Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summer Travels Part 2: Perusing Peru


Cusco, Peru
As I sat in the back of the old  taxi-jalopy careening down the bedraggled streets of Cusco, I felt oddly at home. After a week of riding Chile’s pothole-less roads, it was refreshing to return to something resembling Bogotá’s familiar bedlam.

I looked out the window to take in the city. Built in a bowl surrounded by long, barren hills, the former capital of the Inca Empire held an uncanny resemblance to Reno, Nevada.

Conversing with the driver, I learned that I had arrived on the eve of Inti Raymi, the city’s most important festival dating back to the heyday of the Inca Empire. As we neared the city’s historic district and the streets grew more and more crowded, I also learned that I had arrived during one of the busiest weekends of the year for Cusco.

After checking in and dropping my stuff at the hostel, I ventured out into the crowds to reconnoiter the area. As I approached the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square, the concentration of human beings became so dense that I could barely move forward. Thanks to my vertical superiority, I was able to see over most of the crowd at what was going on in the plaza—was some kind of procession made up of groups of indigenous people decked out in traditional dress and carrying large golden idols.

To escape the tourist hordes, I slipped into a small restaurant to try some Cusqueño cuisine. I ordered a dish of Andean potatoes with guacamole and white tartar sauce. Although potatoes can today be found all over the world, potatoes originated in the Peruvian Andes. In fact, the Spanish world for potatoes, papas, is actually a Quechua word (the dominant language of the Incas).

After downing the potatoes, I went to office of the travel agency that was organizing my Inca Trail hike and met with my guide, Socrates, who gave me the low down about what to expect during the four-day hike.

Fiesta time
That night, I planned on laying low and going to bed early, so I could wake up early to check out Cusco’s sites. Tomorrow was Friday and since I was leaving for my hike on Saturday, I wanted to make the most of the one full day I had in the city.

But of course, I didn’t lay low, nor did I go to bed early.

Back at the hostel, a group of people were in the bar drinking and, naturally, I joined them. The bartender, a fiery Italian whose name escapes me, marshaled the guys in the bar into playing flip cup.

For those of you who don’t know what flip cup is, click here.

The flip cup match was truly an international affair—there were representatives from Britain, Canada, France, Israel, Argentina, Italy and of course, yours truly from the US of A. Although I had initially planned on playing only a few rounds, those soon turned into several and I eventually found myself in an international wolf pack headed for the nearest discoteca.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco
The discoteca, called Mama Africa, was filled to the brim with gringos and, much to my chagrin, only played gringo music. When I asked the DJ if he could play some salsa, he said that he was only allowed to play the kind of music he was already playing. Regardless, I still had a lot of fun at the discoteca and surprised some Peruvian girls (and myself) with my ability to successfully converse with them in Spanish. Most of the gringos there spoke only English and it was a rarity for them to find one who could speak Spanish. Needless to say, it was a good time for all.

The next day, I woke up just before noon and feeling like a million bucks. It seemed that the Incan gods, either out of favor or pity, had spared me punishment from my previous night’s excesses.

So I headed out to explore the city.

Overlooking Cusco
When I entered the Plaza de Armas, I was surprised to find it relatively empty. After walking around the plaza and admiring the abounding impressive architecture, I headed uphill in search of the ruins called Saqsaywaman. The running joke in Cusco is to call the ruins “sexy woman” since the Quechua name sounds like it.

As I progressed up Cusco’s steep avenues towards Saqsaywaman, I realized why the Plaza de Armas had been so vacant—everyone was at the ruins. When I finally arrived at Saqsaywaman, there were thousands of people milling about, some sitting in large grandstands and others perched on a high hill overlooking the ruins. After weaseling my way through the crowd, I managed to find a good spot to watch the Inti Raymi ceremony.

Inti Raymi
There were several indigenous people dressed up in traditional Incan attire, some as soldiers and others as Incan priests and nobility. The guy who was supposed to be the Incan leader held his arms up in reverence to the sun and chanted in Quechua what I assumed were praises to Inti, their sun god and chief deity. Every now and then, someone would sound over the loudspeakers thanking the corporate sponsors for making the event possible.

After watching the ceremony for a while, I decided to check out the view from the hill. Along the way, I stepped on a pamphlet for Inti Raymi that had the event's principal sponsor printed on it—NEXTEL.

Leave it to a fledgling phone company owned by AT&T to uphold ancient Inca traditions.

How magical
I watched the rest of the ceremony from the crowded hilltop, then headed back down the hill to Cusco.

