Archive for April, 2007

Safely home

Another out-of-order posting to be followed later by accounts of my last few days in Peru.

Graham met me at the coach stop on Parkside after a smooth but long journey home from Lima. The highlight was an unexpected upgrade to business class for Lima to Madrid. My name was called over the tannoy at the gate, I was asked for my boarding card, and presented with a new one with “you’ve been upgraded tonight”. Whopee! I guess the flight was overbooked in economy and having an Iberia frequent flyer card I struck lucky. So it was a comfortable and slightly pampered ten-and-a-half hours across the Atlantic.

It was lovely to get home and to be with Graham again.

I’ve been in a bit of a daze today, I don’t think reality has set in yet.

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Inca Trail – Day 4

It was still raining at 4am when the porters woke us, this time without tea. Packing and breakfast in the dark, but fortunately the rain eased off, and had all but stopped as we arrived at the checkpoint at about 5:15. We were about the third or fourth group in line, and were swiftly through and underway when the checkpoint opened at 5:30.

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A slightly surreal route-march followed, initially by head torch and then with the dawn. A snaking line of hikers weaving along the slippery flagstones of the trail, slowly cllimbing towards our goal of the Sun Gate at 2730m. Unfortunately the group ahead was rather slow and so it felt like walking in a traffic jam. Our group took it in good humour but one or two other hikers forced their way through extremely rudely. I wasn’t awake enough to ask them why they hadn’t got up earlier if they wanted to be at the front, and they seemed so charged with adrenaline that they would probably have hit me.

A final steep flight of stairs took us up to the Sun Gate and the magnificent view of Machu Picchu spread out below us. To be honest it didn’t really sink in until a couple of hours later: what a wonderful way to arrive! At sunrise, from above, with the whole site unfolded in front. A completely different experience to arriving from the valley floor in a bus.

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The size of the place is such that it took us twenty minutes to descend to the spot for the group photo, and another twenty to reach the entrance gates so that we could leave, deposit our backpacks, and re-enter! Initially we only had other Inca Trail walkers for company, but soon people were arriving from the on-site hotel and from the first buses up from Aguas Calientes.

Uriel gave us a good tour of the main areas of Machu Picchu, before dropping the mad four at the start of the path to Huayna Picchu. The mad four being myself, Harry, Kieran and Alex. Huayna Picchu is the emblematic cone-shaped mountain immediately behind Machu Picchu, and provides an amazing view of the site. But the path is some 600 steps and is extremely narrow and steep in places, and the terraces and ruins at the summit are quite vertiginous. Although starting at a reasonable 2400m, the 240m climb is hard work after walking an Inca Trail. It was worth it for the views and extra sense of achievement, but I felt a touch of vertigo at the summit and started back down rather quickly.

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There was still time for a slow wander through the various quarters of the sacred city, soaking up the quality of construction and the awe-inspiring location, surrounded by deep valleys etched out by the rivers far below, each valley rich in cloud-forest vegetation. Although there were lots of tourists panting around, the place is big enough to find your own corners away from the main temples and highlights.

I caught the bus down the hill to Aguas Calientes at about 12:30 and found my rather lovely eco-hostal, where the lovely receptionist upgraded me to a split-level room with a bed surrounded on three sides by views over the town and surrounding mountains. My shower and shave were the subject of some envy from the others at lunch, most of whom were returning to Cuzco that afternoon.

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I said farewell to the group just before 4pm, when they headed off to catch their train to Ollantaytambo. Aguas Calientes is a strange place, driven almost entirely by its crucial location at the head of the railway and the foot of Machu Picchu, but has its own charm. I decided to give the eponymous hot springs a skip as they’re not reckoned to be a match for the ones I enjoyed at Chivay in the Colca valley. Instead I caught up on some email and made a CD of my precious Inca Trail and Machu Picchu pictures in a cyber cafe.

The day ended with a lovely dinner with Mark and Janet, the only others of the group to be spending a night in Aguas Calientes. I then slept very soundly in a lovely comfortable real bed.

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Inca Trail – Day 3

Day three being the easiest, we were able to lie in until the awesome hour of 6:30am! Away before 8, a gentle climb along an excellent Inca path took us to the third pass at 3680m, but although it was dry there were low clouds and the views of snow-capped mountains eluded us. There followed an incredible descent of 1000m including two Inca tunnels and approximately two thousand steps. We slowly entered richer and richer cloud forest as we descended.

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Shortly before arriving at camp we explored the Inca ruins at Yunkapata. We arrived in our narrow two-terrace camp site in time for a late lunch and a quick trip to the bar to buy well-deserved bottles of beer! A touch of civilisation, with electricity, although everything is carried up by porters from the valley below.

After lunch Uriel gave us a tour of the impressive Wiñaywayna site nearby, a taster for the following day. It’s named after the orchid and means ‘forever young’.

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The foolhardy then descended with Uriel and Marco to a lovely waterfall for a wash in fresh – very fresh! – water. Invigorating!

