Leaping Into Life

Falling Never Felt So Good

The Long Journey to Machu Picchu and Trekking in Colca Canyon

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After a twelve hour night bus from Ica, I arrived in Cusco just in time to check-in with Peru Treks for my four-day hike commencing the day after my 29th birthday (now that’s what I call starting the year off right!). Alone again after saying goodbye to Mike, who was heading to see the Nazca Lines, I quickly made friends at Priwa Hostel with some Israelis and Deutsch who happily helped me celebrate my birthday at midnight alongside a fellow traveler who was turning 23 (way to make me feel old!). See the photo of us being serenaded on top of a bar when the clock struck twelve.

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The following day was dedicated to recovery and getting my game face on for the 42 kilometer roller coaster (as in up and down, not fast) of a hike to Machu Picchu kicking off at 4am the next morning. Like others on my trek, we were all a bit intimidated with the physical aspect, but I can report that everyone out-performed expectations.

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There were thirteen people on my trek – I being the 13th wheel as everyone came in pairs. But, it turned out perfectly because I got my own tent and had adequate time to befriend everyone over four days of walking. We also had two guides, 17 porters (carrying camping and cooking equipment), and two cooks – a small army with one mission, conquer Machu Picchu.

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As a side note, I choose Peru Treks because they have a great reputation for not only excellent treks, but also taking good care of their porters (paying the wage equivalent of a teacher in Peru) and supporting the local communities through building schools and purchasing computers to improve education. I paid more than some of the more economical treks, but it was worth it to know that the money spent would do more than just take me on an incredible adventure.

The first day from Cusco to Wayllabamba was a pretty easy 12 kilometers with frequent breaks, interesting information about Quechua culture (Inca is actually the King, not the civilization), and delicious food. I will say that hardest part was walking after a huge lunch and I understand why they say wait an hour before swimming now (that should also apply to hiking).

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The second day from Wayllabamba to Pacamayo was another 12 kilometers, but is billed as the hardest day as you climb for five hours up to 4,200 meters through Dead Woman’s Pass and then down another three hours (in the rain in my case which made for a slippery descent.)

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The trick is to take long, slow steps up and steady your breathing. Going down was hardest for me as you have to concentrate where you step to avoid failing down the rocky terrain. Also, don’t bother with a rain jacket and a bag cover, just bring a poncho as it is better at the keeping the rain out, easy to take on and off, and helps avoid the feeling of being in your own personal sauna.

That night, everyone attempted to dry their wet clothing and to rest their cold and tired feet. The highlight of the evening was the warm rum beverage that everyone had pitched in a dollar for earlier in the day which provided a much needed warm up and helped everyone to get some shut eye for our longest day from Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna spanning 6-8 hours and 15 kilometers.

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Day three was long and arduous, but with beautiful vistas and a DOUBLE rainbow! We also visited the most impressive of the Inca ruins, Phuyupatamarca, which means ‘Town in the Clouds’ and was where the Quechuas did rituals to cleanse themselves before arriving at Machu Picchu.

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After feasting on another delicious lunch prepared by our porters, we tackled the last of that day’s trail (much of it in the rain) and reached the final campsite just as darkness set in and I began cursing what felt like the longest walk ever. That night, the porters surprised our English trekker, Owain, with a birthday cake baked in a cooking pot, and treated all of us to mulled wine as I was elected to deliver the thank you speech (in Spanish) to our troop of porters. Afterward it was an early night as it would be an early morning (3:30am wake up call) to be one of the first groups for the last 5 kilometers thru the Sun Gate and to our hard fought prize – Machu Picchu!

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Scaling the last 50 vertical stairs up to the Sun Gate, I was so focused on not falling that I didn’t even realize that in front of me was the world wonder illuminated in fresh sunlight. It was a long four days, but I imagine the exhilaration of reaching this majestic sight was how many of the Quechuas felt arrival hundreds of years ago.

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Three Days and 22 Kilometers into the Depths of Colca Canyon

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After a few days relaxing in Cusco complete with $5 massages (a must if you’re there!), it was off to Arequipa, my last stop in Peru before heading to Argentina. While at first, I only planned on staying a few days, the thought of working through the logistics of multiple buses and boarding crossings thru Chile to Argentina made my Aussie friends’ (Justin and Sarah) invitation to join them on a multi-day hike into Colca Canyon a worthy diversion that I gladly accepted.

