Thursday, April 24, 2008

Peru Day 8

The terrific Peru adventure continued for the past 5 days as Mikko and I hiked 4 days on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. There´s more to share than I can easily blog about here, but I´ll try to hit the highlights.

Last Sunday we hit the road at 5am with our group of 12 trekkers and 2 guides, later to meet up with 23(!) porters. The porters make this sort of trek possible for hacks like us, carrying tents and food for the entire group. Through a small administrative oversight on my part, Mikko and I were the only two in our group to not have a personal porter. This meant that we carried our own sleeping bag and sleeping pad, in addition to all our personal clothes and gear. Everyone else carried only a small day pack, at most, with an extra layer and some water. But if anyone were to shoulder this extra burden, we proved that we were the two to do it. We started to get to know our group which was made up a group of 6 acquaintances from Toronto, a couple from Vancouver (he originally from Japan), and a young 19-year old couple from Ireland. As always, you get some interesting personalities in a group like this, but everyone had a great attitude.

Sunday we started at kilometer marker 82 and hiked for 14km, most of which was fairly flat. However the final couple kilometers were straight up hill and would prove to be one of the biggest challenges of the trek. I was feeling pretty good, but it was a hot day and we had trouble carrying enough fluids to replenish what we perspired. Many of the group struggled at the end of the day, but it helped us all prepare for the second day which included crossing two passes at about 14,000 feet.

Monday we learned, probably more intimately than any of us really wanted to, of the great stone work of the Incas. They laid miles and miles of stone trail, many of which were stairs going up and down steep mountain passes. It was actually a good thing that it rained all day Monday, because if it were hot the strain would have been much worse. Before lunch we hiked up 3000 feet for 4 hours and then 2000 feet down the other side. That was the first of the two passes and Mikko and I were tired, but at the front of the group. The slower members of our group were almost 2 hours behind us and our guides began to worry about them making it to camp before nightfall. Though we had headlamps, traveling on those stone stairs after dark would have been quite dangerous. While Mikko and I were making our way up and down the second pass through the hail, rain, and gushing river-like torrent that followed us down the steps, two of our group mates were getting oxygen (carried by a guide) and one had to be carried down the mountain by porters. I wish I would have witnessed their feat, but at least they only had to carry a petite Asian woman and not Mikko or me. She was very thankful for their assistance and felt better that night.

All along the way we saw a collection of different Inca remains. Machu Picchu was the final destination, but we saw several other smaller sites and were told by our archaeologist guide that there are many still uncovered in the surrounding jungle.

Each morning we were awoken by our porters with a cup of coca tea in our tents. In high quantities, coca is used to make cocaine, but around here the locals chew on the leaves to help cure altitude sickness. We had some along and chewed them just to try it, but neither Mikko nor I suffered any ill from the heights.

At lunch time (usually around 2pm) we were treated to a multi-course meal by our chef Raul who did amazing things given the conditions. All the food was fantastic and far exceeded our expectations. Dinner was also a large affair and all meals included an assortment of local soups, meats and vegetables. They also catered to the one vegetarian and two lactose intolerant members of our group.

Tuesday was the easiest day of the trek, mostly down hill, with the destination being a common camp where all 500 people on the trail that day would camp in order to set out early for Machu Picchu the next morning. This was a nice, leisurely day where the faster hikers amongst us would hike for 20 minutes and then sit and wait for 25 minutes for the slowest people. The views were spectacular and we enjoyed the easy day. However, it was a bit frustrating to be in a group with such a large disparity of hiking talent. The slowest in the group was this woman from Vancouver who was also an extreme extrovert. She was 32 and overweight, but loved hiking. She also loved to complain about being cold and about being tired, and that got old in a hurry. One morning she mentioned how key it was that she wore her toque to bed at night to stay warm, while simultaneously complaining how cold she was at breakfast and not wearing the same hat. Mikko and I were dumbfounded as we intelligently sat there in our warm hats and layers. I guess some people go on trips like this without doing the slightest bit of research about what to expect.

