Monday, July 31, 2017

Death Road and the Adventures of Adrenaline Junkies

These crazy kids are about to hit Death Road
The North Yungas Road had many names. According to a simple Google search, it is also known as Grove's Road, Corioco Road, Camino a Los Yungas, snd most notoriously, Death Road. It is a road leading from the Bolivian capital of La Paz to Corioco, which is 35 mi northeast of the city. In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank christened it as the "world's most dangerous road." Of course,
Our group gets ready for the ride!
I had heard of the road before since "Top Gear" and "Ice-Road Truckers" did an episode. A road intense enough to scare even the likes of Jeremy Clarkson has to be pretty intense.

In 2006, one estimate stated that 200 to 300 travellers were killed yearly along the road. (Note the use of past tense were instead of are.) The road, which is not even asphalted, is actually not very long – only 43 miles (69 km), and yet, there have been so many accidents that it is lined with crosses. Entire buses and trucks dropped off the cliffs regularly, never to be seen again. 

It was only on the day's trek that I learned that the original Death Road had been replaced by a new, safer (asphalted!) road several years ago. Now the original road is mainly used by people like me (idiots) and thrill-seeking cyclists. Car traffic, which was the bane of my existence of the TransAmerica Bicycle Route in 2015, was supposedly
The curvy road makes for some dangerous riding
minimal because of the new road. The thought of cycling down this road did not seem as terrifying anymore now that I knew that I could not collide with a truck or bus. Of course, I could still drop off a cliff, since most of the road lacks proper guard rails, or, well, any sort of protection. But I figured with some caution I would be fine.

Altitude Adventures picked us from our hotel at 7 AM for an hour long drive to the start at La Cumbre, the highest point of the mountain range at 15,320 feet. Our end point would be in Coroico, 12,000 feet lower than La Cumbre, at 2,950 feet. It would be the lowest our group had been in terms of altitude since Paracas, nearly three weeks ago! The outfitter even told us to bring bathing suits since the end of the road would end at a tropical resort, giving us the opportunity to experience a pool at an Amazon-based resort. This seemed absurd to me as I shivered away at 15,000 feet, wondering why I thought it was a good idea to vacation in a country during winter.

We were fitted into our gear – a jacket with elbow pads, pants with knee pads, gloves, and a full-face helmet, tested our mountain bikes (the brakes worked great, which was excellent
That outfit, though. And yeah, that's me.
news!) and off we went. The jacket and pants were the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen in my life and I felt more like a circus clown than a cyclist. But the outfit certainly kept me warm and safe if I had fallen off the bike. (At least from gravel, the clown attire would have down nothing for 400 meter drop off a cliff.) For the first 20 kilometers we did not cycle on the actual Death Road, but on the new asphalt road to Coroico. It was mostly to get used to the bikes, and to warm up. But I absolutely loved it! The weather was cold, but we rocketed downwards and barely put our brakes on at all. The scariest part happened just at the end when we had to go around a tunnel on some gravel. Even still, I felt that Death Road was totally do-able.

Then we arrived at the original Death Road, fog had descended. The ominous atmosphere only addedto my growing excitement.But we could still see the road snake along the mountainside for miles, with imposing cliffs on the left side of the road. Our guide told us that if there was automobile traffic, we would have to ride on the left – the cliff – side of the road! This is the only road in Bolivia with left-hand traffic, the reason for this being that drivers who ride on the left see the cliff (since the steering wheel is still on the left side), and drivers who come up the road see how close they’re to the mountainside.
Luckily, there was almost no traffic other than other adventure outfitters, who always moved for us anyway.

