Saturday, September 9, 2017

Trekking the Andes, pt 3

Friday, June 16 -- Collpampa to Lucmabanba via zip-line

    From Colpa Lodge to the road was a short but steep hike, one we had ascended the day before in order to reach the lodge. Our group of zip-liners arrived in good shape and hiked a couple hundred yards to a nearby village, where our transportation awaited us. As we settled into our air-conditioned van, there were a few remarks about how the rest of the Salkantay 12 would be hoofing it along the road in the heat. Eddie was leading that group and had assured them that other than the initial descent to the road and the final mile or so up to Lucma Lodge, the trail would be almost entirely on a road. As we soon found out, the road itself was not exactly like a country road back home, as this video shows: Ride to zip-lining.
    Jimmy was with us on this jaunt and along the way pointed out the trail that hung on a mountainside, across the river from our road. This trail was the one our fellow trekkers would have been taking, except that Mountain Lodges had judged it to be too dangerous due to recent rock slides. Despite the hazards, we did see a few brave (or foolish) hikers along the trail. 

We stopped for photo ops a few times along the way.

Waterfalls were common along the trail we didn't take.
In the center you can see a footbridge. 

Sue got this close-up of the bridge.
    We finally arrived at Cola de Mono, which bills itself as the very first zip-line outfit to get established in Peru. It provides lodging and meals as well as zip-lining. We were in the Sacsara Valley, near the town of Santa Teresa, which we had passed through, and about 15 miles from Machu Picchu. The Sacsara River runs through the valley, and it would be over this river that we would zip-line. 

Stephanie waits her turn at the restrooms...

...which provided a scenic view of the Sacsara.

    We got a warm welcome at the base camp, which also has guest rooms in tree houses. The two guides got us outfitted in gear: helmets, harnesses and special gloves, then gave us a demonstration on a cable set up near the storage area (where there were also tabletop soccer games, which a couple of us couldn't resist). Then, we were told, it was time to hike up to the top zip-line. Okay, we thought, no problem, we'd conquered the Salkantay Pass a couple days ago, how hard could this be?
    Well, as it turned out, it was definitely not an easy stroll. After about a quarter-mile on a road, we got to the mountainside and started up on a narrow dirt path with plenty of switch-backs, climbing nearly vertical about 700 feet above the valley floor. Even though the altitude wasn't much--Santa Teresa is at just over 5,000 feet---the climb was taxing. But we all finally made it to the topmost of six zip-lines. 

The Salkantay 12 became the Salkantay 6+1 for this adventure.
L-R: Bill, Stephanie, Sue, Amy, me, John and Jimmy.

    At the top line, John was first across (of course), followed by Amy, and then came Sue's turn. Here's a video of her first zip across the canyon: Sue zips across.
    John was ready to capture our arrival at the end of the first zip-line, and our facial expressions say it all.

John enjoyed the day from a variety of perspectives. 

    Although each succeeding zip-line got lower in altitude above the valley floor, that didn't mean they got less challenging. On the third, as I looked across to the receiving end, all I saw was a platform hanging on the sheer rock of the mountainside. As Sue went across, I asked myself: how do we get from there to the next line? When I got over, I found out. The guide unclipped my safety line from the zip-line cable and clipped it to another cable, which snaked its way around the face of the rock several feet, leading to a vertical ladder of iron rungs. From there it was a straight-up climb of about 50 feet to a small plateau. This was not something we had been told about before leaving the base camp, and good thing, as it was daunting indeed. But there was no alternative. I was sure--pretty sure, anyway--that the safety line would hold if I slipped. I didn't want to test that theory, though, so I made my way up the ladder, conscious that the rest of the gang was following close behind and we certainly didn't want to get backed up on the mountainside. 
    I didn't dare stop to take a photo until I was safely at the top and had unclipped my safety line. Then I could catch Amy, followed by John, coming up next. 

   The guides said we could avail ourselves of a special harness to do a "Superman" flight across the canyon. This harness would allow the zipper to "fly" horizontally, head-first. Everybody passed, except John, who said it was one of the biggest rushes ever. 
   The zip-lining ended all too soon, and we were a happy bunch as we hiked back to the base camp, where our hosts had a great lunch ready for us.

