Thursday, June 30, 2011

Machu Picchu

Due to popular demand, I am going to rewrite my blog post about my Inca Trail adventure. Be prepared, it`s kind of long.

View from my tent.
DAY 1 - I was picked up early in the morning (5am) and loaded onto a bus with my fellow hikers to embark on a 4 day backpacking trip along the Inca Trail. They call it the Inca Trail, but it is only one of several trails that the Incans paved with stone to travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu. It appears that the tourist-marked Inca Trail follows the path that Hiram Bingham took when he discovered Machu Picchu 100 years ago. Anyway, there were 13 people in my group and coincidentally 11 of us were Americans. The other two were a couple from Ireland. I was the only one in the group traveling by herself, which hasn`t been an infrequent situation for me. I rarely meet other girls traveling by themselves. I often get asked if I get scared traveling along and am lectured how dangerous it is for me. But the thing is, I never feel scared. Maybe I am too trusting, but it seems that most people are genuinely kind and helpful. I`ve definitely felt way more afraid walking home alone on West 9th Street back at home than I`ve ever felt in Peru. However, I digress. The bus dropped us off at a place they call ´kilometer 82` where we met the porters to begin our hiking journey. We had two guides: the flamboyant Fredy who was the tallest Peruvian ever, and Cesar, a wry yet flirty twenty-something.
For 13 hikers we had 18 porters! Each porter carried a ridiculously heavy pack of 25 kilos. We, the hikers, barely carried anything aside from water and layers. It`s kind of hard to call it backpacking when you`re not carrying your own pack. Apparently, only about 6 years ago a law was passed which limited the amount of weight porters could carry. Up until then, some companies would weight each porter down with packs weighing upwards of 40 kilos!

Toilet on the Inca Trail
The first day hiking was pretty mellow but long and we arrived at camp around 4:30pm. We felt lucky that our group aged from 19-34 and were all quite fit because along the trail we passed many elderly folks struggling to make it up the hills. When we arrived at camp we realized why there were 18 porters needs for 15 people. The porters set up all the tents, including canopies for eating with tables, chairs, and silver cutlery! They brought us warm water in buckets with towels to our tents to wash our faces and brought hot cocoa and popcorn to our tents so we could relax while they cooked for us! Talk about luxury. I`ve always wanted to be treated like a princess, but in reality having "servants" is really awkward and classist. Our group felt guilty most of the time when it came to the porters waiting on us. I became good friends with the coordinator of the porters, Ricardo. I think he liked me because I would speak Spanish with him. I shared a tent with Jessica, the token single girl in her group of friends and we had a great repoir. The porters cooked us a delicious 3-course feast and we ate like kings, and then went to bed.

The group plus porters.

My tentmate Jessica and I reading aloud :)
DAY 2 - We awoke that morning to a beautiful mountain view from our tents. My new friends from the midwest (namely Kansas) exclaimed that there was nothing this beautiful in Kansas. "Come to California!" I said, shocked because I`ve woken to picturesque mountain views countless times in California. I`ve traveled all over the world but I still think that California is the greatest place on earth. Anyway, after breakfast we started trekking uphill past gorgeous creeks and through riparian zones, increasing in altitude until we passed tree-line and summitted the first mountain. It was a tough climb, but after hiking the Misti Volcano it seemed like a breeze! The terrain on the first mountain was dry and covered with chaparral and cactus. We observed llama, white-tailed deer, and vicuñas grazing. By the way, vicuñas are my new favorite mammal - they`re like weird Andean deer with super long necks. As we summited the second mountain, the terrain changed to grassland. Perennial bunch grasses carpeted the hillsides and I imagined that this is what the Bay Area looked like before invasive annual grasses out-competed the native fescue. As we hiked, Cesar would challenge me by asking the scientific names of plants that I`d never seen before in my life! He`d say, "I`m not even an ecologist and I KNOW the name of this plant". I told him to come to California and I`d tell him the scientific name of every oak tree. As we descended the second mountain in the late afternoon, the vegetation changed once again to cloud forest.
We explored various Incan ruins along the way to our second campsite which was more cloudy, chilly, and rainy. After another delicious meal, we were surprised with... hot toddies! Yes, I felt guilty that the porters had to carry in two bottles of run for us, but I must admit, it was pretty awesome. That night as we snuggled into bed, Jessica read aloud the Incan excerpts from "The Motorcycle Diaries" and we patted ourselves on the back for being such good little tourists.

