Monday, November 22, 2010

The Oasis

I just did the sixth stupid thing on my list of adventures that can potentially kill me (driving a motorcycle, climbing a 6,000 meter mountain, biking down Death Road, rafting in level 4 rapids, and surfing). But before we get to that, let you me tell you about Huacachina. Huacachina is known as “the oasis” because although the town is in the middle of the desert, in its center is a gorgeous lagoon. Enormous sand dunes surround the town, lending an imposing presence to Huacachina and making one feel like she is in the Sahara Desert.

Nearby is the town of Paracas, famous for the Islas Ballestas. After waking up early at 6 AM, I was driven to Paracas and then placed on a motor boat. What is impressive about the small islands is how many thousands of birds they are home to. The stony islands are covered with all sorts of marine life, including pelicans, Humboldt penguins, and seals. Pelicans are truly extraordinary birds to observe. They are giant (2-3 feet tall) with huge beaks that can swallow fish whole. When they fly, they hover a foot above the water for minutes before soaring high into the air. It appears as if they are racing boats when they do that.

In the evening, I went sandboarding. To reach the peaks of the dunes, you have to take a dune buggy. The setting is surreal, as if Dali painted it. One believes that the sinuous curves carved by an imaginative god. Of course, it is also reminiscent of everyone’s favorite childhood Disney movie Aladdin.

Riding on a dune buggy is like being on a rollercoaster with no railings. The vehicle can move in every direction, up, down, sideways, over hills, and down into valleys of sand. We screamed with terror as our buggy whipped around jagged peaks or rolled down large dunes. Finally we reached a point where we could practice sandboarding. I ski, but sandboarding is completely different. Looking down at steep drop-offs while other novice sandboarders plummet into the sand, can be a little intimidating. As the guide grabbed my board to get me started I shrieked, “Not now!” “When?” he asked. “Más tarde” (“Later”), I responded. Actually, going down wasn’t that bad. The hard part was learning how to balance on the board. Unlike snow, sand is a) not as slippery and b) a lot heavier when it piles up on your board, making forward movement impossible.

When we reached the “black diamonds” of sandboarding, most of us went down on our stomachs. It was hilarious listening to the initial screams ensuing from both the males and females and the pause five seconds later as they realized that they were not in fact going to die. Our attempts to board down these dunes resulted in spills, wipe outs, and cries by our friends of “Ohhh!!! Did you see that? That must have hurt!”

The scariest part of the day was actually the return trip to Huacachina. By then, the sun had set and we couldn’t see anything. Our nocturnal adventure was intensified by all the bumps that the driver had managed to avoid during the day. We felt every one I don’t think our driver had heard the term “whiplash”). At the same time, the buggy tested its horsepower against the height of the dunes and unfortunately, it didn’t always win. Rolling backwards down hills you can’t see is a bit nerve-wracking, to say the least. While the others encouraged the buggy onward (“Go, go, go!”), I muttered my own form of encouragement (“Please go forward, please go forward”). We eventually made it out of the pitch black desert and back to Huacachina, in spite of our driver trying to scale the asphalt roads at the bottom as if they were sand dunes. What a day! It’s good to know that I don’t have to exercise to get my heart rate up!

Surf´s Up!

I just did another thing to add to my list of stupid things, I surfed. You would think that growing up on an island, I´d already have surfing down pat. The truth is that I never had the chance to try it.

This morning, I arrived in Trujillo, a town along the northern coastline of Peru that is famous for its waves. After donning our wetsuits, our guide had me and an Australian guy practice on the sand. We had two positions and then "Up!" at which point we had to jump up and assume surfing position. It was a bit like doing push ups, the up-down-up-down motion.

Surfing is hard work. First you have to paddle yourself and our board far from shore and out into the water, all the while swimming against the force of the incoming current. Jumping onto the board also takes a good deal of arm strength and leaves you sore (and me with a bruise) from where you repeatedly hit your chest with the board.

