Friday, June 26, 2015

Peru, Part 1: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Beginning the Inca Trail! With our tour company INTI SUN TREK. They were wonderful!
Peru Part 1: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Peru Part 2: Aguas Caliente and the Cloud Forest
Peru Part 3: The Amazon Rainforest 
Peru Part 4: Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Peru Reading List 

It has been a month (give or take...) since I returned from my 2 week adventure in Peru with my friend Tracy. It was truly an incredible trip of a lifetime. We spent some time in the Sacred Valley before hiking the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, then spent 2-days in the Cloud Forest of Aguas Caliente, then embarked for the Amazon Rainforest via Puerto Maldonado, which wasn't far from the border of Bolivia.

I've mentioned before that I'm not really a traveler. So two weeks of anything anywhere from my house is a bit of a stretch for me. And then peg two days of travel on either end, and, well, I'm not exactly comfortable.  But I did it. And I lived. And I had a good time. (I did miss Lela and Joey horribly,

Did I have an emotional breakdown on the trip? Yes (several...). Did I suffer altitude sickness in the mountains, despite taking medicine? Yes (every day....). Did I get a horrible Amazonia jungle rot infection that spread over almost my whole body? Yes (cleared up... eventually. A long eventually). Did I cry a lot? Yes (oh God, yes). Did I fall and hurt myself and bruise my ego? Yes (yes, yes, yes). Did I hate my friend Tracy for getting me into this? YES!!!!! LOL. But of course all that is temporary. It was an exquisite trip. I am thankful that she cajoled me into going and that I was brave enough to say YES!!

Along the Urubamba River on Day 1. We hiked the trail March 30-April 2.

 Being in the Andes Mountains is amazing. The views were unlike anything I've ever seen. And going in March, aka Rainy Season, was a great choice because everything was green and chartreuse and in bloom. The rain was very minimal- some drizzle Day 2 and rain for a couple hours on Day 3, but nothing horrible- and when it did get cloudy/drizzly, the fog really added "ambiance" to the hike. I mean, there's nothing spookier than exploring Incan ruins laying in banks of fog under an ominous gray sky, is there? No, there isn't!!

Hiking up Dead Woman's Pass. We hiked for 9 hours on Day 2, almost all straight up.

Before the trip, I had trained for (and run) a 13.1 mile Half Marathon. With that, I ran stairs once a week for an hour, lifted weights several times a week, and cross-trained biking/pilates. This was good because at the end of long days hiking, my muscles weren't that sore. But I couldn't breathe. Even taking altitude sickness medicine, I constantly felt like I had a plastic bag tied tightly over my head. Every step was a nightmare. I few feet, I had to stop, lungs heaving, begging for air. Tracy did not take altitude medicine, only Ibuprofin and coca tea, and still fared better than I did. She really rocked it! But I just suffered. S.U.F.F.E.R.E.D. Altitude sickness affects people differently. I guess I should be thankful that I didn't also experience nausea, just breathlessness, but it was difficult.

Trace, myself, and Flavia- the other woman in our group- make it to the top of the Pass!

Along the 26 mile, 4-day trip we saw many Incan ruins, culminating with Machu Picchu at the end. My favorite ruins were Winay Wayna. Yes, even more than Machu Picchu. Machu was kind of a tourist trap and it was hard to enjoy the place when you are surrounded by hundreds of shoving tourists. Winay Wayna, perched up in the mountains on Day 3, was a study in solitude. Wrapped in fog and drizzle. Perched on a STEEP mountainside. It was spooky! Trace, Flavia, and I got to explore it alone in the rain. It was an amazing experience and everything I expected Machu Picchu to be (but wasn't lol... thank you, Winay Wayna!).

Winay Wayna Ruins along the trail- definitely my favorite stop along the trail.