The food was hot and the beer was cold, a great combination
in Peru just as it is back home.
   We soon had to climb back into the bus for the hour-long ride to the junction with the Inca Trail, with a mile of hiking ahead of us before we arrived at our lodge for the evening. We were now in the rain forest, and although we spent a lot of time in it over the course of our time in Peru, it never really rained. We had chosen wisely to trek during the dry season, because during the rainy season (November-April) it rains, a lot. The Cusco region averages over five inches of rain per month in the heaviest months, January-March. 
    The Inca Trail is heavily used, to the point where the Peruvian government limits access to 500 hikers per day. Permits are required. It's about as long as the Salkantay but doesn't get as high; the Salkantay beats it by about 1,400 feet. The Inca Trail ends at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu, whereas our trek would not take us that far. All told, we discovered, the Salkantay is more rugged as well as higher. 

Bill and Stephanie took the lead as we began our hike on the Inca Trail.

One of the local residents gave us a relaxed perusal as we passed. 

A Peruvian mountain home along the route. 

Sue was impressed by the gardens at this place. 

The last couple hundred yards to Lucma Lodge were a challenge,
but we were ready for it. Our elevation here was 7,003 feet.
The view from Lucma Lodge was, as usual, spectacular.

Lucma would be the final lodge of our trek, and it was perhaps the best.

After some time to relax and change, Sue and most of the group
went back down the trail to visit a coffee plantation.

Back at the lodge, we relaxed before dinner. That's Kelly and Jay on the
left, with Stephanie and Bill catching up on their social media. 

    It had been another terrific day, and most of us stuck around after dinner to talk about our day and what was in store for the morrow. Sunday would see us rising early and hitting the trail for our last real day of trekking, seven miles over Llactapata Pass to the train station, and from there by rail to the town of Aguas Calientes, not far from our ultimate goal, Machu Picchu. As we retired this evening, we were happy with how our day had gone, and looked forward to the next, but there was a touch of melancholy as well. Our group had really gelled, even though half of us had hiked the full trek that day and the other half had gone zip-lining, and we were starting to regret the inevitable parting of the ways. But there was still much to come.

Sunday, June 18 -- Lucmabamba to Aguas Calientes

    This day would see our last real hiking of the trek, seven miles from Lucma Lodge to the train station, which would take us the final six miles to Aguas Calientes, the town from which we would ascend Machu Picchu. In terms of elevation, we would first go up 1,971 feet to a small plateau called Llactapata, and then down 3,165 feet, our steepest drop of the trek, to the valley floor. We were greeted with another day of stupendous weather, and today we would have the highest temperatures we would encounter, although they were not bad at all. For our Florida and Arizona trekkers, it was very comfortable indeed, compared to what they had to endure back home in late June. 

The first couple miles of the trail were narrow and filled with tree roots,
but we'd seen much tougher terrain before. 

There's a mountaintop convenience store, so to speak, along the Trail...

...which offered refreshment along with a spectacular view.

Here's a panorama shot from the rest stop. 

Stephanie takes in the view.

Soon after leaving the rest stop, we were in the jungle.

   By late morning we were at another mountain pass, this one in the midst of the jungle, where we stopped for a short break and I shot this video: Inca Trail pass.
   Soon after that break, we emerged onto a plateau that offered two things we were anxious to see: our first view of Machu Picchu, and a restaurant, billing itself as Llaqtapata Lodge. Mountain Lodges had arranged for a delicious lunch, and we took full advantage of both the meal and the view.

Our first look at Machu Picchu was worth the hike...

...but the restaurant was an even more welcome sight. 
Sue gets some photos of our ultimate goal.

At maximum magnification for my camera, Machu Picchu came into clear view.

I channeled my inner Indiana Jones for this pose. 

Refreshed by the lunch and the view, the Salkantay 12 prepares for our last descent
to the valley floor and the road to the train station.

    The descent from the view point was our steepest of the trek, and it was not easy, with many switchbacks and the usual obstacles of roots and rocks in the trail. At this point, for many if not most of us, the fatigue of the trek was starting to settle in. I had long ago concluded that going up, even at high altitude, was easier than going down, but there was nothing to be done about it, so down we went. Eventually we arrived at the valley floor, emerging from the jungle to find the swift-flowing Urubamba River, which we were to cross by one of the shakiest foot bridges I'd ever seen. 

The trail down to the Urubamba was not easy. (Daly)

Bill and Stephanie were the first to cross the river on the footbridge.
We were limited to two at a time, stepping in tandem. 