The group naturally fell into speed groups. Even though I feel I have loads of experience on a bike, my natural inclination to brake kept me safely in the back of the pack. This is also my first big mountain biking experience. Despite the inexperience, I had an absolute blast! Anyone around me on their bike could attest to the fact that I cackled away as we flew down the hills. I spent most of the time standing up on the pedals, as well, catching some more wind. I think the whole thing would have been particularly painful if it was not for the fact that our bikes were outfitted with extreme shock absorber. 
Life on the edge.
As we biked along Death Road, it was impossible to miss the white crosses and tiny memorials lined up on the side of the cliff. Our biking guides did not want to go into immense detail until after we finished, but it was pretty obvious which areas were the most dangerous. As we cycled along, under natural waterfalls, along tight switchbacks, and besides gorgeous lush scenery, it was also impossible not to enjoy ourselves. It did weird me out a little bt to think of how many people died on this road, while I was having the time of my life zooming down at high speeds. But I guess that's what comes with the territory when you are an extreme adrenaline junkie.

As we began to come to an end to the trip, the guides gave us the option to do a more technical
over the edge.
downhill course or to stick to the actual road. I may be an adrenaline junkie, but I also have 2 more weeks in South America and was not ready to risk injury for that. Only Sonya and Robert opted to do the single track, and both took some serious tumbles.

As we reached the bottom, our guides finally told us some of the death statistics. We learned that in addition to the thousands of people who had died in cars and buses on the Yungas Road, 21 cyclists and 5 guides have died since the road had been opened for mountain bike trips. The statistics say that about one person will die each year, but luckily that statistic did not include anyone in our group. Instead, I think our group loved every moment of the great adventure. Finishing in the amazon at a tropical resort, with a buffet was just the cherry on the cake.

 It might not be the most dangerous road in the world anymore, but it is still the Death Road.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Vacation from the Vacation

Yesterday morning, while the group ate breakfast and prepared for the homestay and island tours of Lake Titicaca, I made a crucial decision. I would not be joining the group, despite having already paid for the additional kayaking around the lake and having had looked forward to spending time with a local family. With just a few more days left before half the group leaves in La Paz (the tour is sort of a jump-on, jump-off with most of the people jumping off in La Paz) I decided to stay in Puno by myself. I made a split-second decision to remove myself from the group and just "do my own thing."

And, you know what? It might end up being a blessing in disguise.

There are a few reasons for my sudden decision to remove myself from this amazing opportunity. I have hinted at a few before; I have reached my wit's end with some people in the group who can not seem to separate me as an American with America-at-large. I did not come to South America to be constantly brutalized because of internal domestic politics in the United States. As I said before, I did not vote for the current administration, nor do I support, well, anything, that is happening. But that does not mean I should have to spend my precious holiday time having to fight an uphill battle against some prejudiced people. Still, that's not a good enough reason, especially since I am pretty thick-skinned. (Hell, I lived in Europe during the final year of W.)

The fact of the matter is that I am also not compatible with the other people on this trip. Most of them are younger and are more concerned with which filter to use on their Instagram posts and which bar would be best to party in. (I reread that sentence and realize it sounds extremely condescending and it is honestly not meant to be, it's just meant to describe the different place in life that my fellow travelers are in.) There is nothing wrong with that at all, and three years ago I would have joined them happily. At first I thought that the problem was that I was too old for that scene, but that's not the trouble either. I want to remember my holiday and spend money on delicious food and adventures, rather than booze. Also, I am a little less trusting of getting completely plastered in the streets of Peru in the company of people I don't quite know.

The highlight of my Puno stay: coffee and
blogging and skyping.
But the biggest factor in my decision to skip out was mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. From the moment that this tour began, we have been moving, often at the speed of light from Paracas to Nasca to Arequipa to Colca Canyon to Arequipa to Cusco to the trail to Ollyantaytambo to Cusco to Puno to... well, you get the idea. We have barely spent more than one night in a hotel since the trip started and we have been on every form of transportation from trains to cabs to buses to overnight buses to boats. I will be the first to admit that I picked the wrong tour since I am more of a "sit in a coffee shop and go walk in nature" kind of traveler, but dear god, I need a break.

I already had one pretty severe bout of sickness in Cusco, which prevented me from hiking Rainbow Mountain, something I was really looking forward to. And after the Inca Trail, I felt like the sickness was coming back. Luckily, I got a good night's sleep in Cusco, but I needed one more to return to full health, especially after the hectic day of trying to secure a via for Bolivia.

