Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Girls Run Wild in Peru

Paragliders at sunset, Miraflores, Lima
With excited squeals and a group hug Hayley, Jessica, and I reunited in the Lima airport, the three of us together for the first time in half a year. We waded together through the busy airport nearly bouncing up and down we were so excited. A few hours from now we'd be on a plane to Cusco and the girls trip adventure we'd been talking about for months was about to begin. . .

A few days prior I was alone and fighting of culture shock resulting from my extreme ignorance of the Spanish language. I literally arrived in South America knowing 'hola' and 'gracias' and nothing else. Not so smart. I was travel weary from a month of bush camping in Africa and now I was lost in a world in which I could barely communicate - it left me more than a little uninspired. But then, a few days later Hayley came bounding out of the arrivals gate, massive smile on her face and arms waving wildly at me, and it didn't matter. The girls were about to conquer Peru!

Plaza de Armas, Cusco's center
Hayley not only saved me with her glowing positivity, she also surprised me with a night at the Sheraton in Lima. Because we are employees back home we were upgraded for free and spent our 24 hours of luxury stuffing our faces with all-you-can-eat buffets and drinking free champagne and pisco sours. We explored central Lima before it was back to reality - and back to the backpackers hostel.

Lima didn't really live up to it's badass reputation for me. It's big, it's smoggy, it's somewhat shabby, but even central Lima didn't feel dangerous. Once we moved to Miraflores by the beach you could barely even tell you were in Lima, everything was clean and shiny and new. On our last evening we watched the paragliders soar along the coastline and into the fading sun. We tried to NOT watch the many couples getting it on on every park bench available. For some reason, this seems to be the thing to do in Lima!

Girls in Cusco, Peru
Soon we met Jess and were off to Cusco. I had high expectations for this city and I must say they were met. Cusco's cobbled streets and stone and clay buildings have the feel of Europe for the price of the third world. It was definitely touristy, but it didn't take much of a walk past the main centre before the hawkers were gone, the buildings were more tattered, and you felt like you were in South America again. The best of both worlds, in my opinion. Cusco is also a high city, at 3400m (11150ft) we dragged our asses a bit the first day and found ourselves gasping as we hiked the steep hill to our hostel. To compensate we chugged coca tea by the gallon - which to be honest I'm not convinced actually does anything - but I guess I can't argue with 1000s of years of local knowledge, and it definitely didn't hurt.

Horseback riding near Cusco
We warmed up for our Machu Picchu trek with and excessive amount of good food (including alpaca steaks, which were extremely delicious) and a day of horseback riding in the hills surrounding Cusco. Our guide was a cute little Peruvian who spoke next to no English and let us do pretty much whatever we wanted. With years of riding under my belt I was in heaven (unlike my terrifyingly hellish pony ride in Lesotho where I was pretty sure I was going to die). We could see the city below, painted perfectly into the valley and across the lower hills. We trotted through little villages and crumbling Incan ruins. I also finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of galloping at top speed through the open fields like a real cowgirl. Hayley followed merrily behind me but Jess was not so impressed - But what are friends for if not to push your limits and terrify you from time to time? Jess, you know you loved it and you weren't going to fall off anyway!

With saddle sore legs (maybe all that galloping the day before a 5 day trek was poorly thought out, oops) we got up at 3:30am to make our way to the bus stop to begin our trek. We were excited to be with other people, but as dozens of gringos were herded onto the bus I got a little nervous. I thought this was supposed to be the less traveled route? The last thing I wanted was to be nose and nose with 100s of other tourists, which is why I really didn't have a problem doing the alternative trek and never setting foot on the Inca Trail. The first day was definitely a bit crowded as several trekking groups walked the trail together to the first camp, picking our way up into the hills and past the last of civilization. As the mountains peeked their white tops above the fading green hills, however, I stopped caring, and didn't take the guides long to separate us out into groups so that we were more spread out. I don't know if Jess was still traumatized from our horseback ride or if she was having trouble with the altitude, but she struggled a bit the first day. She hung in there like a trooper though, and made it to our camp on night one.

