Well hello, folks! It took me a while, but I've finally sorted through nearly 1000 photos and am now prepared to describe our epic trek through the Andes! (Thanks to Zach and Electra for allowing me to borrow some additional shots--all the people photos are theirs!)
Peru was an absolute blast and, while international travel rarely flows without a single hiccup, we learned some good lessons along the way and were actually quite well prepared for what turned out to be an extremely challenging hike. Our first stop was technically Lima, although just overnight--we had to be in Cusco the next morning to begin acclimating to life more than 11,000 feet above sea level. First step: coca leaf tea.
Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire at the time of Francisco Pizarro's arrival in Peru in the mid-1520's--today it's a sprawling city of 350,000 people. Building codes in the developing world aren't quite as strict as those in the U.S., and yet some of these structures are perched rather precariously atop hilltops subject to powerful and not-so-seldom earthquakes. The first photo above is the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the Plaza de Armas, or Cusco's main square. The other photos feature the Qorikancha, arguably the most important temple within the vast Inca Empire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Spanish leveled much of the structure and replaced it with the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo, incorporating the original foundation into its final design. (The combination of Spanish and Inca masonry is clearly visible on the church's exterior.) A powerful earthquake in 1950 destroyed a significant portion of Cusco's Spanish architecture, while its Inca structures remained intact.
Cusco is a spectacular city with plenty to see and do. Our two and a half days were sufficient, but we could have easily spent another two or three days exploring the city's various markets and endless alleyways. We also thought we'd have an easy time acclimating coming from Boulder... We were in for a big surprise when walking a single city block required a three-minute break just to catch one's breath. Don't even talk to me about stairs.
Perched atop the hills overlooking Cusco is the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán, from which point Manco Inca led his rather bold and ultimately unsuccessful siege on the city in a final attempt at vanquishing the Spanish from the sacred Inca capital. The largest of these rocks weighs up to 200 tonnes.
Following dinner on our second evening in Cusco we attended a meeting at our tour operator, SAS Peru. Here we met our guides and fellow trekkers, received a scattered and somewhat daunting summary of the adventure to come, and realized we'd be departing the next morning at 5:00. It was time to get some shuteye.
The microclimates of Peru are distinct and extremely diverse, and our first day on the trail reminded me of the Rocky Mountains pumped full of performance enhancing drugs. Not only did the sun seem to be radiating substantially more heat this close to the equator, but the glaciers were bigger, the cacti grew taller, and the aloe plants towered over our heads. The peak in the photos above is called Mt. Veronica--it maxes out at 18,864'.
The first archaeological site we encountered on our trek was Patallacta, which translates to something like 'Terrace Town' from the native Quechua. There's another site next door called Llactapata ('Town of Terraces') which tends to cause confusion. Somehow I don't think Hiram Bingham earned props for creativity.
Our first night on the trail was at 10,824 feet above sea level. I estimate that I slept for approximately 45 minutes that night, perhaps in 15-minute increments. The remainder of the night I laid wide awake fearing that my heart may beat its way right out of my chest.
Day two was altogether more difficult. Twelve hours on the trail, covering a distance of roughly 13 miles and traversing two mountain passes of 13,776 and 12,956 feet above sea level. The first photo below is our group of trekkers along with our 20 porters. These guys were insane! They waited until we finished breakfast to pack up the kitchen, dining and personal tents, passed all of us sometime mid-morning in order to have lunch prepared upon our arrival, then did it all again before dinner. All while carrying 50-60 pounds of our shit on their backs! We stopped our whining immediately the moment one of these guys showed up next to us along the trail.
Why yes, our guides Fredy and Erik DID pack a bottle of rum with which to celebrate atop Dead Woman's Pass. And that's BABs (Bad Ass Betty) behind me--67 years old and still kicking my butt all the way up each mountain.
See the trail at the bottom of the valley below? That's our picturesque lunch spot. Dinner is on the other side of that giant mountain in the background.
We finished up after dark, and as truly exhausting as day two was, descending into the mist of the cloud forest surrounded by 20,000 foot peaks at sunset was one of the coolest things I've ever experienced in my life.
Day three, as advertised, was cultural and unforgettable. First sights of the day: Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu from above.