Incan terraces
stone paved Inca Trail
 DAY 3 - This was the most beautiful hike I`ve ever been on! We began walking on the actual stone-paved Inca Trail which took us on a leisurely stroll through the cloud forest into the high jungle above the Amazon basin. The walls were covered with a dense moss that you stick half your arm in before it reached rock, orchids everywhere, and ancient ferns. The trail was lush, green, and moist and took us past sweeping vistas of snow-covered mountains and riverine valleys.
In front of Touching the Void moutain
Fredy pointed out the mountain where "Touching the Void", a climbing documentary, took place. We arrived at camp midday and from our tents we could see the backside of Machu Picchu - so close! We shared some beers outside a lodge we were camped near and at dusk went to explore some more Incan ruins. I was down in the Incan runs with only my headlamp when it became completely dark. The ruins are like labyrinths and very easy to get lost in. Not to mention, the huge stone walls are very forboding in the dark. I kept seeing flickers of light and assumed they were the flashlights of my friends. The lights came closer and I called out to my friends. No response. I called out again, a little more panicky this time, and again, no response. Convinced that these were the ghosts of Incans murdered by Spaniards intenton taking revenge on those of European descent, I raced through the labyrinth, found my way to the path, and ran up 100+ stairs to the top of the hill. Heart racing and completely out of breath, I found my friends who immediately exclaimed, "Hey Melanie, did you see the fireflys?!"

DAY 4 - We were woken around 3am to pack our bags, eat breakfast, and hit the trail. Of course, we hiked about 5 minutes before hitting the checkpoint where we had to wait until Machu Picchu opened at 5am. And then we hit the trail again, walking through the dark jungle toward one of the wonders of the world. It was light when we reached the sun gate, but the sun had not yet drifted over the mountain. At first, Machu Picchu was covered in clouds, but as the sun began to shine on the ancient city, the clouds passed and we were awarded with breathtaking views.
I`ve wanted to see Machu Picchu since the 5th grade when I learned about its agricultural terraces and irrigation channels, and it did not disappoint. The place is magical. We took our time walking down from the sun gate toward the ruins admiring it from every angle. The cool thing about Machu Picchu is that it is the only Incan city (found so far) that was not destroyed by the Spanish when they arrived around 500 years ago. Therefore, the only damage to the city is from fault activity, jungle taking over, and looters. So basically, it`s in pretty good shape. Also, "Machu Picchu" isn`t its true name. Hiram Bingham, the archeologist, got confused when he asked the local Quechua people if there were any Incan ruins nearby. The Quechua people pointed and said there where ruins on the big mountain. "Machu Picchu" means "big mountain" in Quechua. Anyway, Fredy took us on an informative guided tour of the ruins and then we waited in line for tickts to hike Wiñay Picchu, the famous pointy mountain behind Machu Picchu.

While in line I hear, "Melanie? Is that you?!" The world starts to feel really small when you run into friends in the middle of nowhere in South America. I chatted with Andy and Rose for awhile until I found out that my group arrived too late and wouldn`t be able to climb Wiñay Picchu after all. The rest of my group was burnt out and headed back down towards the town of Aguas Calientes, but I stayed to explore Machu Picchu for the the last couple hours that I could. I ran into British Joel, a gap-year kid we`d befriended on the Inca Trail and who preferred our group to his. Together we explored the fallen city, getting lost in the ruins. I told him about the movie "Labyrinth" (which he`d never heard of!) and how I half expected to turn the corner and see David Bowie, the goblin king. It ended up being okay that we missed Wiñay Picchu because we discovered a meadow being grazed by llamas! So of course, Joel and I took the rest of the time taking photos of each other posing ridiculously with llamas while continuously chanting, "What time is it? It`s llama-time!".