Instead, as I tucked myself into a warm bed, I got a knock at the door. A huge national Teacher strike was set to occur and block all the national highways. We had to get on an emergency bus that very evening for Puno, or we would be stuck in Cusco for however many additional days the strike was occurring. This would have been fine if it was not for the fact that disaster just continued to strike all night: first the taxi driver dropped us off at the wrong bus stop, which meant an additional 30 minutes in the cold whilst contemplating what would happen if our guide could not find us. When we finally did get on the bus, the AC could not be turned off and the temperatures dipped below freezing all night (and no one had time to prepare their winter clothes for a bus ride,) then a 6 hour ride turned into a 13 hour ride when multiple roads appeared closed in the middle of the night because of strikes.

Arriving in Puno, I honestly felt like a shell of a person. I did not sleep a wink on the frozen bus, my body still ached from the hike, and I had not really eaten a proper meal since the hike either. I could feel the sickness coming back. At the hotel, I got the single room. After a shower and some internet, I crawled into bed trying to stay warm but was pleasantly surprised at how good the internet was. I was able to Skype my boyfriend in Georgia, text my sister in Washington D.C., and instant message one of my best friends in Scotland. Oh -- and I could finally blog! Internet has been such garbage recently, that this little factor made me feel so much better.

The decision to stay came way easier than I thought it would.

At the end of the day, you have to do what is best for you. I definitely think I missed out on some fun cultural events, but I also think that with over two more weeks of this trip, taking "me" time was more important.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Visa Troubles, Part III

When the Bolivian consulate sends you to hell and
back for a visa, and you just stop caring.

For Part I: Visa Troubles
For Part II: Visa Troubles, Part II

It occurs to me now as I write this that this editorial should probably be Visa Troubles, Part IV or even V. (I never did get around to writing about the insanity of procuring a Vietnam or China visa with a passport running out of space while living in a foreign country. I think these are probably only problems that 0.0000000001% of the world face, but that small number happens to be me.)

Alas, I will have to go back and write about that adventure.

No matter what website or source says, just get the
vaccination. I am not traveling to any Yellow fever areas in
Bolivia, but having the vaccination was required anyway. 
In the meantime, bear with me while I rant/rave/scream/lament/etc. about the woes of procuring a Bolivian visa while abroad. Now because I have traveled pretty extensively and had to undergo the visa process quite a bit, I was prepared to obtain a visa while back home. I asked Gadventures, the company I am traveling with, if I needed to get a visa, and I received a reply to check the United States State Department website. But they also told me I would need to pay $160 to enter Argentina, which I learned from a reputable source was not true anymore.

The State Department website is about as helpful as any other thing in the current presidential administration, meaning it's simply not helpful at all. Instead I turned to blogs of former travelers, but even these accounts all seemed dated. Some stated that the Yellow Fever vaccination was mandatory, while others stated it was merely precautionary. Other blogs directed readers about the ease of just getting a visa while crossing the border, while other sites warned that this was not possible.

Even the Bolivian consulate website seemed confused about the process. I had struck out with the State Department, the travel company, the Bolivian consulate, and my fellow bloggers. So I just decided to make sure I had all the necessary documents before leaving and then try to procure the
The Sworn Application was easy except for uploading
necessary documents... that was a serious pain to figure out!

The hardest part about this part was getting a Yellow Fever vaccination. I don't think this is normal, but in 2017, there is a massive world shortage of the vaccination due to one manufacturer relocating or something like this. It was a miracle that I managed to obtain a vaccination through Auburn University's health clinic. I was on a waiting list of 50 people when only 5 vaccinations came into the mail. When I received the call from the health clinic, I was actually in the shower and ran to the clinic with my hair up in a towel. I wish I could say I was joking, but obtaining this shot was that high on my priority list.

