Another morning. What day was it? Not sure. We woke up to another delish breakfast of granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice, and uh-mazing coffee, packed up our stuff, and headed out the door and downhill…into the jungle.
From high desert to snowy mountains to Scottish highlands to jungle. Ridiculous.
But on this day, after some downhill through the jungle, we stumbled upon our first set ruins.
…and through that, our first view of Machu Picchu in the distance.
I feel almost stupid posting photos of it, because they simply don’t do any of this justice. It was beautiful.
From here, we headed down some pretty steep, pretty muddy trails to a little place that was undergoing a renovation…
…for an amazing lunch of avocadosomethingdelicious.
After lunch, the we relaxed a little bit in the clearing, a few people took naps…
…and used the toilet that almost at Bernhard.
Finally, we rallied, and headed out into some serious downhill.
look how happy everyone looks!
It was muddy. It was steep. It was far. There were a few minor spills. It was hard. Some even said it was our hardest day of hiking to that point. When it finally started to flatten out, we hit this:
A suspension bridge suspended about a thousand feet above a raging, angry, rocky river. Our guides were so confident in the engineering that they made us cross one at a time. I was not a fan.
But we all survived. And made it to the train station.
It was here that we grabbed a bite to eat…
…and Susie’s hair did this…
…and we said goodbye to our superamazing guide Johann, snapping a final group shot with him before he departed.
Then, were on the train…
…to Aguas Calientes…
…where we stayed in a RIDICULOUS “hotel”/village tucked into the foothills of the mountains.
Everyone was beat after all the downhill, so after a group dinner that evening at the hotel restaurant everyone prepared for an early, early morning (3:30am meeting time) to catch the bus up to Machu Picchu the next day.
After a relaxing day and a night of great food and dancing, it was up and at ’em bright and early the next morning to head out of the mountains.
A portion of the trail we were supposed to take had gotten washed out, so instead of trying to hike over a rockslide we opted for an alternative route. Because of this, the first part of the hike was some serious up and downhill along cliffs with narrow, partially washed-out trails.
After the initial up and down the road flattened out, and the next few miles were on a wide dirt road running along a ravine, at bottom of which a (pretty raging) river ran.
Eventually we reached our destination in the middle of the mountains, the end of this part of our trek. From here we were going to catch a ride to our next trail head.
So we bought a few refreshments from the tenants…
…said goodbye to our mules…
…and to the team that had helped us get there.
And then, we all hopped onto the mini-bus of terror for a death ride.
For the next 45 minutes we wound our way along a narrow dirt road packed in a top-heavy mini-bus, wedged between a rocky mountain face and a sheer cliff that dropped, oh, about a thousand feet down to the river. I was, of course, in the seat by the window on the cliff side. It was not one of my finer moments.
A few heart palpitations later, we made it down to the river, where the bus dropped us off and I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. We followed the trail through a bunch of plantain trees and coffee plants…
…into the cloud forest to the 4th lodge.
Which was, of course, ridiculously awesome.
Plus everyone was feeling great because we were no longer at altitude.
That evening we took a little walk down the trail into the jungle to visit the house of a couple who grows coffee…
…where we learned how the beans are roasted and ground and, with a little help, made our own little pot of fresh ground coffee and got to taste it straight off the stove. It was AMAZING.
And yes, of course there were guinea pigs running around the house.
Waiting for dinner to start that night we played some local (?) games that Leo suggested. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some people) it doesn’t look like I have copies of any of those pictures.
It also happened to be the 50th birthday of one of our hiking mates. The staff baked a beautiful cake and we celebrated with a lot of Peruvian wine. It was a great night with great people, we went to bed happy and ready for our final day of hiking along the trail.
We woke up the next morning to another absolutely beautiful day. Salkantay, which had been shrouded in clouds the evening before, was visible through the window of our room and was completely spectacular.
We got to sleep in a little bit (till 6:30), and after a good breakfast and saying goodbye to the staff, we headed out into this.
