Friday, 29 January 2016

Caminos del Inka (August 4-8, '08)

me at intipata

probably 4 of the best days ive spent in my life. hard to describe, fotos dont do the place any justice. you may as well buy a postcard or something. machu picchu is nice, but theres way too many tourists there. it kind of feels a bit like a theme park instead of a spectacular ancient ruin. having said that though, it is set in such a beautiful location. even though i probably won´t go back there any time soon, im really glad i saw it for my own eyes. i preferred the other secluded ruins along the trail where the tourists were lacking. its such a shame the spanish killed off the might of the inka, but in that lies part of the beauty and mystery of it all i guess. i imagine the world would be a very different place today if it weren´t for pizarro, but then again we could say that for so many things. one of the coolest things i think was what our quechua guide (jovenil) told us about all the places that havent been seen yet by the western world. the places that lie deep in the jungle and beyond where anyone sane is willing to travel, or places where the greedy or insane travel in search of great treasures, but never return. these places only the local villagers know of, but even they wont dare to venture there, as they know the places are still guarded by headhunters, people who don´t want their ´el dorado´ to be found by the outside world and tarnished through tourism in the way that machu picchu has been.

near the beginning of the trail

day 1
4am start. i was staying in cusco at the house of my peruana friend ceci. ive been living with her in arequipa where she studies, but she was home in cusco for the holidays. i had to be at the peru treks office in cusco at 5 to get on the bus. the bus drove around collecting the rest of the group from various hostals and hotels in town, and we were off to ollantaytambo which is an hour and a half from cusco. our group consisted of 13 people; a kiwi, 3 americans (a mum and her 2 sons), 9 english. we also had our main quechua tour guide, an assistant guide from cusco, a chef, an assistant chef, and 20 porters. these guys do alot of work, and i can see why the trail is pretty expensive to do. in nz we would carry everything ourselves; food, tents, clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, etc... but here they won´t let you do it on your own. a few years ago it was like that, but the trail was overrun, filled with rubbish and not taken care of. whoever wanted to go on the trek could go. it was being destroyed, and thats the reason the rules have changed. now numbers are restricted, the trail is clean, almost completely rubbish free, and well looked after.
we had our breakfast at ollantaytambo and started to get to know each other. i bought several snacks in that little town. i also bought a walking stick and something to carry water in. then we were off to km82, the starting point of the inka trail. as i said in my previous post, the urubamba valley reminds me of the matukituki valley. the way the mountains form, their cliffs and their crags, the river flowing through, and the bloody mosquitos! the matukituki is my favourite place in the world, so im not going to take anything away from it. the beginning of the inka trail lacks the greenery of new zealands west coast, and whereas in the matukituki you are lucky if you find another tourist, here on the inka trail there are a quite a few. having said that though, it is easy to find yourself alone there because of its size, and it is easy to feel isolated from the rest of the world. we came across our first really cool inka ruin (willkarakay) after a couple of hours of walking. many of the ruins have been restored to what they looked like during the inka times, but many restoration and reconstruction projects, including some in machu picchu, have been shoddy. there are always archaeologists working on the sites which kind of ruins a good photo opportunity in many places, but good on them for doing what they do.
we had our first lunch, and i kind of felt like a posh person on a safari or something. the porters had put up a tent for us, and the extravagant meal consisted of 3 courses, which seemed kind of ridiculous considering our location. avocado with veges for an entree, followed by a creamy vegetable soup, followed by the main which included trout, rice, a yummy sauce, and more vegetables. i was a little bit surprised by the quality and the amount of the food. but then again, booking the trail was not cheap. another couple of hours after stuffing ourselves and we´d reached our first campsite at wayllabamba. i was lucky enough to get a tent to myself for the 3 nights. one of the things about doing the trail is that everything is organised for you. when we arrived at the campsite the tents were already erected and waiting for us to put our bags in them. perfect really. at wayllabamba i indulged in a few beers with the others before having dinner and heading to bed. its possible along the trail to organize personal porters if you are having trouble carrying your things. they dont come cheap (70 soles, approximately $NZ35) per day, but some in our group needed them after the first days hike. it must be said almost all the toilets along the trail are squatters; good quality squatters they are, but smelly to the max! some people obviously dont know how to use them properly, and alot of these people have a very bad aim. hot showers are also non existent until the third night. everybody sweats, but nobody notices the smell, because everybody smells. along the trail on the first and second days there are little stalls where the local villagers sell things to keep up your energy. chocolate bars, soft drinks, water, etc. these do not come cheap but are at times necessary (especially the water, since the water from the urubamba river and the small streams nearby are not recommended for drinking). you get breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day along the trail with the tour, and even though the amount of food is large, sometimes thats not enough to keep you going while youre walking along the track.

