he didn't have to deal with me all day since I slept, only to rise for a massage late in the day and then headed back to bed since I had another early wake up to catch a flight to my next destination.

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