September 11, 2003

Hiking the Inka Trail

Woke up on Saturday morning relieved to find myself still in my own bed without any disasters having crept up on me during the night.. and to be honest, after the previous day, I wouldn't have been surprised if that hadn't been the case.

After breakfast we got on the bus to take us to "km 82" from where our four-day hike on the Inka Trail would start. On the way we stopped on the way to pick up some last minute supplies for the hike, including rain ponchos and walking sticks. The three amigos also stocked up with a bottle of fine red wine and a little flask of not-so-fine peruvian rum to keep us warm in case it would get cold.

Depending on which tour operator you use (and how much you pay) you get various levels of service on the Inka Trail. The less you pay the fewer porters you have and so the more stuff you have to carry yourself. We had the premium service which meant that we only had to carry our daypacks (which in some twisted way felt a bit like cheating).

The first day of the hike turned out to be a fairly dull episode. To spice things up a little Martin, Owen, Neil and I decided to hike at full speed most of the day. As we had some incredibly unfit people in our group this meant that we spent most of the day waiting at various points for them to catch up. In the end we arrived at the first camp site after dark.. aargh! That pretty much ruined any hopes of socialising with other groups that we might have had earlier. Instead, most of us decided to call it an early night soon after dinner.

In the middle of the night I woke up freezing cold.. and my sleeping bag and the sheet liner were soaked! The muppet who set up our tent had placed it in the middle of a stream of water and so my side of the tent had been covered in water. Didn't really get any sleep after that for obvious reasons..

Day two of the Inka Trail is a real test of strength, both physical and mental (especially after the incident the previous night). Starting at 9am we set out on the first leg of the day which was a 9 km hike over Dead Woman's Pass taking us from an altitude of 3000 m a.s.l. to 4200 m a.s.l. (not surprisingly there's very little oxygen left at this altitude). In other words, it's one hell of a climb. The hike usually takes 3-6 hours, but being big headed we set ourselves a target of merely two hours. Halfways through we were still well on course to beat our target, but with three kilometers left I got severe cramps in my thighs and had to drop the pace and let the others race ahead. In a painful hour and a half I climbed the last third of the way up to the pass stopping repeatedly to stretch and massage my muscles. What a feeling of relief when I reached the top! I was up in two hours and 45 minutes, and as the slowest member of our group took around six hours to get to the top it provided a welcome opportunity to sit and relax and recover in the sunshine. The view over the Sacred Valley below with the snow capped mountains in the background was quite astonishing to say the least.

Once everyone was over the pass it was time for lunch just a few hundred meters further down the path. As if we hadn't felt enough pain for the day, Martin and I decided to race down the hill to the campsite after lunch. Trust me, half an hour of running down steps can really kill your knees (not to mention your thighs). The good thing was that just moments after Martin and I arrived at the camp the skies opened and it started pouring down. The others arrived half an hour later soaked to the bones.

After the rain had ceased we sat down outside our tents and cracked open the little bottle of rum we had brought. What a shame the bottle was so tiny. Just as the rum was hitting in starting to warm the bottle was empty. A game of the aussie favourite "celebrity head" followed while Martin disappeared into our tent with a swiss girl he had met at the top of Dead Woman's Pass. Foot massage he claimed.

For some reason nobody had though of bringing playing cards along to the trail, and thus we found ourselves short of entertainment before and after dinner.. so we started singing! First we stuck to contemporary classics by Beatles and the likes, but not before long the Scandis were teaching the others a few traditional camp songs (in response to which one of the women expressed "I'm not a child, I'm not singing these childish songs".. how mature coming from a 32-year old). By this stage the tensions within the group had really started emerging.. especially this weirdo had started getting on pretty much everyone's nerves.

The third day of the hike provides the most scenic and also the longest hike of the trail. It's all very flat or downhill, so physically it doesn't seem quite as tough as the previous day, but trust me, at the end of a day your legs are so ready to give up. Allowed to hike our own pace, Martin, Owen and I decided to go ahead and walk at a decent pace not to get to the campsite too late. We stopped at a number of ruins along the way to admire the incredible structures which have withstood everything the elements have thrown at them, including numerous earthquakes that have destroyed many a modern city. Most of the ruins are completely intact, and thus the guides like to refer to them as cities rather than ruins ("how could they be ruins, they're completely intact!"). It's quite an amazing feeling walking around these cities.. and the air is filled with mystique. It's really hard to describe.