At one point, I saw a trio of indigenous women wearing traditional dress and leading some llamas. When I raised my camera for a quick shot, one of the women noticed me and said, “un foto?”

I said, “Si, un foto por favor!”

The women posed with their llamas and I snapped the photo. Then one of the women stuck out her hand and gave me a fish-eyed look.

Crap, I thought when I realized I had just gotten gring-owned.

This picture cost me about $7 USD
I searched through my wallet to find some soles (the Peruvian currency) to give them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any small coins, so I ended up handing them $5 soles each (about $2 USD).

Still astonished that I had just been photographically mugged by a couple of grandmothers and their llamas, I continued down the hill and returned to my hostel.

It was time to get ready for the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail

On the road to the Inca Trail
The van arrived at my hostel at 6 a.m. and Socrates came in to fetch me. Although it was early, my excitement for the upcoming trek overshadowed my drowsiness and I followed him to the van with an unmistakable spring in my step.

I slipped off my travel pack, ducked into the van and met four of my fellow hikers. They were all from Germany and had been touring Peru with a larger German tour group.

I was particularly surprised to meet Dr. Raimer Muller, a retired history professor in his late sixties; hiking the Inca Trail was said to be a physically arduous task and I was impressed by his determination. Little did I know that later he would leave me in the dust huffing and puffing the thin Andean air.

After picking up Scott, a backpacker from Australia, we headed towards the Inca Trail staging area called Kilometer 82.

My Inca Trail group
We left Cusco and over the next three hours, passed through the painfully beautiful Peruvian countryside. The towering peaks of the Andes stood like resting giants in the distance and a large glacier capped one of the mountains near the horizon.

Stopping to eat a quick breakfast at the old Incan fortress-city of Ollantaytambo, we continued down a windy path and eventually arrived at Kilometer 82.

At Kilometer 82, we passed through an entry checkpoint and commenced our trek. The seven of us followed the Urubamba River through the Sacred Valley, Socrates occasionally stopping us to tell us about the plant and animal life we encountered.

One of the most interesting things we saw were these small bugs that live on the leaves of a large green plant. When smashed, the bugs leave a red coloring that the Incas used as a dye. When mixed with other substances, like lime, the Incas could create any color they wished.

In front of Patallaqta
After a few hours of hiking, we arrived at the first set of significant Inca ruins, called Patallaqta. The ancient site aroused my inner history nerd and I eagerly absorbed Socrates’ explanation of the site.  
Continuing down the trail, we had a ridiculously gourmet lunch (the first of many ridiculously gourmet meals throughout the trek) then finished the last leg of the trail to reach our camp site.

That night before going to bed, I stood outside watching the stars, which glistened like so many jewels in the night sky. Getting lost in the stars is one of my favorite pastimes, but one that I don’t get to do often enough. I was thrilled to see the Southern Cross for the first time.

The next morning, we arose just before sunrise and returned to the trail. Socrates warned us that today would be the most physically challenging day, as we would be hiking 1,000 meters uphill. Also, it would be freezing.

Resting near Dead Woman Pass
Well, he was right on both counts.

As I pushed up a seemingly endless incline, I fought to keep my breath and had to stop several times along the way to regain it. I could only stop for short period of time, however, as the pervasive cold prodded me to continue.

Raimer, of course, made his merry way up the mountain, breathing as calmly as if he were taking a stroll down San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Freaking Germans.

The most difficult part of the day came when I approached the summit, known as Dead Woman Pass, named as such because the hills appear to make the shape of a woman laying down. To help get me through, I put on my headphones and blasted some serious Inca Trail pump-up jams.

Finally, I made it to the top of Dead Woman Pass. With my lungs and leg muscles on fire, I feared they would soon need to rename it Dead Gringo Pass, but luckily, Inti allowed me to remain among the living.

That night as we sat at our campsite sipping rum Socrates had picked up for us, Raimer, ever the scholar, asked me, “Do you know what Shakespeare said about alcohol?”

“No,” I replied.

“Alcohol awakens the desire, but takes away the performance,” he said.

I nearly vomited rum from laughing so hard.

In Sayacmarca
The next morning, just as the sun began to rise over the distant mountains, we broke camp and headed up yet another steep hill. We stopped at an interesting ruin Socrates said was likely a resting house for the Inca Army. Located in a seemingly inaccessible area, the structure was a classic example of the Inca’s engineering prowess.

