the Long's Strange Trip

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Questing into the unknown...
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~  Inca Trails ~
March 1 through March 17, 2000
$1 U.S. = 3.40 sols
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Cusco, Cusco, Peru
March 1 through March 11

(ccl)  We arrived in Cusco after a (thankfully) brief layover in Lima.  We landed at around 11:00 P.M., headed for a hotel where we had made a reservation a few days before in Mexico City, and crashed as quickly as possible.  I should mention here that we flew a Panamanian airline, from Mexico City to Peru, and it was a great experience.  Brand new 737's, very nice service.  I highly recommend them.  I think they fly out of Newark in the U.S.  Another detail worth mentioning is that the Panama City airport has the cheapest liquor prices I have ever seen.  We paid U.S. $5 for a liter of Stoli Orange.  So, if you're ever in the Panama City airport, check out the shopping.  Now, back to our story...

We got up pretty early the next morning in order to get to the airport and get a flight to Cusco.  We had been told that this was easy to do at the airport, no need to make a reservation ahead of time.  Our trip through Lima back to the airport confirmed our suspicions of the night before.  Lima is a really grimy, smelly city, with bizarre traffic that demands only the most seasoned of cab and bus drivers.  Once at the airport, we got in line at the Aero Continente counter, because they had a flight to Cusco about an hour later.  After a couple of minutes of standing in line, we were told that the computers were down, and that they could not sell us a ticket.  We were kind of standing around, trying to figure out what to do, when I looked over and saw Wiley talking to a guy.  Wiley then waived me down and said, "Follow this guy.".  We began walking through the airport.  Apparently, this guy had asked Wiley if he needed any help, and Wiley said, yes, we need tickets to Cusco, and this guy said, "Follow me".  We were then introduced to two women, who took our passports, filled out some tickets, and told us to take them to the ticket counter and check in.  We somehow managed to communicate this, plus the fact that we would pay them U.S. $79 per ticket once we had the boarding passes.  I could not believe this was happening!  Who were these people, and how could they just sell tickets at the airport???  Well, we were able to check in our luggage, get the boarding passes, and pay the women for the tickets, all with no problem.  I guess they were travel agents hustling for a little extra business at the airport.

At this point we had only 15 or so minutes before our flight was supposed to leave, so we ran through security and to the gate our flight left from.  We handed our boarding passes to the gate attendant, who tore them and pointed to a plane on the tarmac.  We boarded the plane and settled into our seats.  About 5 minutes later, the guy who had taken our boarding passes came onto the plane to get us, letting us know that we were on the wrong flight, and that our plane wasn't boarding yet.  Hello, my name is Chaos, and I'll be your guide through the third world... 

Cusco's Cathedral at night  The flight to Cusco takes only an hour from Lima, but it is a world away.  When you get off the plane, you notice the fresh mountain air, which is a huge improvement over the polluted smog of Lima.  Cusco is  apparently often called the "Kathmandu of South America", and while I haven't yet been to Kathmandu, I can imagine why the comparison is made.  On the one hand, Cusco has a party atmosphere 24 hours a day, with numerous discos, restaurants, and bars, all working hard to earn your business.   It's also the logical beginning for trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, so there are hundreds of travel companies and camping equipment rental places.  But Cusco has so much more to offer.  The Incas called Cusco the "Navel of the World", and it was the center of their vast empire.  At many places around the city, parts of Inca walls are still visible, huge blocks of granite, cut with exacting precision and fit together perfectly with no mortar.  Perfect symetry of the Inca walls

Our first order of business once we got our luggage and got in a taxi was to head to the office our our Spanish school, ACUPARI, to check in with them and meet up with the family we would be staying with during the next 10 days while we learned Spanish in Cusco.  Once at ACUPARI, we met the director of the school, whom we had been emailing for several months, Amparo Garcia.  Amparo turned out to be one of our Spanish teachers as well, and she introduced us to Senor Miguel Landa, in whose home we would be staying.  Miguel took us via taxi to his comfortable home 10 minutes from the center of the city.  We had a big lunch (a Peruvian tradition, we found out), met the family, which consisted of Miguel's daughters, Claudia and Patricia, and Patricia's husband, Amadeo, and then crashed for several hours in the room.

