Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Salkantay Trek and Machu Picchu

I've been putting off this post for two days because I simply don't know how I'm going to fit everything about our trek into one post. So please bear with me, this might be all over the place.

To get to Machu Picchu, we decided to do the five day Salkantay Trek, which is longer and more physically demanding than the Inca Trail, but cheaper and less difficult to get access to (the Inca Trail requires reservations in advance). The Salkantay Trek includes four days of hiking to Machu Picchu and one day of hiking to and around the site.

Overall, it was a challenging, beautiful, memorable experience. Challenging because it was the most consecutive physical activity we have ever done and the conditions weren't always comfortable; beautiful because the trek took us to mountain passes at 4,600 meters (15,200 ft) down to jungle paths and subtropical surroundings; memorable because it was our first overnight trek and it culminated with a visit to one of the wonders of the world.

Day 1
We left from Cusco by van at 4:00am to drive to the little mountain village of Mollepata to start the trek. We attempted to sleep in the van, but the driver was keeping himself awake with loud music, so our slumber was interrupted by strains of repetitive South American dance music and, randomly, Toni Braxton. The first day, we only hiked five and a half hours up to our camp site at the base of the Salkantay Mountain. The site was breathtakingly beautiful, with views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and the green valley below, hidden by a mysterious fog. 
It rained that night and the temperature hovered around 2°C (35°F). We were freeeeezing. Oh, and just to make things more comfortable, I had stomach issues that night that kept me awake running outside to the outhouse in the rain. 

Day 2
The next morning, we were woken up by the cook's assistant at 4:30am with steaming mugs of hot coca leaf tea. After breakfast, we set off for what would prove to be by far the most difficult day of the trek. The first four hours that morning were straight up to the Salkantay Pass, which was at 4,600 meters (15,200 ft) and covered in a thick, rainy cloud that obstructed any hope of a view of its eponymous mountain. At that altitude, any physical effort is difficult, but at 6:00 in the morning after a night of no sleep due to stomach issues and near freezing temperatures, the climb was brutal.

The climb
Truckin' up that d-amn mountain, absolutely miserable.
We made it! Salkantay Pass- 4,600 meters
After the pass, it was almost all downhill for the rest of the day. This sounds like a relief, but we still had six more hours of walking in the rain after the climb, so even the downhill started to hurt after a while. Finally, after ten hours of walking, we reached our campsite, again nestled in a stunning valley, but I was so exhausted by that point that I went straight to my tent at 5:30 pm and slept through the night.

Days 3 and 4
After Day 2, anything would seem easy, so Days 3 and 4 were pretty uneventful. Day 3, we walked around six hours through lush, sub-tropical jungle with views of rushing rivers and waterfalls. 

That afternoon, we visited some natural hot springs and soaked our aching bodies as we enjoyed views of the stark, green Andean foothills. 
Day 4, we walked only four hours through what's referred to as Machu Picchu's back door. We caught glimpses of the site far above as we walked along train tracks that wound along the sacred river in the valley below Machu Picchu. While the site is nestled in the mountains, the vegetation is strangely tropical. Everywhere we passed was green and beautiful. 

Pit stop with our trekking group
That afternoon, we reached the village of Aguas Calientes, which is the jumping off point to Machu Picchu and, frankly, a touristy, over-priced sh-t hole. If you want to be at Machu Picchu when it opens at 6:30am, you have to stay in Aguas Calientes. But you don't have to like it.

Day 5- Machu Picchu
The big day! We had another early wake-up call at 4:00am in order to trek up the 1900 steps that lead to Machu Picchu in time for its opening at 6:30. We started the walk up in the dark and as we hiked, it slowly started to get lighter. We had some pretty fabulous (god, I hate that word) views on the surrounding mountains and valley, and we got more and more excited as we went up to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu.
Unfortunately, those dreams were dashed as we finally reached the opening gate in the middle of a massive rain cloud that covered the site in mist and us in rain. We couldn't see ANYTHING. One's first glimpse at Machu Picchu from the entrance is supposed to be one of the top things to experience in the world and we could hardly see ten feet in front of us! It was heart-breaking. To make matters worse, our kind little Peruvian guide continued our tour anyway and insisted on asking us to "imagine" that we could see the mountain behind this or that temple or "imagine" we could see the terraced fields. The only thing I imagined is that I was repeatedly punching him in his cheerful little face.
The rain cloud finally blew off and once we could see the site around us, we realized just how incredible Machu Picchu was. The site is massive and situated in one of the most stunning locations I can imagine. All around us were deep green, dome-shaped mountains set against a hazy blue sky. Where I expected ruins of rock walls were wonderfully preserved houses and buildings and alley-ways. While there were tons of people and big tour groups, it was still possible to escape the crowds and wander through the town without seeing another person. It was magical and mysterious and exceeded all of our expectations.