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Dinner was a final fling, with salvers full of excellent food, and a glass of wine to wash it all down. But the rain set in and it was with a certain sense of trepidation that we headed to bed for a few hours’ sleep before the big day…

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Last night in South America

Another out-of-sync posting, but needs must.

It might be the three pisco sours talking, but I think they’re just making it easier to express my rather emotional state.

Firstly, I cannot go any further without thanking my wonderful husband. Not only did he let me go away for four months while he looked after everything at home, but he gave me the courage to go in the first place, and he came out to Argentina for two weeks in the middle to see me. Graham: thank you. You’re my one in a million.

Secondly, this continent has got under my skin. The people here have a way of making the best of things in the face of adversity and of enjoying life to the full no matter what it throws at them. It’s also a continent of incredible natural richness and diversity, of which my stay has only sampled a few aspects. I hope I will be able to return.

I’m left feeling incredibly fortunate in many ways. If I’d been Peruvian or Argentinian it would have been many many times harder to give up a good job to travel to another hemisphere for four months.

Enough for tonight. When I get home, I’ll finish up the chronological postings, and I’ll try to upload a few more picture galleries from the Inca Trail and the Sacred Valley. ¡Hasta la proxima!

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Inca Trail – Day 2

I was woken at 6am by a porter bearing hot drinks, and soon after came a basin of hot water, soap and a towel for a morning wash. The dawn view from my tent was simply superb.

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At 6.30am breakfast was another treat: a beautiful fruit salad, oatmeal, toasted bread and jams, fresh fruit juice, and plentiful hot drinks. The standard didn’t slip for the rest of the trek either. By 7am we were ready to start, and the porters already had most of the tents down.

The hardest day. First challenge was the last 400m of ascent to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass at nearly 4300m, the highest point on the trail. I was well aclimatised but that didn’t make it easy by any means. Walking with a backpack at this altitude is extremely taxing. Five or ten minutes of forcing oneself to take one step after another is followed by a minute’s rest to get one’s breath back. Even the porters find it hard work at this altitude and take frequent breaks, although they’re all moving faster and carrying heavier loads than us.

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Reaching the summit brought a real sense of achievement and was occasion for another group photo. We were lucky with the weather and had great views behind and reasonable views into the valley ahead. A steep descent of mixed steps and path followed, taking us to our lunch camp in the valley at 3580m. Recharged after a good rest, we tackled the second pass of the day, this time to 4000m. More Inca ruins broke up the ascent and the gentle descent to our second campsite at Chaquicocha (3600m), set in a cloudy shallow valley.

Rain fell heavily during dinner, but after the meal and a couple of mugs of ‘brave tea’ – spicy tea with a shot of rum – we didn’t mind in the least! Everyone was in good spirits due to a combination of a real sense of achievement after the two high passes, and the spirits in the tea. The chef pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the form of an amazing birthday cake for Mark. Iced sponge with candle and handwritten greeting, all at 3600m without a real oven.

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Inca Trail – Days 0 and 1

The pre-trek briefing took place in the Llama Path office at 7pm on the evening before departure. Our guide – Uriel – and deputy guide – Marco – were waiting to greet us. By seven, 8 out of 11 of us were there, but I think we were all a bit wary to have to wait almost 15 minutes for the final three young Australians to arrive. But the trek proved them to be good reliable guys! Along with lots of useful info and tips came the bad news: pick-up at 4:30 – 5:00am the following morning, and a long first day!

So a bleary-eyed start, and I woke the hotel porter who was sleeping in the lounge when I turned the light on at 4:30am. The back of the bus was full of porters who all applauded as each trekker boarded the bus, which was unexpected! We left Cuzco by 5:15 and drove in the dark over the pass to Urubamba, arriving in Ollantaytambo with the dawn for breakfast in a local restaurant and a final chance to buy supplies. Another 45 minutes along a dirt road following the railway took us to kilometre 81 on the railway, one km short of the start of the trail at km 82 (2720m). In a school playing field we sorted out our kit, taking possession of our sleeping rolls, hired sleeping bags and walking sticks. Suddenly my previously-light backpack felt rather heavy!

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By 8am we were underway, walking the extra km to the checkpoint and suspension bridge at the start of the trail. Here we had to take temporary leave of Lenny, one of the Australian lads, because his passport details didn’t match the booking form! Fortunately Llama Path were able to sort this out (via a series of phone calls and faxes between themselves, the checkpoint, and the head office of the park authority in Cuzco) and Lenny and Marco caught us up before lunch.

The first part of the trail is a gentle climb away from the river through agricultural land and a couple of small villages. After about ninety minutes we were passed – as we would be twice every day – by our cadre of 16 porters and a cook, jogging along at an impressive clip with up to 25kg of kit each. We stopped to have a quick look at the first ruins on the trail at Willkarakay.

