Peru. August 2007

Allillanchu! That’s how local people of the Andes greet each other and let me welcome you with the same sweet sound – “Allillanchu”.

Peru. Why Peru? This country has never been on top of my travel list. I have considered Costa Rica surfing school first and then Galapagos Islands diving trip but never Peru. Nevertheless, I ended up there and I wish I got lost in the beauty of the Andes. I was just as far from the civilized world as I could possible be and I saw life full of happiness, peace and tranquility. Besides opening my eyes on many things that I have forgotten or never knew about, this place was a true reality check for me. I bow to everyone who made this trip so unbelievable!

Peru – a legendary place among the trekkers. Like famous Peruvian Pisco Sour, it combines Pisco of picturesque Andean highland towns with still existing Incan architecture, lemon taste of the remote jungle lodges in Amazon Basin, egg whites of snowcapped volcanoes and sweet and bitter 3200 km of Pacific coastline. And for dessert, you get to taste a place of stunning legacy of Incas – Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu was my goal, but the journey itself turned out to be so much better!

Before going to Peru I have read practically everything that I could find on Incas and Peru in NY Public library, but I want to recommend one book that made an enormous impression on me. It’s a classic work on Incan history and the Spanish conquistadores “The Conquest of the Incas” by John Hemming.

The word “Peru” is derived from a Quechua word meaning “land of abundance” and it is indeed blessed with a variety of wilderness, so outfit yourself with Gore-Tex, water, repellent, fleece pullovers, hiking boots and daypacks and… Join me on my journey!

History. First inhabited as many as 20 000 years ago, Peru was the cradle of several of the most ancient and sophisticated pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas. Before the Incas, two other civilizations, the Chavin and the Huari-Tiahuanaco, achieved Pan-Andean empires. Most of what is known about pre-Columbian cultures is based on the unearthing of temples and tombs because none possessed a written language. As one culture succeeded a previous one, it imposed its values and social structure on the vanished but also assimilated features useful to it.

Around 6000 B.C., the Chinchero people mummified their dead, long before the ancient Egyptians had thought of it. By the 1st century B.C. Andean society had designed sophisticated irrigation canals and produced first textiles and decorative ceramics. Though Peru is likely to be forever synonymous with the Incas, the society was merely the last in a long line of pre-Columbian cultures.  The Incan Empire was relatively short lived (1200-1532) but it left behind the spectacular city of Machu Pichhu and countless palaces and temples. Even thought the height of its power lasted for little more than a century, the Incan Empire extended throughout the Andes, all the way from present-day Colombia down to Chile.

The Incas were naturalistic and ritualistic people who worshipped the sun god Inti and the mother Earth Pachamama. They achieved the Andean dominance through formidable organization and a highly developed economic system. They never created a system of writing but they kept extraordinary records with a system of knots on strings, called “quipus“. They laid a vast network of roadways (about 32 200 km) and used chasquis (runners) to operate the roads.  From what I was told from Paull (our tour guide), if Inca wanted to have a fish from the Pacific ocean, he would send a chasqui from Cusco and less than 36 hours later he would get his fish. Note that it’s about 1000 km one way!!!!

The Inca’s agricultural techniques were very efficient, with advanced irrigation systems and soil conservation. The Incas were also extraordinary architects and stonemasons. When you see some of the Inca’s structures you are blown away by splendid landscaping and graceful constructions of perfectly cut stones and terraces on inaccessible sites with extraordinary views of the valleys and mountains.

Spanish Conquistadores chronicled a dynasty of 12 rulers, from Manco Capac, the empire’s founder in 1200 who was said to have risen out of Lake Titicaca, to Atahualpa, whose murder in 1533 in Cajamarca by Spanish conquerors spelled the end of the great civilization. We all know what happened next, but as for me, I was going to the land of Ancient Incas.

Peru met with 7.9 magnitude earthquake.  August 15th, 2007 will always be remembered as a day that brought devastation to southern part of Peru killing nearly 500 people. My heart goes to those people and their families.  As my final destination was Cusco, after 7 hours of NYC-Lima flight, I switched my planes and went straight to the capital of the Incas.

Day 1. Cusco. August 16th, 2007

I have arrived to Cusco at 10.30 and had a representative of SAS Travel waiting for me by the gate. I have booked two of my trips with this company and they were kind enough to meet me in the airport and take me to my hotel. Hotels in Cusco divide into two category – either very expensive (p.ex. Hotel Monasterio or Libertador Palacio del Inca) or very cheap. I wasn’t planning to spend a lot of money on my accommodations so I went with the second option. I booked 4 nights at a very cute Ninos hotel, three blocks away from Plaza de Armas (note: all major plazas in Peru called Plaza de Armas??!!). The story of the hotel is fascinating. A Dutch owner, Jolanda van den Berg, came to Cusco in 1996 and mounted a small empire of goodwill though the Foundation Ninos Unidos Peruanos. She adopted 12 street children and opened a hotel that puts all its profit to benefit children in need. It was a right place with a right cause for me to stay! All rooms in the hotel are named after the couple’s children. So I was assigned to stay at Moises room on the second floor with a great view of the street from my balcony. I didn’t linger much, just dumped my suitcase in a room, changed my clothes and stepped outside, I wanted to introduce myself to Cusco J

Cusco  ( Q’osqo in Quechua, meaning “navel of the World”)  is a puma shaped living museum of Peruvian history, with Spanish colonial churches and mansions sitting atop perfect Inca walls that were laid more than 5 centuries ago. Cusco looked and felt like the very definition of Andean capital.  Some streets had intriguing Quechua names, such as Saqracalle (“where the demons dwell”) or Pumaphaqcha (“Puma’s Tail”). It was love from first sight.

I had to show up at SAS travel office on Plaza de Armas to make final payments towards my trip to Manu National Park and The Lares Trail. But I didn’t rush; I slowly walked along unfamiliar streets trying to adjust to a thought that I was 3400 meters above sea level. From my friend’s experiences I was ready to get the worst altitude sickness but I was waiting for something that never came. I was perfectly fine.  So, basically, I had no excuse to chew on coca leaves or drink some mate de coca.

