Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cold Shower, Anyone?

August 24, 2012

This morning, we start the morning with coca tea since our camp site is still near the peak of Dead Woman's Pass and the altitude for a few of us has been challenging. And, considering how long it took me to finish the last day's trek, I'm recommended to get myself together and start out as soon as possible. I'm not sure whether I should be offended or not but I take the suggestion to embark early: today is our longest hike of ~11km.

The morning is a bit rougher than the last since I notice my face is more tingly and numb than during the last few days. I poke at my cheeks while I try to wake up; it's another 5am wake up call. After breakfast, AW and I head out and after about 20 minutes of hiking, we turn back to see the rest of the camp packing up.

When we turn back around to continue, we see a flash of brilliant blue darting in and out of the bushes: a hummingbird! And this time, he's close but they sure do move fast. So fast that getting a good photo was not a possibility.

It doesn't take long for everyone else to catch up (including the porters) and I've returned to the back of the group. But the view is phenomenal.

We're in the cloud forest and there are literally clouds everywhere and it's difficult to see what's around us. But off we go again--back up. 

We're told the Incan rest station is around here somewhere... I look out into the fog... and just as my eyes settle in one area, the cloud parts and the rest stop becomes visible:

It's stunning up here: our surroundings are changing every minute and we see the ecocystems changing before our eyes. There is another ruin at the top of stairs but we're too pooped to go up. We continue on our way while the others decide to check things out. I don't know if I regret not taking the chance and pushing myself to get up there but I figure, maybe I'll come back one another time to do this again. I mean, why not?

A rest stop with llama and our goofy guides in the background:

The hike is challenging in a different way than what we did on the way up to Dead Woman's Pass. This time, we notice that the trail is more "groomed" than the other areas. What do I mean...? The trail is paved with rocks! Everything is meticulously placed so that the trail is walkable and intentional... considering I feel like we're scaling the side of the mountain with little room for error. Dimas is certainly right that this portion of the trail has some of the most beautiful flora (you'll see a yellow orchid). In addition to the nature around us, the Incan engineering feats astonish us.

I can't even remember how long we had hiked but we finally reached our lunch destination on top of a beautiful plateau with gorgeous surroundings. It is amazing to take in the scenery around you not just for the visual beauty, but to know that you've climbed all that. I walk to the edge, look down and notice that there is a small clearing with what seems like people running around... playing soccer?!! We're told that while it took us several hours to arrive, our porters have been here playing soccer while waiting those several hours for us! It took them around 30 minutes to get to this point. I sheepishly walk over to the lunch tent.

During lunch, Saoul makes an announcement that it's time to meet our porter friends who've been carrying all our stuff and keeping life bearable. I don't think people usually take enough time to do this--get to know the people who work to make their lives tolerable. I reflect on this though as we wait for everyone to gather and realize that if I was left to do this on my own, I probably wouldn't make it.

The porters are waiting for us as a large group on a stunning backdrop of clear blue sky. We learn that many of the porters of this group come from 1 specific village in the Sacred Valley. While many are farmers, they also range in age from 22 to 67 and we meet each one and they meet us. We also learn that all the porters sleep together in the single food tent and there is also always 2 who sit awake throughout the night to keep watch as security for us. As I sit and watch the translations back and forth, I begin to see the humbling looks dawn on us tourists as we learn about their lives and come to the awareness that these people are truly inspiring--not a single one of us could possibly do what they do and keep a content smile on their face during the entire trek.

This lunch is an enlightening experience for me and I get going with a different perspective. We head down this plateau over uneven stone stairs and walk past another ruin. I hear water though. It's imperative to have a water source anywhere and it's no different in the mountains; the Incans always built around a water source. I approach the ruins and see a stone fountain with water continuously spilling out: the porters come down here to get water to carry back up the stairs (and they boil all the water) to our lunch spot...

This ruin is really neat because we get to walk across the stone bridges and across their water ways built with stone. I find a seismic disc in the ground. Geologists place these throughout the Andes to record tremours.

This is a long way down. We're told that there is a lot of down until we reach our camp site for the last night. I have never seen so many stairs in my life--my heart sinks. Dimas gushes to us "you will see the most beautiful Incan stairs very soon". "Ha ha, funny, Dimas." We really don't think he's being funny as we're all pretty tired from going down. My knees are burning and I just want to stop.

But look at the spiral stairs that the Incan built! In going with the seismic detectors, don't forget that these trails have been here for centuries even through the tremours that regularly occur in the Andes.

