... I say with a look of deep contemplation, gazing out over the gorge.
"What?" says Alyssa. After a moment of both catching her breath and catching the joke, "Oh wow, Chris. That was awful."
I think I see the hint of a smile flash across the faces of the Swedes though.
"C'mon. Let's see who can get a rock all the way to the river."
We all pick up stones and launch them, pathetically, into the valley, leaning over the edge to watch them plummet 300m down to the bottom. We are all frightened to lose our balance and thus our lives, so no one gives it their all, and ultimately, no one manages to reach the river. They bounce down the sides of the cliff until we can't see or hear them anymore.
"God! We all throw like a bunch of girls," I say. This is offensive only to me, the sole guy in our 5 person group, and this time, I am almost positive I see a smirk.
We dust our hands off inefficiently on our dirty pants and take one last glance back at the 700 year old Inca trail we've just hiked into the steep sided canyon of the Sacred Valley. 2 more days of this and we'll reach Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.
"Right then," I grunt, throwing my backpack over my shoulders, "Let's rock."
Alyssa just shakes her head and sighs.
"Aha. That was funny!" laughs one of the Swedes.
Third time's a charm.
After scratching the little red spots on her legs until they bled, Alyssa looked up and heaved a sigh of relief. The plane had finally landed on the dirt track of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, where we were waiting to leave the Amazon to head off to begin our Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Wednesday the 12th of May... and we needed to be in Lima by the 23rd for the latest. It was time to begin our mad race across the former Incan Empire.
The flight back to La Paz was as stunning as the flight down, and we managed to catch our first glimpse of the flat blue patch of the altiplano that was Lake Titicaca, one of the world's highest navigable lakes, and the birthplance of the Inca Gods.
We got into La Paz and hurried downhill (thankfully) panting while we re-adjusted to the high altitude, hopped into a colectivo (maxi-taxi) that was headed up to the Lake and took off. Thanks to being stuck in Rurre because of the strike, we were behind schedule, so it was imperative to rush.
After riding 1 colectivo, 1 cargo barge, and 1 trunk of a station wagon, we reached Copacabana, a small town on the edge of the Lake, having raced from Jungle to Titicaca in under a day. It was impressive. (the timing and the lake itself)
We sat down in a cafe on the beach and watched the sun set over the reed boats pulling into mossy jetties. I whipped out the Bible and Gloria and began planning.
Sketching a makeshift calendar on the back pages, we counted off our days, averaged out times for buses and plotted sights we wanted to see. It was going to be a tight fit. We had to do the whole of Isla del Sol (The island in the middle of the Lake where the Inca Gods were born), in one day, PLUS catch an overnight to Cusco, Peru.
"Righto," I said, "Let's eat, sleep, and buy the first tickets for tomorrow's boat. The pace-race is on!"
So thats what we did.
We got onto the first boat, leaving at 8, and made it to the Isla del Sol for 10.
It was warm and sunny, the Lake was beautiful and cool... and the ruins were... well... disappointing. Granted the pre-Incan civilsation that lived there was, well, PRE-Incan. We still thought that there would be more to see than a Sacred Rock that is supposed to look like a puma roaring (which gives Titicaca its name in Quechua Titi-Lion, Caca-Rock) and a Stone altar from which the Gods birthed the first Incan leaders.
We set sail from Isla while the sun was low, and reached Copacabana by sunset. We took our sweaty selves straight to the bus terminal (a corner store on the plaza), and set off for Cusco with what felt like a high-school reunion of travellers we had met along the way from BsAs to Bolivia.
The Peruvian border control was easy. The guy asked me whether I needed a Visa, and how long I was supposed to stay for.
No I didn't, and I think 60 days?
He shrugs and stamps me in. Peruvians clearly just don't care. I bid farewell to my Bolivianos, stocked up on Soles (Peruvian currency) and headed into the cultural heart of Peru.
We arrived in Cusco at 5 in the morning, bleary eyed and reeking of bus (there is a peculiar aroma that develops in buses when they are full of travellers who rush from 9km hikes straight to overnight trips in sealed tin cans). We were accosted by the regular medely of locals handing out pamphlets to their hostels. "Agua caliente! Matrimonial? Only 30 Soles!" etc etc. We foudn the first cheap place we could that would put us up that late/early in the morning and crashed... hard.