looking back down the urubamba valley

the ruins of willkarakay

dinner on day one

morning of day 2 (at the first campsite, wayllabamba)

day 2
one of the porters woke us all at 5.45am with a hot cup of tea which was a fantastic way to start the day, since the nights can be bitterly cold along the trail. breakfast consisted of pancakes, bread with jam (unfortunately no nutella), and tea or hot chocolate if we wanted it. this was the same every day. then we prepared all our things, left the tents for the porters to sort out, and headed uphill. the second day of the trail is the most difficult. you have to climb 1100 metres, and when you start the day at 3100m above sea level, most people are going to have difficulty with the climb. the second day is all about the challange. there are no inka ruins along the way, and i guess people would be too tired to be bothered looking at them anyway if they were there. after 5 mins along the trail we saw the pass we had to reach (abra warmiwanuska, 4201m above sea level). it looked rather daunting. the pass was very close to the peak, and it was possible to see the snow capped ´nipple´ (as the peak, according to our guide, looked something like a breast) for most of the climb, which was rather demoralizing. i didnt have too much trouble though with the climb. having recently done a bit of trekking in northern chile at 4500m or so above sea level, and having climbed mt kinibalu in borneo a couple of years ago, i was used being at altitude. i was the first in our group to reach the pass after 4 hours of climbing and a small tea break. our guide indicated the last place we could buy water before the next night, so i bought a big 2.5 litre bottle for 7 soles ($NZ3.50) before doing the final climb to the pass. while i was at the top waiting for the others to arrive, clouds began to roll over the mountains and the weather became cold and windy. it was an ominous sign, but before i knew it, i was heading back down (a 600m decension) to the second campsite (runkuraqay) and the sun was shining. the weather on the trail is very changeable, and just like on the new zealand trails, there can be 4 seasons in one hour. when i arrived at the campsite of runkuraqay at around 2pm, once again my tent was waiting for me. so i changed into my non-sweaty clothes, sat down, started to read a book of peruvian short stories, and dozed off for a little while. i was awoken at 4pm or so by a strange pattering noise on the roof of my tent. the pattering soon changed to a thundering as the rains came in hard, but i felt secure in my tent and was never in danger of being drenched while i was in there. soon afterwards though, i had to leave it so i could have dinner. i donned my rain jacket and ran to the tent, where one of the guys from our group was boggling the minds of the rest who had risen from their afternoon siesta with his sneaky card tricks. dinner was served, some people who had trouble carrying their bags organized personal porters for the next day, and bed time was upon us. since there is no electricity along the trail, the only source of light is the one that you bring and the gas light that the porters carry for us to have dinner in our tents. so after dinner, theres not really too much to do except watch more card tricks, or go to bed, read a while, and sleep. that night was quite hard to sleep. the rain became heavier, and thunder and lightning soon joined the party. the thunder roared for longer than i have ever heard before, and the lightning was very close to our campsite. most of the roaring was the echo crashing through the edge of the andes where the campsite is situated. we were near the bottom of a valley, and after a while when the hard rain wouldnt stop i began to worry about flash floods. having barely survived a tsunami in thailand 3 and a half years ago, i have developed some kind of fear for a sudden suprising rush of water. but at about 3am the rush of rain and the crashing of thunder suddenly ceased, and i was able to have a few hours of much needed, uninterrupted sleep.