Look at the terraces that have been built into the side of the mountain face:

We have options to either go the "long way" and check out that ruin, or to take the "short cut" and head to the camp site before it gets dark. I consider the options and the thought of being here only once, does cross my mind. But my body is screaming at me and is insisting that I arrive at camp, as soon as possible. So, we skip the ruin and continue our downward decent...

This camp site is placed on areas where terraces have been created. There's rumour that there are showers and bathroms nearby! I am excited until I hear that they're cold showers--remember that all the water here is coming directly from the glaciers and it's freezing! It's getting dark and I continue on another day without bathing and head to dinner.

Dinner conversation is filled with some nostalgic talk amongst our group and with our tour guides. They bring up the awkward conversation of gratuities and give us an idea about how much to expect to tip. I think it's probably a western perspective that this should be so awkward. Frankly, I'm of the school of thought that if you did a good service, then you should be compensated for it. Not much time to think a lot about this since we get a... surprise?

The chef made a cake for us!!! There is no electricity so an oven can't possibly exist! The cake is moist and fluffy. We end the night both thanking and praising the chefs and the porters. It is truly a life chaning experience. But, it's time for bed because we're expected to get up even earlier than the last 2 days... we're getting up for 4am to get to the queue to get into the park. That's right folks, we still have to hike for about 1 hour in the morning. *le sigh*

We call it a night and head to our tents soon after dinner and guess what? It starts to rain...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Day 2, 1000m+ Up

August 23, 2012

We're nowhere near any noisy roosters who do in fact get up at first light but no matter; we get our first early morning wake up call by Saoul (our assistant guide for the trip) for 5:00am. "Wakey wakey!" The nerve!!! If I had something in my hand, I'm sure I would have thrown it at Saoul! As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I was unsuccessful during the night to keep everything in. So I was pretty cranky the next morning.

The things I take for granted though: since we need to get up at 5am, the porters presumably need to get up even earlier to make breakfast, boil water and get us a basin of hot water along with the set-up of all the dining tent supplies/equipment. Since a good bunch of the porters sleep in this tent, it means they all need to be up and atom so that we can eat for 5:30am. Who knew, the sun actually is out at this time.

Once we get dressed and pack our day bags, we start out on the hike again and leave the porters behind with our tents, duffels, dining tent and all the other camping stuff. It can't be more than 30 minutes or so when we hear foot steps racing up behind us and we turn around and see porters heading our way in determined fashion!

The weak tourists humbly make space on the trail as we each start to realize that the porters have spent the time to dissemble our campsite and repack everything only to be racing past us within the hour. In addition to porters hiking past us, local women with their children also leave us in their dust.

The forest is different than the one we walked through yesterday; things are semi-rainforest-esque with vines and other moisture gathering succulents. There are also an increased number of stairs on the trail.

Many of us are taking many more breaks than we did yesterday. Taking a few steps forward felt like a tremendous effort us disheveled low altitude dwellers. But our guides Dimas and Saoul seem to be strolling comfortably up this section of the trail.

As we continue to push ourselves up the never-ending trail, we don't really notice that the vegetation is changing around us and becoming more and more sparse in appearance. The leaves become smaller and the trees turn into shrubs and bushes. We're leaving the tree line of the mountain and getting closer and closer to the Dead Woman's Pass.

The first official rest stop was possibly the most deceiving experience of the entire trip. At this point, the altitude is making the medication make my face, hands and feet tingly and numb. The higher we go, the worse it gets. I poke my face hoping to feel something...

Getting me through this portion of the hike is a real effort. I stop many times huffing and puffing while wishing I had done more training before coming out. I'm the last of the entire group for the better part of the hike and it takes Dimas and Saoul their greatest amount of patience to encourage me through this portion. Looking back at what we've accomplished...

 Llama checking us weak-sauce tourist out.

A young porter resting his load.

Getting closer and closer! Look at how much we've climbed today: we're now past the tree line and only grasses and small shrubs can be seen growing here.

Finally, we made it! It's very windy and cold up here. We take some pictures, marvel at our own physical work and continue.

All that up... for what? So that we can go right back down!

Dimas told us a story of a tourist in his charge who lost some hope at some point and refused to continue. He carried her down these steps while I look back at the decent...

We are entering the cloud forest. With so much effort exerted today, few pictures are taken once we complete the Dead Woman's Pass. Instead, we arrive at our camp site and do little but regain our energy for day 3 of the hike.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On the "Camino Inca"

August 22, 2012

I spent the night packing all my stuff. We're permitted 6kg pp which must include any of the equipment we might have rented: like sleeping rolls or hiking poles. Six kilos isn't much, really. Each porter that works on the trail is regulated to bring a maximum of 25kg on their backs which must include things like stools, tents, cookware, food, personal belongings and our 6kg duffel. My day bag contains a rain coat, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and a sweater.

