Elke’s Peru Adventure
After sending countless clients to Peru, I finally got to go to Peru. In late September I boarded my red-eye flight with Air Canada to Lima. Air Canada is the only airline that offers nonstop service to Lima and a red eye flight is a great way to maximize travel time and save money on accommodations. I arrived in Lima on the morning of Day 1 of my trip, literally, with red eyes. After negotiating a cab ride to my hotel, I was lucky enough to be able to check into my room and take a long nap.
It’s Spring in Lima and overcast and grey 99% of the time. It was also cool and damp around 16c, making warm clothing a must. Around mid-day I was picked up for my culinary tour (which was an optional add on offered by G). First, we visited a local market and sampled some exotic fruits like cotton fruit. There were countless other fruits and vegetables I’d never seen before, so I snapped away with my camera as my guide showed me around the stalls.
Next stop was the Fisherman’s wharf, which left much to be desired. It was basically a 10 minute walk about the unimpressive jetty, dotted with local restaurant owners to offering touting their ceviche as the best. Maybe we were there on an off day? The last stop was a seaside restaurant where I was instructed by the chef on how to make authentic ceviche and Pisco sour. After sampling my creations I was dropped back at the hotel and around 5pm met the rest of the group I would be trekking the Inca Trail with.
We left for the airport early the next morning for our flight to Cusco. I was eager to get to Cusco to see how I would react to the high altitude. At 3,400m above sea level, altitude sickness is something that almost every traveler worries about when going to Cusco and hiking the Inca Trail. The local remedy is to drink tea made from coca leaves, which yes, are the same leaves cocaine is made from. It tastes similar to green tea and is recommended to be taken with sugar to enhance its effects: increased energy, reduces nausea and upset stomach and helps improve blood flow and oxygen uptake. Some of my fellow travelers decided to take prescription medication for altitude sickness, with mixed reviews. A few took the medication for the duration of the trip and still reported some altitude sickness or other side effects (like diarrhea), while others ditched it after a few days and felt fine. I’m a bit of a hippy, so I stuck with coca tea and the occasional Ibuprofen pill. I still experienced symptoms like breathlessness, trouble sleeping and headaches, but nothing I couldn’t live through. It’s all part of the adventure, right!?
Cusco is a small, clean, extremely interesting city. Known as the bellybutton of the Inca Empire it served as its capital for hundreds of years. Incan foundations still stand with Spanish colonial buildings built over top, a reminder of the sad history of colonialization in Peru (and all of South America for that matter). There are dozens of little alleyways and streets, historical buildings, churches and squares to explore. One could easily spend three days in Cusco before venturing further afield.
Being the touristic hub of the country you can find almost anything in Cusco: from trekking equipment to $400 Alpaca sweaters, I had Alpaca steak for lunch and drank German beer in an Irish pub that night two blocks away. There are also many local agencies that you can book excursions and treks through, however, if you are looking to do the Inca Trail chances are if you’ve waited until arriving in Cusco to book, you won’t get a permit. The government has 500 permits available per day for the Inca Trail. This includes trekkers, guides and porters. In other words, book early!
That evening, we had another group meeting with our Inca Trail guide and few new trekkers. The guide went over the day to day plan, answered our questions and gave us his background. After the meeting, you could feel the excitement and anticipation building. We were each issued a small duffel bag to pack our Inca Trail gear into, which could weigh no more than 6 kilos including our sleeping bag. It was not an easy task packing. The old saying “pack half as much and bring twice as much money” certainly applied.
On my second day in Cusco I spent more time exploring and that night, we boarded a private bus to Ollantaytambo; the jumping off point for all Inca Trail treks. Descending from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (sitting at about 2,600 m) made for a restful night’s sleep. I awoke the next morning excited and ready to go. After a short bus ride from the hotel to Km 82, we met with our group of porters and the frenzy of last minute re packing and preparing began. The porters weighed each of our bags and announced the weight. If the bag was over 6kg, that meant put something in your daypack or give it to the bus driver to be picked up after the trek. I had to sacrifice a long sleeve shirt and fleece vest to scrape by at just over 6kg. Shortly after, we headed to the first checkpoint where our passports were cross referenced with our Inca Trail tickets. Before we knew it we were passed to gate and on our way. I won’t get into details about the day to day of the trek, but rather give my thoughts and experience as a whole.
I’ve never done anything like the Inca Trail before, actually I’ve never really done any serious trekking before, so I went it with no expectations and an open mind. I knew it’d be difficult and I’d feel dirty and tired but I tried not to overthink it. I thought for sure I’d cry at least once, which I did, but not for the reason I expected.
It was the kind of experience that forces a group of strangers to bond quickly. Even though some people were able to get to the top of Dead Womans Pass faster than others, or easily run down the thousands of stairs after it, we all went through the same challenge together. We all experienced the same disgusting toilets, delicious food and breath taking views. By the end of it, we all felt like family (sharing way too much personal information) and I dreaded going back to “real life” and loosing that special, unique bond we created.
Our guide, Percy, did a fantastic job of bringing us all together. During the meeting in Cusco he asked us to “open our hearts”. Initially, I thought it sounded a little corny but I knew what he meant. A few others in the group (mainly those dry Brits) thought it was really corny. But sure enough by the end of the trek, even the most guarded girl in our group had opened up. On the second morning, Percy introduced us to all 22 porters. They told us where they were from, their age, if they had kids. We, in turn, introduced ourselves to them and it was a great way to form a bridge between us and them. It felt a little less like they were here to help us and more like, we are all here as a team.