I can't say enough great things about our experience at ACUPARI.  The school is run in conjunction with the German Consulate office in Cusco, so there are many German travelers there learning Spanish.  The first day of class for us turned out to be a field trip to the nearby ruins of Tipon and Pikillaqta.  Tipon was particularly interesting to us because the Incas used it not only as a area to purify and bless the waters coming down from the mountain, but also as a place to grow medicinal plants among the many terraces built from stone.  The Incas actually understood micro climates, and were able to grow important plants that are not indigenous to the mountain area on these terraces by bringing soil from coastal or jungle areas. 

On Friday morning we settled down for our first Spanish lesson.  School started at 9:00 A.M., but prior to that everyone stands outside their classroom and sips coca tea and chats.  Everyone speaks English, but we ARE in Spanish class, so we tried to speak Spanish with others.  It's so easy for the Germans to switch from Spanish to German to English!  It should embarrass all Americans that we speak only English.  We made many great friends at ACUPARI, and hope to meet up with them again one day on our travels.  Pisco Sour Day at ACUPARI!

We quickly settled into life in Cusco.  I guess this is a luxury you don't get during a two-week vacation.  Every morning, we got up at 7:00, had breakfast with Miguel, discussed (as best we could) Peruvian politics, then headed to ACUPARI for class.  From 9:00 to 10:30, Sandra was our teacher, then we had a 30 minute break for coca tea and cookies, and then Amparo was our teacher for the next hour and a half.  On our first day of class, we were given a test to determine how well we understood Spanish.  I don't think I did very well, but let me say here that I never took Spanish in school.  That's my disclaimer, and I'm sticking to it.  Wiley knows what he's doing, due to two years of high school Spanish, but even he said that he learned more the first day than he did in all of high school.  The format is that the teachers speak Spanish almost entirely, and only speak English when necessary to explain a word or a concept.  We did exercises in a book, and also conversed a good bit.  Conversation was hard for me, because I felt like I didn't have enough of a command of the language to even construct a sentence.  But things got easier as the days went on, and we both learned alot.  Most people were there for 4 weeks of school, and they truly learned  Spanish.  I would highly recommend this program to anyone who wants or needs to learn Spanish in a relatively short period of time.  They also teach German at the school.

After class every day, we returned to Miguel's house for a huge Peruvian lunch.  Claudia joined us for this meal, along with Patricia and Amadeo.  Claudia is a student at the University in Cusco, and she was on break while we were there.  She wants to go to Sao Paulo after graduation to work, because there are many jobs in finance there.  Amadeo and Patricia both work at a bank in Cusco.  We were told that the banking jobs are the best ones in Peru.  Miguel is a retired engineer, who now hosts Spanish students in his home.  He is a wonderful person, and we enjoyed his commentary on the political environment in Peru.  He reminded me alot of my own father, and even got up at 5:45 A.M. on the day we left to say goodbye to us once more.  Staying with Miguel and his family completely enhanced our visit to Cusco, and we will never forget their wonderful hospitality.   Miguel, Claudia, Patricia, Amadeo, & Christie

After lunch every day, we either fought off or succumbed to the urge to take a nap, then ventured into town for sightseeing or errands.  Our troubles with American Express continued into our time in Cusco, but by the beginning of our second week there, our travel funds had been transferred into our checking account, and we were able to pay bills.  This is probably a good time to talk about the prominence of the Internet cafe in tourist areas.  We've had no trouble finding them, but the price and speed of service varies dramatically.  In Cusco, you can get an hour at most places for 2.50 sols.  In Mexico City, we were paying about 10 pesos for an hour, but the speed was incredible - even faster than a T1 line.   The best advice I can give if you're taking a long trip is to make sure that your email provider allows you to access your email over the web.  All of the free providers, like Hot Mail and Yahoo! allow this, but we wanted to be able to download our email onto our computer AND get it on the web.  That's why we went with Speedfactory.