Legs sore we arrived at the last campsite in late afternoon.. and you should have seen our faces when the first thing we came across was a little shop selling beer(!). Our tents were only 25 meters down the path, but we parked ourselves outside the little shop for an hour before we even thought about taking our stuff down to the tents. In addition to the beer, this campsite also provided the first chance to take a hot shower since the beginning of the trail. What a feeling after three days of sweating! On top of all there was even a little bar on the site hosting a party until 10pm for the hikers. As Martin was still in pursuit of his swiss interests, Owen, Neil and I hit the party without him. We were also accompanied by a couple of the older English guys in our group. At 10pm we stocked up with a few beers each and took the party outside. One by one people left to go back to bed, and at 1am the only ones still around were Owen and I. We'd joined some guides who were sitting next to us.. and god what stories we heard that night. Hmm.. maybe I should drop banking and go for a career as a guide instead? ;) At 1am Owen and I decided to call it a night. We had a 4.30am wakeup the following morning afterall. Feeling quite merry at this stage we unfortunately managed to wake up every other member of our group before we had made it into our sleeping bags.. whoops!

Still feeling the effects of last nights partying we got up at 4.30am the following morning to hike for an hour to reach the sungate above Macchu Pichu before sunrise. When we arrived the valley below was covered in a think layer of clouds (hence it is called the "cloud forest"). We sat down on the edge of the mountain cliff impatiently waiting to see the magnifisence of what we knew lay beneath the cloud cover. Suddenly, before our eyes the clouds in the valley beneath us started rising and opening up.. and within moments through the clouds appeared the most amazing of Inka structures to the sound of a collective gasp from the people watching. There it was.. Macchu Picchu.

The rest of the morning we spent roaming around the city taking pictures and admiring what we saw. The tourist train (for those that don't hike the trail) arrives at around 10.30am, at which time Martin, Owen, Neil and I decided to put our legs through a final test. We'd climb Huaynapicchu, a mountain peak next to Macchu Picchu. It's not a very high mountain to climb, but the lack of height is more than made up for by the steepness of the climb. At one stage we were even climbing using our hands to keep us from falling off the mountain. From the summit we got a great view of the Inka city below us.. and it provided a perfect moment to moon the world. Such a classy way to mark the end of our four-day hike!

Posted by markus at 09:20 AM | Comments (1)

September 06, 2003

Nightmare in Cuzco

Spent the major part of Thursday on a bus from Puno to Cuzco enjoying the beautiful andean scenery and playing chess on the bus. As we got to Cuzco we strolled downtown to find a few tour operators and arrange some activities for our stay before and after the Inka Trail. For the Friday we opted for mountain biking and we also booked a day of white water rafting for the day after the trail.

Having not eaten anything for a few days, and thus being hungry as a bear, I was well up for the pizza that we had that night.. but sadly my stomach did not quite agree with the heavy food and when I started feeling nauseous after dinner I could do nothing but catch a cab back to the hotel to go to bed. Oh well.. got a good nights sleep and felt fine the next morning.

The following day was definitely one to forget..

We set off to go mountain biking in the early morning. Having driven up to our starting point at Chinchero in a minivan, we got on our bikes to cycle down to Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, stopping on the way to see the Inka terraces in Moray and the salt works in Maras. So far so good.. but soon things started going wrong.

After about half an hour of going flat out on good dirt roads the pedal of my bike suddenly fell off. Luckily I managed to control the bike and stop to pick up the pedal. The bolt holding the pedal in place was gone however, which meant I had to lead the bike half a mile to find the others which hadn't seen my incident.
Luckily there was a spare bolt in the service van following us, so after a short delay I was good to go again.

Unfortunately, the bolt didn't seem to stay on very well, and so five minutes later I could feel the pedal getting loose again. Just as I decided to stop pedalling and simply roll as far as my speed would carry me, I feel a slight irritation in one of my eyes as my contact lens was drying out. Usually it helps to blink a couple of times to moisten and align the lens. So I blink once and, low and behold, the irritation disappeared.. but so did my contact lens. For the rest of the day I was stuck with 2D vision.. which is quite scary when you're flying down single track paths on a mountain bike with drops of 20-30 meters on your side.

Somehow I successfully managed to navigate my bike without further incidents to the town of Maras where we stopped for lunch. Next it was time for some technical biking down from Maras via the salt works to Urubamba. We were flying down scarily steep and rocky mountain paths fuelled by loads of adrenaline. Despite my limited vision I thoroughly enjoyed it.. until in one thight corner I realised I would go over the edge unless I turned a bit more. Braking a bit too hard on the front brake, turning a bit too much.. it could only end in one way.. and it did. Over the steering wheel I went flying and having come down heavily on my shoulder and rolled I finally stopped right one the edge of a 15 feet drop. I was in quite some pain.. my shoulder was hurting but it seemed to be okay (although it's still quite painful a week later.. might have to have it checked up when I get back), and I had a few bruises on my legs which were easily cleaned up with a few tissues. In the end nothing was broken and I wasn't seriously hurt.

After a well needed breather we continued down the mountain.