Although I was initially grumpy about so many people, once we had established our groups it wasn't so bad and, admittedly, the social factor ended up being one of my favourite parts of the trek. With Belgium, Holland, the UK, South Africa, Canada, and the USA being represented, along with the Peruvian guides and cooks, we were a truly international crew. We huddled around our dinner table the first evening and got to know each other as the chill of the night crept over the campsite. Shortly after an exhausted Hayley, Jess, and I piled into our tent and cuddled together to keep warm. Even with the body heat it was bitter cold and I buried my head deep into my sleeping bag and thanked myself for purchasing the thermals that were currently keeping me at least mostly warm. I learned my lesson after nearly freezing to death in Nepal!

Salkantay trek, 4600m above sea level
We were up for an early start the next morning at 5am. The cooks woke us with a lovely delivery of hot coca tea right to our tent door. We sat and sipped the hot liquid in the dark, reluctant to enter into the frosty morning outside our tent. The day ahead was meant to be the hardest of the trek, not only the longest day in terms of time, but it also included the most elevation climbs and falls. We started with a steep ascent into the high mountain pass. The high elevation here made breathing difficult, I was pulling at the air as hard as I could, trying to bring as much of it into my lungs as possible, but the breaths just felt shallow and unsatisfactory. If I stumbled or lost my rhythm it literally felt like the air was being sucked from my lungs and I'd be left gasping for oxygen. Every so often though, I'd grip just the right amount of air and I could feel all the cells in my lungs licking it up, absorbing every molecule of the much needed oxygen into my tissues and sending a wave of relief over my entire body. We hiked up through the jaggedy white mountains and into the alpine, reaching our highest elevation at 4600m. The views here were stunning and the mist lifted just the right amount to expose the massive mountain tops, caked in ice and snow, as they reached into a glimmering blue sky. We paused to take a few photos, to thank Mother Earth in the Incan tradition, and to sufficiently let the searing wind freeze our sweat so that we were ready to run back down the other side of mountain.

As always I struggled with the food. I had to lie and tell the cooks that I was allergic to cilantro so they wouldn't put any of that nasty herb anywhere near my meals since they seemed to love to sprinkle it over every single dish. It's always discouraging to be extremely hungry and incapable of eating whatever is put in front of me. My anxiety always raised before meals as I waited to see what it was. If I didn't like it, I tried to force myself to eat it anyway, to shove spoonfuls of whatever it was in my mouth, but my throat literally closed and I would feel nauseated. It's extremely frustrating to be this way, but I don't know how to change it. My savoir was my stash of snacks I brought with me and what the cooks called the 'happy hour' after we'd completed our trek for the day. At this time they would serve up huge plates of biscuits, popcorn, and hot chocolate and I would fill my face and then dinner became just a bonus snack. So thank you happy hour for saving me from starvation!

Our trekking crew at the hot springs
 The third day was the most fun. Not only was it the shortest in terms of walking time, we were also down lower so it was a lot warmer, and our efforts were rewarded with hot springs. With three days of accumulated grime and sore muscles, the springs felt amazing. There were local ladies selling snacks and beers on the water's edge and we relaxed into the mountain setting and enjoyed ourselves. That night we had a big bonfire and the three of us girls shared a few bottles of delicious Argentinean wine they sold at the campsite store for $10 each. We stayed up past our usual 8pm trekking bed time, all the way to 11pm. Rebels, I know.

I've officially donated my piece of shit hiking boots to charity and I apologize to whoever receives them. Three treks and 100s of kilometers walked and they still gave me blisters. Those stupid boots have almost caused me more than one trek melt down. I resisted my flip flops for days, then with one toe so raw it was bleeding I finally changed footwear - and then ended up walking through a river of mud and gravel that would never end, down a steep slippery slope, covering all my open foot wounds in random jungle sludge and almost falling on my face. I was so pissed off by the end of it I almost punched my favourite little Jessica in the face when she took a picture of me struggling down the hill. I also debated throwing my mud covered flip flops at lovely Hayley, who was laughing. I blame my hiking boots for all of this, by the way. Luckily, I will never have to see them again and our friendship survived the incident.

By the time we reached Aguas Calientes, the town nearest to Machu Picchu, we had been eaten alive by flies, hadn´t showered for 4 days, had more than a few sore muscles, and I personally never wanted to see another trek meal again, ever. I almost jumped up and down when I saw our hostel with hot water and restarants selling pizza! I had the best shower of my life that night and the best pizza, also.