When I finally arrived to the SAS office I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that my trip to Manu National Park had to be either cancelled or rescheduled because SAS either forgot to book me for requested dates or no longer had availability. It was strange because I have arranged everything with them about 3 months before so I was a bit disappointed. Ruben, a representative of SAS, was very helpful trying to make some last minute accommodations and when we were done; my schedule looked nothing like I have initially planned – I was leaving for Manu the very next day and upon my arrival, 5 days later, I was going on a 4 days The Lares Trail. Now I had to worry about rescheduling my hotel dates. In the end, I got two nights with a private bath ($40 per night) and two nights with a shared bathroom ($18 per night).  Deal!

I was free at 14.00 and had all time for myself – to browse around, walk into every single house (and believe me, the doors were wide open) and to take pictures. Most of the houses by Plaza de Armas are occupied by travel agencies, hostels and restaurants, but further away, the city becomes more unique and tragic. Tragic, because they all looked like the ghosts of the glorious past – lonely and abandoned.

I have a tradition to send postcards to my family and friends while I’m traveling. Post cards I got from a boy right by the fountains on Plaza de Armas (20 cards for $10) but it took me an hour to locate a Post office (ask for Correo). In the post office I met Matthew! He was my first tour guide in Cusco and the first person who could communicate with me in English. Matthew was Canadian but he spent most of his time traveling in South America and it was his 5th time in Cusco. I couldn’t wish for a better person to meet as he agreed to show me the best parts of the city.

Av. El Sol brought us back to Plaza de Armas and we spent early evening sitting on a bench and enjoying the beauty of the place and our conversation. I had a 19.00 o’clock briefing about my next day trip to Manu National park but before, I ran back to my hotel to put some layers on. It got really cold at night. Matthew came with me to the briefing and assured me that everything sounded great, though I didn’t think so. An idea of isolating myself for 4 days in complete rustic conditions with no electricity, was far from my ideal vacation. But, there is always place for something new. I got my insect repellant, bought an extra flashlight and charged my camera batteries. I was ready for tomorrow.

Meanwhile Matthew suggested a nice restaurant that served real Peruvian food –  Granja Heidi. On the way to San Blas we had to pass the world famous 12 angled stone. The street is called Hatunrumiyoc (“big stone”) and it is home to the largest Inca wall of Cusco which is also a part of the palace of Inca Roca (13-14 century). One of the wall’s stones is famous for having twelve angles (piedra de doce ángulos) and is a perfect example of original masonry skills of the Inca people. From Hatunrumiyoc, we made a right turn to another pedestrian alleyway, Inca Roq’a, and about halfway down on the right side was a series of stones said to form shape of a puma, including the head, paws and tail.

We arrived to Granja Heidi at around 20.30 and to my surprise they did require reservations, but Matthew and I didn’t mind to wait a few minutes for a table. It was so worth it. Food was beyond delicious! And it was my very first time drinking Pisco Sour.

My day had began with an earthquake and ended with a glass of Pisco Sour and tasty meal. By 23.00 I was in my bed, quietly sleeping.

Day 2. Manu National Park.  August 17th, 2007

Pick up was scheduled for 7.00 so by 6.45 I was already downstairs, checking my luggage to “Deposito” for the next 4 days. I was going to spend 3 days in Manu with a honeymooning couple – Elena and James from Sydney. Only three of us! Plus staff from SAS – our guide Shirley, a cook, a boat navigator Eucenio and Jesus. We headed to the airport to take a private jet to Amazon Basin and 45 minutes later landed in Boca Manu.

Manu National Park, UNESCO World heritage site – is the second largest (about 2 million ha) protected area in Peru (Amazon Basin is taking nearly two third of the country), and about as close to the virgin rainforest anywhere in the world you can come. One ha of Manu forest could have 10 times the number of species of trees found on a ha of forest in Europe or North America. It has the highest birds, mammal and plant diversity of any park on the Planet and thought to be the most biodiverse zone on Earth. In fact, it’s so remote that not only did the Spaniards never enter the jungle, but also the Incas never conquered this region, either.

The reserve zone contains the lower Manu River, The Rio Alto Madre de Dios and a number of beautiful oxbow lakes (cochas). Entrance is permitted only for the guests of 9 tour companies that have special license to operate there. The reserve comprises of three zones: Manu National Park – reserved only for scientific studies, the Reserve Zone that is accessible by permits for ecotourism and Cultural Zone – a home to traditional nomadic groups and open to all visitors.

Our group arrived to Boca Manu airport (if you can call a single 4-sticks-and-a-grass-roof house an “Airport”) shortly after 10 and had to wait for our boat to come and pick us up. I thought it was poorly organized because a boat was supposed to be there and wait for us before we landed but it was the other way around. We got on a boat around 12.30 and were on a way to Boca Manu town to buy some provision. The town had two stores for those who would want to purchase some cookies or chocolates but I was more interested in a parrot that definitely fell in love with my sweater and kept chewing on it until I got rid of him. Cute.

Our next stop was a check point after which no people were allowed without a special permits. We got a green light and went on with our journey. They say “the deeper into the forest the more interesting it gets”, but I wasn’t expecting a 5 hours boat ride. First we took Madre de Dios river and then one of its brunches –  Manu river. It was a long and a cold ride. After spotting a couple of dozen black and white Caymans along the banks, I completely lost interest in them and started to fill in my postcards.  On the 3rd hour of our ride I finally put my winter jacket on.

Renaco tented Camp is the last one in the Reserve Zone and I couldn’t wait to get there. It was getting colder and darker. And by the time we got to the Camp it was already 18.00. Our accommodations deserve a word in my review. From the description of our camp I thought I would sleep on a grass under the skies, but I found very comfortable cabins, elevated on the platforms. Each of them had 2 single beds with mosquito nets (which Elena liked so much), two wooden chairs and a small bed table. There were 6 or 7 cabins like this in Renaco but because there were only 3 of us, Elena and James got the very first cabin and I got the next one, the whole place for myself!

