Machu Picchu Pilgrimage and Lake Titicaca
Oct 11, 2006 – Arrival in to Lima
This was my second time in Lima, possibly the least attractive city in Latin America. The arrival was much more comfortable than my arrival a few years ago -- an Adventure Life representative met us at the airport, whisked the luggage out of our hands, and maneuvered us calmly through the throngs. It was late at night, but I’m always excited to arrive to a foreign place, and my brother and I chatted to our driver in rusty Spanish and commented to one another in English about the crowded, roofless boxes that pass for homes in Lima’s shanty towns. The drive to the hotel is long, about 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic, but it felt like ten minutes, such was our excitement. The streets became more attractive and less populated as we entered the Miraflores district, one of the nicer neighborhoods in the city. The hotel staff at El Carmel greeted us warmly. I took a shower, and the water pressure almost shot me through the wall.
Oct 12 – Fly Juliaca. Onward to Puno
Breakfast at El Carmel was in a pleasant, cool nook, and we loaded up on eggs, hams, fruits and, of course, rich Peruvian coffee. I drank so much that I had the jitters on the plane to Juliaca (Lake Titicaca’s closest airport). Juliaca is like an orange moon – dunes and high mountains draped in a buttery, ruddy color. A local man was relieving himself when we got off the plane, Peruvians and tourists alike were snickering. I was oblivious, and commented to my brother, “It’s beautiful here!” J.P. laughed about my comment with some of the locals, and I, blushing, went in search of our driver. He was patiently waiting for us at the other end of the airport.
I should say that I’m used to traveling on my own – this felt luxurious to have someone waiting for us in each location, snatching up our backpacks with a friendly smile and ushering us onto our next adventure. Quite different from my first trip to Peru, in which my friend, Kristin, and I – having no idea what we were doing – floated brainlessly from one location to another, arranging accommodations as we went. That was more hectic and less relaxing than this vacation was turning out to be.
On our drive to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we were stopped by the local police. They spoke in Spanish and accused our driver of not paying his “pass”. Words were exchanged, the driver argued a bit, and then he offered the police a crumpled bill. They took it silently and waved us along. Thanks, guys.
Lake Titicaca sits on the shores of a small town called Puno. We stayed overnight at Quelqatani, a beautiful hotel with a great bar, and felt the effects of the 12,000 foot elevation sink in. By the time we walked to dinner, I was feeling winded and off-balance. “Like I’m drunk!” I told J.P. He was stoic at first, but then admitted over some delicious lomo saltado that he, too, was affected.
We were restless that night. A woman had severe altitude sickness in the room next to us. I saw her later, hooked up to an oxygen tank (all of our hotels at elevation have an oxygen tank). She moved very slowly, leaning against the tank, a very sickly robot.
OCT 13 and 14th – Boat Trip to the Reed Islands (Uros). Soccer and a hike at Amantaní Island. Awesome Homestay on Amantaní. Visit to Taquile Island
The next day, we woke with an eagerness for more ham, eggs, fruits and Peruvian coffee. After quaffing our fill, we loaded into a cart attached to a bicycle and hurtled through the streets of Puno. The dock was choked with tiny shops and a spattering of boats and tourists. We purchased some rice and flour for our future host family on Amantaní. We also met our guide for the Lake Titicaca portion, a young man with an aquiline nose and a pleasant smile. He introduced us to our boat: a wooden contraption with benches to sit on in the shade and an open deck on top. I was looking forward to a voracious sunburn.
We motored slowly to islands made of reeds, where the Uros people live and work year-round. The islands were spongy under my feet. The local women were selling their colorful goods, and small children ogled us as their schoolmaster lectured them in Quechuan. We took a small ride on one of the slim reed boats the people here use, and visited a few of the islands. We got to know some of the other people on our boat. My brother had already decided on the cutest (the two Australians). I listened to him flirt and enjoyed the sunshine.
It took a couple of hours to motor to Amantaní, and I dozed on and off as J.P., with his endless energy and guitar-playing, charmed the masses (our local affiliate, hearing my brother was a professional guitarist, provided him with a guitar for the ride). “Hey, Romeo” I said, “I’m trying to sleep here.” He took the guitar to the upper deck, and most people followed. I was free to nap in the shade and enjoy the slow journey. The lake was endless, disappearing into the high Bolivian mountains on one side and into the horizon on the other.
We reached Amantaní. Children were playing on the rock beach, and women awaited us in their vibrant garments, fingers busily knitting. There were only younger boys and a few older men on the islands. Later, our guide would explain that Amantaní is known as “The Isle of Women”, as most men, after marrying, go to Puno or even Lima in order to make a better income. Women become the farmers, the harvesters, the chefs, the seamstresses, the homemakers, and humbly accept whatever money their husbands send home to them. Usually, our guide said, the husbands take another wife in Puno or Lima. They have two lives: their city life, their island life.