So when I arrived in Peru, Cheo, the guide on my trip happily announced on the first night that crossing into Bolivia would be easy for everyone except for one: the American. Apparently, Bolivia charges Americans a reciprocal fee of $160. I was not worried about that, but Cheo was. He decided we should best conquer the monstrous task of getting the visa in Cusco at the Bolivian consulate. I was not really worried about it until we actually arrived at the consulate in Cusco. It was there that I received a list of things I would need to do:

  1. Fill out a sworn visa application (Click here for the application!)
  2. Have a copy of passport
  3. Have a copy of passport photos (this ended up not being necessary for me)
  4. Copy of Yellow Fever vaccinations
  5. Bank Statement (They want something like $5,000 in your account. I did not have that because I'm a student. But it was not a problem at all.)
  6. Copy of itinerary (I just copied and pasted from the trip website and no questions were asked.)
  7. Invitation from hotel you are staying at (Just gave an address, phone number, and nights I was staying and it seemed to work.)
  8. A $160 sticker for my passport.
  9. $160 USD in clear, crisp, unfolded fashion. (This was tricky!) 
The biggest problem I had was with the online form. They want you to upload a copy of all these documents but the main frame does not support documents of great size. I had to shrink everything using a PDF shrinker on the internet, but that took some time to figure out. They also want everything in color and neat. I had to pay to print everything out at a print shop, but my ability to keep thing unfolded in and neat is non-existent. Finally, the $160 MUST be in prime perfect condition. I had to make the deposit at a bank and they repeatedly tried to deny my bills, which were folded down the middle like most dollars in the United States. One $20 has a small "c" written in the corner, and the Bank Teller went bananas demanding I give them non-forged money. (I assure you the money was in the best shape possible. I honestly think they just wanted monopoly money.) If it was not for Cheo and his standing up to the bank teller, I might not have been able to buy the visa.

Back at the consulate, I waited behind a few Korean boys, who were getting outright scolded for minor problems with their visa applications. I said to Cheo I honestly did not think mine was going to get accepted and I would have to return to Lima. Cheo just laughed and said the Koreans were getting in trouble because their application was not bringing in exorbitant amount of money, like mine was. Sure enough, the consulate secretary took one look at my receipt for the $160 and was super nice to me. He looked through my passport, which is pretty bedazzled with stamps from around the world, and found a clear crisp page for my new sticker. 

He said, "congratulations, you should be honored that Bolivia now belongs in your passport!" 

It took every amount of effort to keep my American snark at bay.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Inka Trail, Part IV

Made it!

At 2:45 am, our wake-up call arrived. Unlike the past few days, when we were greeted with "Good Morning! Would you like some Coca Tea?", this morning was just a grunt followed by a: "Macchu Picchu!" The groans and signs from the other tents were certainly more audible this morning, but we
Joshi, me, and Daniel at the Sun Gate
did have to remember that we all chose to wake up this early.

The Monkey Steps.
Pretty soon we were on our way to the checkpoint just below camp at Winay Wayna. We lined up and waited to be let onto the trail at approximately 3:15, meaning that we had just over two hours to wait in the cold until the park opened. Meanwhile, the porters packed up camp and we said goodbye for good. They hurried down a path toward town where they would catch a train to their villages or back to the starting point, where they would pick up another tour. I am in complete awe by these men, who work for little wages doing such a terribly difficult job. They make most of their money on tips from travelers, but even that seems minimal compared to the work that they do and the destruction it has on their bodies. I also learned that many of the porters had never seen Machu Picchu.

As we waited for the trail to open, our group finished getting ready – brushing teeth, organizing their packs, and bickering about who’s headlamp was dimmest. You could tell everyone was a little crabby and very cold. I certainly was shaking profusely and trying to do anything to keep my toes from freezing in my Converse. (I had changed to my walking shoes from the hiking boots because the blisters were just too horrendous.)

