December 11, 2003

Cusco, Perú

Machu Picchu is the most popular tourist destination in South America, and Cusco, being a short train ride away, seems to have more tourists than Disneyland.

I chose to get to Machu Picchu via a 4-day hike on the Inca Trail - a section of the original trail which is still 80% original Inca construction. The construction of the trail itself easily rivals Machu Picchu as a feat of engineering, and I enjoyed it more than the ruins! As you wind through forests, pass ruins, cross rivers, climb high mountain passes and descend down into jungles, it's rather difficult not to imagine yourself a hobbit :)

The tremendous traffic on the trail has forced access regulations. All hikes must now be made with a registered tour company. This limits flexibility, but has some benefits; the best of which is they take care of all the supplies, equipment and paperwork. You just need to hike in what you need for 4 days. My pack was only about 14 kilos. The effort of packing in everything else (food, cooking supplies, tents, etc) falls to the porters hired by each tour company. Porters are usually locals, and have got to be among the most amazing examples of physical ability I've ever seen. These guys carry 25 - 40 kilos of equipment on their backs in homemade packs of fabric. At altitudes of 4 km, while the rest of us are moving at a pace that sounds something like "step-puff-puff-puff... step-puff-puff.....", these guys are running straight up the mountain. We had hiking boots and Gore-Tex, they had tank tops and flip flops. They'd beat us to camp by hours, and have everything set up and a meal cooked. In the morning, we had only to roll up our sleeping bag and pad and hike out. They broke camp, cleaned up, and then tore past us on the trail an hour later to do it all over again. Amazing.

Our two Quechua guides were natives of Cusco, and were also a great help to have along as they provided the history of everything we were seeing.

We had great weather considering this is the rain season, and far fewer hikers on the trail made the whole thing much more enjoyable. The hike itself isn't too strenuous (second day aside), but the altitude gets you. The air is thin up there, making even a gentle stroll a chore, and this is no gentle stroll. Over most of the hike I had a wad of coca leaves stuffed in my cheek - when in Rome... They do wonders to help acclimatize to the altitude (and numbs your mouth too).

The second day is a climb from about 3000 meters to 4200 meters over the first of three mountain passes, then down again. The views all along the Inca trail are spectacular, but later that night, camped on the mountainside, listening to guides and porters sing in Quechua, we saw something spectacular:

As the sun began to set behind us, the valley in front and below us began to fill with cloud as though poured from the heavens. Rivers of mist flowed down the walls of the valley to fill the valley below. Soon the cloud reached our camp on the mountainside and began to obscure the peaks in front of us. Some phenomenon of nature then treated us to a spectacular sight: Two strata of cloud were stripped away from the valley, layering the chasm in front of us in alternating bands of cloud and the light from the setting sun. The jungle below us became a dark green cloud forest shrouded in mist. The mountain in front of us caught fire with the colors of the setting sun, and above us, the towering ice-capped peaks of the Andes sparkled blue and white above the top layer of cloud.

I'll never forget it.

Machu Picchu itself was fantastic. We left our last camp before 5 am to hike the last few hours to the ruins before sunrise, and to be there hours before the first tourist train arrives. I was blown away by cultural, scientific and religious complexity of the city. It isn't something I'll even attempt to recreate here. There are pictures in the gallery (or there will be when there's room for them), but for the real deal you just have to go there.

I'm leaving tomorrow for Juliaca and Puno to spend a few days on and around Lake Titicaca - the world's highest navigable lake.

Posted by dhuska at December 11, 2003 08:22 AM

You didn t talk about Puno and the flotting islands... and me!!!! Damn it!
Hope you re doing well, and that we ll see each other in Costa Rica. My friend from Vancouver wants to meet you...

Posted by: Marian at December 24, 2003 09:22 AM