Despite some shaky moments on the way across...(Wan)

...both Sue and I made it safely. (Wan)

    We still had another mile or more to the train station, and the heat was beginning to take its toll. At one point we passed by a trout farm, and I had a strong urge to take off my boots and socks and cool my feet off in the inviting water. But we soldiered on, of course, at one point taking a short cut that Jimmy recommended, and soon we arrived at the train station. We had a wait of about 45 minutes before departure, so we repaired with renewed gusto to the second-floor bar, where cold beer and other refreshments awaited us. I'm not normally a beer drinker, but today it was like nectar of the gods. 

Jimmy would be parting ways with our group here, as he had another
assignment about to start, so I had a moment to thank him
for all the help he'd been to us, and to me in particular, on the trek.
When we boarded the train for our hour-long ride to Aguas Calientes,
we were all ready for it. 

It was getting dark by the time we arrived in town, and it was a
short hike to our hotel, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo.

While waiting for dinner, a quick exploration of the hotel's lounge.

The hotel library was also rather exotic, especially since the
antique books could not be removed from the shelves.

    Before dinner, I took a dip in the outdoor pool, joined by Amy and John. The pool had three tiers: at the top, a hot tub, then a cold tub, and then the pool itself, called the Pond, which was also very nippy. But it felt good to be refreshed, and we all had a fine dinner, one of our best on the trek, and turned in early, as we would have a 4:30am wake-up call. The best way to arrive at Machu Picchu, we were told, was to be there at sunrise over the Andes. That advice would certainly turn out to be right, as we discovered the next day when we climaxed our visit to Peru with an exploration of its most mysterious, and famous, Inca city. 

Monday, June 19 -- Machu Picchu at last

    Machu Picchu is the most famous ancient city in South America and quite probably the world. Part of its mystery is that nobody really knows who lived there or what went on. Was it an imperial vacation spot? A fortress? Because the Inca did not keep written records, we don't know, and what's more, it was never found by the Spaniards. 
    American historian Hiram Bingham "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911, although there are some indications German explorers found it some 40 years earlier. Subsequent research has concluded that it was indeed a city for the Inca king, built in the 15th century, about a hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards. Bingham began an excavation of the site, which was almost completely overgrown with vegetation. The excavation continues today, and the site is the most visited in Peru. At the peak of tourism in 2000, the site hosted about 400,000 people a year, although since then the government has started scaling back visitor permits. Tourists must buy tickets to enter the site.
    Sitting on a saddle between two mountains, Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, the site is at 7,970 feet above sea level. From the edge of the city to the Urubamba River below is a drop of about 1,500 feet. As to its layout, the Inca made ingenious use of nearby springs as water supplies and quarried the rock from the mountainsides above the city. The terraces used for agriculture were designed to resist erosion and were planned to supply a population about four times what the city actually held. The Inca abandoned the city around 1574, and there's speculation that many of its inhabitants perished from a smallpox epidemic. 
    We rose at 4:30am and joined the group for one last breakfast together. After our exploration of the site, we would be checking out of our hotel after an early dinner and taking the train out of Aguas Calientes to a spot midway between the city and Cusco; the train, unfortunately, did not go all the way into Cusco, so we would be on a bus for the final leg. When we walked to the bus station for our ride up to the site, we were not alone. Dawn had broken, although the sun had not yet risen above the Andes to the east.

Tourists from all over the world were waiting for
a bus ride up to Machu Picchu.

Stray dogs were much in evidence throughout Peru. 

The line to the bathroom was almost as long as the line to get into the site. 

Catching the sun coming over the Andes gave us an idea of why
the Inca were sun worshipers.

Our first look at the city, with  Huanay Picchu in the background, was

Everybody posed for the iconic photo that would
automatically become the best one of the trip.

Eddie takes a photo of Bill and Stephanie in Michael's panorama shot. (Wan)
Today, Machu Picchu's only permanent inhabitants are wildlife,
like llamas and alpacas..

...and the viscacha, which looks like a rabbit
but is actually a chinchilla. 
The Royal Tomb, containing ceremonial niches and
an Inca cross representing the three levels of
existence in which the Inca believed: the underworld (home of the dead),
the surface world (home of the living), and the sky (home of the gods).

The interior of the tomb. More than 100 skeletal remains were found here,
80% of them women. The interior also includes a series of 16 ceremonial
baths, connected by an aqueduct system.

Our path through the site, led by Eddie, was a winding one indeed,
but afforded us close-up looks at the amazing Inca stonemasonry.

The meticulous terraces are kept mowed by the llamas and alpacas.

Eddie's descriptions of the site's many features were so good,
it was like taking a college-level archaeology course in one day.