You Went to South America and Became British?

Inti Raymi Ceremony
Hola Amigos. It´s been a very busy week so I haven´t had time to post. I left Arequipa last Tuesday and had to take a different bus company to reach Cusco because the main road was closed due to mining protests around Lake Titicaca. Which basically meant we were off-roading for most of the journey. Very bumpy. It was hard saying goodbye to my friends in Arequipa because it was basically goodbye forever. However, that the sad sentiment lifted when I arrived in Cusco just in time for Inti Raymi, the festival of the Incan sun god. The streets around downtown were alive with celebrations and parades and thousands of people. There were three main events being celebrated: the 100th anniversary of discovering Machu Picchu, Inti Raymi, and Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi was actually the most fun of the events... I became so enamored by the festivities that I joined the parade!

Plaze de Armas
Corpus Christi statue being carried by Peruvians. They used to carry the mummies of dead kings but the Spanish put a stop to that when they conquered the Incans.
I´m currently staying at a party hostel which reminds me of Australia. (I have a very negative association with Australia) This trip is a time to learn about myself and one thing I´ve learned is that I´m not 19 anymore and I shouldn´t party like I am. Yes, it was fun to get hit on by a bunch of European guys on their gap year, but much less fun to be stared at like an old lady when I conveyed my age. Thus, I started saying that I had JUST graduated college. Sometimes its easier to pretend the last 4 years didn´t happen. I thought that since I was traveling by myself that no one could hold me accountable for my actions (omg, do you know what YOU did last night?!), however South America is beginning to feel very small because I keep running into people I know. Therefore, henceforth I will act like a 24-year-old from now on and not fall off any more bunk beds. The other problem with this hostel is that everyone speaks english and I´m completely forgetting everything I learned in my spanish class.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Into Thin Air

The Misti Volcano
This weekend I learned a very important lesson: I HATE mountaineering. I love backpacking, I love rock climbing, and I love glacier travel, so I should love mountaineering. Right? WRONG. I should have know how hard it would be when they told me the Volcan El Misti (Misti Volcano) was 5,825 meters. But I'm an American and I don't speak in meters. It was only after I was about halfway up that hellish mountain that I learned that it was 19,111 feet high! At around 15,000 feet, I became a little light-headed. At around 18,000 feet I stopped being able to breathe for lack of oxygen.

The only highlight of the trip was the really cool black sand.
This is the same mountain where the Incans used to sacrifice children to their gods. I kept thinking that if I was one of those little Incan kids I'd feel ready to die by the time I reached the top. There were no switch-backs, we simply hiked straight up the side of the volcano. There are no creeks on the volcano, just barren rock, so we each carried about 6 liters of water, which is extremely heavy. Apparently they don't do ultra-light backpacking in Peru so all of my rented gear weighed a ton. This of course included mountaineering equipment such as tents, crampons, ice axes and ropes. It was below freezing and incredibly windy and my altitude sickness got so bad that I had to return to base camp and never made it to the top of that evil mountain :( I'm crossing Mount Everest off my list of life goals. On a high note, when I returned to the city I had my first hot shower in Peru! Apparently the trick is to shower mid-day because the water is heated by solar power.

I think this is a match-making service...
Apparently this is the week of mal suerte (bad luck) because I learned this morning that the road from Arequipa to Cusco is closed. There is only one bus company that is apparently brave enough to make the trek, so I booked a ticket for tomorrow! Wish me alot of luck. I've been in Arequipa now for almost two weeks and I'm ready to leave. While on Volcan Misti I kept saying that I wanted to go home, but by home I meant the Casa de Avila in Arequipa. You know that you've been in one place too long if you start to refer to it as home. However, I'm grateful for the time I've spent here. I've become acclimated to the Peruvian culture, I've learned to speak spanish, and I've made a ton of friends whom I'm going to miss. The next time you hear from me I'll be on my way to Machu Picchu!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Hola Chicos! Here I am, reporting from Peru. Arequipa to be exact. I always said I'd never have a blog - a travel blog no less! But so many people said they'd actually read it, that the peer pressure got to me and I gave in. In reality, probably only my mom and aunt will read this blog (Hi Mom and Nanny!), but that's cool. So you may ask, "why vagabond 2.0? what happened to 1.0?" Well, Vagabond 1.0 occured 5 years ago when I uprooted my entire life to spend 3 months in Australia. But that ended up being kind of disasterous and I swore I'd never do it again. However, I'm not the type of person who learns from her mistakes. So here I go again.... I quit my job, moved out of my house, and left my country to explore South America all by myself!