As we dropped further and further the vegetation became more lush, and eventually we started seeing small villages and huts along the way. About 2 hours in we took a break in front of a home on the path…
…where this couple lived.
We (meaning the guides) talked to them for a while while the group regrouped. They asked how to say a few things in English (we practiced “have a nice day”), then we were on our way again, across a few waterfalls…
…and out of the altitude. Everyone (literally) breathed a big sigh of relief. Eventually we made our way down to the river running through the valley…
…went over the saggy bridge and up the hill to Lodge #3.
We arrived to a whole meal of guinea pig and other local cuisine. After a delicious lunch of local produce and guinea pig (yes, I ate some…Susie refused), we had some time to hang out. Some people sat in the chairs in front of the lodge…
…overlooking the valley.
A few people played volleyball with the staff…
…and a few others went down to the river we had crossed to do some fishing…
…with a piece of string.
Directly across the valley from our lodge was a pretty significant landslide, and we spent the better part of the evening watching two cows slowly slide down the side of the mountain.
(Apparently landslides weren’t uncommon in the area, in the opposite valley across from the lodge was a town whose name literally translated to “Big Scary Landslide.”)
That evening, after a delicious dinner (and a few drinks), some of the staff performed a traditional dance for us involving a creepy mask and a whip.
Masks are everywhere in this region of Peru, there are festivals in a number of towns that involve dancing for days wearing masks. There is even a town named “Black Underwear” because of one of these festivals held there and all the women wear masks and short skirts and do this dance where they flash their underwear, which is black (obviously).
So, naturally, there were masks lining the wall of the lodge. A guy in our group named Bob really liked one of them.
The group met in the lobby pretty early on Day 3 for a little extra instruction on our climb to the top of the Salkantay Pass.
Before we start, a little bit about the Salkantay trail. Salkantay (meaning “Savage Mountain” in Quechua) is the highest peak of the Cordillera Vilcabamba part of the Peruvian Andes. It lies directly to the South of Machu Picchu and is one of three main trails that lead from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. The Salkantay trail is less traveled than the Inca trail and, with higher passes, is known for being a more challenging route.
Salkantay and Humantay (the glacier responsible for the glacial lake the day before) lie next to each other, and the Rio Blanco valley (through which we were about to hike on Day 3) wraps around Humantay Peak and along the West side of Salkantay, through the pass.
So everyone was a little nervous, we’d be hiking about 2,600 feet in the first 2 or 3 miles to the pass it up over 15,000 feet in altitude (the highest I’ve ever been). After that, we’d be heading back down hill towards lodge #2, which was at approximately the same altitude as the first lodge.
So we set out…
…into the mountains.
As mentioned above, we started our hike up through the Rio Blanco valley. The first hour or so was similar to the previous day, gradual uphill on some grassy slopes. We passed a few signs letting us know that we were headed the right direction.
About an hour and a half into the hike we hit the Seven Snakes, a particularly grueling set of switchbacks up the side of the mountain.
It was no joke. The group took a break about halfway up.
Upon arriving at the top of the Seven Snakes we found ourselves in a really cool open, grassy plateau with a small, green, glacial lake.
It was here that Leo (our leader) told us the hardest part was coming up, that from here on out it was probably a good idea to shut up and save your breath for breathing (not that anyone needed that reminder) and just focus on getting up to the top.
So as we climbed into increasingly rocky terrain, that’s exactly what we did.
And before we knew it, we were there.
…and took it all in.
We actually didn’t get to hang out at the top for too long, the leaders wanted to make sure no one stayed at that altitude for more than about 20-30 minutes. So we snapped a group shot…
…and began our descent…
…down into the Scottish Highlands.
OK no not really, but that’s what it looked like. Complete with the stone walls and fog.
After another 30 minutes or so heading downhill, we arrived at a yellow tent set up in the middle of nowhere.