I was told there would be no electricity in the camp but we did have one bulb, in the dining room. Electricity was generated by the solar panels, and the same way we got hot morning showers. I felt super lucky. My seem-to-be-super-rustic experience was getting more civilized and comfortable.  As long as I had a bed with two blankets, a flush toilet and some warm food, it worked for me.

Elena, James, Shirley and I had dinner at about 19.00 and went to bed shortly after that. It gets dark pretty early in that place.


Day 3. First Trail and Cocha Salvador. August 18th, 2007

I slept surprisingly well and what can be better than to wake up  to the noises of rainforest.

Breakfast was served at 8.00 and by 9.30 we left for our first walk in the forest. Writing about forest, its noises and smells it’s like playing a painting. Impossible. But it felt good to be back! We saw a lot of monkeys jumping all over, huge trees and some plants that came with questioning stories. One tree had 3-4 cm thorns and Shirley explained to us that according to tradition, a man who kidnaps a girl from another tribe, if caught, would have to spend a day tied to this tree. Another tree housed some ravenous ants and (from Shirley’s words) a woman who cheated on her husband would get tied to this tree and get severely bitten by the ants. You decide which punishment is harsher!

But the highlight of our 3 hour long morning hike was meeting a herd of wild pigs. Believe me, they are not pink and friendly as they seem in a cartoon, they are quite dangerous, especially when they move around the forest in a group of 20-30.  They made a very loud noise passing no more than 10 meters from us. But I have to admit, Shirley was the only one who was excited to see them. Elena jumped on a tree and James and I stood indecisively a few meters behind.

I have to admit that a company of people you travel with make a significant difference, so I was lucky to be with James and Elena. They were just as adventurous and restless as me.  After lunch, without taking any time to rest, we “dragged” Shirley to Cocha Salvador, located across the river from our camp. First we hiked to the lake and then took a catamaran ride. Jesus and James were paddling and the girls were enjoying the tranquility of this place. For 2.5 hours I forgot about the rest of the World. We were in our own world of nature and beauty. By the time we reached our camp, food was ready. We enjoyed another quiet dinner. Elena and James were telling us about their trip to Colombia and Colca trail and made me want to go there too. Maybe next time.

Day 4.  Lake Otorongo and a Trail. August 19th, 2007

We started our day by going to Lake Otorongo (which means “Jaguar”) where we were told lives anaconda.  Not that we highly anticipated to see it with out own eyes but it brought a bit of a chilled excitement. What we didn’t want to meet but did, was another group of tourists. We had to take another trail in order to avoid going into the same direction and after they were gone we came back to the watch tower. We expected to see Giant Otters but there were none. Just walking in the forest and experiencing a true liaison with nature was enough for me.

After lunch we took a boat to another camp, located next to ours and from there we proceeded to a trail that eventually ended up in Renaco. As always we picked the longest road and arrived to the camp after dark.

Earlier that day Jesus promised to let me chew some of his coca leaves. It was my 4th day in Peru and besides mate de coca I haven’t tasted any real coca yet! I was very excited.  So after dinner, Jesus brought his bag of coca and James, Elena and I picked a few leaves and put them under the cheek. The technique is next: chew on a leaf, swallow the juice and tuck the remaining leaf under your cheek until it gives you more juice. When a leaf gets dry just spit it out. That’s what I did and it didn’t feel like anything special.

After an interesting experience with coca leaves we decided to go on a night walk. Elena was expecting to see some scorpions and tarantulas but I wasn’t that excited about the hike. We didn’t see any of the creepy crawlers but night in the forest (with just a flashlight) is scary. I can’t imagine getting lost in a place like this. Every sound had a mystery in it.


Day 5. River Trip and Cusco. August 20th, 2007

5.00 wake up. We packed our backpacks, had breakfast and got on a boat. We left Renaco at 5.30 for yet another 5 hour long boat ride to Boca Manu where I was supposed to catch a plane to Cusco. Elena and James continued with Shirley on a boat for extra 2 days but I had to be back for The Lares Trail.

Day just started and the beauty of the sunrise took my breath away. I got my camera and videotaped until sun turned from red to yellow. Fascinating!

Unpleasant news waited for me at the airport when I found out that my name wasn’t on the list of the passengers for that day. Considering that there is only one private jet that charters back and forth from Cusco to Manu 3 or 4 times a day, I had very little chance to be back to Cusco that day, but with some help from Inca Natura’s tour guides, I managed to get a seat on the last plane leaving at 14.30. So pretty much I had to spend a day hanging around a lonely building??? sunbathing and getting frustrated. In my mind I was already preparing an impeachment speech for the representative of SAS Travel.

I hoped to get back to the city in early afternoon and have some time to explore Cusco but I didn’t get there before 15.30. I quickly checked into my hotel and run outside. I headed to Plaza de Armas to visit two of the most amazing cathedrals I have seen La Catedral and Templo de la Compania de Jesus. I wish I made it on time for Convento y Museo de Santa Catalina but I leave it for my next trip to Peru. $10.00 sols (US$ 3.00) guarantee you an entrance to any of these places.

I have started with Templo de la Compania de Jesus which is considered to be one of the finest examples of colonial Baroque architecture in the Americas, the construction of this church began by the Jesuits in 1576 on what used to be the Amarucancha, or palace of Inca Huayana Capac (said to be the most beautiful of all the Incan ruler’s palaces). Begun in the late 16th century it was almost entirely demolished by the quakes of 1650 and 1950 (every 300 years Cusco experiences devastating earthquakes).

I had a fantastic, English speaking guide who spent about an hour showing me around and explaining the meaning of things. Please, pay attention to the paining by the entrance which depicts the image of the granddaughter of Manco Inca marrying the man who captured last Inca.