We met our hostess and followed her up to her small white home, which overlooked perhaps one of the most gorgeous views in all of Peru (of which there are many!) – terraced farmland sweeping toward the glittering blue of the lake. It was remote and rustic and untouched by American capitalism: no televisions sets, no indoor plumbing. The family was one of the few that had a father present: he spoke Spanish (one of the few, most speak Quechuan), and we chatted with him about George Bush’s latest blunders. I was surprised at how versed he was in recent politics, and found out that he frequents Puno for work. We were served the most delicious soup in the world and an egg tortilla that I devoured wolfishly. I had been warned that the food would be plain, but the meals tasted better than anything I had ever eaten. Maybe it was the elevation. The tea, made with coca leaves a mint-like herb that grows wild on the islands, was also fantastic. The coca gave me a kick in the pants that I desperately needed.
We reunited with our guide and our group and hiked up the trail to the city center: a cement fútbol field (soccer, everyone, not American football) that doubled as a basketball court. The elevation made the five-minute hike feel like ten hours, but I couldn’t help but join in on the tourists versus locals soccer game. I was the only girl that played. Everyone else lined the benches. J.P. and I grew up in the Northwest playing soccer (we both started when we were 8), and were ready to boast our talent. Of course, despite the tourists winning 3-0 for the first ten minutes, we had lost 5-3 when the game ended 20 minutes in. The locals were patient, waiting for the effects of the elevation to settle in fully. Intelligent move. Team Gringo was exhausted almost immediately.
After the game, we hiked to the top of the mountain on Amantaní to watch the sunset. The next day, we visited Taquile Island, where the stone walkways and scintillating views reminded me of the Mediterranean. An English man in our group commented, “This is going to be a resort town one day.” Ug. I hope not.
OCT 15 and 16th –Cusco rocks!
The bus ride was supposed to be nine hours long, but the driving, itself, was minimal. We stopped to tour an Inca site and a cathedral that had once been an Inca stronghold, and we ate a whopping lunch in a quaint Andean village. J.P. and I, having had a brother-sister argument the night before, had settled our differences and celebrated our closeness with a beer. The Andes here were different from the lunar landscape of Titicaca – it was heavily forested and marked by lively rivers. Everything was verdant and clean. I was fully accustomed to the altitude now, and descending from 12,000 feet to 8,000 feet was an even greater relief. Walking was now bounding, defying gravity.
Later, we were picked up at the bus station in Cusco and transferred to our hotel. Along the way, our driver spotted a young guy talking on his cell phone and pulled over, honking. The guy looked up, smiled contagiously, and pulled open the door to our van. It was our Adventure Life guide, Vidal Jaquehua.
Vidal and his fellow guides are famous here at Adventure Life – everyone’s favorite part of the tour. Vidal is classically Quechuan, with fierce cheekbones, a long, straight nose, and beautifully veined hands. He also has a large birthmark on his cheek – a cool marking all his own. My brother and I instantly liked him – he was confident yet humble, fun yet professional. He has an awesome sense of humor.
In Cusco, the hotel was El Balcón, which is probably my favorite hotel in the history of hotels I’ve ever stayed in. It has an airy courtyard and comfy, personalized rooms. The service is awesome. Sitting outside and looking over the homogenous red tile roofs of Cusco’s hilly expanse, I decided I wanted to move to Cusco one day and never leave.
I’ve been all over Europe and South America: I lived in Sevilla, Spain for several months, where they light up the ornate cathedrals and Roman spires with globes of white light; I’ve sat on the pink steps of Rome and drank wine in front of the fountains; I’ve been to Paris and sighed over the beauty of the Seine. Andean Cusco is as beautiful if not more so than these more famous cities, because it is, as Vidal would say, such “a city of contrasts.” For example: the Incan masonry, these enormous, perfectly placed stones acting as a backdrop behind a few local children that juggle a soccer ball and laugh about the solemnly marching tourists. It is a beautiful combination of old meets new, of Quechuan roots meeting Spanish colonialism. The Incan architecture is mind-boggling in its scope and precision. As I always tell my clients, the ruins in Cusco rival those of Machu Picchu. When people want to cut Cusco from their itinerary, I have to discourage them, because, to be honest, Cusco was my favorite, favorite portion of my tour. I’ve said the word “beautiful” about ten grillion times in this paragraph, but that’s only because it is such an apt description for Cusco and its denizens.
The only other anecdote I’ll mention is in regards to my brother. We headed out with Vidal on the first night to check out the local scene, and wound up at a buoyant nightclub off of the Plaza de Armas. I was hanging out with Vidal, nursing a beer, when I turned and saw my brother kissing a lovely Cusqueña. At the end of the night, when she departed, he introduced her to me as “Maria,” to which she responded hotly, “Mi nombre es Rosa.” Vidal and I could not stop laughing. It became the major joke of the trip. Needless to say, we were all pretty tired the next day. The Cusco nightlife, and daylife, is unbeatable.