Cusco is full of interesting ruins, museums, and old colonial houses, and you can easily fill two weeks time exploring the sites and soaking in the culture.  Almost everything is cheap, from the U.S. $10 tourist ticket for all the major sites, to 17 sols for 6 kilograms of clean, folded laundry.  One of the highlights of the city is the Inca Museum, which is very well done, although none of the information is in English (yet another reason to learn Spanish).  We enjoyed seeing mummies from ancient Inca burial sites, and skulls showing early Inca attempts at neurosurgery Big holes in the head   Also amazing are the Inca temples at Koricancha.  Koricancha was an incredible Inca place of worship when the Spanish arrived in Cusco in 1533, with temples to the sun, the moon, and the stars.  Francisco Pizarro ordered the temple destroyed and a Dominican monastery built in its place.  Many of the original Inca walls were left standing, and while subsequent earthquakes destroyed the colonial buildings, the Inca walls were left standing, intact!  The Incas understood that building their walls on a slight angle, and anchoring them in a soft material, like sand with pebbles, would allow the walls flexibility during seismic activity.  One of the many amazing sites the Spanish saw when they arrived in Cusco was the Artificial Garden at Koricancha.  Written accounts tell us that this garden contained flowers and plants created by the Incas out of gold, silver, turquoise, and other precious stones.  It must have been quite a site!  Of course, the Spanish wasted no time plundering the place, as they had all over Central and South American, in the name of the Catholic church.  So, unfortunately, at this point, we can only imagine...  Artificial Gardens at Koricancha Today

Our other favorite site in Cusco was Sacsayhuaman, the huge fortress/temple that looms over the city on a hill above.  We arrived there on a rainy afternoon, and things were slightly soggy.  We were approached, as usual, by one of the many "unofficial" tour guides in Cusco, and I must admit that I was hesitant to hire him.  There is currently a big demonstration underway in Cusco by the "official" tour guides regarding the "unofficial" tour guides.  In Peru, you can go to University for 5 years to get a degree in tourism, and this qualifies you to be a tour guide.  OR you can learn another language, like English or German, read up on all of the pertinent information about the local sites, then pass a test, and PRESTO!  you're a tour guide.  Needless to say, the people who have gone to school for 5 years aren't happy about this, and there was a hunger strike underway on the square when we were in Cusco to protest this.  I must say that we had both types of guides while in Cusco, and they were all excellent, including Pacho, our guide at Sacsayhuaman. 

The archeologists disagree on exactly what Sacsayhuaman was, but popular thinking places it as yet another Inca temple.  As I said, it's on a hill overlooking Cusco, and it is quite impressive.  Some of the stones used to construct the walls weigh upwards of 300 tons!  There are many theories about how the Incas moved the stones to Sacsayhuaman to build the walls, but most people believe they used a system of tree trunks and ropes.  Once the stones were at the site, a hole was dug, and levers where used to upright the stone.  After seeing Sacsayhuaman, all I could think was, "What is the big deal with Stonehenge???".  Wall at Sacsayhuaman

After a hard day of sight-seeing, one must take a little time off to reflect on the day, and in Cusco, there are numerous places to do just this.  I called Cusco a cross between Breckenridge and New Orleans to a friend in a email earlier, and I think this is pretty accurate.  Everyone wants to give you a flyer about their bar or restaurant, advertising their special dinner or happy hour.  I'm thinking of selling t-shirts to the tourists that say, "No Tango Hambre", which means, "I'm not hungry", in English.  That way, people won't bother you to look at their menus.  But, hey, they're just trying to make a living. 