I've now been in Peru for 8 days, and I've learned so much already about the culture. I've picked up spanish quite rapidly (so far I can comprehend most things but still have trouble constructing sentences), and I've developed an extreme appreciation for fresh, clean water. Basically everything I miss about the USA so far revolves around water: drinking fresh water from the tap without fear of parasites, taking hot showers (the warmest shower you can get in Peru is tepid, to say the least), toilet seats, and toilet paper. The things I like about Peru so far: everyone is so kind and helpful here, and the exchange rate. Everything is so cheap! At first I was concerned because 20 soles for a night in a hostel seemed like ALOT, but after doing a little math I realized it only cost about 7 dollars! Amazing. If only my backpack wasn't already full so I could take advantage of the ample shopping opportunities! Downtown Arequipa near the Plaza de Armas is a GREAT place to go shopping.

At first, I had a bit of trouble making friends because the hostels in Arequipa are not very social. But then someone pointed out that I'd only been in Arequipa for two hours! I was completely alone for about 4 hours before I had a group of friends. :) Over the weekend I signed up to go on a 3 day/2 night trek through the Colca Canyon with my new friends - there were about 11 of us. This canyon is about twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Basically the entire trek felt like summer camp. We were picked up at our hostels at approximately 3am and drove in a bus to a little town called Cabanaconde. After breakfast we drove to a site called Cruz del Condor to check out the condors.
The village of Cosnirhua
That day we hiked down the canyon to a little village called Cosnirhua. It was basically as third-worldly as you can get, which I strangely prefer over cities. We cooked dinner in a rustic kitchen with guinea pigs living in it! Amazing! The guinea pigs "cuy" live and reproduce in the kitchens and when the people get hungry they simply pick one out and cook it.

What's for dinner? Cuy!
Here is the group before the trek
I was made fun of alot for bringing the smallest backpack ever on a backpacking trip (there is 3 liters of water in that tiny pack). But during the trek back up the canyon, guess who felt awesome?!

 In Peru, I am an ecologist. And in this role, I can't help but assess the land use. I am impressed with the Incan terraces for agriculture which the local Quecha people still use today. Equally impressive is the stone irrigation channels which feed the terraces. Colca Canyon is crazy steep but I observed very little erosion due to terracing. Maybe the grape growers in California could learn a little something from the Incas! The erosion I did see was related to the newer roads (for mules and donkeys - no cars allowed) and trails. There were also a plethora of "borrow pits" (mini quarries) because pretty much everything is made from stone and dirt. I was stoked to see a type of paddock grazing which I'd only learned about in rangeland class and had never observed. I also saw some old friends (and enemies) here... purple lupine, eucalyptus, and pampas grass!

After I returned from the Colca hike I went to live with a local family. They are probably the most posh Peruvians ever, although they are an elderly couple. Every morning they cook me breakfast, I go to school for 4 hours at La Casa de Avila, I return and they make me lunch, I go walk around the city with friends, come back to their house when it gets dark to have tea with the family, do my homework, and go to bed. A pretty low-key lifestyle. Tomorrow I embark for a 2-day backpacking trip up Volcan Misti. I find this hilarious because that was my former boss's name. When I return I have two more days left of school before I catch the bus to Cusco!
Note: I was supposed to go to Lake Titicaca next but the Peruvian side is shut down to travel because of strikes due to the recent presidential election. The government wants to mine the Puno area and the locals are protesting. Go locals! Mining is TERRIBLE for the environment, especially in an area with such magnificant natural resources as Lake Titicaca.