At 5:30, the park attendant opened the checkpoint after quickly checking our tickets and passports.
A group selfie with Daniel.
From that moment, our group attitude changed. The fast and middle pack set off into a full-paced sprint hoping to get to the Sun Gate before anyone else. We in the back also picked up our pace, but we did get passed by some Swiss tourists, who were also rushing and seemed to forget all matters of proper trail etiquette. One girl tried to use her poles to push me out of the way and over the side of the trail off the sheer cliff. Luckily, Joshi saw her and yelled at her guide to control his group. But still, I was shocked at the sheer lack of respect for the trail and fellow hikers I saw at the mad dash to Macchu Picchu. 

Before we reached the final point of the trek before the descend to Machu Picchu, we had to climb the Monkey Steps, which are a series of steep steps that you actually have to get on all fours to climb. It was also the first tie that I felt my body's soreness and pain from the past couple days of trekking. Just after climbing the steps, we reached the
Daniel gives us a history lesson at
the ruins about messages along the route.
Sun Gate, where the rest of our group was already waiting. We were the first group to completely finish the trek and Daniel informed us that we were easily his fastest group ever.

The sun has not yet begun to rise but light had started to descend into the valley. I walked a bit further down the trail, and there it was, just barely lit by the morning light – Machu Picchu. It almost didn’t seem real. We were high above it, and could see the shadows slowly creeping east, their bright edge inching toward the ancient citadel! I had been afraid after such an incredible trek and after all of the build-up, that seeing Machu Picchu would be anti-climactic. But that was certainly not the case. I honestly do not think I could have had a more perfect first view of the ruins and I am so grateful for the trek instead of having to train/bus my way to the ruins. You have to do what works best for you at the end of the day, but I know I would have hated the train/bus option.

Because I had to get a little Clemson
in there somehow.
As we made our way down towards the ruins, we stopped at the famous spot for pictures. I have always wondered how people manage to get photos at the ruins with such few people in the background and the answer is simply getting to the ruins early enough. We could see in the distance busload after busload dropping people off at the entrance to the site and knew that we would not get the opportunity for good pictures if we did not get them early. To be honest, we also smelled pretty terrible and I think that kept some of the other tourists away from us for our pictures.

After plenty of pictures, we left the site to meet with the rest of the group. At the entrance, we got out fancy passport stamps. I am not sure how legal this really is, but you can get a kitschy little passport stamp at the entrance to the site. As we were getting stamped, the group that completed Lares met up with us and we all exchanged stories about our perspective treks. I was relieved to hear that the other group had such a wonderful time, but I would not have changed my trek for anything.

After a bathroom break (with toilet paper and an actual seat!) Daniel led us back into the site for a
The group success photo!
tour of the ruins. It was another gorgeous day in the Andes and we could not have asked for better weather. Daniel reminded us frequently how lucky we were to experience the sunny weather, since Macchu Picchu is usually cloudy and gray. I fought the urge to run into the Central Plaza and lay on the bright green grass to soak up the sun. Wandering the ruins, I was struck by how much care was put into the stonework – from the temples to the back alleys of the royal Inca grounds. But even the commoners neighborhoods were beautiful at Machu Picchu. Every little detail about the city was absorbed, despite the fact that I was dead on my feet. I knew I was not going to be able to last forever, but I made sure to explore as much as I could.

The stone work was what really struck me
as we walked around.
Something that really struck me, especially as a historian, was when Daniel told me that plans were being made to prevent people from coming to the site directly. Supposedly, preservation efforts are being made to build a cable car so that people can see the site from the surrounding mountains. As a Public Historian, I can understand the need to protect a site, but not like that. People absolutely need to go and see and experience the breath-taking wonder that is Macchu Picchu... and not from a distance Cable Car. I sincerely hope that this does not happen because I feel so much of the site's potential in teaching people will be lost.

Before the sun came out...
After Daniel's lesson, I decided to get on the bus and head down to Aguas Calientes. I could have stayed at Macchu Picchu longer, but it was getting more and more crowded. The bus, which was absolutely terrifying on a windy road, actually gave me a new perspective on just how high we really were. Since we had walked down to Macchu PIcchu, we sort of missed out on seeing just how high the city sits upon a mountain in the clouds. It is no longer the city was lost for so many years because of his high it really is!