One of our main nighttime activities while in Cusco was meeting with our TANDEM partners.  TANDEM is part of the ACUPARI program.  It's completely voluntary, but encouraged, and ACUPARI is one of only three Spanish schools in Latin America that offers it.  It works this way: you are paired with a local person who is trying to learn your native language, and every day you meet for an hour or so.  During your meeting you speak Spanish half of the time and English (in our case) the other half.  You discuss current events, your life back at home, your activities while in Peru, etc.  My partner was a recent tourism graduate from the local University named Nury Sosa.  Nury spoke great English and certainly didn't need my help, but she really helped me.  Wiley's partner was a local teacher who hopes to moved to the United States one day soon.  We both really enjoyed getting to know these two great people and felt that it really enhanced our understanding of Peruvian culture and people.  Christie and Nury

One of the most amazing things about travel is that you meet all kinds of people.  I've already talked about the great folks at ACUPARI, both the students and the teachers.  We also met many Peruvians whom we formed lasting friendships with.  One night, while having a beer in a bar, we struck up a conversation with a guy at the bar who spoke great English.  His name was Arturo, and he invited us to his house the next night for dinner.  We went salsa dancing with him and two other new friends, Catherine and Florian from Germany.  Arturo seems to know everyone in Cusco, and, as Florian said, you never pay a cover when you're with Arturo.  Even Arturo's dog, Chaski, was welcome at the clubs!  Arturo and Chaski

If you're ever in Cusco, stop in at Rosy O'Grady's on Santa Catalina Ancha.  It's owned by an Irish guy named Charlie who came to Cusco on vacation, loved it, and opened a bar.  We spent a couple of very fun happy hours there, and got to know Freddy the bartender pretty well.  Freddy the Bartender, and patrons   We plan to spend tomorrow, St. Patrick's Day, there. 

On our last day at ACUPARI, Friday, March 10, Sandra took us to visit a local hospital where they have a clinic to dispense medicinal herbs to people who can't always afford traditional medicines.  This is just another example of how amazing ACUPARI is - Wiley mentioned that he was interested in healing with plants and natural medicine once, and they set up this visit for us.  When we got there, the director was out, so her 10 year old son, Joel, showed us around the herb garden, and told us how each of the plants was used to heal certain ailments.  TEN YEARS OLD!!  He gave us each a gift of some herbs, one in particular that is used to calm nerves.  Perhaps he sensed the stress I had felt earlier over this computer...  Sandra, Wiley and Joel

On Friday night, we packed our bag for the Inca Trail.  We were scheduled to leave at 6:00 A.M. Saturday morning with our tour group from the SAS company.  Deciding on which tour to go with on the Inca Trail is similar to picking a college.  Well, maybe I'm exaggerating, but it's not easy.  There's alot of companies in the U.S. $55 range, then the price jumps to about U.S. $90, and from there it spikes wildly to upward of U.S. $300.  One afternoon, Wiley visited about 10 places, and identified SAS as his favorite (Arturo had also recommended it).  SAS charged about U.S. $88 per person for the whole trip, but they promised a tent to eat in and Wiley just got a good feel about the place.  But after reading some information we had from the South American Explorer's Club, we became concerned that we might have gone too quickly with a low-quality organization.  One source told us that if you pay much less than U.S. $120, you're going with a shoddy organization.  So in order to do proper due diligence, we visited with a place recommended by the South American Explorer's Club.  These guys charge U.S. $269. and the only thing we could figure that was different about them was that they bought your bus ticket down the mountain from Machu Picchu, which costs 16 sols.  So we stuck with SAS, paid our money, and got ready for the trip.

The Inca Trail, Parts Unknown, Peru
March 11 through March 15
Day One: "This is easy!"

(ccl)  Day One - Leaving Cusco Behind  We arrived at the SAS office at 6:00 A.M., as directed.  When we went downstairs to get in the cab to leave the house at 5:45, we found Miguel waiting to wish us one last goodbye.

Several of our fellow travelers had already arrived, and gradually everyone met each other as we piled into the doorway of the travel agency (despite the fact that we had been warned not to be later than 6:00, no one was at SAS to open the place up until 6:20 or so).  There was Spacanica and Bettina, recently graduated doctors from Switzerland, who were traveling around South America for several months before returning home to face "The Real World", Bea, Georgia, and Martin, who had all gone to boarding school together in England, and who were also doing some traveling before going to university, and Peter, a mechanic from Switzerland.  After breakfast, we hopped on the bus and took off.  Our guide, Mauricio, popped up once to introduce himself, then crashed for the rest of the ride.