some kind of bromelia attacking a helpless tree

heading back down from the highest pass to runkuraqay campsite

me - trying to sleep but way too much thunder, lightning and rain outside

morning of day 3 - runkuraqay

day 3
the best and most beautiful day. woke up again with a 5.45am start, clear blue sky, and a cup of canella (cinammon) tea. the first part of day three was uphill. but after 45 minutes or so of walking we came to the ruins of runkuraqay, which our guide explained was a resting place for inka messengers who were running along the trail. as i mentioned earlier, the inka had no written language, so the majority of the messages were vocal. but the inka also had another way of sending messages. they had a kind of abacus called a ´quipu,´ which was obviously used for counting, but nobody knows exactly how it was used. the locals believe it was used to send messages from one inka site to another, but what it was exactly used for will remain a mystery forever. the view from runkuraqay was beautiful, looking down over the valley to the campsite we had just left. but while jovenil was giving us a tour of the site, the clouds started to roll in again. its amazing to see how fast they move and the directions they move in when they are right beside you. it almost seems like a magic fog that wants to do battle with everything you can see. in the space of 30 seconds you can be staring down at a beautiful valley view with blue skies above, and the next thing you know you can barely see 5 metres in front of you before its gone again. we arrived at the next pass a little while later, and then it was downhill for a while before reaching the next ruins of sayaqmarka and qonchamarca. this is the place where the rainforest starts to take over from the mountain range, and the scenery changes to greenery. the ruins here are spectacularly hidden in amongst the forest and you can get a real sense that it was a place almost forgotten. its easy to feel the weight of the mystery that exists behind these ruins, and i left them with an amazing feeling of wonder. after leaving there we had lunch, and then took an amazing walk to the next pass, where we had our first view of aguas calientes, the town just around the corner from machu picchu. so we knew we were pretty close to our final destination. the path took us through the beautiful cloud forest, through tunnels made by the inkas, along dangerous precipices where the path grew thin, and eventually all the way down thousands of steps to the third and last campsite. just before reaching the campsite its possible to walk off in another direction to a ruin named intipata/yunkapata. this was my favourite place along the entire trail. it is a series of terraces built by the inkas for the purpose of farming and is almost completely void of tourists, as most people want to get to the campsite as fast as possible and lie down after an exhausting day. the view from intipata is spectacular with the mountains of the urubamba valley in the background. i saw a couple of racoons running along the path on the way back down to the campsite, the first time ive ever seen them. also on the third day we saw a wild deer and a heap of orchids. there are over 300 species of orchids along the trail along with other interesting, colourful flora. the third campsite is the only one with hot showers, a restaurant, a bar, and a shop. if you want a hot shower you have to get in quick. it costs 5 soles, and like most people, i paid it. i decided to take my shower after a few beers, which was a mistake. my 5 soles went to waste. the showers were just a little warmer than the temperature that is so cold that you cant breathe. i breathed a little and washed very quickly, almost as quickly as i washed when i used to shower under a waterfall when i was living at a vineyard near queenstown. but afterwards (after donning my thermal underwear) i was rather refreshed, ready for dinner, and unprepared for the treacherous weather that was soon to come. on that evening we had to give our tips to the head porter, porters, cook, and assistant cook. all of this was very confusing as we had to work it all out in a group, figure out how much we were each going to give, gather all the cash, gather all the guys, and then give it all to them. the trekking companies advise you to give a certain higher percentage to the people slightly higher up in the chain, so we needed a calculator and several brains to figure it all out. i had the best spanish in the group so speech duties were left to me. i thanked them all for everything they had done for us, said how impressed we were that the porters carry around 25kg´s each along the trail while wearing sandals, how impressed we were with the food, and then we shook hands with each while giving them their tips. a lot of the porters wouldnt have understood me anyways as most of them were locals and only spoke quechua. after all this was done, it was time for bed.

snow on the mountains from the previous nights storm

ooh, lovely birdie!

qonchamarca, the first ruins as the sierra turns to the selva

jovenil giving one of his talks to the group at sayaqmarka


heading up into the cloud forest

looking down at intipata and machu picchu mountain (machu picchu is on the other side)