We were served an amazing meal of pasta, hot tea, and a horror story from Leo about a woman on one of his trips who suffered severe altitude sickness at the second lodge…where we were heading…and how he and a few staff from the lodge had had to literally run her down the mountain on a stretcher, in the rain, in the dark, with an oxygen tank, giving her shots of epinephrine so that she didn’t go into cardiac arrest. It was horrifying and did a wonderful job of freaking everybody out.
Stuffed and hyper-sensitive to any sort of headache we might feel coming on, we continued heading downhill into a wide, flat, green valley.
Our stay at the first lodge was 2 nights, to allow the group a little more time to acclimate to the altitude before we hiked over the 15,000+ foot pass on Day 3. So on the second day of the trek, anyone feeling up for it had the option of doing a shorter hike (4-5 hours) to a glacial lake not too far from the lodge. I brought my bikini.
After the first day a few people in the group were a little bit nervous about exactly how strenuous the remainder of the trip would be. So as we set out, everyone was ready for a repeat of the near-hypoxic situation that had occurred the day before.
We had to cross a few rivers, but the majority of the hike up was a very gradual uphill on a kind of grassy/rocky terrain.
About an hour and a half in we took a break…
…and hiked a little more…
The water was crystal crystal clear and so blue, it looked like something out of a beer commercial. So inviting. …but it was also coming off a glacier and about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. And we were pretty high up.
But two of us decided to go in anyway.
And, after hyperventilating, we dominated.
We hiked around the lake a little bit, took few pics…
…then started heading back down…
…to the lodge…
…were the staff was playing a pickup game of soccer.
Day 2 was much easier than the first day for everyone, people were more apt to go their own pace, and I think it instilled a little more confidence in the group as a whole that we might actually make it over the pass the following day.
That night we had a delicious dinner, went to bed early, snuggled up with our hot water bottles, and got ready for an early morning.
The next morning we were picked up by Johann, our assistant leader, in the hotel lobby at 7am.
We had 13 people in our group:
A German couple from Dusseldorf. Very German.
An international businessman / man of mystery and his British lady friend
7 guys from Michigan on a Mancation
Me and Susie
Because our group was so big we had two mini-buses to take us to the trailhead. Susie and I rode with Johann, who picked us up along with the Europeans. We drove about an hour and a half along some paved roads and through some mountains….
…and stopped in a small town for a bathroom break.
After about 15 minutes hanging out in town (the locals were thrilled to see us, if you can’t tell from the lady’s face in the above picture) we hopped back in the buses and headed up a narrow, windy, dirt, mountain road for another two hours to a town called Mollepata for lunch. It was here in Mollepata that we saw our first guinea pigs being fattened up for slaughter.
After lunch we hopped back in the van for another half our or so, we pulled over where the trailhead hit the road. We got out, covered ourselves in sunscreen…
…and finally, started hiking.
The first part of the hike was rolling green hills with cows and horses wandering around, surrounded by mountain ranges. Much of the group (before they started keeling over from lack of oxygen) re-enacted numbers from the Sound of Music.
I would like to pause here and take a moment to note that at this point we were somewhere around 10,000 feet: lower than Cuzco, and significantly lower than the pass we were going to be crossing, and still you could feel the altitude (the lodge we were hiking to was at 12,690 feet). Like, really feel the altitude. Uphill was not easy. Many a Michiganite was struggling.
Back to the hike. After about an hour and a half of uphill hiking we stopped to take a break and got our first good view of Salkantay (the snow covered mountain in the background.)
As we continued we walked along some aqueducts originally built by the Incas…
…and parts of the trail were a little precarious (picture 6 inches of sometimes wet, loose, rocky trail and long vertical drops to the bottom of a ravine. With more rocks.)
It cooled down, shadows started getting long…
…we had some amazing views…
…and finally, after about 4.5 hours, we arrived the lodge, cold and tired.
Everyone was excited to be there.