We made two stops on the way to the trailhead.  One was in the town of Urumbamba to pick up a couple of extra porters for the trek.  When our bus stopped. about 30 men surged towards the door, some o them extremely desperate-looking.  Mauricio picked two or three, then we were on our way again.  He later told us that he hates this part of the trip; that some of the men need the $20 for 4 days of extremely hard work so badly, and he feels bad that he can only take a few.  We stopped once more for a 30 minute break in the small ancient town of Ollantaytambo.  As Wiley and I wandered through the narrow, cobbled streets, we came upon an old man with a bundle of dried corn stalks, who beckoned us to follow him.  I was not for this, as we had only been given a thirty-minute break before we were to be back on the bus, and what kind of people follow strange old men around strange towns, anyways?  Us, apparently, because before I knew it, we were at the door to his house. He opened the door, threw the dried stalks on the floor, and made some little chirping noises.  All of a sudden, 25 or so guinea pigs came skittering from every corner of the place to munch on the stalks.  Guinea pig, or "cuy", is a culinary delight in Peru, and it was a little sad knowing these cute little guys would be someone's dinner soon.  The old man then beckoned us to follow him upstairs to see something else, but I exerted my full influence at this moment and insisted that we needed to get back to the bus, so we gave the guy a little money and said goodbye to him and his guinea pigs.  Cute little guys!

The road past Ollantaytambo was awful, and seemed nearly impassible at spots.  After much maneuvering, we reached the trailhead, called "Kilometer 82" because of its position on the railroad line between Cusco and Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu.  There are actually two Inca Trails, a religious pilgrim's trail and another communication trail.  We were taking the pilgrimage trail.  Wiley at the trailhead

We had paid $40 extra to have our backpack ported.  Maybe we didn't fully "experience" the Camino Inca (literally, in Spanish, "Inca Walk") because of this, but we decided it was better to enjoy the scenery than to struggle and be miserable.

After about two hours of walking on easy, rolling terrain, we stopped for lunch in a nice meadow overlooking a valley.  There were three other groups starting the trail that day, and we noticed that the two groups from SAS were the only ones having lunch in a tent with a table and chairs.  We didn't yet realize the importance of this...

a Long trailWe walked for a couple more hours that day.  The scenery was beautiful, and wildflowers were blooming all along the trail.  At about 4:30 we arrived at our camp for the night, where the porters had already arrived, and had set up our tents.  There was also tea and animal crackers waiting for us, and dinner soon followed. 

We talked alot during tea and dinner and got to know our fellow travelers and our guide better.  Bettina and Spacania had just spent five weeks in Ecuador together, learning Spanish and staying with a family there.  We really enjoyed talking with them about the state of medicine in both the U.S. and Switzerland.  The British kids were really enjoyable to be around.  They were extremely well-traveled, and very interesting to talk to.  I don't know if I could have spent four days with most American 18-year olds.  Peter was quiet but very funny.  He wants to get into another career, and loves physics, of all things.  Mauricio, our guide, was great.  He always had a smile on his face, and every night he prepared us for what the next day's hike would be like.  He told us about how he had grown up in a one-room house with his parents, six brothers, and one sister.  Learning English on his own had enabled him to get a good job in tourism.  

We went to bed knowing that the next day, my birthday, would be the most difficult.  We had eight hours of hiking and two mountain passes ahead of us, so we turned in early.     

Day Two: "Yes, I feel thirty-six", or "Put the Stairmaster on 10 and stay on it for for five hours"

We were awakened at 5:30 A.M. by a noise just outside our front tent flap, and strange foreign voices.  After a couple of minutes we came to our senses and realized that it was two of our porters waking us up for the day with hot coca tea.  In the Andes, the leaves of the coca bush are drunk as a tea to combat altitude sickness and aid digestion.  That's right - it's the same plant that's used to make cocaine, the scourge of the American ghetto.  Coca has been used for thousands of years in the Andes , both as a tea and as a chew.  Several leaves are placed in the mouth with a piece of bicarbonate, which causes the leaves to release the substance in them that gives a lift.  The use of the leaves in both of these forms is completely safe and non-addictive.