On the third day we were asked to take a stone from the Pakamayu River near our campsite and carry it with us. After a few hours walking, we reached a second high pass (near the Runkuray ruins) where Percy told us an Inca story about the Andean philosophy on reciprocity. For hundreds of years the Andean people have practiced Apacheta; a ritual of piling small rocks taken from the banks of a river and carried up to the summit of the mountains or high passes. It is a symbolic way to leave behind any sadness, anger or negativity and wish for something better and positive. At the top of the pass, Percy asked us to take our stones and find a place to perform our own Apacheta ritual. After, he played us two beautiful songs on his flute and told us a story about a father and son who had both walked the Inca Trail with him at separate times in their lives and how it had changed them. It was such a beautiful moment; you can imagine a few tears were shed!
Percy would share stories after dinner every night about some of the more interesting groups of people he’s guided for; like a family of Scots who wore kilts and carried their own backpacks for the whole trail and flashed the camera at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass ; the group of Japanese tourists who marched in single file like an army and ooooeh-ed and awwww-ed at all his explanations. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. The landscapes, ancient ruins and physical challenge is what everyone expects to remember, but he was a big part of what made the trek so memorable for me.
On last day of the trek Percy asked us if we thought the Inca Trail was the best way to get to Machu Picchu, we all agreed, “Yes!”. “No”, he said, “it’s the only way to get to Machu Picchu.” We all agreed. Of course, not everyone is physically able to complete the Inca Trail trek but anyone with reasonable fitness and the desire to do so, can. When you arrive at Sun Gate on the final morning, look down at Machu Picchu and reflect on all you did to get where you are it’s a truly amazing feeling: You earned the right to be in one of the Inca’s most sacred cities.
The family regrouped in Aguas Calientes at a restaurant after our tour of Machu Picchu around lunch time. We sat around a huge table reminiscing about our trek over cold beer and roasted Guinea Pig. I won’t lie, the table was mostly silent when we first arrived. Most had their cell phones in front of their faces updating statuses and reassuring loved ones they had survived. After lunch we hopped on a train back to Ollantaytambo and a final bus ride back to Cusco for the most looked forward to hot shower of all time.
My last day in Cusco was actually spent outside of Cusco… a strike the day before we started the Inca Trail prevented us from touring the Sacred Valley, so it had been rescheduled for the end of the tour. The Planeterra Womens Weaving Coop was the first stop, then we drove on to Pisac and finally Ollantaytambo. Pisac is the place to do your souvenir shopping; it has a large artisanal market. Always barter with the vendors but try not to get too petty, $5 makes a much bigger difference to them than it does to you. There is also an interesting ruin site near Pisac with the largest Inca burial site to date. The Incas used to mummify their dead in the fetal position and place them in natural hole and caves in the mountain side. They believed this was returning them to the “mothers’ stomach”.
The last stop on the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo, is a beautifully preserved Inca town with a still functioning Inca drainage system and nearby ruins. As impressive all the ruins were, having seen Machu Picchu first, I felt slightly underwhelmed although I loved hearing more about the Inca’s history and culture.
I spent my final night in Cusco meeting my new group mates for the Amazon portion of the trip and saying farewell to my trek mates. A new adventure begins…
A 30 minute flight from Cusco in the hot and humid Amazon basin sits Puerto Maldonado. From the airport it’s a 45 minute drive to Infierno (Hell) port with a pit stop in town to transfer your jungle gear from your bag into a duffel bag. From the port it’s a 2 ½ hour boat ride up stream to the Tambopata Eco Lodge. En route we were lucky enough to see Capybara, macaws and other birds which gave us a taste of what was to come. The Tambopata River is brown (like the chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) because of the minerals in the water and the reserve boasts the largest biodiversity in Peru. There is no electricity in the rooms at the lodge, but candles and lighters are provided. After settling into my room and enjoying a candle lit shower, I joined the group in the lobby to start our jungle night walk. Armed with headlamps and cameras, we spotted dozens of insects and even a large Gecko and tiny snake!
The next morning after breakfast we travelled further upstream to visit an Ox Bow lake. From the river to the lake we walked on a trail through dense jungle with some 300 year old fig trees and “walking” palms amongst other species. We saw bullet ants (named so because it’s bite feels like getting shot at close range), army ants, leaf cutter ants, dozens of butterfly species, a tarantula our guide coaxed out of its hole with a leaf, a species of monkey (can’t recall the name!) that even our guide was excited about seeing, and a white crested owl.
Half the things we saw I am still baffled that my guide spotted. At the lake we boarded a shallow canoe and slowly cruised around. The lake was filled with Piranhas who loved to munch on crackers; we saw colorful birds, sleeping bats and even nest of newly hatched chicks! Upon returning to the lodge we had lunch and a quick dip in the nearby swimming hole (which we later discovered was also popular with the piranhas). Later that afternoon we visited a local farm that supplies the lodge with its produce, sampled some exotic fruits and even munched on a few termites! The final activity was a night cruise in search of Caimans. Our “eagle eyes” guide spotted several for us before returning to the lodge. En route, they cut the engines on the boat and we let the river take us down stream. I stuck my head out the side of the boat and took in the Milky Way and endless stars, trying to absorb everything I had experienced.
On our final morning while travelling back to Puerto Maldonado we were very lucky to come upon a large group of Macaws feeding on a clay lick. Our guide said it was the “cherry on the cake” as we had been so lucky with wildlife viewings thus far.
After the boat-bus-office-bus-airport trip I was back in Lima. My last night out on the town with new friends consisted of wolfing down delicious sandwiches, an all-girl rock band at the local Irish pub, way too many beers and about 30 minutes sleep.
An 8 hour flight later: back to life, back to reality.
If you’d like to see more of my pictures, please visit my Flickr page!
July 31, 2018