Right after la Compania Church tour I crossed the street to visit La Catedral – built on a site of the palace of the Inca Viraconcha, it’s a beautiful religious and architectural monument. Completed in 1669, it possesses some 400 canvasses of the distinguished Escuela Cusquena that were painted from 16th to 18th centuries. There are also amazing woodcarvings, including the spectacular cedar choir stalls. To the right of the main altar (that is made of silver and weighs more than 400 kgs) is a particularly Peruvian painting of the Last Supper, with the Apostles drinking chicha (fermented maize beer) and eating cuy (guinea pig) ( )

I asked for a guided help and soaked in the stories of the old Cathedral.  A day before my departure, I returned to the Catedral for a morning mass as it was the best way to see a place “in action”.

At 19.00 I had a briefing where I got to meet my tour guide and a group for the Lares Trail. There were 13 people in a group with two guides – Paull Palma and Cesar. After a day of struggle in the airport in Boca Manu I was very hesitant to trust this company, but when I met Paull and saw his optimism about upcoming trek, I got all excited myself. Right after the meeting, I complained to the SAS office about their poor organization of my Manu trip so they promised to investigate and granted me a free El Valle Sagrado trip upon my arrival from The Lares Trail.

I browsed a little longer in the city, making new friends such Adolfo Mautino –  a head security of Libertador hotel who was so excited to meet me that even without any knowledge of English and my extremely poor half French- half Spanish, he still took me  around. I really started to love the hospitality of the Andean capital.

I guess a picture of The Last Supper stuck in my head so I headed to the best restaurant serving cuy J La Retama on Plaza de Armas. It’s quite a famous place among tourists because people were cueing inside and outside of the restaurant. It was late when I got there so I had no problem getting a table for a single but then I joined  tables with another single traveler from the UK. Each of us got a glass of Pisco Sour and after his alpaca dish came, they brought my cuy. God, do people really eat this??!! It looked like a roasted rat and when I asked a server to cut it (because I didn’t succeed myself), it was too tough to chew. I managed one slice and then gave up the whole idea. I knew I was going on a trek the next day so food poisoning wouldn’t be a perfect beginning of my first ever trek!

Back to my room 3 (probably the hotel owners didn’t have enough children to give this room a name, so it was just 3), single bed with no in bathroom. Uh, at least I had hot showers 24/7.

Day 6. The Lares Trail. August 21st, 2007

The Lares Trail is an alternate trek for those who couldn’t book the world famous Inca Trail. I was one of them, but I don’t regret a moment about it! For such a newbie hiker like myself I should have started in upstate New York before going to Peru, but I follow Sveta’s rule: if diving but the Great Barrier Reef,  if hiking but the Andes and Machu Pichhu.

My hiking clothes and boots, with tags still attached, were ready but neither my body nor my mind were prepared to what was to follow in the next 4 days.

From the Lares Trail program:

” Our trek takes you into the Lares region of the Peruvian Andes, passing green valleys, tranquil mountain lakes and high passes, with breathtaking views of snow capped Andean peaks rising to just under 6000 meters. Our route takes you through many small village communities that offer a fascinating insight to traditional Andean life”. And honestly, it was the way they described it in a brochure. I just didn’t know that “high passes” really meant be to very high!

I met my group and a guide at 6.00 at Plaza Regocijo, we boarded a bus and proceeded for a 2 hours journey through Pisac where we made our first stop for breakfast.  On a bus I got to meet my future companions  – Renata, Milton, Etel and Michel – 4 friends traveling from San Diego, Jeremy and Julie from Salt Lake City, Patricia and Gabriela from Venezuela,  Catriona and Allison from Toronto, Ben and Jen from Boston.  Everybody seemed happy and excited about the trip. Milton and Renata couldn’t stop taking pictures. After breakfast we made a short stop at the local market to get some coca, chocolates and other things that could be useful on a trip. After passing Machacancha we started our hike in an old Inca road of Totota Canyon. Apparently it was supposed to help us to acclimatize to the altitude but I was out of breath after only 45 minutes of hike. As sun was approaching midday, I started shedding my clothes off, layer by layer. It was close to +23-25 C.

We stopped here and there to take pictures of the mountains, panoramas and uncountable herds of llamas and alpacas grazing around.  From that point we saw the ranges of the snowy mountains of Vilcanota. At one moment Paull asked us to look up and we saw the old tombs hanging from the mountains right above us. After 2.5 hours hike we were picked up by the bus and brought to the Lares Hot Springs to relax and enjoy the lunch. I really loved the springs. They had 5 pools with different temperatures starting from +25C up to +45C. Almost all my mates got undressed and jumped in. Wow, what a great 45 minutes escape!

After lunch we “lost” one of group member, Allison. She couldn’t compete with altitude sickness so it was better for her to go back to Cusco. Milton started feeling dizzy too so he was advised to take a horse in order to continue a journey.

Our next hike took us more than 3 hours and it wasn’t easy.  After being so hot during the day, it got really cold as soon as sun went down. Luckily, i brought a winter hat with me as winds weren’t kind to anybody. We reached Huacahuasi (3 700 m) late at night. It was dark, everybody was cold and hungry. But thanks to our supporting crew, tents, portable toilet, dining facility were ready for us. After dinner, I picked my bag and brought it to my tent. Because I was a single traveler and the 13th on the list, I got a whole tent for myself. I looked at it quietly and I knew – there would be no sleep that night.

I never slept in a tent, I never slept outside when it was -5C, so instead of taking clothes off I put some on and buried deep inside my sleeping bag. And yes, I left my hat on too.

Day 7. The Lares. August 22nd, 2007

This day will always be remembered as the day when I pushed my boundaries harder that I ever thought I was capable to. As I predicted I got no sleep. I was tired, cranky and cold, my mind was wondering between reality and a dream world. I was “woken up” by Sergio who brought some hot mate de coca right to my tent. What a treat! Early breakfast and we were on our way to a local house to “better understand how people live in the Andes”. For me it was a shock of a lifetime.