Wayna Picchu is at the back right 
 You know that mysterious looking, steep, jungle encrusted rock in the background of every classic photo of Machu Picchu? It´s called Wayna Picchu and our group was extremely determined to climb it. You need separate passes to get onto this rock, and you can't get those in advance. They give 200 away for each time slot and they are on a first come, first serve basis. So, up we got at 3:30am and speed walked down the dark street through hoards of other hikers so that we would be first in line when they opened the gate. Once they DO open the gate, you don't get your tickets there. Oh no, no. It's a race from the valley bottom up the wickedly steep mountain Machu Picchu is located on. They then sell you the tickets once you're at the top. We waited for the gate to open, trying not to get antsy in the ever growing line. At 5:00 when they started letting people through we rushed along with the crowds, resisting the urge to push and shove, and began our climb. It usually takes at least an hour to get up the ridiculously intense hill. It took our group 40 minutes. We practically sprinted up the trail, passing the more weak left and right, resisting the urge to rest, barely able to breathe, dripping with sweat even in the cool darkness before dawn. Our group was within the first 20 to the top, and I'm pretty sure Jess, Hayley, and I were the first girls of the day. All 15 of us got our Wayna Picchu passes without trouble.

Sitting on the top of Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu below
We spent the day exploring Machu Picchu and, of course, climbing Wayna Picchu. In the early morning the mist floated throughout the ruins and since we were there so early we nearly had the place to ourselves. I was too caught up in the setting to pay any attention to our guide's tour of the ruins. I spent most the time trailing behind the group or running around alone, daydreaming of ancient Incan civilizations, and not wanting to be disrupted by reality. Despite the early morning marathon up the side of the mountain, we were all excited and energetic to climb Wayna Picchu. With the cliffs edge threatening just beside you, you wind and climb your way up a steep ladder staircase. At the summit you feel like you are at the top of the world, with Machu Picchu barely more than a tiny patch in the forest below. By midday the tourist buses have arrived and the place is crawling with gringos. We snapped a few final pictures in the warmth of the afternoon sun, and then began the climb back down to Aguas Calientes to catch the train back to Machu Picchu.

You would think after a 5 day trek, then an extremely early morning start at 3:30am, with a long day at Machu Picchu and a several hour journey back to Cusco, we'd be too exhausted to do anything but sleep. . . And true, we were tempted by our beds, almost thought about climbing in them. . .But then our entire trekking group was going out to celebrate our 5 day conquest . . . And we couldn't miss out, could we? Hell no! So minutes after we arrived back in Cusco and dumped our stuff, off we went to meet the rest of our group at the bar. The bars in Cusco are evil and stay open devilishly late. After being up for 25 hours, 4:30am is the time we arrived back at our hostel (and we left before the bar closed, by the way!). 6:30am is the time we had to get up to catch our 10 hour bus to Puno. I can tell you right now it was not fun. To make things even more enjoyable, we had splurged on a special tourist bus that stopped at all the sites along the way. It turned out to be a total waste because we felt so awful we wanted to cry every time the bus pulled over, had absolutely no interest in the sites, and almost vomited when we saw the massive lunch buffet provided for us. Good times. Despite the pain and agony, we did eventually make it to Puno.

Before I wrap up I just want to say a word of warning for others about the company we booked our trek with. While the trek experience was great, the booking company was absolutely horrible. They were called Peru Inka Intertravel and you can find them online, but don't. The deceived us into thinking we were getting an upgraded trek, but once we got there we realized that we had actually been downgraded to a cheaper route that we paid double what everyone else did. Not only that, they were extremely disorganized, forgot our hostel bookings, sent us on a wild goose chase, and left us with more than a bitter taste in our mouths. When we confronted them about the situation they were vicious and said we would 'certainly not get any money back'. There's no place to leave feedback on their website - probably for a reason - but still, we are going to do what we can to bring them down! So please, NO ONE BOOK WITH THIS COMPANY! They are more than assholes!

I'm currently in Bolivia and admittedly, more than a little behind on my blog. Sorry for the wait! Hayley is leaving me in two days and I will once again be travelling alone, which generally leaves me with more free time. I'll fill you in on everything that's been going on then :)

No comments:

Post a Comment