A few hours later, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo and then a three-hour bus ride back to Cusco. I was so exhausted that I barely remember anything except the warmth of the shower and the comfort of the bed that night as I crawled in at 9 PM.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Inka Trail, Part III

What it looks like when you're freezing in a tent awaiting a
3 AM wake-up call.

I awoke to the sound of porters scuttling around the campsite, metal pans clinking in the cook tent, and the groaning whispers of my fellow hikers trying to muster the courage to leave their tents. We were at the highest and coldest campsite on the trail, but I was somewhat warm and cozy in my -15 degree sleeping bag with my miracle thermal underwear, purchased in haste in Arequipa. I won't pretend I had a restful sleep,
Inca Ruins at Runkurakay
because I really did not. However, I did sleep a little better than the previous night. The only problem I faced at this moment was finding the will power to get out of the warmth of the sleeping bag and into the frigid cold air of the valley not yet reached by sunlight.

After making it past Dead Woman’s Pass the day before, all of my nerves had evaporated. I could do this, no problem. Today I was eager and confident, ready to tackle the 15 km of Inka Trail ahead. It was the longest day of the trek, but it would also be the day that made me repeatedly gasp in awe at the sights that unfolded before me. Our guides had told us that Day 2 was the hardest and Day 3 was the longest, but it would also be the most enjoyable. The energy of our group was much more carefree compared to the previous morning. Perhaps the fact that we did not have to climb a huge mountain had something to do with it.

Day 3 is mostly downhill steps – thus dubbed the “Gringo Killer” – although we still started our trek with an uphill climb. We walked up Runkurakay Pass as a group, stopping to admire some small Inca ruins that used to serve as checkpoints or rest stops for Inca messengers on the trail. From the ruins, we could easily see Dead Woman’s Pass from the previous day. Holy God, did we actually climb that?!?!

The views were magnificent wherever you turned.
As we neared the top, I kept getting whiffs of a foul smell. I knew it was not me because I had bathed in the river yesterday, but I could not speak for many of the rest of the group. I tried to discreetly investigate my fellow hikers, but could not tell where the stench was coming from. As we continued to climb up, I met some fellow Americans from New York, who were struggling with the morning hill. It was so good to finally be amongst my fellow countrymen! I am the only American in my group, which means I am the only one that gets knocked around every time a new headline pops up from the current administration. Personally, I did not vote for President Trump nor do I agree with... well, any, of his policies, but I am so sick of having to get beat up by the Europeans on my trip simply because of where I was born. I love America but I don't think I should have to constantly be on my guard defending it... out in the middle-of-nowhere Peru. That is why I was so excited to see fellow
The group at the top of the last major mountain pass.
Americans -- I knew at the very least they wouldn't be pointing their fingers in my face and accusing of all sorts of crimes I had nothing to do with. If I have one complaint about this Gadventures trip thus far, it is this: everyone is European, and while I have always loved Europeans, I am sick of the accusatory, "I know more about your country than you do" attitude. Hey, they probably do, but I did not come to South America to debate American internal politics.

I soon discovered the picturesque alpine ponds we had passed were actually stinky swamps. I am sure plenty of the hikers were also odorous, but I could at least hope that most of my hiking group was clean-smelling! We took a bunch of pictures at the top of the mountain before preparing for another long-climb downwards. 

Sayaqmarka in the distance, another Inca ruin undiscovered
by the Conquistadors
We had another three hour "stroll" through changing landscapes before we were scheduled to meet for lunch. Dayna and I hiked together through the jungles and along incredible steep overpasses. My favorite part was the "cloud forest," which was a flattened jungle at the top of the mountian ridges. We had lost the rest of the groups hiking and we were totslly by ourselves. It was perfect in every way. 