During our first day we encountered some local people including children who would shyly come to you if you had a caramel to offer. I have to admit that I’ve never seen such beautiful children. All red cheeked, those little Peruvians were beyond adorable. And all were dressed in traditional clothes that were true and only clothes they knew (there were no acting and dressing up for tourists). Every single woman we met was in a process of doing something, if she wasn’t weaving something, she would definitely be holding a spindle and wounding a thread from Alpaca wool.  It was amazing but it didn’t prepare me for a visit to a local family.

A house was located a short walk up from our camp. It was small  apx. 3 sq.m x 10 sq m. One room served as a dining room, a bedroom and a living room. It was also a closet, a heating room and a home for guinea pigs. A house with a small door and no windows made of stones and mud.  Smell of burning wood stroke me in the head. I remember times when I was getting very sick by staying at my grandma house in winter. She would use coal or wood to heat her house and if chimney wasn’t working properly I would always get a carbon monoxide poisoning. I felt the same way in this house so I rushed outside. With the owner’s permission I took a few pictures inside of the house and with his wife and a daughter. The rest of their children (I believe there were 3 more) were at school.

I think this visit was not only an eye-opening experience, it made fundamental changes inside of me. This is life. Conditions in which this people live seemed unbearable to me. This is where and how they were born and lived, starting from many many years, even centuries ago.  My westernized brain couldn’t comprehend and my eyes refused to believe that people could exist like this, but they not only lived this way, they were unconditionally happy. That what I could read on their faces, on the faces of the most beautiful children of the Andes.

After our camp was dismantled we began our walk. We were warned that it would be the hardest part of the trail. We slowly started to climb up and up. Every time I would look at somebody in front of me, I could see only UP. There were no breaks, no down hills. Only Up. We made two stops and one of them was by a small, azure colored mountain’s lake.  There were wonderful views of the mountains, stone houses and valley laying below us, but I don’t remember getting my camera out of a bag, all I could see was up and my dusty hiking boots.

After a short stop by the lake we continued our 3.5 hours climb up to Ipsaycocha Pass – 4400 meters. Honestly, I don’t have even the slightest idea how I survived that! I felt like a fish thrown out of water, I was inhaling but no air was coming in, I was on a verge of heart attack but I did reach the top.  I think it was the best physical achievement I have ever made. After that, the road was only down.

On the top of Ibsaycocha we all got together to forever freeze this moment in a digital memory of our cameras. And believe me; I will see this climb over and over again in my nightmares.

Then we descended to Ipsaycocha lake for our lunch and after meal we had about 30 minutes to relax. I fell asleep right on the ground. Sweet memories. After a break we had another 3 hours of walk towards our second night camp. It was an easy walk, passing herds of llamas, alpacas, some random domestic pigs and horses.

I was amazed with Paull, he would say “Allillanchu” to every person we met. And then he would engage in a conversation with them. When I asked Paull if he knew all those people, he said that some of them he did but most of them he didn’t. Before that day, talking to strangers didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but watching Paull’s behavior and the way he communicated with people, I learnt a lesson for myself: No matter who you are and where you live, take a moment and look around. Talk to people; know what is going on in their lives. It doesn’t take much of your time, but you will be benefited many times in many other ways.  That was another lesson Peru taught me.

We got to our camp in Patacancha (3 700m) before it got dark so I had time to get my tent a bit more comfortable before going to sleep. Plus dining tent was some kind of a magnet for everybody. We gathered for a cup of tea an hour before dinner and nobody left it until late night. All of us became really close in the last 2 days. We were so different, traveling from all over the world but there was something that united us, and it couldn’t be taken away. Not after Ipsaycocha Pass!

I went to bed early and all night I felt like something or somebody was watching after me, lying next to me, making me warm and guarding my sleep.

Day 8. Trail. Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. August 23rd, 2007

I woke up with a good feeling that my nights in a tent were over. I was looking forward to our morning hike down to Ollantaytambo.

We left around 9.30 and if we hurried up we could make it to 14.00 o’clock train to Aguas Calientes but it wasn’t meant to be.

The hike was really long, about 12 kms and we made multiple stops, one in Hilloq where we could observe women and men in their regular daytime activities. They say Hilloq is famous for its people who are always dressed in red ponchos.  Some of the first porters for Inca trail came from this place and most of them didn’t speak anything but Quechua. People from these places are considered to be the closest descendants of the Incas who preserve and pass their traditions from generation to generation.

Our next stop we made in a backyard of a church. It didn’t look like a religious institution with its glamour and luxury but a small cemetery on a side indicated different. I fed my snack to a friendly donkey that stopped by to say “hi”. But the funny thing was that donkey liked to chew on my sweater too. I wonder if there is any magic hidden in my sweater.

While passing through another small village we stopped by a local elementary school. What surprised me the most about local infrastructure was the total lack of flush toilets but presence of a football field with bald net-less gates but nevertheless, a true football field. We saw plenty of those along the way. In a local school we got information on education and government involvement in the lives of local communities (which seemed minimal). I was surprised to find out that in Peru school books have different context depending on a location – one is for city students and another for children in the remote villages. Books for Andean schools don’t contain any information or pictures of automobiles or high-rise buildings, something that would feel strange and unusual for that part of the country.

I can’t make up my mind about this kind of division. My brain says it is sort of discrimination but my common sense agrees with a government’s policy about this matter.  I should study this subject more closely next time.

When we entered a second grade class room children performed two songs for us (in Quechua) and our American dream team, Michel, Ben and Jen gave them their version of a friendly singing. We each donated $10.00 sols to support this school and moved on.

But there was one more adventure waiting for us before we reached Ollantaytambo – meeting a lady who sold chicha.  When we approached her, children of different ages poured from all over. They were absolutely adorable. Then over the sudden this little girl walked out of a house carrying a dead stuffed animal. I can’t tell what it was but I made sure to take a picture of her and let people decide if it was a right toy for a girl of her age.