When we eventually did wake up and clean up, we explored the ancient city of Cusco. Some interesting facts about Cusco: It was originally founded as the Incan capital; it's shaped like a Puma (all major Incan cities are shaped like something...Machu Pichhu is shaped like a Condor, for example); it suffered several horrific earthquakes that leveled the later colonial buildings, leaving the Incan ones standing (they developed earthquake proof engineering early on); The colonial buildings that were spared (the Churches) are just magnificently ornate--easily comparable to those in Europe. Easily.
We patrolled the cobblestoned streets amidst the churches and the plazas, remarking about how clean and pretty a city it was (easily the nicest so far), and uncomfortably rubbing shoulders with the massive quantity of other tourist that were milling around. Strangely, after spending so long travelling with backpackers, the sight of a tour group of 20, 50+year old Americans with their straw hats, straw accents, and socks/sandals combo was more of a culture shock than I've had being in the whole of South America. We survived to book a trek to Machu Picchu two days later, through the jungles of the lower Urubamba (the river that cuts through the Sacred Valley and winds its way around Machu Picchu), smoked some Arabic hookah in a French restaurant run by Peruvian locals, and packed it in for another good night sleep.
The Sacred Valley
Deciding that Machu Picchu wasn't enough of an Incan education, we decided to spend two days hitchhking through the Sacred Valley (a gorge along the Urubamba river that was home to dozens of Incan towns/forts/cities/etc). The trip was a great success.
Some highlights: Alyssa's first, mega-excited, successful attempt at hitchiking; Playing in Moray, a former Incan Agricultural Laboratory; Best pizza of all time after a day without food (maybe a biased opinion); almost dying while climbing the ruins of Pisaq from only the second asthma attack of my life; etc.
Our route via pictures:
Chinchero: Nothing special, but as it was our first, we oooh-ed and aah-ed a lot.
Moray: the most interesting of the bunch. Giant pits terraced to allow for different soil, water, and seed experimentation with agriculture. Also, it looks really cool.
Ollantaytambo: Built in the shape of a mother and baby llama (which I couldnt see given its been built on since the 1200s...) and home of another sacred rock (lots of Sacred Rocks)
Pisac: High mountain fortress. Beautiful views we saw going the wrong way (Option 1: drive up, hike down, or Option 2: Hike up drive down.... we didn't know about Option 1, so we didthe climb up and almost blew my lungs out)
Saqsaywaman: The head of the Puma of Cusco, stripped down to build the cathedrals of the Spanish invaders, so that only the foundation rocks remain (These mofos are GIGANTIC!)
We reached back to Cusco just in time for our briefing from our Inca-Jungle tour to M.P. This is where things went wrong. We waited for an hour for the guide/group to show up, adn they never did. Remembering our difficulties in the jungles of Bolivia, we were adamant to have a guide that was not only worthwhile, but actually existed.
This is where Alyssa whipped out the most vicious North American indignation in the most beautiful South American spanish I had ever heard come out her mouth. Police were called, threats were issued, grown men were made to cry. I sat there, occasionally adding a "Si!" to the mix, but otherwise stunned to silence. In the end, our money was returned, we ran across the street and booked with another agency, and went to get drinks to celebrate our victory over the corruption of the Peruvian tourist trade.
The Inka-Jungle trek
Day 1: 2 Swedes, an Americans, a Trini, and a Brazillian meet in a gas station atop Cusco at 7AM. (sounds like the beginning of a bad joke). We climb up the mountain passes of the Andes in a little collectivo, moaning about the lack of oxygen, and more importantly, coffee. When we feel sufficiently high (4500M) we jump out and don our biking gear and hop atop our rented mountain bikes. Downhill biking is day 1. I pop in my iPod headphones, choose an appropriate playlist I had made the night before and followed the train of bicycles lazily down the mountain to the jungles below.
Unlike the Death Road in Bolivia, this one was paved the whole way and a pleasure to ride. After the break neck pace of the previous couple days, feeling like my mind and body were wearing down with over-saturation, 3 hours of wind in the face, glaciers in the background, riding was exactly what I needed. 3 hours later we dropped our bikes in another gas station, jumped into a raft and went whitewater rafting for an hour... just to make sure that we really got the point that day one was all about going with the flow. Gravity was our boss and that was the way we all liked it.