The first hour-and-a-half was rough. I got whacked by my board, swallowed nearly a gallon of salt water, and neardly had someone land on me with their board. To combat my exhaustion, my instructor cheerfully encouraged me, "¡Sí, se puede!" ("Yes, you can!"). It took several tries to get me off my knees and onto my feet, but even then I wouldn't let go of the board with my hands. When I finally stood up and started surfing, it was exhilerating. It felt like flying. I can't wait to give it another go tomorrow!


Nazca = super disappointing
UNESCO, please stop declaring every place a World Heritage Site. Pretty soon it´s going to be like receiving "two thumbs up" from Ebert.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Story of Macchu Picchu

The ninth and most famous Incan king (Inca actually means “king”) was named Pachacuti (1438-71). Legend has it that he met a girl in the Urubamba Valley and spent one amorous sunset with her. The girl’s mother was a seer and predicted that Pachacuti would rule the Incans. Her daughter was worried that Pachacuti would never return as although kings could have many concubines, they could only have one wife and that wife would be queen. “Besides,” she told him, “your people and mine might be enemies one day.” Pachacuti assured her that would never happen and promised to build her a palace in the place where they spent the sunset.

Sure enough, Pachucuti became king as the seer has foretold. He sent his soldiers out in the four cardinal directions to conquer different regions and expand the Incan empire. As custom demanded, he married a girl from the upper class (Incans usually married a half-sibling to maintain the blood line). In the meantime, he returned to the Urubamba Valley and secretly married his lover.

At the time, fighting between the Incas and the Kollas in Bolivias was splitting the empire in two. Pachucuti had to return to Cusco, the capital of the Incan empire, leaving behind his lover. Unbeknownst to him, she was pregnant at the time. She had the child and named him Ollantay. His grandmother predicted that he would either take over the kingdom or die. His mother sent him to Pachucuti, asking that he serve as a soldier in the king’s army. She never told the king that the young man was his son.

Ollantay became good friends with one Tupac Yanqui, one of Pachucuti’s sons and his half-brother. At the time, there was a campaign of 100 battles. Because of his faithful service to the king, Pachucuti named him general. When a rebellion took place in the town of Tumpas, the king therefore sent Ollantay to quell it. He succeeded and the town was renamed Ollantaytambo (now one of the three famous towns to visit in the Sacred Valley).

Meanwhile, Ollantay had falled in love with K (don’t remember her name). K was Pachucuti’s favorite daughter and her father didn’t want her to marry anyone. When he found out that Ollantay was in love with her, he asked Tupac Yanqui to send the upstart on the Incan expedition to Micronesia and Polynesia. As Tupac was good friends with him, he didn’t but told his father that he had. Ollantay used the opportunity to seek out the daughter, secretly marry her, and have a child with her.

Pachucuti had by then started construction of Macchu Picchu, supposedly as a palace for his love. He promised a reward to anyone who could bring water to the site. No one could. Ollantay was incredibly intelligent. Looking to the surroundings he saw the grandiose glacier Apu Salkantay. He decided to construct a canal from the glacier to Macchu Picchu. As a reward, he asked for K’s hand in marriage. Pachucuti refused. Ollantay decided to attack the king and wrest power from him in order to marry his daughter. He did not have the chance to carry out his plan, as his grandmother told him of the prophecy made long ago. She said that he had two options, he could kill his father or he could immolate himself – sacrifice himself on Salkantay so that his spirit would embody the mountain forever. Ollantay decided to do the latter.

Meanwhile, someone went running to Pachucuti and informed him of his son’s plan. Pachucuti was very sad. Yet, he decided that he could not give up his kingdom. He allowed Ollantay to proceed with his plan of sacrificing himself. For the next several decades, he told his children and grandchildren to look towards Salkantay and worship it because the glacier contained the spirit of Ollantay and the water running toward Macchu Picchu was Ollantay’s blood. Pachucuti lived to be 120 years old and died alone.

Macchu Picchu, At Last!

Last week I set off on the five day Salkantay trek from Cusco to Macchu Picchu. Our group consisted of two Canadians, three South Africans, three Spanish, three French, one Argentine, and two Americans. Our guide was a crazy Peruvian named Eduardo. He rambled on about how he used to smoke marijuana but stopped three years ago. “Cactus juice is much stronger,” he said with a wink.

The nine hours we walked from Mollepata (2,900 meters, 9,500+ feet above sea level) took us past the Salkantay glacier, snow-capped mountains, and the Río Apurimac. The most beautiful view, however, was that of the Umantay glacier. That night we set up camp in the Soraypampa village (3,850 meters, 12,600+ feet).

The second day we walked another nine hours from Soraypampa to Challway. We hiked through a place called Pampas Salkantay and climbed up to 4,600 meters (15,100 feet)! That same day, we hiked down to 2,920 meters (9,600 feet). The walk up Umantay was strenuous, to say the least. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air became. I struggled to breathe. We finally reached the second-highest point in the Cusco region and were greeted by snow. I danced around excitedly like a five year-old child, eagerly trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue. I hadn’t seen snow in more than two years! After a while though, the snow wasn’t as fun. It turned to hail and soaked us to the bone. We ran down the slippery mountain slope, desperate to reach the bottom and escape the pouring rain. As I battled a combination of weak knees and mud, I slipped and hit my left-side against a rock. No harm done though, well, not too much. As I limped along, my guide helped me with my backpack and walked slowly beside me, recounting the story of Macchu Picchu. I finally made it to Challway where we camped for the night.

The third day consisted of a six-hour hike to Playa Sahuayaco, during which we passed by the town of Collpabamba. Collpabamba is in the middle of a cloud forest and is surrounded by waterfalls, thermal hot springs, and exotic flora and birds. While the jungle setting bored the others in the group, I enthusiastically ran around snapping pictures of flowers and plants. “Ooh, fern!” I guess all that time in Paraguay has turned me into a keen observer of nature and a lover of everything jungle. That night we made camp near the hot springs of Santa Teresa.

Speed-walking four hours from Santa Teresa to Llactapata to Hidroelectrica sucked. We paid little attention to the coffee plantations, beautiful landscapes, and diverse flora and fauna along the route, as the heat and dust from the road we walked on made us miserable. We completed 8.5 km in less than two hours before embarking on an additional 11 km along the railway tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes. In my fatigued haze I wished we could just take the train instead of walking. Nonetheless, the flora and fauna were gorgeous, especially the recently planted plantains (we all know me and my obsession with bananas!).

The morning sky on the last day did not bode well. We left our hostel at 4 AM, dressed in ponchos to protect us from the rain, and walked to Macchu Picchu. We could feel the impact of every kilometer during the past four days as we dragged our sore bodies up the 2,700 steps to Macchu Picchu. The view was incredible! I cannot put into words the feeling of first gazing upon Macchu Picchu. It was worth every moment of the four days of pain and struggle. The sheer scale of it, the Incans’ technology, the surrounding mountain peaks, the cloudy mists that envelop it, all make it appear like an image from a dream.

After a tour of the ruins, we decided to climb up Huayna Picchu (when you look at a picture of Macchu Picchu, it is the taller of the two mountains). It was a steep walk with indentations where steps should be. While I cursed the Incans for construction all their cities on mountains and those “lazy bastards who took the train to Macchu Picchu,” the Spaniards led the group in a cheer of “¡Vamos a tomar un Pilsen! Grupo Pilsen!” (“We’re going to drink a Pilsen [beer]. Team Pilsen!”). Finding little motivating about a beer, I eagerly added, “¡Y una pizza!” (“And a pizza”). From the top of Huayna Picchu, you get a bird’s-eye view of the ruins.

Even though I could hardly move my feet, I continued to explore the ruins. Each wall, each building was more impressive than the last. I ended my tour at the guard’s house, the spot from where you get the postcard view of Macchu Picchu. I thought the ruins were incredible enough when I entered the place, but at that moment I thought I would never see anything more incredible in my life. The mountains and the ruins is enough to make you misty.

Our five day trek took us through excruciating altitudes, snow, hail, rain, scorching sun, snow-capped mountains, and jungle. We walked close to 80 km in four days. It was all worth it though, to finally see Macchu Picchu at the end.

For more pictures of the Salkantay Trek and Macchu Picchu, click the links