We were greeted at the front door with hot tea and warm towels, instructed to take our shoes off, and go relax by the fire. We obliged.
The lodge also had a jacuzzi…
…and hot water bottles in the bed (which freaked me out the first night when I jumped into bed).
It took me a while to get this going, but I finally got around to it. No promise it’ll be good, but it’s better than nothing. So with that, here is the first installment.
Day T-3: We Depart…and Arrive
My flight went Cincinnati–>Miami, where I met up with Susie. We flew down the Atlantic coast of Florida alongside a really awesome electrical storm that was happening just off the coast (even the stewardess got her camera out).
My attempt to capture it was a fail. But you get the idea.
Landed in Miami, hung out with Susie at the Admirals Club (um, they have showers in those things…I had no idea) and caught our overnight flight to Lima. I took an ambien and tried to stay awake while I ate dinner on the plane, which was fun (couldn’t tell you what I ate, or if the food made it into my mouth). Landed in Lima at like 4 am and finally caught our flight to Cuzco around 9am.
After landing and a short nap we decided to go check out the city and get acclimated to the altitude (>11,000 feet).
Cuzco is pretty awesome, we wandered around the Plaza de Armas, where both Inca leaders Tupac Amaru I and Tupac Amarau II were executed (thank you Kim McQuarrie, Last Days of the Incas)…
…and walked to Plaza San Blas, which is up some ridiculously narrow streets.
Up there we had some delish cous cous soup, and Susie first learned that Peruvians eat guinea pig.
Day T-2: The Sacred Valley
The next morning we woke up to gorgeous weather and were feeling pretty good, so we decided to make a trip into the town of Pisac in the Urubamba Valley. Instead of taking the minibuses (which costs about $1.50) we went through the concierge at our hotel and got a car and driver for the whole day for about $60. Traveling with Auntie Susie has its perks.
After a 45 minute drive down through the mountains and into the Sacred Valley, we arrived at the ruins at Pisac.
Our driver told us the Incas planted crops like this for three reasons: 1.) they could test how well different crops grew at different altitudes (apparently the variation in height from one level to the next makes a difference); 2.) it was easier to irrigate this way; and 3.) it looked nice.
We did a little hiking to prep ourselves for the upcoming trek…
…heard some good mountain flute music…
…and then made our way down to the open air market that happens every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.
That night Sue met a couple in the hotel bar that had just returned from the same Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) trek that we would be embarking on in 2 days, and they invited us to come tour some of the local Cuzco ruins with them the next day. So we did.
Day T-1: Sacsayhuaman, Tambo Machay, Puca Pucara, and Quenqo
The next morning we woke up to absolutely BEAUTIFUL weather again. We met up with the couple and a friend of theirs, Maribel, who was a local. She agreed to be our guide for the day.
After a minor debacle of trying to get four gringo tourists onto a packed, public minibus, Maribel decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and the 5 of us squeezed into one taxi, whom we paid to take us around to all 4 ruins.
There are four “ecological sites” surrounding Cusco. First up was Sacsayhuaman (aka “sexy woman”):
This place was awesome.
It has the biggest rocks in the area. Apparently some of the rocks were actually moved to the site from across the river, but they don’t know how the Incas managed to get them across. There are theories that maybe they dammed the river up, but no one is sure.
And of course, they had llamas.
Next up was Tambo Machay, the sacred bathing place of the Inca rulers.
This place was equally as cool, and apparently the water in these springs hasn’t dried up since the time of the Incas.
Next up was Puca Pucara, a smaller fortress that was probably used to defend Cuzco.
…and finally, Quenqo.
We heard two stories about what Quenqo was. One said it was a temple where death rituals and sacrifice took place, another that it was a temple for fertility. Who knows.
On the way back down we got some nice views of Cusco.
That night we said goodbye to our new friends and went to the pre-trek meeting for Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP), where we met our second group of new friends who would be joining us on our trek.