There was just no doubt in anyone's mind that everything we were seeing was too stunning for a mere description. I can not even find the words to describe the snow-capped peaks, cool jungle air, silence in the high altitudes, the wonder of seeing a ruin in the far distance, and the knowledge that in a few short hours we would be visiting Macchu Picchu.

Day 3 views and Day 3 of wearing that outfit. Yeah, I
probably did not smell like roses.
As we arrived at the lunch spot a little earlier than scheduled, we took the opportunity to take some photos of the ridges. In the distance, we could see the little tourist village of Aguas Calientes, where most tourists take the train to before visiting the Macchu Picchu ruins. It seemed to far away, but I knew that at this time tomorrow, we would be at the village just about to get on the trail and heading back to Cusco. 

This was our final lunch of the hike and so the cooks wanted to go above and beyond with feeding us. So far the food on the expedition had been amazing, but they managed to out-do themselves on the final lunch with quinoa, salads, pasta, lomo
Our team was named "Combo 1" for some reason, and this
was our victory cake.
saltado, alpaca meat, and even a fresh-baked victory cake. How they managed to bake a cake with limited equipment and such high altitude is absolutely beyond me. (I couldn't eat the cake with Celiacs, so they made me some baked apples in caramel sauce.)

Sayamarka ruins.
After lunch, we started to pack up our belongings and get ready. Unfortunately, one of our hikers suddenly came down with some severe altitude sickness. No one was really sure what to do with him because he could not stand up or even move. The porters, of course, came to the rescue and saddled him to their back, taking turns to carry his heavy weight down a mountain. As if I was not already in awe of these guys, their strength and quick-action only added to my wonder with them. 

Not far from our lunch spot, we were at the ruins of Sayaqmarka. I waited at the turn-off to catch my breath before climbing up the steep stairs to wear the rest of the group was waiting. Near the top the drop off to our right was so steep, I clung to the cliff wall and hoped my feet did not slip. I kept thinking that at home, the whole thing would be lined with guard rails and you might even be forced to sign a waiver agreement. I was glad it was not like this here in Peru because it felt like it had not changed in five hundred years.

Our final campsite at Winay Wayna.
Daniel gave us a short lesson on the ruins and also explained that we had two options to options to get to camp: the porters short-cut or the long-way with the ruins. I am not much of a short-cut person myself, but I was told that our next camp site might have shower facilities. I wanted to get a quick shower before the sun set, rendering wet cold hair as dangerous to the health. While the rest of the group took the long way, I got to run straight down a mountain with the porters. Okay, I did not need to run down the trail, but the porters must have seen so few blond gringos taking their shortened route and so many of them stopped to give me high-fives and challenge me to run with them. It was a blast! And I made it to our campsite with plenty of sunlight for my FROZEN shower.

That night we had an "early" night because the group had voted to wake up early. The gates to Macchu Picchu would not open until 5, but our group wanted to be the first in line, meaning we had a 2:45 AM wake-up call. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Inka Trail, Part II

Sights of the Inka Trail

Mornings on the Inka Trail are probably the most difficult for everyone. Porters or guides wake sleepy hikers from their tents with the lure of hot tea and breakfast, but even that is not enough. Those early morning hours are when the sun is just coming over the horizon, but are still blocked by the huge mountainous peaks. Rolling out of a warm sleeping bag and tent is particularly difficult, especially when the previous night’s sleep is anything but restful.

This is how I found myself on the morning of Day 2.

We were set to climb to Dead Woman's Pass and
down to Pacamayo on Day 2.
I was not sore or in pain, but I was sweaty and stinky from the previous day and was not looking forward to the near 1,500 meters of elevation climb that awaited us on the trail. But first, the cooks were preparing us a breakfast and if we could only muster the strength to get out of the warmth of our sleeping bags, we could go get it. I am really struggling with my Celiac Disease gluten-free diet in Peru, especially for breakfast, so I prepared a couple of granola bars brought back from the United States. Sure enough, the spread contained lots of bread and jam options.  But just as I was preparing to give up and eat my glorified cardboard breakfast bars, a cook brought out a whole plate for “the sin gluten!” Fried plantains and fried eggs made for a delightfully filling meal.