The bus ride is a build up of what's to come; we see the country side whizzing past us as we approach a wide rushing river: the Urubamba River flanked with the periodic groups of what remain of small Incan village settlements. With a flick of my head back, I pop my next dose of altitude pills and get ready to start the trek of a lifetime: we arrive at Kilometre 82.

Day 1 of the trail is relatively easy: the incline isn't intense. The expectation is to hike for approximately 6.5 hours before we reach our first camp site. On the trail, we pass lots of locals who actually live along the trail and farm this way as well as traverse these trails on a regular basis. To them, this is just another day.

Unfortunately for me, I probably opened my mouth while taking a shower and I'm experiencing some gastrointestinal distress. I pray that I can keep in control for the duration of the hike where there is no toilet. The plan for us to ease into the 4 day hike, before we really get challenged, is well appreciated.

This representation of the hike is taken from a website that we read before coming out this way. As you can see, day 1 is a steady climb up the mountain. Day 2 has us leaving the tree line and making our way to the highest point in the entire climb: Dead Woman's Pass--which is 1500m up from where we started. During 1 day, we hike ~1000m; but, that's tomorrow and today, we're easing into our trek.

Our first stop is a rest stop where I'm desperate to use a toilet. Keep in mind that I have never had a true camping experience that involves a small hand trowel and toilet paper. I'm told the bathroom is around the green patch, behind the rest stop. I skip to the open green patch and see fresh water rushing past part of the path as it makes its way down the mountain--something I'm not used to seeing. I hop over this little stream and make my way to the simple buildings which house the facilities. I brace myself for what's to come; I get flashbacks to my first time using a squatter toilet in Taiwan. I take a deep breath and push open the door and see a porcelain sink in the ground?? This must be some sort of mistake, I think. How am I supposed to do this?

I exit the stall with a defeated frown on my face since I wasn't as successful as I hoped to be with this challenge. I quietly drag my feet back to the rest stop where I eat a snack and relax before starting off once more.

We are blessed with several Incan ruins along this first portion of the hike--maybe to keep things interesting for me. Or maybe even to help the nobility who took this trail, get through it in some form of luxury. That's right, I forgot to mention that we're told that the 45km trail we're on was originally reserved for nobility and that the much shorter, and less dramatic, trek to Machu Picchu was reserved for the common class--why anyone would want to do the longer more challenging one is beyond me. But that's modern day westernized thinking. I'm sure that the Incans coveted physical fitness and the natural beauty that we witnessed.

Patallacta is the first significant Incan ruin we see. The town, with its 115 dwellings guarded by a hilltop fortress, probably served as "a pit stop for Incas traveling between Cusco and Machu Picchu".  Despite the altitude of 2,438m, its agriculture was sufficient to support about 5,000 people because of the dozens of Inca stone canals that transport river from glacier-fed streams.  However, today this irrigation has been lost (A Trip to Ecuador & Peru).

We don't get to see Patallacta up close but we visit this other Incan station.

We walk for some time along the Urubamba River and by the early afternoon, we stop for lunch near the river. What's on the menu? Trout.

Since the altitude also slows one's metabolism and digestion, we have an opportunity to rest after lunch before starting back out again. The hike of this portion is starting to become a bit more challenging--but nothing that I don't feel I can't handle--given plenty of rest stops!

I make a friend when we take a rest in front of one of the local's home:

Our guide Dimas tells us that the first camp site we'll be staying at is a great location because it's just past a large incline and it's also away from the small farms (see roosters) and noisy animals... as long as we can get past the fact that this will be the most challenging bathroom situation we'll endure for the entire trail. How could this be worse than the sink in the ground?

The camp site belongs to a local lady who rents out her land for tourists like us. We arrive and our tents are already all pitched for us. Amazing.

Now, I was talking about that bathroom situation? I don't know how long you've tried to keep it all in before but there is no way you can survive without needing to go at least once. And let's face it, guy or girl, we'll each need to do our number 2 business in the exact same fashion. So get ready for the true Andean outhouse: a hole dug out of the ground with sticks placed sturdily across the sides without a door but a wall of twigs and leaves. Lucky you, I didn't snap a picture for you!