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Before beginning our trek, we stopped at Cruz del Condor and witnessed these massive scavengers soaring through the canyon before the masses of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare birds.

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From there, we hopped off our shared bus with our guide, Miguel, for a rocky 6 kilometer hike straight down into the canyon (which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon) to our first stop for the night in San Juan de Chuccho. Photo of the 6 km path below… quite a doozy.

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The accommodations were rustic and perfect with the luxury of hot water for the first few to shower and candles provided at night as there are no lights in the dorm rooms. Arriving by 2pm and with four hours to kill until dinner, we did what any normal person would do to keep ourselves busy – played drinking games!

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While some may say, “why would you do that when you have another ten kilometers to go in the morning?” I say that it’s all about timing… playing a drinking game before dinner means that you sleep like a baby right after dinner and wake up with 8 hours under your belt and ready to tackle the next leg!

The next morning, we decided to up the ante a bit and add a hike up to Tapay which features a beautiful square and where we met Pedro, an outgoing nine year old, who elected himself our guide for his village of about 50 families.

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From Tapay, we walked along the canyon wall through the Coshñirhua and Malata Villages which were simple, small, and gave the impression that little had changed culturally there since the Spanish established them hundreds of years earlier – with the exception of the 30-odd trekkers a day that pass through and the few kiosks selling Snickers and boxed wine to buy along the way (both of which I purchased for our evening at the “oasis.”)

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I was amazed that these communities survived in the canyon as almost all provisions are brought in on mule or on people’s backs, as the area itself only really produces a type of cactus that is home to the cochineal bug which is harvested for its powerfully pigmented blood used in European lipstick (eww) and in Starbuck’s Strawberry Fraps (double eww until a recent uproar by customers causing the company to switch to the tomato-derived lycopene.)

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The people continue to speak quechua and most wear the indigenous dress of the area which consists of layers upon layers of colorful, embellished skirts completed with an equally decorated vest and embroidered hat.

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We also saw colcas which the canyon is named for that were used in pre-Inca times by quechuas to store and keep provisions cool.

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Descending into the Sangalle Valley, we could see our prize “the oasis” at the bottom where we would be spending the night, but we also saw what our fate would be the following morning with a vertical trail of about 6 kilometers out of the canyon.

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One step at a time though… we enjoyed the “oasis,” had a great last night playing cards, and awoke at 4am to tackle the ascent before the heat of the day seized the canyon. Reaching the top, I yelled and did a victory dance to celebrate the 22 kilometer journey!

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Travel is all about pushing your boundaries! I think that treks like these have also helped me to push my physical limits and realize the power of perseverance… something that would come in handy as I made the 40 hour overland journey to Argentina the very next day!

Reporting from Jungle Beach, Vietnam… til next time!

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Catching up from Hanoi

Hello from Hanoi! So I’m woefully behind on these blow-by-blow posts so here is an attempt to catch you up on my time in South America. I’ll elaborate in other posts, but this blog is going to change a bit in how I update with shorter place-specific posts and more musings and tips about long-term travel.

Traveling around and down the Amazon

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After the Zona Cafeteria, I swung through Bogota for one last visit before flying down to Leticia, the southernmost part of Colombia and gateway to the Amazon leading to Brazil and Peru.

In hot and humid Leticia, I explored the mighty Amazon for a day complete with adorable monkeys, two-toed sloths (the slowest animal ever), pink and gray dolphins, and a poisonous tree that bleeds when you cut it (indigenous use the poison for their darts to hunt and it can also blind you). If you speak Spanish, negotiate with guys offering tours on the street for a much cheaper deal. With four people, we got our own boat and tour guide for about $30 each compared to $60-70 offered through agencies or hostels.

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We stayed at Mahatu Hostel which is set on a beautiful property with lush trees, lagoons, and baby ducks. There was a pool which was great to break the heat when it wasn’t raining (it is the rainforest) and Gustavo is happy to give advice on tours as well as how to navigate a boat trip to either Brazil or Peru.

Other highlights included renting motorbikes (which dominate the streets) and riding through Tabatinga, Brazil, and the surrounding countryside in Leticia. For food, we repeatedly went to a series of food stands set up under a plastic tarp featuring grill meat, fried fish, and chicken kabobs served with rice and yucca for only $5.