The group dominates the high mountain pass and still
has energy for a photo.
Before long, we were back on the trail, leaving our sleeping bags and tents behind for the porters to take care of. (This whole thing is basically glamping! We pretty much have to do nothing except get our butts up the mountains.) It did not take long to hit the monster ascend that would be the sole focus of our day's trekking. After a successful first day on the trail, Day 2 menaced us with the name of the high elevation pass we would hike up to for most of the day: Dead Woman’s Pass. Dead Woman’s Pass (“Warmiwañusca” in the Quechua language) is named this because of its naturally occurring shape. When seen from the valley below, its crests resemble the form of a woman’s supine body. (We could sit here and hotly contest the somewhat sexist name of the pass, but in the United States we have a national park named Big Tit in French [Grand Teton,] so really let's not judge.)

The slow group: me, Dayna, and Janna.
The goal was to reach Dead Woman's Pass at 12 PM. Our group loves to beat those goals, especially since it is made of seasoned hikers, mountain goats, and all-around athletes. And while I am in pretty good shape myself, I am a slower than average hiker on a good day. And being high above sea level already presented enough struggles. The group fell into a progression of three groups: fast trekkers, medium, and the slow group, which I was happily apart of. Despite being the slow group, we still managed to smash our time limits and finish before the guides suggested we would. 

At 4,215m (13,828 ft), Dead Woman's Pass is the highest point of the Inca Trail, and nearly 1,800m (5,905 ft) higher than the altitude of Machu Picchu itself. Because much of the day is spent at higher altitudes with fewer trees, the terrain becomes rockier and more difficult, and trekkers are more
On top of the Inka Trail!
exposed to the weather conditions of the day, which can offer anything from cool rains to blazing sun to strong winds. We started off the day freezing down to the bone marrow, and progressively went through sweaty humidity, cool breeze, miserable heat, etc.

Instead of going on and on about the monotonous steep climbs, the factors that make the day more difficult than the others are what make reaching the pass one of the most rewarding moments on the trail. It is at this mini summit when many feel a first sense of real accomplishment. It is also at the summit when there really is no turning back. I did not know until later that night that many hikers do not make it to Dead Woman's Pass and instead turn around and catch a train to Macchu Picchu instead of hiking to it. Not that quitting ever occurred to me, but once you reach Dead Woman's Pass, there is no real reason to turn around because you hit monster altitude either way.
The view from our tent at Pacamayo

After you hit the top of the pass, the only direction you have next is down. I think after spending the morning climbing steep rocks and stairs, most people enjoy the downhill. But I've always struggled with downhill because it really hurts my knees. Dayna and Janna also struggled with the downhill, but we were all really grateful to have had the foresight to rent hiking poles. When we got into camp it was only 1:30, and basically our day was complete!

Before lunch, the three of us scouted out a small river with a waterfall and decided that what we needed more than anything was a shower/bath. Barring all local customs, we ripped off our shirts and jumped in the freezing cold water with the permission of our guides. It was exactly what we all needed, me especially. I could not in handle another night of sweat and stickiness in freeing tent, which is exactly what was promised. Since our campsite was at such high altitude and so remote, we had been warned that the second night would be a lot colder. It certainly was colder, but the views of stars made it all worth it. I have always enjoyed looking at the constellations, but have only ever been taught the Greek and Roman star stories.

One of the most important dark cloud constellations for the Incas is the Yacana, or the Llama. It consists of two llamas – the Mother Llama, seen between the Southern Cross and Scorpio, and the Baby Llama. Although the Llama is a dark cloud constellation, the eyes of the Mother Llama are the two bright stars from the constellation Centaurus. One is Alpha Centauri, which is the third brightest star in the night sky, and the other – Beta Centauri. My camera is not really compatible with star-gazing, so I could not pictures of the incredible views. I will say it was perhaps the most amazing view of the sky, I have ever seen, second only to the Outback of Australia.