After exploring the ruins for a few hours, I hiked up the Waynapicchu Mountain (the big mountain in all of the pictures you see of Machu Picchu) while Vincent hiked up the Machu Picchu Mountain (an even bigger mountain above the site). Both of us had amazing views and much-needed alone time, and thoroughly enjoyed hiking away from the crowds.

We stayed at the site until mid-afternoon, when we returned to Aguas Calientes to catch our train back to Cusco. By that time, we were physically exhausted from five days of hiking and camping, and were ready for gringo food, hot showers and an actual bed instead of camp pads. We were also happy and invigorated from the challenge and the incredible experience of visiting Machu Picchu. 

Next on the itinerary are Arequipa and possibly the Peruvian coast. I promise I’ll write about Cusco next time!

Monday, 23 January 2012

One year of blogging

We are back from our trek to Machu Picchu and while we are way too tired to blog about it tonight, I wanted to post something to celebrate the blog's one year anniversary. Exactly a year ago, we started this blog to let our friends and families know about our trip and to start documenting our preparation. A year later and the blog has many, many more readers than I could have ever hoped for.

THANK YOU. For taking the time to read about our adventures and mishaps. For sending us your encouragement and thoughts. For sharing the blog with others. For not making fun of me for looking like a dude in my travel clothes.

I really appreciate your support and readership; it's my motivation to keep the blog going despite our shoddy internet connection and limited down time.

As a little thank you gift, I'd like to share with you a haiku (yes, a haiku. It's the thought that counts, right?) that I wrote about our bus ride from Copa to Cusco.

Eleven hours on a bus: A Haiku
Three films in a row,
Talking dogs, dubbed in Spanish.
Why is it so loud?

Thank you for reading this mess.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Copacabana to Cusco (and a Kitchen!)

This is going to be a fly by blog post, as we need to wake up at 3:30am tomorrow to catch a bus for our trek. I admit I haven't blogged in awhile because I was reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" (I know, I'm like 4 years behind on that one) and seriously, that book was like popcorn for me. (What? Popcorn is my drug.) Every time I should have been blogging, I was obsessively reading instead. Sorry.

In the last week, we have moved from the madness of La Paz to the cool beach town of Copacabana, on the banks of Lake Titicaca, and then across the Peruvian border to Cusco.

I can't spend too much time waxing poetic about Lake Titicaca, but it was very beautiful and impressive. It is MASSIVE, and feels like this insane, high altitude sea.

Copacabana (the original, by the way) is a colorful little Bolivian village with a beachy feel. We just hung out there for a few days, walking around and spending time at the beach, marveling at the beach-going locals.
Bolivians at the beach

From there, we boarded a relatively painless 11 hour bus to Cusco, which is a really cool city. It's a breath of modern fresh air compared to Bolivian cities (there's a Starbucks here! And we ate at McDonalds today, but let's not talk about that...). It's beautiful and interesting, but definitely feels much more tourist-oriented than anything we experienced in Bolivia. I want to post all of my Cusco photos after our stay here, so I won't cover them today.

The only thing I'll  show you today are our awesome street food experiences. We have been reveling in the insanely cheap and delicious meals that we are finding in the markets and on the street. We had one meal of mystery meat and rice that was so tasty that I didn't even mind the fact that it made me puke during our hike later that afternoon. It was THAT good. (I just realized how disgusting that sounded. Sorry to have gone there, but you should probably get used to it...)
The adorable lady we bought our vegetables from
Mystery meat on the street
Cusco food market.
Another highlight from Cusco was that we had a hostel with a kitchen in it and cooked our first home-made meal in three weeks. It was glorious and made us realize just how much we have missed making our own food. We played music, drank wine and cooked together just like we used to in Gingins. It was the first time we've really felt at home on the road and will definitely be something we will try to do more often going forward.

Speaking of going forward, tomorrow we are leaving for the 5 day Sakantay Trek to Machu Picchu (I don't feel like Googling the spelling...). We are really looking forward to it, however we are a little apprehensive about the altitude, as the hike will reach 4,600 meters or 15,000 feet! Ten bucks says I'll puke...

So, since you won't hear from us for another week, I'll leave you with a picture of an Inca wall in Cusco. Even though I have nothing to share about the picture, it took me forever to accidentally upload it with my terrible internet connection and I don't have the heart to delete it.
See you in a week, when I'll have way more pictures of Machu Picchu than you will ever want to see!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Welcome to the Jungle

Cliché, I know, but it was better than “In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle.” 