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From Leticia, we hopped on a 13 hour fast boat to Iquitos, Peru, at 3am in the morning. The boat was essentially the same as a bus with seats that slightly recline and sub-par food. For those interested, you buy the ticket in Tabatinga, Brazil, and must stamp out of Colombia and stamp into Peru (which is done in Santa Rosa island, accessible by small boat from Tabatinga) the day before you leave.

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Arriving in Iquitos, we were mobbed by moto-taxi drivers, but with no Peruvian money, walking was the only option. Phil, one of my German traveling companions, had stayed at Mad Mick’s Bunk House on his last visit and while he warned that it may not be a place for ladies. I told him that I was no lady, I’m a backpacker!

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Now Mick is a gregarious Australian and his bunk house is in a prime location on the main square, but I will say that the bare straw mattresses and staff walking through the room starting at 8am was a bit uncomfortable.

Iquitos is a rough around the edges town born out of the 1880s rubber-boom and was founded in the 1750s as a Jesuit Mission to convert the indigenous. While there we went to Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm & Amazon Animal Orphanage where they have an amazing collection of butterfly species and adorable animals, like Harry the ocelot, that have been saved from being sold at Belén Market or rescued from owners that couldn’t care for them.

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After visiting Belen Market, it was clear that one could acquire pretty much anything within the maze of stalls shielded by plastic tarps selling homemade remedies, special roots from the Amazon, and live chickens as hundreds of vultures fight over the food scraps left by local sellers. I gave the locals a laugh when I got “carried” by a water-filled tarp that reached its tipping point just as I stood beneath. After the initial shock, I laughed and it was a moment shared regardless of language or cultural barriers.

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While I only intended on staying for a couple days, we ended up going to a “Jungle Lodge” for a few days where we spent some time with a Shaman named Adella and Mike managed to get 150 mosquito bites.

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Upon returning from Nauta, it was off to Lima to start traveling around Peru and make it to Cusco by March 22nd to check in for my 4 day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Leaving Lima After Barely Arriving

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Arriving in Lima with grey, cloudy skies, loud cars, and dirty, crowded city streets, it was clear that this town was not for me. While the Plaza de Armas and cathedral were beautiful sites, it wasn’t enough to stay there another day so we booked a bus to a beach town called Paracas, four hours from Lima.

Back to Nature in the small beach town of Paracas

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Paracas is a tiny town known for its national reserve and the Ballesta Islands (also known as the “poor man’s galapagos”) which is home to millions of birds, sea lions, and Humboldt penguins. The reserve features a mars-like desert terrain, amazing coastline views, and El Candelabro, a massive Geoglyph carved in the Paracas Civilization.

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It was a nice stop to take in some nature and also, celebrate St. Patricks Day in nearby Pisco where we were taken in by some locals and went dancing at a local club… though they had no knowledge of the holiday.

Sand boarding in the Desert, Staying in an Oasis

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From Paracas, it was off to Huacachina, a literal oasis in the middle of the desert located just outside of Ica. A local vacation spot, this tiny town consists of hostels and restaurants lining a deep green lagoon and offers sand boarding and sand buggy rides.

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Sand boarding was incredible. We took a dune buggy out of the oasis and within minutes all you could see was miles of massive sand dunes. While a bit cumbersome with your feet strapped to old snowboards, riding down the dunes was so much fun and falling was even better! The last dune must have been at least 10 stories high and I rode down on my stomach going so fast that I could barely hear myself screaming. The day ended watching the sunset over the desert and just soaking in my surroundings.

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Before jetting to Cusco – as I needed to check in with the trekking company within 48 hours – I did a night out visiting the Pisco wineries in Ica and was lucky enough to participate in the stomping of the grapes. I won most enthusiastic as I dance in a massive concrete vat of grapes while sampling the finished product. We ended the night at a winery dancing among a hundred barrels of fermenting wine.

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Next post, I’ll share with you my trekking adventures to Machu Pittchu (42km) and into Colca Canyon (25km). I discovered that I really enjoy trekking and will be embarking on another trek tomorrow in Sapa, Vietnam, near the border of China.

Til next time!

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