A few hours later, we arrived at Sayacmarca, by far the most impressive ruin we had yet encountered. It was a large settlement resting on a large hill overlooking a forested valley that had housed Inca nobility. Socrates explained that the Incas used an intricate gravity-based system to bring water from nearby highland springs to the town.

As we neared the jungle, the mountains began sprouting trees and more and more insects came out to play.

After passing and learning about several other breathtaking Inca ruins, we arrived at our final campsite.

Tomorrow, we would finally arrive at Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

First glimpse of Machu Picchu
The sky was just beginning to show signs of the impending sunrise as I made my way along the stone path, using my flashlight as a guide through the darkness. The trail passed by steep cliffs and a misstep would send an unlucky hiker to a rather uncomfortable landing.

I reached the Sun Gate just as the sun began to rise. Passing through, I found myself in a different world. The craggy peaks stood amongst the clouds and my heart fluttered when I saw the tip of the famous Wayna Picchu, which I knew overlooked the ancient city I had hiked for four days to reach.

Somewhere beneath the clouds were the ruins of Machu Picchu.

After reuniting with the group, together we headed down the path towards Machu Picchu. Finally, the clouds dispersed and I got my first glance of the Lost City of the Incas.

The group at Machu Picchu!
There are a few times in everyone’s life when they experience a moment of absolute clarity; when the earth seems to stop spinning, time ceases to tock and a single thought enters the mind—this is what it means to be alive.

That is how I felt when I first laid eyes on Machu Picchu.

We entered the city from above and after stowing away our day packs, Socrates gave us a tour of the city. I marveled at the sheer size of the place, at the intricate stonework and the audacity the Incas had had to build a city in such an inaccessible area.

After Socrates finished the tour, we had some time to wander the ruins on our own and Scott and I walked over to a grassy area where several llamas loitered. Although the rules clearly stated "no eating in Machu Picchu", we noticed an American girl eating a sandwich on the grass near where the llamas grazed. Sure enough, one of the llamas noticed the food and came over to investigate. The girl screamed and threw a piece of her sandwich at the llamas to make it go away.

Don't feed the llamas!
Needless to say, her actions had quite the opposite of the intended effect.

Now, a veritable herd of llamas migrated over to the beleaguered girl in hopes of scoring a free meal.

The girl ran away, and the llamas chased her.

After laughing at the silly girl’s expense, we left the llama area to explore the rest of the city. We entered the agricultural district; multiple levels of terraces that the Incas used to cultivate the foodstuffs needed to support Machu Picchu’s inhabitants.

Climbing the stone stairs next to the terraces, we made our way to the highest point in Machu Picchu to take the classic postcard picture of the ancient city. When we got there, I felt another shudder of amazement that I was actually standing where I was standing.

After a few hours perusing Machu Picchu, we met up with the rest of our group and took a bus down to Aguas Calientes, where we boarded a train to take us back to Cusco.


Plaza de Armas, Lima
The day after Machu Picchu, I said goodbye to Cusco and headed to the airport to catch a plane to Lima. While in line to board the plane, I befriended a woman from Lima named Yasmin who said she would love to show me around the town.

While sitting on the plane and reading 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia's most famous author), a woman sitting across the aisle from me noticed and (in Spanish) made a comment about how she loved the book. When I told her that I was reading it because I was living in Bogotá, she responded with excitement that she was from Bogotá. Her two little girls sat next to me and her husband sat next to her and I talked to them about my experiences in Colombia. Afterward, we exchanged contact information and she said they would love to have me over when I got back to Bogotá.

My life is random, what can I say?

Pisco Sours with Yasmin!
The day after arriving in Lima, I met up with Yasmin and she took me to the centro area to play tourist. We went to the Plaza de Armas and I saw the Presidential Palace and some cool churches. We also visited an art history museum that had all kinds of pre-Columbian art.

When I told Yasmin that I wanted to eat some authentic Peruvian food, she took me to a restaurant and I had ceviche, along with several other types of delicious Peruvian comida. For dessert, we went to a place that sold Peruvian churros, which taste kind of like doughnuts, except way more greasy and awesome. Finally, we went to a bar/café and I had my first pisco sour, Peru’s famous cocktail.

The Peruvian Coast
The following day, I walked down to the beach to check out the Peruvian coastline. This time of year, there was a permanent canopy of fog hovering over the city and it wasn’t warm enough to get wet, but I had a good time reading down by the water.

The next day I would be leaving Peru and South America to meet up with my family in Costa Rica.

One more adventure lay ahead.

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