That night we stayed at this larger camp that actually had facilities including toilets, showers and a bar. We had to get up at 3:45 so we didn´t revel too much in the presence of cervezas, but one of the highlights of the trip happened just after we got to camp. Our guide told us of a site of Inca remains not far from camp. But he said it was a bit of a hike and would be really cold and windy, so be prepared. Mikko went to take a shower and I decided to check the site out, and was I ever in for a surprise! It was a gorgeous site of farming terraces (you´ve seen pictures), a collection of stone buildings in great shape, and the Inca irrigation/fountain water system which we would see again at M.P. And I was the only person there! Now that´s the kind of tourism that I really like - beautiful site all to myself. I drank it all in for about 10 minutes, realizing it was one of those great moments, and then went back to get Mikko and quatro cervezas. We walked back there and proceeded to sit in peace and cerveza for 30 minutes before anybody else showed up. It was awesome.

The next day was day 4 of the trekking and Machu Picchu. The key to M.P. is getting there early to (1) sit at the Sun Gate to watch the sun rise over the city and (2) beat the vast tourist crowd that takes the train in from Cusco and shows up around 10am. We accomplished both these things and it was a perfect bluebird day. Our guide said we were quite lucky to have such a beautiful morning to see the entire city clearly. I can´t explain it well here, but let´s just say that the hike was totally worth it and it was everything we imagined it would be. In fact, the hike really just makes it all that much sweeter, knowing that in a way we earned it. I have lots of pictures which I´ll throw up here when I´m back in town.

That was yesterday. After roughing it for 4 days we decided to spring for the expensive hotel in the town of Agues Calientes at the foot of M.P. and this was a great choice. It was quite expensive, but I got a massage, Mikko took a sauna, 3 terrific meals were included, there was an orchid garden to stroll through as well as a bunch of hummingbirds on premises in their acres of private pathed jungle. Very nice. When in Agues Calientes I highly recommend Hotel Inkaterra.

Ok. That´s it for now. I´m tired of typing. Were now back in Cusco before heading to Lima on Saturday afternoon for a couple days.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Peru Day 3

We took it easy today in preparation for the 4-day hike to Machu Picchu beginning tomorrow (Sunday) morning. In the shower this morning I realized I got a little sun yesterday, so we bought another thing of sunscreen. Normally when I´m at this altitude I am skiing and the temp is in the 20s. But here the temp has been in the 60s and sunny and the sun is scorching. Of course it doesn´t bother the locals, and I think the sunscreen was the most relatively expensive thing on the trip - about the same price as at home. Otherwise the dollar is still quite strong down here. Beers are around $2. The most expensive item at the nice restaurants in town is around $10-$15. Thursday´s chicha was $0.30.

I won´t be online for the next 5 days, probably, but the schedule goes like this: Sunday 5:45am meet at the bus for the 3 hour ride to kilometer 82, our starting point. Then we hike about 10 miles of moderate terrain. Monday is the big day - 10 hours of hiking up and down Dead Woman Pass at almost 14,000 feet. Tuesday is an easier day and Wednesday we get up at 3:45am to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. We´re staying at a fancy hotel Wednesday night right at Machu Picchu and return to Cusco Thursday by train.

Fun fact about Peru: Peru is in the eastern time zone, but is not on daylight savings time. Hence, we´re in the central U.S. time zone. Since the equator passes through Peru, the sunlight is pretty much the same year ´round. Sun rises around 6am and sets around 6pm.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Peru Day 2

Another great day in Peru. We slept in after a fun night at a couple of the local watering holes where we were introduced to the pisco sour, one of Peru´s favorite drinks. It´s made with pisco (which comes from grapes), egg white and bitters and the two-fer-ones were hard to pass up. And in chatting up that bartender we learned of a respected cuy place in town.

But before I get to the cuy I´ll get back on track. This morning we went back to the mercado central (market) to pick up some food to take with us on a lengthy hike. Got some bananas, oranges, almonds and walnuts and started hiking uphill to some of the Inca ruins that lay just outside of Cusco. It was a pretty rigorous hike of about 10km at 12,000 feet, almost all uphill. We held up pretty well, but needed frequent rests during the steeper parts. The ruins were okay, but mostly we enjoyed getting out for a hike that took us away from the crowds and offered some great views of the city. At the end of the hike we grabbed a local bus back into town and were pretty tired after the hiking, but it was a good warm-up for the 4 tougher days we have coming starting Sunday.