 Things get tougherWe hit the trail at 7:00 sharp, as we had eight hard hours of hiking ahead of us.  The hike began very pleasantly, with a couple of hours of gentle uphill hiking through dense jungle-like terrain.  It was beautiful, and part of the hike went along a rushing mountain river.  About two hours down the trail we hit a rest stop in a lovely mountain meadow, and then the real hiking began.  For the next hour and a half we plodded pretty much straight uphill.  The air was getting noticeably thinner, so our breath was becoming more and more labored.  Our goal was the highest point on the Inca Trail - Dead Woman's Pass, 4198 meters.  Mauricio told us that the pass (Abra de Huarmihuanusca, in Quetcha, the language of the Incas) was called that because it looks like a woman lying down, not because some woman died trying to get to the top of it, a fact I was glad to hear on my 36th birthday.  We reached the top at around noon, but didn't stay long to celebrate, because it was windy and cold up there.  I survived Dead Woman's Pass!

Now we had another hour and a half of downhill hiking ahead of us to get to our lunch spot.  Sounds easy, but it was almost as bad as the uphill part.  In fact, our group unanimously agreed that we preferred uphill hiking to downhill hiking by the end of the trip.  By this time, it was raining in earnest.  Our legs were already exhausted from climbing the first pass and the rock steps were about eight inches high and somewhat treacherous because of the water.

When we reached the lunch spot, it was pouring.  This is where it became evident why our company charged a little more.  Our lunch tent was already set up, complete with hot tea and coffee.  The other tour groups were huddled under whatever overhang they could find or in the bathroom, eating their lunches standing up.

Abra de Runku Racay  After lunch we had one more pass to reach, this one called Abra de Runku Raquay, at 3800 meters.  On the way up we passed the second set of ruins we had seen on the trail.  Both of these were basically the "Days Inns" of the Inca Trail; places for the Incas on religious pilgrimage to Machu Picchu to stop and rest.  As part of the pilgrimage the Incas carried no food or creature comforts with them, and these rest stops allowed them some comfort along the way.  

This was probably the most difficult part of the hike, as the rains had produced several little streams that now gushed down the path.  Anyone who had managed to keep their feet dry to this point now gave up and joined those who already had squishy socks.  Flooded trail up to second pass

After the second pass we had another hour of downhill hiking to reach our camp for the night, once again prepared ahead of time for us by our porters.  We rounded the last corner and were treated to the sight of the ruins of Sayca Marca ("inaccessible city") rising out of the mist.  This was the first religious station of the trail.  The rain had ended, the sky was just beginning to clear, and the sun was setting.  We had survived Day Two!  

 That night we had another delicious meal, followed by a traditional hot rum drink.  It was a cold and starry night, and we slept well from exhaustion.

Day Three: "I feel the pain"

Day Three is the day that everyone looks forward to when trekking the Inca Trail.  It's relatively short (3 1/2 to 4 hours), downhill, and you begin feeling the anticipation that you are getting close to the promised land: Machu Picchu.  After about an hour and a half of gentle uphill hiking, we crossed the third and final pass at the ruins of Puyupatamarca (3600 meters), named the "City Above the Clouds" by archaeologists, and the second religious station on the trail.  "City Above the Clouds"  We stopped at Puyapatamarca long enough for Mauricio to explain about the three worlds of the Incas: the lower world, where we are before birth, which represented by the snake; this world, where we live now, represented by the puma; and the upper world, what we would compare to heaven, represented by the condor.  The Peruvians still consider all of these animals to be sacred.  Both Sayamarca and Puyupatamarca were temples where Incas stopped to worship on the way to Machu Picchu, archeologists believe.  Much of what we believe about the Incas is conjecture, since they had no written language.  This fact makes their accomplishments even more impressive, when you consider the exacting and precise nature of their buildings and realize that they wrote nothing down!

Wiley peaks out from an Inca built tunnel  After the ruins, it was another hour and a half of brutal downhill hiking to reach our lunch destination and campsite for the evening, the trekker's hostel at Winay Wayna.  I fell once on the way down and bloodied my hand - those who know me know that with my clumsiness it was inevitable at some point.  No permanent damage.

Winay Wayna - forever young  After lunch, we paid 5 soles each for a hot shower - quite a treat after three days on the trail.  Later that afternoon Mauricio took us over to the nearby ruins of Winay Wayna, or "Forever Young", around sunset.  This extremely beautiful and tranquil place is the third and final religious station on the trail, and it gives you a sense of what you are about to see at Machu Picchu.  There are rocky peaks all around and the snow-capped majesty of Mt. Veronica is visible in the distance.  Mt. Vernoica framed thru a window at Winay Wayna

Three of our porters  After dinner we called our porters together (there were five porters and another guy who did all the cooking) and presented them with a tip from all of us as a show of gratitude.  They were so humble and such nice people, and we sometimes felt sorry for some of the guys who seemed to be carrying loads that were way heavier than they should have been.  These guys are, on average, about 130 pounds, 5'5", and they are heaving loads in excess of 50 pounds up and down these mountains.  And they wear flip flops made of old tires - no kidding.  Mauricio told us about once when one of the tourists in his group gave one of the porters his hiking boots, but the porter's feet were bloody after wearing them only a few hours.  One very important sign of a good agency is how they treat their porters - and this is obviously not something you can know when you sign up.  From what we saw of the way SAS did things, they treated their porters well.  They had their own tent, they ate the same food we did, and they had normal-sized loads.  This guy can cook!

Once again, we were wiped-out by 8:00, so we went to bed in anticipation of a 4:00 wake-up call for the final walk to Machu Picchu.  

Day Four: "I'm here, but now I just want to sleep"

This morning, no coca tea with the wake-up call.  We had to be out of our tents for breakfast at 4:30, because we were hitting the trail at 5:00.  Mauricio had said he was leaving at 5:00 with or without us, and apparently everyone believed him, because all eight of us were early for breakfast.  Mauricio had apparently been up late with the other guides, but he led us out from Winay Wayna at 5 sharp.  We continued along the trail in darkness for 45 minutes or so.  Around 6:00 we reached the sun gate, high above Machu Picchu.  This is where we had our first sighting of Machu Picchu, and it was spectacular.  We continued down the trail for about 30 minutes until we reached the ruins.  The object of leaving camp so early is to see sunrise as it comes over the mountain and hits Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we couldn't see the sun, but at least it wasn't raining.  It looks just like the postcards...

The groupAfter 30 minutes or so of lingering on the terraces on the hills above Machu Picchu, we posed for some group photos, then headed down to the admissions office to store backpacks and convene for our tour of the ruins.  At this point we were starting to mix with the tourists that were getting off of the first buses coming up from Aguas Calientes, and it was a little strange.  I felt sort of like I had been on another planet for four days.  I'm not sure I was ready to mix with the outside world just yet.  We actually saw a Japanese couple standing in line with a guy behind them holding an umbrella over them.  Reality bites...

Temple of the Sun  We were exhausted during the three hour tour of the ruins, and although it was very interesting, we barely stayed awake for it.  Before we left Cusco, we had made reservations at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, and I was thinking non-stop about a hot shower and some nice white sheets.  Wiley's parents had stayed there during their 1999 trip to Machu Picchu, and had highly recommended it.  So we made the hour-long hike down the mountain, picked up our bag from the restaurant where the porters had brought it, said goodbye to our new friends, and headed for the promised land.

After a very hot, very luxurious shower, we crashed for an extended nap.  At night we went into town for dinner, and met a new friend, Lucia, at Restaurante Inka Machu Picchu.  We played with her cats while she prepared our dinner.  Afterwards, Lucia sat and ate with us and told us how she was studying dentistry and hoped to practice one day.  She had a very young daughter who slept behind while we talked and ate.