The weather is pretty chilly and as night falls, it doesn't get better. I decide to sleep with a sweater and heavy pants on. Good thing we got our sleeping bags to be rated for -1C. I'm not the praying type but before turning in for the night, I say a little prayer, to ask whomever would listen, to let me get through the night without needing to get up to use the "bathroom". I'm unsuccessful... :(

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Full Immersion into Andean Culture

August 21, 2012

We have 1 day to get used to Cusco's altitude. I haven't felt any of the typical symptoms related to altitude sickness: dizzy, naseau, headache. But, I have been huffing and puffing on the stairs up and down, in the hotel. Lucky me, to be placed on the 4th floor and there does not exist any elevators here. The evening before, we're briefed about the parameters of our hike and the plans of what to expect. First thing: we're only allowed max 6kg in our personal duffels, on the trail. Why? Porters are government regulated to only take 25kg max; and they're already carting our tents and other equipment. We're expected to take a day bag with us and refill water on a daily basis.

We start the morning by departing our Cusco hotel (Prisma Hotel) and getting on a mini-bus and head to the Sacred Valley in the district of Urubamba. Our first stop is one of G-Adventures projects in mountain village of Ccaccaccollo. While the men of the area are tilling their fields or work as porters, the women are making a living while working with various camelid fibres; such as alpaca, llama or Vicuna.

 Feeding alpaca.

Did you know that dark coloured animals are associated with good things? In our society, darkness is typically associated with evil or other sinister things but in Andean culture, the opposite is true. If you look at healthy soil, it is dark--almost black in colour. The dark colour is representative of fertility and thus, life.

We learn about the way in which these women are able to make a living making the traditional blankets and scarves they have always made. Thanks to G-Adventures and their initiatives run by Planeterra.

In addition to their fibre operations, we learn about their their most popular crops: potatoes and corn.

The purple maize is used to make an alcoholic beer called chicha. It's amazing to learn that here, they grow the various strains of potatoes and corn that we have only ever heard about--these are staples in their diets! And so tasty too--I love their potatoes!

Too bad that I'm feeling pretty crappy since we went further up in elevation and at this point, I'm barely standing. I feel pretty bad but look at this view of the Sacred Valley:

Our next stop is an Incan ruin that I'm not sure the name of and here, the group (minus me) learned about the agricultural flats that the Andean people used in the mountains.

I feel as awful as I look... and you can't tell but I'm chewing on a wad of coca leaves like a baseball catcher does tobacco.

Our final stop is Ollantaytambo; this is both an active city as well as an Incan archeological site. The Incans were not a massive group of people to start... they conquered many tribes in the Andes and grew their empire by force too. This is one such group. The Incan conquerer made this site his personal estate and you'll see that the agricultural terraces are numerous:

Ollantaytambo is a place where ancient meets modern; the people who live here use the spring found near the foot of this archeological site. I didn't snap a photo but I found the natural mountain spring where this city is based upon. Literally, there is a rock and it's as if water just springs up out of nowhere! The entire city is served by this water through aquaducts and such.

We had dinner at one of the restaurants that flanked the city center and I had alpaca. One word for the fuzzy little creature: delicious.

Our hotel is the Inca Garden and we notice that the beds are equipped with thick heavy blankets. It's the middle of winter for these people and it can get below freezing temperatures here. Time to prepare for the trail...

Monday, September 10, 2012

We Enter the Incan Capital

August 20, 2012

The city of Toronto's elevation ranges from 75m to 209m, depending on where you are. And, the CN Tower is a blip of 553m. Today, we've gone from basically sea level (in Lima) to the Andes, in Cusco at 3,399m. When I get off the plane, nothing is drastically different but I do notice myself huffing and puffing up the stairs when we were settling into our hotel (we were assigned a 4th floor room and they don't have elevators); maybe it's just the bags I'm toting.

The main objective to arriving early is so that we can take a day or so to acclimatize to the drastic change in elevation. We do little other than get the briefing of what's to come and, the opportunity to learn some more about the great Incan city of Cusco by our tour guide, Dimas. We stroll some of the streets on the way to the main Plaza de Armas to see some of the massive Incan built walls which have been incorporated into various buildings now.

The architectural prowess that they possessed is impressive: you see that the stones used to construct the walls did not require any mortar to be put together and each stone fit snugly against its neighbour.

This perfect fit was done with a purpose: to maintain its structural integrity through any tremors. And that is in fact true because of the fact that earthquakes are a common happenstance in the Andean regions and yet, these great walls are still standing. I'm totally excited for the Inca Trail now.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Start of Adventure and a Full Belly

August 18, 2012

It's early Saturday morning and I'm heading to Terminal 3 at Pearson International. Just as I thought that early Saturdays was over for me, here I am waking up at what seems like the crack of dawn to catch a plane. I'd still rather be sleeping...