We reached Ollantaytambo around 15.00. Hungry but happy, everybody were anticipating soon-to-happen shower!  We walked in the main street of Ollantaytambo.  The Old town is a spending grid of streets dating to Incan times and lined with adobe brick walls, blooming bougainvillea (like one on Paull’s mother house) and perfect canals still carrying water down from the mountains.

A tongue twisting town made me fall in love with it immediately. It was great to find out that Paull grew up and spent half of his life in this town. I wish I could stay just for a night in that special place.

After lunch we had to say goodbyes to our supporting team of cooks and porters and proceed with our belongings to a train station. Our train was 30 minutes late (but nothing surprised me anymore) so we left at 17.45.

Our group arrived to Aguas Calientes at 20.15 and by 20.30 we were checking in into the Chaska hotel. At first I didn’t mind staying with somebody in a room but later I changed my mind so Paull had to find me another hotel to accommodate my request. It was just two buildings down the hotel where everybody were staying at. Hotel with no name to be remembered by its marble bathrooms. It’s easy to get used to objects of luxury but difficult the other way around.

At 21.00 we met at Viajeros hotel for dinner. Everybody looked nice and shiny after the first shower. God, it felt good to finally wash my hair. After dinner I convinced Milton, Renata and Etel to join me for drinks in town. We were tired after a long day but it was almost a Columbian discovery to turn around a corner and find a city full of life, lights and people. We picked a place, sat down, ordered some drinks (guess what I ordered?) and just enjoyed the evening. Later Paull joined us. It was a great end of a trail. Machu Picchu adventure was lying ahead.

Day 9. Machu Picchu. August 24th, 2007

After breakfast, at 5.30, we took a bus straight to Machu Picchu. We had an option to wake up earlier and walk all the way up to the site and initially this was what I wanted to do but when I realized that I had to walk with a flashlight in complete darkness, this idea didn’t seem very exciting anymore. So I lingered in bed, got my breakfast and boarded a bus. Finally. We were just minutes away from The UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the wonders of the World – Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu, the fabled “Lost city of the Incas” is World’s greatest attraction. The Incas built Machu Picchu so high in the clouds that it escaped distraction by the Spaniards who never found it. It was re-discovered by the Yale archeologist and historian Hiram Bingham in 1911 with an aid of a local farmer who knew of its existence.

A sad note: Machu Picchu survived the Spanish onslaught against the Incan Empire but in the last few decades it suffered more treats to its architectural integrity than it did in nearly 500 years. In 2001, a film company shooting a TV commercial for a Peruvian beer sneaked equipment into the site and irreparably damaged the stone Intihuatana atop of ruins. It was the only untouched and preserved Incan sundial, now forever lost.

Invisible from Urubamba valley below, Machu Picchu lay dormant for more than 4 centuries, nestled nearly 2 400 m above sea level. Never mentioned in Spanish Chronicles it was seemingly lost in the collective memory of the Incas and their descendants.  But ruins raise more questions than answers. What place did Machu Picchu occupy in the Incan Empire? Was it a citadel? An agricultural site? An astronomical observatory? A ceremonial city or sacred retreat for the Incan Emperors?

This complex city of fine architecture and masonry was constructed, inhabited and deliberately abandoned all in less than a century. Bingham mistook Machu Picchu for the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last refuge of Manco Inca (a real Vilcabamba is located deeper in the jungle at Espiritu Pampa and was discovered only about 10 years ago). As for Machu Picchu, it’s believed that Inca Pachacutec, who founded an Inca Empire and built most of the greatest and recognizable of Incan Monuments, had the complex constructed sometimes in mid-1400s. Machu Picchu appears to have been both a ceremonial and agricultural center. Half of its buildings were sacred in nature but more findings indicate that it was more a royal retreat place for Incan leaders than a sacred city. One thing is certain, Machu Picchu is one of the world’s great examples of landscape art. The spectacular setting of the site reveals just how much Incas reveled in the environment; they obviously chose it for the immense power of the natural beauty. “The ruins are cradled at the center of a radius of Andean peaks, like the pistils at the center of the flower.”

We got our entrance tickets and rushed straight through the gate to the other side of a site, to the Sacred Stone. We have decided to climb Wyana Picchu and by new regulation, only first 400 people who get their tickets stamped, would be allowed to climb it. 200 people at 7.00 and another 200 people after 10.00. By the time we got there, a huge crowd of eager people already stood in line. No way we were leaving! To our amusement we took the last few spots, I was 399 and Milton got the lucky last permit!

Paull was taking us from place to place talking about the meaning of different buildings and sites but I was thinking to myself “Oh my god, tons of glossy photos that I’ve seen of Machu Picchu just can’t do this place justice”. It was dreamlike. It has to be seen, felt, experienced and lived.

We finished the tour around ruins at 10.30 and it was time to go up to Wayna Picchu. The registered record of the fastest climb to Young Mountain is 15 minutes, we made it in 27. And let me assure you, it wasn’t bad at all, considering the steepest and narrowest steps I’ve ever had to climb! At the top there were some platforms directly overlooking Machu Picchu. But we, who’ve come this far were committed to reach the apex with 360 degree views. When we got there, all the rocks were occupied and even though I felt like I can spend hours and hours just sitting there and glazing at the mountains, I didn’t feel safe enough jumping from one stone to another.

We made it back from Machu Picchu for lunch at 13.30 and didn’t have to be back to the hotel in Aguas Calientes till 17.30, so we had more than 4 hours to browse around. First thing we went straight to Caretaker’s hut and Funerary rock. This is where the world famous picture of Machu Picchu is taken.

After that we walked around and saw an arrow pointing to an exit with “Inca’s Bridge” on it. We headed there and after 20 mins hike reached the end of the road from where we could see the remains of an ancient Incan Bridge. By the time we got back to Machu Picchu it was 15.45 and because I decided to take stairs back to Aguas Calientes, I had to leave.