We are back in La Paz after our week in the Amazon and I don’t have enough superlatives to describe it. It was awesome, in every sense of the word. 

The excitement started before we even left La Paz, when we were boarding the tiniest plane I have ever been on. There was room for 15 passengers, no crew, no bathroom and even I had to hunch over to walk down the aisle. It even had propellers!

We were sitting in the first row, about a meter from the cockpit, which was open. We were so close that I could actually see through the windshield of the plane.  
 As we took off, there were random beeps coming from the cockpit, like the heart monitor of someone who clearly isn’t going to make it. Occasionally, the monitor would flat line with a long booooooop, causing my blood pressure to sky rocket.
Our landing was even more stressful than the take-off. The flight only lasted 45 minutes, so by the time we leveled out, we immediately started our descent. And what a descent it was. The runway at the Rurrenabaque airport is right after a low mountain chain, so the pilot started down straight towards the mountains, barely clearing the top (I could see the individual leaves of the trees we were flying over) before practically nose-diving onto the runway, which turns to dirt after about 100 meters. To give you an idea of what kind of airport Rurrenabaque has, here are a few pictures:
Rurrenabaque Airport

The airport bathroom. No automatic flush here...
Rurrenabaque is a nice little river town on the Rio Beni, and acts as a jumping-off point to go into Madidi Park, which is a protected area of the Amazon. We spent five days and four nights in the jungle, first on a tour of the swamp called the Pampa, then in the jungle itself. 

Our tour of the Pampa started with a three hour car ride on a dirt road to another little river town in the Pampa. After the car ride was a three hour boat ride to our lodge, up the river in a motorized boat that was basically an over-sized canoe. 
Now, in case you are imagining a luxurious lodge in a jungle paradise, let’s be clear: this was no hotel. Our lodge was extremely basic: built on stilts over the water with rotting floor boards, cold river-water (albeit filtered) showers, electricity that shut off at 9pm, dorm lodging on thin mattresses with torn mosquito netting, outdoor toilets that you had to walk on narrow planks over swamp water to get to. It was impressive and humbling to be staying in the jungle, watching monkeys play in the trees around us, of course.  But it certainly wasn’t comfortable.
Home sweet home

During our tour, we did various activities, always with the goal of seeing wildlife. While we saw a lot of different animals and birds, we couldn’t help but feel like the experience was not very authentic or ecologically sound. The whole thing was very superficial, like everyone just paid to come sleep in the jungle, take a few pictures of alligators and go home, without learning anything about the place they were in. Our favorite parts of the Pampa were the times when we were just on the boat, checking out the scenery, or hanging out with our tour group, whom we loved.
Playing soccer at sunset in the swamp.
Howler monkey outside our lodge
Squirrel monkeys
The next three days of our jungle tour were everything we had wanted and didn’t get from the Pampa. Our accommodation was even more basic than in the Pampa- we didn’t even have electricity, and ate and played cards at night by candlelight. The tour, however, was much more educational, active and interesting. Every day, we went walking in the jungle and learned about various plants and animals from our guide, who was from a local village, had been a guide in the park for 16 years and who was impressively knowledgeable. We really got the impression that he loved what he did and cared immensely about the jungle. We saw tons of animals and birds, but more importantly and interestingly, we learned a lot about the different medicinal and fruitful plants that grow in the Amazon. Some were fatally poisonous, others naturally healing, and others simply useful, like a tree whose branches hold and filter water. The guide cut a branch off the tree and we were able to drink directly from the cut wood like a canteen.
And of course, just walking in and seeing and hearing the jungle was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. The jungle is forbidding, yet fruitful; uncomfortable, yet enticing. It was hot, humid and buggy, with every insect and plant that could cause you pain or death. It was also lush and giving and strikingly beautiful, with fresh fruits, and plants that could cure any ailment. Like I said, I don’t have enough words for how incredible it was.

Wild pigs, called Chonchos

In addition to walking, we also spent one morning hanging around the lodge, making jewelry from natural materials found in the jungle and playing in the camp. The highlight was making rings from coconuts, which will replace our wedding rings that we left back in France.
Making a bracelet for the cook's eight year old daughter (left)
Our new wedding rings

Our intimate jungle bungalow that we shared with eight other people
At the end of the three days, we took our boat back down the Rio Beni to Rurrenabaque and caught our tiny plane back to La Paz. We will hang out here for another day or two before heading to Lake Titicaca, where hopefully spending some time there will help me to stop giggling like a 14 year old every time I say its name. Hehehe, Titi-caca….