about to walk through one of the tunnels


day 4
I heard a pattering on my tent at around midnight. the final night was the loudest of all. the thunder crashed and echoed louder and longer than on the second night, but i thought all would be alright as it would stop before the morning came just as it did on the morning of day 3. it didn´t. the lightning show continued until 4am, when we were supposed to wake up. of course i was already awake, but i didnt get out of my tent til 4.30am. i stepped outside in the pouring rain and ran rapidly towards the tent to have breakfast. we were supposed to leave at 4.30 so we could see the sunrise from the sungate of machu picchu, but it was rather pointless as there would be no sun to see. so we took our time, hoping that the rain would stop. it didn´t. at 5.30 we walked along the slippery trail, rain still falling, beaming flashlights in hand, and as the light of day slowly began to trickle through the clouds the rain slowed down, but didnt stop. we turned our flashlights off. we walked. after 2 hours along a skinny slippery trail with some long way down right angle cliffs we finally reached the sungate and had our first view of machu picchu. the first view was incredible, and the clouds around the site gave it a rather mystical appearance. id been wanting to see machu picchu with my own eyes for ten years since i first heard of it, and it was rather emotional to finally be there. sungate is about an hours walk from machu picchu itself, so from there we had to walk downhill to the site. the inkas amazingly designed the sungate so that every summer solstice the sun would shine directly through the sungate and into the temple of the sun at machu picchu. as we arrived at machu picchu, the rains stopped but the clouds remained. we got our view of the postcard picture and then had to go down to the office and register. there was quite a queue. it is not allowed to take big packs into machu picchu because before there were incidents of theft (of inka stones, etc), so only small packs are allowed. after waiting in the queue for about 15 minutes and then dropping my bags off, getting my ticket, and waiting for the rest of the group, i felt hungry so i looked at the cafe there to check for sandwiches. about NZ$10-$15 for a sandwich.....hmmmm. i ate my last chocolate bar that i´d stored in my jacket pocket instead. then we had a 2 hour tour of machu picchu from our guide. we had do alot of waiting as other groups finished their tour of each specific section, listen carefully because there were so many people around talking, and try not to accidentally punch anyone while we were trying to get past them. there are an estimated 3000-4000 tourists per day that visit the site, and that kind of ruined the ruins just a little for me. luckily i saw some other great ruins along the trail. it was really interesting to learn about machu picchu though. our guide gave us a very detailed perspective of all he knew, and also of his opinion of what he thought the site actually was. jovenil was very proud of his inka heritage and all througout the trail was very vocal about his disappointment in the spanish invasion of the 15th century. even though the spanish never reached machu picchu or any of the sites along the trail, it was destroyed a little by the forest taking it over. in 1911, the american historian hiram bingham didn´t discover the lost city of machu picchu, as it was never lost. the locals knew it existed, and they were using its terraces for growing crops like potatoes and corn. all he did was fix it up, make it look slightly good, and get famous. the site looks much different than it did back then, as about 40% of it has been restored or reconstructed. but signs of the inkas intelligence still remain. the mathematics of it all is rather mindboggling, the perfect stones that fit perfectly into one another, how one place seems to connect to another, how everything points in specific directions that relate to certain days of the year, certain stars, certain nearby mountains and towns, how the structures are all earthquake proof, how the irrigation systems still today run perfectly for miles (above and underground), and all of that done without the use of surveying tools more than 500 years ago. all of this was amazing to see. the theory of our guide was that machu picchu was, as well as a place for living, a place for education, something like a university. but nobody will ever know exactly what it was; in fact, nobody will ever know its real name. after the spanish invasion in the 15th century, the inka were almost completely wiped out. the foggy breath of war engulfed almost all inka history. almost all knowledge of the culture disappeared, including the names of almost all of the inka sites. most of the names of the sites along the inka trail were thought of by hiram bingham when he was exploring in the early 1900´s, but some have since been renamed since the locals disagreed with his theories of what the sites actually were. during our 2 hour tour the skies cleared alot and we had some great views of the surrounding mountains. after it finished we had a bit of free time to ourselves. we could hang around the site a while, but we all had to meet at aguas calientes in the early afternoon to have lunch. i hung around a little while longer before taking the bus down with some of my group. we had until 9pm in aguas calientes which gave us about 8 hours there. and what is there to do when you have 8 hours to spend in peru´s most expensive town? drink! yep, after lunch we said goodbye to our guide, paid him our tip, and headed to the pubs of the cute little town. well, some of us did. others took a much needed massage or went to the hotpools (which supposedly have a deserved reputation of being rather unclean). after drinking several beers and pisco sours we all joined up and met with our assistant guide, had dinner, and then ran dizzily with our backpacks fastened for the train journey to ollantaytambo, which is about an hour and a half long. a good place to sleep. then the bus from ollantaytambo to cusco. another good place to sleep. we arrived back in cusco at around 1am, and the 4 day inka trail was officially done. a quick goodbye to the rest of the group who were great company over the 4 days. a fantastic 4 days that i would thoroughly recommend everyone to do. but make sure you book it about 6 months in advance, as it is incredibly popular. the company i chose to do the trek with was peru treks. i chose it because they treat and pay their porters well, and also because its one of the cheaper operations. the trail with them cost US$425, but that doesnt include hat, sunscreen, mozzie repellent, and all those other things you really need along the trail.

my first view of picture postcard machu picchu

the clouds slowly lifting

then the archaeologists were away on smoko

the inka did strange things with rocks

me and machu

having a few drinks in aguas calientes with the crew

and the and my inka girl after a few pisco sours......hmmmmmmm