I stopped for a moment, turned around and looked back at the ruins. Long time ago, they were somebody’s houses, temples and tombs, now they were staring back at me and they belonged to me. I had the last glance at them and rushed down the stairs. I am sure to come back. One day!

It took me about an hour to get to the hotel. Half of our group was already there so we just got our towels and bathing suits and left for Aguas Calientes outdoor thermal baths. It was a 10 minutes climb up Avenida Pachacutec and even though it was a good spot to end our trip, it wasn’t as good as thermal baths in the Lares.

Our train was leaving at 20.30 so after dinner we had to pack our backpacks and leave for the train station. Some of the guys approached me and asked to give a tip to Paull who was our guide for the entire trip. I don’t know why they picked me but I was very grateful for that. I wanted to make it quietly but they requested a speech so I just expressed what was on my mind for the entire time of the trip  –  Paull by showing  love and affection to his home country won me forever. He showed us that being human and approachable was a good thing. He taught us to be strong and go to the end no matter how hard it was. I was very very thankful for a life lesson that Paull and the team gave me during that 4 days trail!!! Thanks to all of you!

We boarded a train and in Ollantaytambo we switched to a bus. Now we were sharing it with another group of hikers who were with SAS Travel as well. In Cusco we were dropped off at the same place where we all met 4 days earlier, at Plaza Regocijo. That was it but we didn’t want to believe that it was over! I gave hugs to all my guys and after Paull helped everybody to get a cab, he walked me back to my hotel.  I still couldn’t believe that our journey came to its end!


Day 10. El Valle Sagrado. August 25th, 2007

Even though I went to bed only after 2.00 I still wanted to get up early to make it to a morning mass at La Catedral. There is no better way to see a natural flow of local lives but doing the same things as locals do. Getting up at 5.30 for a 6.00 mass was a dream of mine since I visited La Catedral for the first time.

Blonde, wearing hiking clothes and having a backpack with me didn’t make me look like a local girl, but I have tried to follow the the flow of the mass. Hopefully I didn’t disrespect anybody because it wasn’t my intention at all; although my presence attracted a lot of attention.

I had breakfast at one of the cafes on Plaza de Armas and by 8.20 was by SAS office to go on a promised Sacred Valley of the Incas tour aka El Valle Sagrado de los Incas.

I should have done this trip before going to Machu Picchu as I have planned in the very beginning but I had no other choice. I was already well informed about different sides of Inca’s life, mastery of their constructions and religious traditions.

El Valle Sagrado is a relaxed and incomparably beautiful stretch of small villages and ancient ruins spread across a broad plain and mountain slopes northwest of Cusco. The Incas built several of the Empire’s greatest estates, temples and royal palaces between the sacred centers of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Through the valley rolls the Rio Urubamba. This river was a pivotal religious element of the Inca’s cosmology. Incas believed that the flow of Urubamba was tied to the constellations and the mountains peaks, and that the river was the earthbound counterpart of the Milky Way.

I boarded my tour bus along with 7 adventurers like myself and at 9.00 we departed for our first destination. And don’t forget about Boleto Turistico  – for just $70 sols you are allowed to visit just about any site in Cusco and Urubamba Valley.

Sacsayhuaman is located on a hill overlooking Cusco; the monumental stonework forms massive zigzagged defensive walls of three tiers. Built by Pachacutec in the mid 15th century, some blocks weigh as much as 300 tons and seem to fit together seamlessly without any mortar.  All those massive blocks of limestone were brought from as far as 32 km away. Above the walls are the circular foundations of three towers that once stood here; they were used for storage of provisions and water. It is known that it was the site of the bloodiest battle between Spaniards and native Cusquenos.

After another 30 minutes on a bus we entered our next site. Pisac has some of the finest and largest ruins in the entire valley. Despite the excellent conditions of many of the structures, little is known about the site’s actual purpose. It appears to have been a part of the city, part ceremonial center, and part military complex. On a way to Pisac ruins we stopped at the famous handcraft market in the City of Pisac where I purchased some hand made silver jewelry.

When we got to the ruins, I was trained enough to climb to the very top, while others were satisfied by being on the lower platform by Templo del Sol. I wish we could spend more time in Pisac because 45 minutes were definitely not enough to see everything. But we had to move on. After a lunch stop at the local restaurant we left for Ollantaytambo. I have been there before but I haven’t seen the ruins yet because they were all the way on the other side of the city. Now it was time to get closer.

Ollantaytambo – was built and crowned as a temple designed for worship and astronomical observation. Rising above the valley are dozens of rows of stunningly steep stone terraces carved into the hillside.  The temple ruins represent one of the Incan Empire’s most formidable feats of architecture. The upper section, after we’ve climbed 200 steps, contains typical supremely elegant doorjamb and indicates the principal entry to the temple. On the next level are six huge pink granite blocks, amazingly cut, polished and fitted together; they appear to be the part of rooms never completed.

Across the valley is a quarry that provided the stones for the structure; remains of a giant ramp descending from the hill top ruins which was the means by which the Incas transported the massive stones when thousands of workers essentially dragged them around the river from several kilometers away.

We barely spent an hour there before getting back on a bus to return to Cusco. I was devastated to finish my trip to the wonderful country of Ancient Incas in such manner. Upon arrival to Cusco at around 18.30 I still had a few more hours to browse around San Blas and do last shopping.  When I was done I went to my hotel and fell asleep almost immediately.

Day 11. Cusco and Lima. August 26th, 2007

My last morning in Cusco. I felt like I was running out of time but I still haven’t seen the city. I woke up at 5.30, packed my luggage and by 6.30 checked out from the hotel. I scheduled to meet with Paull on Plaza de Armas at 9.00 so I had 2.5 hours to slowly walk around the sleeping town. I wandered with no reason or particular destination in mind.  I don’t believe even having a map that morning. As long as I was climbing stairs, I could see Plaza de Armas Catedral and La Compania below. This time I didn’t let my camera go so I took a picture of almost every step I made. Cusco was beautiful and tranquil on that Sunday morning. And I was falling more and more for this place.