When Hiram Bingham began exploring the area around Machu Picchu in 1911, he was actually searching for the lost Inca city of Vilcabamba. Stumbling upon two local families near the Urubamba River far below, Bingham inquired whether they'd ever heard of such a place or perhaps other ruins in the vicinity. They responded by pointing up the mountain and uttering the Quechua phrase 'Machu Picchu,' thus earning the ancient citadel its name. As Bingham gained fluency in the native tongue, however, he learned that Machu Picchu actually translates to 'Old Peak,' and was the name of the mountaintop upon which the city was perched.
In the photo above, Machu Picchu is the large mass in the middle-ground. Huayna Picchu, or 'Young Peak,' the more recognizable of the two mountains, is peeking out from behind it. We'll see what these look like up close on day four.
Next stop: Phuyupatamarca. No, I don't know how to pronounce it, either. Let's stick with (the once again literal) 'Town Among the Clouds.'
The archaeological site of Intipata is visible across the valley from Phuyupatamarca. The next two photos should provide some sense of scale, although the clouds in the second shot obscure still higher peaks
It's fairly remarkable how easily a hundred terraces blend into the mountainside... Hiram Bingham discovered dozens of archaeological sites during his numerous expeditions to Peru--the high rainforest of the Amazon grows so quickly that, over the past century, many of them have again been lost to the jungle.
Directly beneath Intipata lies Wiñaywayna, yet another set of spectacular terraces perched among the clouds. The shot below was taken with a telephoto lens from the trail high above--we didn't actually arrive at the site until dusk. Exploring 15th-century Inca ruins with a headlamp after dark is pretty freaking cool, minus the giant spiders, palm-sized cicadas and demon llamas. Ask me about the latter sometime--it's a miracle I survived.
Another early wake-up call on day four, as we hoped to reach Intipunku (or the 'Sun Gate') by sunrise--the Sun Gate is the first location along the Inca Trail from which you can make out Machu Picchu.
We made it!!!! So did the clouds.
I think the photos speak for themselves for a while--enjoy!
So, remember the morning of day three, when we caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu? That's Machu Picchu (both the archaeological site and the mountain) in the photo below. You can kind of make out the Inca Trail in the upper left--we're looking back the way we came.
Now turn 180°. Below is Huayna Picchu, the picturesque peak which resides in the background of every Machu Picchu photo you've ever seen (including most of these). Feel free to scroll back up to day three--you can see the very same terraces below! Neat!!!
Our guides, Fredy and Erik, above. Below, a much deserved cerveza in celebration of our having survived four days in the Andes. We spent the night in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, then Zach and I headed back up the mountain for another day in the park.
This llama was adorable until it yawned. Then we realized it was all a ruse and scurried away to safety.
The Inca Trail was the most breathtaking, the most beautiful, the most amazing hike I've ever embarked upon. And though we exhausted our superlatives rather quickly, we all agreed that the term 'epic' most accurately described the experience. It wasn't until we returned to Cusco that we realized three-fourths of our checking accounts had been emptied while we were on the trail.
Rest assured, the fraudulent charges were reimbursed. We believe that a skimmer had been inserted into an ATM adjacent to our hotel in Cusco, and that the hackers used it to obtain three of our debit card numbers. I just so happened not to use that particular ATM and was able to fund the remainder of our cash transactions. Lesson for future international travelers: though it may be convenient, avoid using the same ATM as the other members of your group.
Following Cusco and the Inca Trail we spent three lovely days in Lima. The city is big, polluted and incredibly noisy, but among the sprawling neighborhoods and dizzying highways are some beautiful sights. Below is the Museo Larco--the last shot is my favorite.
Below lies the tomb of Francisco Pizzaro, or at least someone who died around the same time... His decapitated body and its corresponding head were buried someplace beneath Lima's Cathedral shortly after his assassination, and were then moved to this niche for a Columbus Day celebration in 1892. (Silly imperialists.) It was nearly a century later when forensic experts determined they'd exhumed the wrong corpse.
Without doubt, the best thing Lima has to offer is food. I'd actually consider a weekend trip just to eat. Yum, yum, yum! (Seriously, yum.)