Doors of Perception  On Wednesday morning we got up early and went back up to Machu Picchu, this time by bus.  It was very overcast and the low-hanging clouds gave the place a completely different feel from the sunshine of the day before.  After about an hour a light rain started.  We sat at the highest point in the ruins on a rock overlooking the valley below, watching the clouds swirl around.  It looked amazing, and we were glad we were able to come back for a second day.  Mist over Machu Picchu

After spending another three hours or so exploring, we hiked back down the mountain into town.  During our hike down we were past repeatedly by several of the local "chaski" boys, who run down the trail, leaving Machu Picchu at the same time as the tourists buses.  At each point where the trail crosses the road, they run into the road ahead of the bus, waving and shouting at the tourists.  At the bottom of the mountain they get on the bus and collect tips.  We figured these kids grow up to be porters.

We decided to check out the local hot springs after talking to a couple from Amsterdam who were going that way.  He knew Iris, a girl from Amsterdam whom we had met at the Palenque conference.  Small world...

Aguas Calientes gets its name from these natural hot springs and the walk up to them was certainly beautiful.  But once we got there we weren't compelled to stay long.  The water was murky and lukewarm at best. and filled with people whose idea of bathing attire ranged from pantyhose to t-shirts.  The air smelled decidedly UN-chlorinated.  We questioned why we had paid 5 soles each to get in this yucky water when we had the nicest hotel room in town with a great shower and a fireplace.  

That night we had a fire in our fireplace and ordered room service.  We had to call the front desk to get someone to come start the fire and bring wood.  He showed up with a little plastic margarine pail of gasoline, splashed some on the wood, and threw in a match.  It reminded me of some episodes in my childhood when my father became frustrated while trying to start a fire, and those in my immediate family know what I'm talking about.

Room service and a fireplace are nice, but the biggest luxury in our room was a space heater.  Since our arrival in Peru, we had only seen one other one, and that was in our classroom at ACUPARI.  Despite temperatures consistently in the 50's, no buildings in Peru, including hotels and government buildings, like airports, have heating.  Most of the time it's pretty cold inside the buildings, and we usually end up wearing most of our warm clothes all of the time.  Having the heater in our hotel room allowed us to dry our boots and some other clothes.  It was nice!

 Thursday was our last day in town before going back to Cusco on the 5:45 train, and we spent the day working on the web site.  We chose to take the local train back instead of the more luxurious and faster tourist trains.  The local train cost only 15 soles and we figured we'd better start living like poor people again.  The ride back was crowded and chaotic.  People who had bought their tickets late in the day didn't have a seat, so the aisles were jammed with people.  We started talking with two girls who had hiked the Inca Trail with another group from SAS, and they were getting off the train in Ollantaytambo to take a local bus to Cusco.  We found out that this is gets you to Cusco about 1 1/2 hours earlier than the train!  So we tagged along with them and made it into Cusco around 9:45. 

We checked into a really interesting hotel that was recommended by the South American Explorer's Club called The Ninos Hotel.  A woman from The Netherlands opened this hotel in 1996 in hopes of helping the many street children of Cusco.  This is one of the few downsides to Cusco.  There are hundreds of children under the age of 10 living in the streets.  Commonly, their parents move to Lima to look for work and abandon them, and they have no where to go.  Some of them sell candy and cigarettes, others shine shoes or sell postcards.  It is extremely sad, and determining the right way to help them isn't easy.  The Ninos Hotel was founded to improve the plight of these children.  All proceeds go to the street children, and soon they will open a restaurant which will feed more than 100 children per day. 

Right after we got checked into our room, Wiley got sick.  Smugly, I thought, "Ah, that grilled meat on a stick he ate from a street vendor in Aguas Calientes got him.".  Then, a couple of hours later, I got it too.  Must have been the sandwiches we bought for the train from what we thought was a clean, touristy restaurant.  You just never know...

The next day was Friday, and we had to move to a hotel down the street because the Ninos Hotel was full that night.  We ran some errands but were both feeling pretty poorly from the night before.  Another adventure loomed large before us, as we were to leave for Iquitos and the jungle on Saturday, so we packed our bags and went to bed early. 

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