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At about 12:30pm we reached our lunch stop and were all completely overwhelmed by the service, which was to continue throughout the trek. The dinner tent was up and table set, with individual basins, soap and towels waiting outside for us to wash in. One of the porters handed out metal glasses of squash. There followed an amazing three-course lunch: bruschetta starters; soup with garlic bread and aji garnish for the chili-heads; heaps of pasta with two sauces; hot drinks; cooled boiled water to refill our drinking bottles.

Uriel decided we were progressing fast enough to make our target campsite, so the afternoon was quite tough. Only another four or five kilometres, but with 800m of ascent from lunch at 3000m to camp at 3800m. We arrived exhausted but happy with about half an hour of daylight in hand at Llulluchapampa, a beautiful site above the tree-line in the open valley with great views back down the valley and across to snow-capped mountains. The tents were all ready for us, and the dinner tent was ready for happy-hour: hot drinks, including Milo, biscuits, and pop-corn. Very welcome. Dinner at seven exceeded lunch: soup; rolled stuffed trout with various veg; dessert; all in plentiful quantities. And all prepared by the chef and porters in a kitchen tent no bigger than the dining tent and on two gas rings.

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It was cold at 3800m but my decision to pay the extra $5 for a five-season bag was vindicated and I was as snug as a bug in a rug. For the first night I got a tent to myself, too. By 8:30pm everyone had turned in for the night.

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Cuzco – day two

I woke and breakfasted early to arrive early at the Inca site of Sacsayhuaman, set a stiff walk above the town on the road towards Pisac. In fact I arrived too early for the official opening time and had an unofficial wander until 8am. After a false start with an unauthorised guide whom I couldn’t understand, I found a good official guide called Roger who gave me a great tour and explained the significance of many things including the huge zig-zag walls representing lightning and/or a serpent. I got to play at being a noble Inca boy on the carved rock slide, and a king on the throne, for which I would probably have been executed in Inca times.

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Sacsayhuaman is the first and largest of several important sites leading up the hill, and Roger suggested I hire a horse to explore the rest. He introduced me to his friend Raul and got me a reasonable price for a three hour trip. A very steady and placid pony appeared, called Corazon Valiente or Stout Heart. I had little trouble mounting, since he wasn’t very tall. After a few hundred metres Raul talked me into paying a third extra for a horse for him, I couldn’t really refuse. Walking was easy but trotting was a bit hard on my completely inexperienced rider’s bum. First stop was the temple of the moon. I think really I needed a guide to understand this one, and Raul was looking after the horses. Second stop the Zona Equis or X Zone, with intersecting Inca tunnels to explore. I braved one which was a real squeeze. At this stage, after an hour of riding, I predicted that three hours would leave me very stiff and sore for the next day, which was the last thing I wanted for day one of the Inca Trail. So I bailed out, and took a combi bus back to town! Discretion being the better part of valour, and all that. None-the-less I enjoyed the experience and would like to learn to ride properly.

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After lunch I visited the Museo Inka, full of excellent displays about various facets of Inca and pre-Inca civilization, including a recreated tomb with several mummies, and trepanned skulls showing evidence of years of post-op survival. Some final shopping preceded a major packing session to prepare my kit for the trail and to pack all the unnecessary stuff into a bag to leave at the hotel.

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Inca Trail

Near the top of Dead Woman´s PassThis is really just a holding post to say I survived the Inca Trail. It was fab: great group, guides, porters, food and weather. It was also tough, but hugely enjoyable.

Machu Picchu from the Sun GateMachu Picchu was super although it took a while for the magic to sink in.

Now recovering in Aguas Calientes.

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Cuzco – day one

I started the day by cashing some travellers cheques and paying the balance of my Inca Trail trip. The briefing is tomorrow and I will be collected between 4am and 4.30am on Thursday. Ouch!

I bought my combined tourist ticket and visited several museums and sights:

  • The Cathedral – a super guided visit in Spanish.
  • The ruins of the Inca temple of Qoricancha – the temple of the sun – now part of the Santo Domingo church and monastery.
  • The convent of Santa Catalina.
  • The Museo de Arte Precolombino – expensive but excellent.

The connecting theme is the Spanish conquest of the Incas and the subsequent weaving of cultural strands. Despite using all the tools, techniques and weapons available, the conquistadores have never quite managed to extinguish indigenous beliefs and culture.

More pictures!

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Puno to Cuzco

I took the Inka Express bus from Puno to Cuzco on Sunday. This makes four stops at sights and one for a good buffet lunch. It was a fascinating trip. I kind of wish I had taken the train but I’ll save that to do with Graham. Besides it would have been five times the price in first class and not very relaxing (constant vigilance over one’s belongings) in ordinary class.

Highlights were the Inca ruins at Raqchi – the only known ones to combine stone and adobe construction – and the Andean Sistine chapel at Andahuaylillas. Crossing the altiplano was very atmospheric and quite emotional, I couldn’t quite believe I was there!

Pictures are now in my gallery.

My hotel in Cuzco is very nice and has a lovely entrance way.

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