Hiking along the 27-mile trail was alone was pretty amazing though, even without the ruins. We started in the Sacred Valley along the Urubamba River, where the scrub and cacti were plentiful. It was very high-desert-like to me. Along the 4 days, you ascend up into cloud forests (which are rainforests perched high in the mountains) where the scrub and cacti change to lush greens, twisted trees and orchids of various sizes and color.  Jimmy, one of our guides, was well-studied in ecology and I was thankful that he lagged behind with me to answer all of my questions! He also helped me several times when I was so exhausted and breathless that I just slipped and fell, including one time where he carried my own backpack when I couldn't anymore. Walking poles totally helped, but at the end of the day there were so many times that I was so "out of it" mentally, physically and emotionally that I just couldn't keep my legs from tangling and going down. I'll be honest... it was a huge blow to my ego. I was The Experienced Hiker and Camper of our little group, and the youngest to boot, and after training so hard for the Half Marathon and hike... I thought I would do better. Humble Pie! I was always in the rear, struggling to keep up!!

Magical section of the trail through the Cloud Forest. Trace in the lead!
On Day four of the hike we hit Machu Picchu, waking up at the bum-crack of dawn and climbing up, up, up, up to the Sun Gate (hiking up a steep mountain with only a headlamp to shine the way- terrifying) to watch Machu Picchu unwrap itself from Night. Wow! It was really beautiful, even though we were surrounded by 400 other hikers-in-waiting (yeah yeah, I'm an introvert). After climbing down to the park, Trace and I spent about four hours in the ruins itself. I know people who have said they spent 2-3 days up there. But it was wall-to-wall tourists and Trace and I just wanted to get out of there. We had experienced Inca Greatness along the 4-day trail, seeing I think 10 different ruins in solitutde and although they were smaller than Machu Picchu, they seemed, to me, just as beautiful if not more so.

Myself, Trace and Flavia above Machu Picchu. We made it!!

Enjoying the Machu Picchu ruins with several friendly llamas!

 There were so many blogs I read about hiking the trail, but my Inca Trail Tips to add to the ones already circulating out there:

1. Choose your Trekking company very wisely. You can't hike the Inca Trail without a licensed tour company. They will secure your permit through the government so you can hike.We used Inti Sun Trek and they were wonderful! Small groups, knowledgeable guides, great equipment (luxury camping at its finest!), AMAZING 4 course meals and vegetarian options... they treated their porters great (come companies don't, so that's a concern when choosing an ethical company). Inti also participates in volunteer trail clean-ups, which we loved! And they had us camping at the lighter-use campgrounds, so we were away from the pack. 500 people are allowed onto the trail per day, and you don't want a company that will keep you in the middle of the pack, sandwiched with other people. With Inti Sun's careful planning, we mostly had the trail to ourselves and only saw big packs of other hikers climbing Dead Woman's Pass and climbing to the Sun Gate on day 4.

Cloud forest, with Machu Picchu peaking out from the fog in the background.
2. Do youself a favor and train for the hike. I read on a lot of forums how people hike the Inca Trail with no training and have no problems. I can't even imagine!! Granted, I am a bit overweight. I do walk daily with my dogs, hike on the weekends, and run regularly. And I trained for my Half Marathon before the trip. I'm glad I took the time because I struggled enough with breathing... if I had screaming muscles to add to that, I think I would have died LOL.

3. Water bladders and hiking poles are essential. I'm not a hiking pole-person because I usually have dog leashes in my hand. But I bought some cheapies off Amazon and they worked very well and helped on the days I was so exhausted I wanted to collapse. The water bladder is kind of a weird concept but I bought a $10 generic one at Walmart and it was great. It's so nice to be able to drink something without taking off your backpack!

4. Even if you are a bibliophile, don't bring a lot of books. I bought some books to read (paperbacks) and a big flora/fauna guidebook that I wanted to toss into the river after 20 minutes of carrying it. It was so heavy!! There's really not a lot of time to poke around and study the flowers or search for bird species on the trail- you can stop and take pictures, enjoy the scenery but you're on a schedule to get to camp for lunch and then dinner. So no poking.

5. Don't expect to have a lot of time to stop, sketch or paint. Same as above. There's no poking around on the trail and you'll be too tired to, anyway. I did my sketching back in Cusco and on other parts of our trip. I was so emotionally exhausted I couldn't even journal at night. You wouldn't think that hiking 8-12 miles a day would be so hard but given the altitude and steep ups and downs- it's crazy. I've never been that drained. It was insane.

Day 4- Machu Picchu peaking out of the mountain shadows...
Anyway, that is Part 1 of the saga. Stay tuned for further adventures from Peru!


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