At 9.00 sharp I was at Plaza waiting for Paull. I knew his mom was visiting so I wasn’t sure if he was going to show up but he did. It was such a relief to see him again, as if he was a person from your old good memories. I suggested that we have breakfast somewhere in San Blas, a-la local Montmartre, but all places were still closed so Paull invited me to his house which touched me greatly.

We bought some bread and tamales and took a taxi to his house. He had a lovely house, don’t even know what part of the city. Paull cooked us some eggs. Milo and tamales finished the breakfast. I still had some time but it wasn’t enough to ask Paull everything I wanted to know  – his story, his life and his plans for the future but also many more questions about Incas, Cusco and traditions.

At 11.45 I had to rush back to my hotel, pick up my luggage and make it to my 12.30 plane to Lima. On the way to airport Paull said that he forgot something so we had to make a stop by his house. When he showed up, he had two weaved bracelets with him. He placed one of them on my wrist and it was followed by a story, apparently he got it for me right after Ipsaycocha Pass and it was made by the same woman whose bracelet he was presently wearing as well. This made it even more special for me!  I was flying away with the gift that meant to me more than all gold of the Incas, a gift from a dearest friend.

I got on a plane and 45 minutes went in the blink of an eye.  I have arrived to Lima. Most tourists skip Lima altogether for the extraordinary treasures hovered over the horizons in the Andes Mountains and in the Amazon jungle.  But I planned my trip so I could spend at least 6 -7 hours in the city.

Once ranked as the richest and most important city in the Americas, today’s Lima is a sprawling and chaotic metropolis. Founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro, The City of Kings quickly became the center of power and trade for the entire American vice regency. At one point it was home to some of the America’s finest Baroque and Renaissance churches, palaces and mansions but earthquake of 1746 decimated the city leaving 4000 dead and just few buildings standing.

I checked my bags in Deposito ($16 sols per bag) and headed to the city. Taxi driver approached me right away with a chart in his hands indicating the destination and its prices. A ride from Airport to Lima Centro was US$18, I said I wouldn’t pay more than $10 and deal was sealed.

Lima’s grand Plaza de Armas is the original center of the city and the site where Francisco Pizarro founded the city in 16th century.  The plaza witnessed everything from bullfighting to Inquisitions related executions. The oldest element of the square is the central bronze fountain dated from 1651. This part of the city was announced a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. The major palaces and cathedral are mostly harmonious in architectural style ( )

La Catedral was the first building I approached. I saw people going in and out so I figured out there was a mass going on. I walked in and stayed there till the end of the service.

Palacio Episcopal (Archbishop Palace), next to La Catedral, had the nicest wooden balconies I have seen.  Palacio del Gobierno was a massive building on the north side of the Plaza, with guards changing every now and then and two huge tanks right by the Palace gates. The guards were nice enough to explain me how to get to Convento y Museo de San Francisco and even allowed me to take pictures with them.

Two blocks from Plaza de Armas located probably the most spectacular of Lima’s colonial era churches – Convento y Museo de San Francisco,  restored in 17th century this church survived the earthquake of 1746. In front of the church there was a local feast going on with food and merry people. Convento didn’t look that impressive from the outside, but I rushed inside because the last guided tour was about to begin. $5 sols admission and they let you into a huge waiting room. After about 5 minutes of waiting, our guide showed up and we started a tour.

We walked through the cloisters and interiors lined with beautiful glaze ceramic tiles from Seville, fine museum of religious art, carved saints and a series of portraits of the apostles by Francisco Zurbaran, a library with giant books (apparently they were used by choir who needed large letters to be able to see from far away). But for me the most exciting moment was the descent into the catacombs which served as the common cemetery starting from 1546. Everybody who lived (and died) in Lima at that time were buried there. About 75 thousands bodies were found – and considering that there are many more levels down – more bodies were yet to be discovered. 15 minutes of nothing but the bones were fascinating!

When I left Convento de San Francisco it was already shortly after 17.00. There was one particular museum, Museo de la Nacion, that I wanted to visit, so I grabbed a taxi and went to that part of the city. Even thought museum was still open, they stopped taking any more visitors. Good thing that my cab driver figured that out and was still waiting for me outside. For the next 4 hours (and only $100 sols) he became my personal city guide. I didn’t know where else to go and what else to see, so I asked him to just drive me around the city, showing the best of Lima. And he did. We went to multiple areas many of which did look too dangerous to get out of the car, so we just kept on driving. Until we reached a fancy neighborhood Miraflores, which looked like a friendly oasis in the middle of war. We stopped by Centro Comercial Larcomar so I could do my last Alpaca clothes shopping, take a few pictures by Pacific Ocean and proceed with my trip.

We made another stop by the popular hang out place right in the center of the city. The street stretched for many many blocks and looked like a small version of the Atlantic City boardwalk, but it was time for me to leave. For the past 1.5 hours my taxi driver and I were looking for some place for me to eat but I came to the conclusion that Peruvian people eat only chicken and Chifa for dinner. As a vegetarian, I was in a wrong place at the wrong time.

I believe there are more things to see in Lima but I was tired and cold and I couldn’t wait to be back to the Airport.

My trip was over but the shattered pieces of my broken heart spread all over Urubamba Valley waiting for me to come back. And I will.


P.S. Also I want to thank everybody who shared this experience with me  –  Paull, Matthew, Elena and James, My Brazilian Squad –  Renata, Milton and Etel, Michel, Catriona, Jeremy and Julie, Ben and Jen, Patricia and Gabriela, Allison and Shirley and also members of the hiking crews. You all helped me to get to know this place and myself better. It wouldn’t be the same without you. Thank you.

Pictures of Cusco and Manu

Pictures of Machu Picchu.

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