Part of the Sacred Plaza, with a great view of Huanay Picchu. The Inca
did not use mortar in their masonry, instead relying on precise cutting
and geometry to make stone walls and buildings strong enough
to withstand earthquakes. 

Looking to the west from the edge of the city. In the background is
the mountain we trekked down to the Urubamba the day before. 

One of the quarries from which the Inca mined their rocks. 

The Intiwatana, known as the "hitching post to the sun," is carved so
that its four corners match the four cardinal points of the compass. Inca
astronomers would use this and similar structures in other cities
to predict the solstices and equinoxes, critical in making decisions
about planting and harvesting. This is the only one in Peru that
was not destroyed by the Spaniards. 

In the Central Plaza is the Sacred Rock of Machu Picchu. Almost every Inca
community had a sacred rock, which had to be dedicated before
construction could begin. 

Near the Central Plaza is the entrance to the trail up Huanay Picchu.
It's a popular but very rigorous climb, at one point going through a
tunnel that requires crawling on hands and knees. Although the view
from the peak is breathtaking, Sue and I passed on this one. 

The Temple of the Condor. Inca stonemasons carefully shaped the natural
stone to resemble the wings of a condor in flight. 

On the floor of the temple is a stone carved to resemble
the head of the condor. It is thought to have served as
a sacrificial altar. A jail is directly behind the temple,
comprised of human-sized niches, where prisoners would
be shackled as their fate was deliberated, and dungeons.
Capital punishment was common in Inca society, even
for offenses such as lust or laziness.

    After our two-hour tour of the site, Eddie gave us the rest of the day off, so to speak, with the stipulation that we had to be back to the hotel for our early dinner at 4:30. We were free to wander around Machu Picchu, climb Huanay Picchu, or head back to town. Sue and I considered heading over to the Sun Gate, at the southern end of the site, where the Inca Trail ends. But that was a mile or so away, and the exertions of the previous week were starting to catch up to us. A mysterious flu bug seemed to be hitting some of our party as well. We decided to leave well enough alone and headed back to the site entrance to catch the next bus back to town. That way we could have a leisurely lunch, explore the town a little and have plenty of time back at the hotel to pack and get ready for dinner and our departure for Cusco. 
    Several of the Salkantay 12 made a run at Huanay Picchu and were successful. Here's a shot from, showing the infamous Stairs of Death that are perhaps the most harrowing part of the climb:

   From the Sun Gate, you can get the most iconic view of Machu Picchu, as this beautiful image from Lonely Planet shows:

   In hindsight, I sort of wish we'd made a run at one or the other. But hey, it was a great experience as it was. We headed back to Aguas Calientes and took the opportunity to relax, make a couple calls home and soak up more Peruvian culture.

Downtown Aguas Calientes is built around the train station.

Sue searching for chai tea. We had to settle for hot chocolate.

We enjoyed our drinks on one of these friendly benches.

In the square, the town salutes its Inca heritage. 
   The rest of our trekkers began arriving at the hotel as the afternoon progressed, and soon we were all dining together one last time. It was a bittersweet occasion. We had all shared an experience that in some cases has been hard to describe, and looking back on it now, I can use the perspective of time to channel the uniqueness, even the mysticism, of the trek. We had all enjoyed ourselves immensely, nobody got injured, nobody lost anything. As we boarded the train for the ride toward Cusco, we were all very glad we had embarked on this journey, even as we were somewhat sad that it was ending.
    The train ride was just as unique as the rest of our trip. Peru's trains are quite modern and for Sue and I, the trains on this trip reminded us of our wonderful Rocky Mountaineer train ride through the Canadian Rockies in 2015, which you can see on this blog in earlier entries. But this Peru train had something the Canadian train did not, and that was entertainment, Inca style: Peru train ride.
    Since the trains don't go all the way into Cusco due to its elevation and location, we had to disembark about halfway there and load onto buses. By then it was getting dark, and the next hour or so on Peru's highway system, which was circa 1950s, pre-interstate America, seemed to crawl along. But eventually we made our way back into the sprawling city and were dropped off at our respective hotels. By the time Sue and I made it back to the Monasterio, we were bushed, to say the least. 
    But as tired as we were, we knew that our experience that day would be one we'd remember forever. After all, how often do you get to explore an ancient city? We'd seen ruins in Rome, Greece and Turkey, and Machu Picchu was perhaps even more spectacular, because of its location in the midst of the Andes. While Roman and Greek ruins show us cultures about which we know a great deal, much of the early Americans' cultures are still a mystery, and will likely remain so forever. That, I think, is a large part of the attraction of Machu Picchu. What really went on here? What were these people really like? We may never know. 