Got in a nap back at the hotel and for dinner tonight we went to the cuy place. I´ll post photos when I get back stateside, but picture if you will a whole guinea pig, slow roasted over a spit and served on a plate, stretched out head to toe. The waiter instructed me to use my hands, so I dug in and pulled a leg off. It was fairly greasy and did not bear a lot of meat. Tasted fairly gamey, maybe like rabbit (which I think I have only had in a stew). I was glad I had it, but probably would not order it again. I decided that if I were to have either cuy or chicha again, I would choose the chicha. You remember the chicha from yesterday´s post. It´s the corn booze that is fermented along with the saliva of the Peruvian woman who makes it. The alcohol content is fairly low, and it definitely has a smell of corn and was fairly sweet. It was actually pretty good, though one was enough.

The highlight of tonight´s dinner was actually the yucca with salsa. They took yucca and fried it, I think. It looked like chunks of pineapple, maybe, but was more dry and flaky and really delicious. On top of it I put some salsa, the best salsa I have ever had. It looked really simple - just diced chunks of pepper and onion, but there must have been some pixie dust in there, too. I have considered trying to make my own salsa before, but now I feel like if I were to make my own I would only be fruitlessly trying to achieve that which I had tonight.

Tomorrow we will take it pretty easy, maybe do a little shopping. We meet at 6pm tomorrow night with our guide for the trek. There will be a group of 12 of us going with the guides - 2 from Japan, 2 from Ireland, 6 from Canada, and Mikko and I. Sunday morning we leave at 6am, so it´ll be an early night tomorrow.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Peru Day 1

Beautiful start to our Peru trip. The flight down was pleasant and we spend last night in Lima. Lima is a city of 10 million and I think a pretty typical 3rd world city of that size. We didn´t see much of it and left this morning for Cusco, our main destination and departure point for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Our hotel in Cusco is fantastic. It has a gorgeous courtyard with a fountain and reminds me of the riad we stayed at in Marrakech, but nicer. They even have free internet right here!

Mikko and I spent the afternoon walking around the city, familiarizing ourselves with it. It´s a great city. Plaza Armadas has beautiful gardens and we had an unforgettable lunch at the central market. The market featured lots of locals selling their wares like alpaca wool sweaters, mittens, hats, etc. It also included lots of amazing local food. We each had a large bowl of soup with noodles, chicken, potatoes, carrots and spices, 2 bottled waters, 1 bottled coke, a bag of cocoa leaves to fight altitude sickness, some cheese and the most gigantic kernels of corn (maize) I have ever seen. all for a grand total of $3.

While walking back to our hotel we happened upon one of my goals for the trip: chicha de jora (local corn booze). We walked into this little room about 10 feet by 8 feet and sat down with the locals. Dos chicha de jora por gringos, por favor.

We´re making friends fast and off to a great start. Next on my list is a dinner of cuy (guinea pig). We´ll see if we find a good place for it tonight or not.

Beautiful day. 11,000 feet elevation and feeling good. More later....

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Preparing for Peru

Wednesday I leave for Peru and I spent some time today getting ready -- setting out clothes, digging the backpack out of basement storage, searching Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forums for tips. The usual.

I'm psyched to get down there and have never been to South America. But life has been pretty busy lately. School has been challenging with lengthy papers and a final on Tuesday, on top of the big consulting effort with French Meadow Bakery that is wrapping up in the coming weeks. Work has been busy as I was in training all last week but still had to keep the regular train on the tracks. And I think I've committed to the Minnesota Border to Border Triathlon in July, which will require a little pre-work.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Heston's Hands Cold, Dead

Somebody had to use the obvious headline. Might as well be me.

Read the obit here.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Song of the Day by Elf Power

Today's song is "Spiral Stairs" by Elf Power. And I think it's about the metaphorical thing, not the dude.

Previously (and still) recommended songs: