Sunday, November 7, 2010

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

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