OCT 17th: the Sacred Valley
We stretched our legs a bit this day, doing a hike through the Salt Mines. These are large squares terraced down the side of a steep mountain, and they are filled with a white, grimy liquid that hardens to salt around the edges. People work there for meager wages, about 50 cents a day. We, spoiled American tourists, watched them bend and collect salt in their tucked-up pant legs. They cannot afford the materials that protect their skin – Vidal told us that many of them end up crippled and sick from the brine.
The markets in the Sacred Valley are brilliant. I am not a market person but was drawn into the bartering process and ended up leaving with three plastic sacks full of goodies. Go figure.
At Ollantaytambo, we maneuvered through the ghostly, impressive ruins and drank wine with our hostess at El Sauce (my second favorite hotel ever). I admit that I had a bit of a panic attack in our room this night – I was worried that I would suffer greatly on the Inca Trail. I’m also a major claustrophobe, and sleeping in tents does not bode well for me (I have torn through a tent before in a “MUST ESCAPE NOW” fury). As I was to find out the next night, Adventure Life uses a four-person tent for two people, so I was completely serene.
J.P. woke up to my worries and from his twin bed gave me yoga instructions to try to cool it. I had never done yoga and didn’t plan on starting. But the willing ear helped. Once he was fully awake, I was able to fall asleep. Again, go figure.
OCT 18th-21st The Inca Trail
Once I was on the trail, my worries faded. It was a blast to be out in the Andes, hanging out with Vidal and my bro and telling jokes and kicking stones as we walked. The first day was easy, the second day was difficult, the third day started out as difficult and ended up easy, and the fourth day was a cakewalk. We practically skipped into the Machu Picchu ruins, singing and holding hands.
I had brought a tattered copy of War and Peace with me, which proved an unwieldy travel companion. It was the heaviest object in my daypack. But while J.P. stayed up late playing cards with Vidal and two teenage kids, I lay in my tent with my mini-maglite and read and felt very happy. Best vacation ever.
It was pleasantly surprised on the Inca Trail, because I expected it to be so crowded and it wasn’t. The National Park allows 500 people to start on the trail each day, including guides and porters. For our departure, it was sold at capacity. There were two bottlenecks (both of them the steepest point of the trek, one up and one down) when I noticed the crowds. The rest of the time, I was completely alone, and I mean completely, as my brother, competing with the teenagers that were now his best buddies, utterly ditched me. I loved it, actually. It was the first time in a long while that I was completely alone to marvel at scenery and mull over my own thoughts. When you sit at a desk and wear a headset all day long, these moments are priceless.
On the third day, my dear brother, feeling guilty for charging ahead so relentlessly, doubled back to walk with his slower, dumpier sibling. It was a great time for us to be together – the further along you hike on the trail, the more ornate the masonry becomes, so that you have to battle between watching the incredible views over the mountains and the incredible trail underneath your feet. To think the Incans constructed this highway without having invented the wheel. Very impressive. J.P. and I had a lot to chat about.
Everyone one already knows about the great food on our treks, so I won’t go into it, except to say that it was like a Culinary Tour. The mulled wine was a nice touch on the second night, when the rain came down in sheets. I was a moron wearing a cotton t-shirt – make sure to stick with the synthetics. My naïve clothing choice left me shivering for quite some time until the mulled wine hit my belly and warmed me up. Thanks to Vidal and our cook, Miguel!
OCT 21st, OCT 22nd The Machu Picchu Ruins. Oh, and a shower
The ruins were amazing. Everyone’s familiar with them. Perhaps that’s why I gushed so heavily about my experiences outside of Machu Picchu – those are the days that people know so little about. But Machu Picchu, itself? I’m not going to go into it. This is why you are journeying there, so I won’t ruin the surprise by inundating you with my reactions. Whether you go with the Inca Trail (highly, highly recommended) or with the train, you won’t be disappointed. And if you go with Adventure Life, I can guarantee that it will be a comfortable ride – with the best guides.
OCT 23rd: Back to Cusco!
We had a wonderful last day with Vidal. The three of us took a taxi to some ruins outside of the town and then meandered down the mountains and through more ruins, ending up at famous Sacsayhuamán. It was an easy and free hike (aside from the cheap taxi ride) – you can ask your guide to arrange it for you. Vidal showed us how people sacrifice chicha (corn beer – surprisingly refreshing) and coca leaves to the Pachamama. We capped off the night with dinner (we treated Vidal), a few pool games and dancing. This time, my brother managed not to kiss a Cusqueña. He was loyal to the first. Regardless, he did dance with quite a few.
Vidal said to me, “Your brother – he is like Tom Cruise here, you know?”
“They haven’t really spoken to him yet,” I replied.
Special Thanks to Vidal, who showed us his country with a wide-open heart. What an amazing guy. And to my brother, who made the trip hilarious, as he always makes everything.
So, get to it, amigos! The Andes and its extraordinary people await!