As usual, the airport is a maze of both people and counters. I'm just glad that I'm not in a more foul mood because heads would roll. Our first stop is Miami: Wikipedia considers the Miami area "Equatorial Monsoon". The last time I was in Miami was with my brother and my mom when we drove to see the Florida Everglades, from Orlando. It rained poured buckets frequently. Nothing different this time either.

We arrive in Lima, Peru, pretty late. But, G-Adventures has sent someone to meet us at our arrival gate so that we are safely brought to our hotel, Hotel La Castellana in the district of Miraflores. Albeit, tired, the drive was a nice break from the ~6 hour wait in the tin can. Already, things look different.

It's time to put my head down and rest.


August 19, 2012

Finally! I don't have to wake up to a croaking alarm clock; instead, I get up because my body isn't used to the bed's texture. *el sigh* Time to drag myself out of bed to get my morning routine started. GADZOOKS! I exclaim, as I shovel a handful of tap water into my mouth to rinse. It's too late now... I just hope that I don't get myself sick. Better to use the UV'd tap water sitting on the sink (courtesy of AW).

It's about now when my mental state has started to turn around and I find myself genuinely excited to be on vacation; and I now derive interest in where I am and what's around me. Turns out, Miraflores is not near the downtown of Lima but a district outside of the main center.

Getting a taxi is a different experience--not that I have much experience hailing a cab in Toronto, but I've never had to bargain for the price of fare to get from one place to the other. With the limited Spanish we had, we settle on paying the driver S/.15.00--which apparently is a fair price.

The Plaza de Armas of Lima is (not surprisingly) Spanish inspired. The city is overcast with cloudy days and some light fog; it's winter now. But even then, Lima typically receives little annual rainfall  and while it's a bit humid, it's chilly.

There is a Sunday celebration parade that we're lucky to witness. Lots of colourful costumes, young people parading throughout the center of the city and just being happy (we later find out that this parade is a frequent Sunday event, in honour of a saint).

Deciding on lunch was one of those things that AW was both excited about yet wary because the last thing either of us wanted was for one of us to develop a gastro-intestinal issue prior to getting on the Inca Trail. But as usual, as internally conflicted as AW can be, we settle on getting lunch in a small hole in the wall of a restaurant... and we eat ceviche and Cuy. Cheers to adventure!

After lunch (and not having our insides explode in the bathrooms), we take a stroll to see one of the (many) churches in the core. It's not surprising to see the number of very ornate churches and the influence of Catholicism in general. We visit the Covento de Santo Domingo de Lima and Monastario Francisco. The Monastario is really cool... the "Catacombs" where you walk through and see the numerous human skeletons arranged in nifty geometric designs was particularly unusual. No pictures of people's graves, thank you. UNESCO world heritage site, check.

We cap our afternoon off and head back to Miraflores and walked around the Parque Kennedy.... more like CAT PARK!!! I've never seen a parkful of friendly felines just interacting with everyone. All of them strays too. I think I died and visited my crazy cat lady house. After AW pries the kitties from my clutches, we head back to the hotel to meet our Customer Experience Officer and the other members of our Inca Trail. The group is a mixed bunch of people from as far as South Africa to England and California and as new as 22 and as youthful as 62. Miro, our CEO is thorough and I'm already a little apprehensive about how I might handle the altitude but up front, I'm strong like bull, I insist to AW.

The day has already been a whirlwind of adventure (and risk) from where I accidentally drink the tap water, eat a rodent and walk through a church's eerie catacombs to view those who have been laid to rest there. As things usually go, for AW and I, we ended the night on an opposing note when we head out to the Pacific Ocean to dine at La Rosa Nauticca.

This restaurant is more than we had thought it was... this was high class dining and I was still wearing my Nike cotton tshirt and Lululemon pants. Go me! Just when I thought we already stuck out like sore thumbs, we stroll into a fine dining establishment in athletic gear without reservations or a lick of Spanish. Despite this series of awkward moments, we were seated on their patio (this restaurant is actually situated on the Pacific Ocean) away from their regular (appropriately dressed) patrons. That's ok b/c it meant that the seafood poo-poo platter we ordered could be eaten in whatever fashion I felt like eating it.

It would be noted that prior to this seafood platter, we had yet another platter of ceviche. And that empty glass is the remains of a picso sour.