My last tribute shirt was to 4everFit and my trainer, Tony Bergman.
Without his help, I never would've made it over the Salkantay Trail
and to Machu Picchu. Thanks again, Tony. 

    Another amazing day, our last full day in Peru, had come to a close. The next day we would have time to explore more of Cusco before our 7pm flight to Lima, the first leg of the long trip home. We were still searching for that elusive piece of Peruvian artwork that would look just right in our home, and we had less than 24 hours to find it, but find it we would. 

Tuesday-Wednesday, June 20-21 -- Cusco and the journey home

    Tuesday dawned sunny and warm, and after a nice breakfast we set out for another exploration of downtown Cusco. Part of our traveling tradition is to bring home artwork from the country we visit. Among our prize finds are a cuckoo clock from Germany, a rug from Turkey and a seaside painting from France. But so far in Peru we had not found that just-right piece. 
    Our wandering today took us back to the central plaza, where yet another parade was getting ready to start. But in stark contrast to the parade we'd witnessed eight days earlier, this one had a heavy police presence, many of them in riot gear. Just two days before, while waiting to board the train for Aguas Calientes, the TV in the bar had shown rioting in Venezuela, and I was keenly aware of how such unrest tends to spread to neighboring countries. We were several hundred miles from Caracas, but still, we were somewhat nervous. But not too nervous; we found a Starbucks on the second floor of a building fronting the square, and from the windows we could watch the events unfolding below us on the street. An American tourist told us she had heard that the protest had something to do with teachers and their issues with the government, but there were no signs, as there would be back home, so it was hard to tell. 
    The start of the parade was held up while the police confronted the crowd, and just like back home, there were TV cameras to record the action (and perhaps to egg on the protesters). One fellow with a bullhorn seemed to be riling things up in the group just below us, and there were a couple of occasions where the cops waded in with billy clubs in response to trash being thrown at them, but nothing got out of hand, thankfully.

The atmosphere was decidedly different for this parade than the previous one we'd seen.

The guy with the bullhorn was getting right in the cops' faces.
It didn't take too long for them to get in his face. 
    Before we went up to the Starbucks, I shot this video of the gathering protest: Cusco protest.
    We finally found our artwork, though: a tapestry by Peruvian artist Maximo Laura. It was unique, it was beautiful, and after we got home it soon found a perfect spot on a wall in our entryway. 

    By 3pm we were in a cab bound for the airport. Our flight to Lima went smoothly, and our layover there provided us with an opportunity for a late-night dinner and use of the airport WiFi to catch up on what was going on. 

While waiting for her pizza, Sue checks in with the world.
   We slept through most of the flight from Lima to Atlanta, had a short layover there and then our final flight to Minneapolis. By the time we arrived at our home it was midday Wednesday. The rest of the day would give us time to unpack, pick the dog up from the kennel and get a good night's sleep, because the next day we'd be returning to work. As always, when we retired in our own bed for the first time in over a week, we were amazed that just 24 hours earlier we'd been on another continent. Modern-day air travel, as frustrating as it sometimes can be, is truly a wonder that our grandparents would never have believed. 
    Our time in Peru will be a time we will always cherish, and our fellow trekkers, from what we've heard, feel the same way. On this trek we pushed ourselves to new limits of endurance, experienced much of God's most spectacular wonders, and explored a fascinating culture. We will always be grateful to Eddie and Jimmy for their outstanding service, and you can be sure all of us will recommend Mountain Lodges of Peru for an adventure that is truly a once in a lifetime experience. 

Jimmy and Eddie were outstanding guides, and they
enjoyed themselves as much as we did. (Daly)

    The Inca and their predecessors had a strong philosophical and religious tie-in with nature, something we modern Americans have only started to realize ourselves. To me, it seemed that they had an innate appreciation of what the planet offered them, and what it would yield if properly husbanded. Carlos Milla Vidal, president of the Regional Tourist Organizations, described Inca philosophy this way: "The Incas had three major commandments, three principles, as the basis of their approach to life: search for the truth, work hard, and respect every form of life." It seems to me that is a philosophy that can, and should, be just as important in the 21st century as it was in centuries past.
    Although there is much we don't know about the Inca, there is much we can learn from them. On this trip, the Salkantay 12 began to learn these things, and we did it together. That was the best part.

The Salkantay 12. (Daly)