Day 2: Things changed pretty quickly. We had reached the nadir of our trip. It was ALL uphill from here. Day 2 was 7 hours of scaling precarious Incan trails along the gorge of the Sacred Valley. We traipsed through jungles of coca cocoa, and coffee plantations, arriving bug-bitten and exhausted at a small town precariously perched atop the buried mudslide of a former town (The Sacred Valley has massive landslides every 10 years of so--El Niño. For example, from January-April this year, Machu Picchu was closed due to landslides).
Day 3: As if we didn't have enough of walking (the girls were wailing about sore ankles by this point), we spent the third day walking along the Urubamba river, uphill, to Machu Picchu Pueblo. The walk was pretty, along the old train tracks of the village, but when afternoon came and the sun set, we were all overjoyed to see the welcome sign under the looming mountain of Machu Picchu. We mingled with the other tourists who had walked the 3day trail, or who had taken the more confortable route of cushioned train over 5 for 1 drinks. After a couple rounds, the tiredness overran the adrenaline of Machu Picchu and we knocked out, after setting the alarm for 3AM.
(Note: Picchu means mountain in Quechua. The lost city's true name is unknown, but it is built on Machu Pichhu--Old Mountain--so from that it bears its current name)
Day 4: 3AM we woke up like it was Christmas. We set off to the base of the mountain and found in the dark the ancient Incan-built staircase up the mountain. ALong with the other keen trekkers who wanted a view of the lost city at sunrise, we slugged upwards for an hour, piercing through the clouds to reach the entrance to the site while the light was now breaking.
We got out tickets for WaynaPicchu (The mountain in the backgrund of all the pictures, that only 200 people a day are allowed to climb) and gleefully entered the park.
There are few things like turning the corner along a cliff on a mountain and seeing Machu Picchu open up before you. It was spectacular. The morning mist covered the city in a quiet sleep, and the terraced grasslands were moist with dew. Then as the vista opened up and we breathed in the cool air, the sun rose over the mountains to hit the city built in his honour. The mist lifted, the stones began to warm and everyone shut up... and drank it in.
Soon the spell was broken by our tour guide showing up, and he began to lead us through the ruins, amazing the Brazilian engineer amoung us by explaining the Incan techniques for earthquake-proof building (the same techniques, she told me, were only implemented in the last 50 years by contemporary builders), or shocking the amateur astronomers amung us with the precision of the buildings in reference to the solstices.
No one knows what Machu Picchu really is, or what it really was. It was lost to record after the spanish conquest of the Incas in the 1500's, and only rediscovered by an American archeologist in the 30's. It is theorised to be a spiritual retreat for the nobility; a cultural nerve centre for learning (Incan University); a fortified citadel of last recourse; the kings summer home; etc, etc. Regardless as to its actual purpose, it is a true Wonder fo the World. It is magnificently situated in the middle of the mountains and has a feeling of... depth... that is rare outside its walls. (Even with the 20, 50+year old sandaled Americans running around with their straw hats and straw accents).
We mulled around the ruins for a while before climbing WaynaPicchu (Young Mountain), to catch a glimpse of the city from above to see if it really IS shaped like a condor. (You be the judge... i believe this one).
Then for the remainder of the day we lay in the grass on the terraces, watching the sun move across his valley lighting up his city.
The clouds brewed, the rain came, and we left content and fulfilled.
After soaking in some hot springs in the small village at the base, we boarded a train back to Cusco, glanced back at the mountain, re-dressed in her satin cloud nightgown, and nodded off to a well deserved sleep.
Onwards to Lima!
After spending one last day (and one epic night) roaming the streets of Cusco, Alyssa and I boarded a 22hour bus, hungover as shit, to Lima.
22 hours upping and downing over the Andes in a Peruvian bus is awful. If you ever have the chance to do it, don't. We arrived in Lima with our edges frayed. A night of sleep later and here I am. Made it. The 24th of May. The wild ride from Rurrenabaque to Lima in 11 days a success.
My body is drained, and my mind is fragile, so I am heading northwards for a while to spend some time 'relaxing' in the natural wonder of this country, climbing what the Bible refers to as "one of the most spectacular areas on earth": The Cordillera Blanca... the world's highest mountain range (outside the Himalayas) with 22 peaks over 5000m.
I will let you know if the Bible got it right.
All in all, my trip through the Incan Empire was a fantastic experience. Yes, Machu Picchu is what you think it is. It IS a fantastic place, and deservedly one of the new Wonders of the World. Go see it.
Thats all for now folks.
Until next time... enjoy the pictures. (I attached quite a few to the Photo Gallery this time)