Right as we hit a bit of a flat section I could feel my pedal coming loose again. Carrying a fair amount of speed I managed to roll to where our guide had stopped. As I sat down to tighten the bolt I suddenly felt my sole remaining contact fall out of my eye. Riding a bike seeing only with one eye might be difficult.. but it's still somewhat doable. I wouldn't even get on an exercise bike in the gym without seeing on either eye. That's how bad my vision is. Luckily I found the lens lying on the ground and after a few minutes of fiddling with it and cleaning off the dirt with some eye drop solution I had it back in my eye. Pheew..

If this wasn't enough my legs started cramping soon after.. and they wouldn't stop. Couldn't quite figure out a way to stretch my inside tight muscles properly, so I had to resort to rubbing them and resting as much as I could. Fifteen meters from the van my legs gave up, and I had to hand the bike to a friend to take it back while I limped back as best I could. Oh well. At least I made it.. and despite all the incidents it was sooooo much fun.

Back in Cuzco I managed to find an optician which had lenses that closely resembled my prescription, so I bought a replacement lens and a spare pair.

Just as I thought my string of bad luck was finally broken, it comes back and smacks me right in the face..

Having dropped off my compact flash cards from my digital camera at a photo shop to get the photos burned to a cd we headed to an internet cafe with a couple of friends to do some emailing. Some fifteen minutes later I randomly decide to snap a picture of us in the cafe.. but as I put my hand in the pocket of my jacket I realise the camera is gone. Fuck! Somebody had obviously nicked the camera out of my pocket somewhere between the photo shop and the internet cafe..

So just when my luck couldn't possibly get any worse.. it did so.

The only consolation was that I didn't lose and photos as I'd just handed in my big CF cards which contained around 500 photos in total, and in the camera I only had a small empty card.

I got a police report sorted so my travel insurance should cover the cost of a replacement camera. It still sucks to be without a camera for the rest of the trip. Luckily both Martin and Owen carry digital cameras and so I'm able to use theirs and get copies of all the pictures.

Needing to get up early the next morning to set off on the Inka Trail I wasn't really up for going out. With my luck the bed seemed like the safest option. Had a quiet glass of wine in Los Perros none the less to chill before hitting the sack.

What a day.

More to come soon..

Posted by markus at 08:42 AM | Comments (0)

September 04, 2003

Lake Titkaka (alt. How Small Can the World Get?)

Here comes another update from the other side of the planet.. albeit on a slightly more downbeat note.

After a seven hour bus ride we arrived in Puno, the main city on the shores of Lake Titikaka, on Monday afternoon. Having slept some on the bus I was feeling well rested and energetic. Before dinner Martin, Owen and I hit an internet café on the main plaza to do some quick emailing.

Next something probabilistically completely impossible happened. On my way out of the café I found myself standing literally face to face with Chris Mogge, a friend of mine from Germany who did the undergraduate together with me at LSE, and who subsequently went on to do a master's degree at Stanford. I had not seen him since graduation, and suddenly there he was in Puno, a small city in the middle of nowhere Perú. How small can the world really get?

After dinner we decided to try the Puno nightlife together with Owen and Martin. In a typical gringo bar called Ekeko's Pub we bumped into some brits from another GAP group that seemed sympatetic enough, so we stayed and had a few drinks and shaked it out on the dance floor.

The following morning we set off to tour Lake Titikaka in a boat. Our first stop was the Floating Reed Islands of the Uros people. As the name says, the islands are made of reed and are floating in the lake.. very strange indeed! Moving is made very easy for Uros people.. they just lift anchor and tow the island to another part of the lake. Having visited the local school and taken a tour in a boat made of reed we continued our journey towards Amantaní, an island inhabited by another group of indigenous people. On the way there I got struck down with a fever, and I slept most of the four hour boat ride there. Once on the island I was struggling to make the 100m climb up to the host family I was supposed to stay with together with Owen and Martin, and I went straight to bed as we finally got to the house (this was around three o'clock). The next 15 hours I spent passed out in bed with a fever, and thus I missed all of the activites on the island (including a football match against the locals, an evening fiesta with local dancing, etc) :(

The morning after the fever let go and after having got a couple of potato cakes in me for breakfast I felt a lot better. The boat ride back was very enjoyable as the sun was gazing down and we were parked on the sundeck playing cards and working on our tans. Shame on the rest of the islands tour though.

Back in Puno we had dinner in a nice restaurant chosen due to its 9:1 gender ratio, after which the three amigos (current nickname for Martin, Owen and I)set out to find a nice place to have a drink and chill. We ended up in a rock pub with a few guys from Holland (including a girl who was quite simply stunning). Having played a few games of chess together with Martin on the boat back from Amataní we had decided we just had to find a travelling chess board for the remaining part of our tour. Earlier I had unsuccessfully been hunting around town for one, but not even the games stores had magnetic ones. Low and behold, walking into the rock pub we spot a magnetic chess board on the bar. After a couple of games with Martin the bartender was convinced to sell the board to us for 20 Soles (equivalent of a little less than US$6). The board was definitely not brand new, and the look on the guys face when we offered him the money clearly laid out that he got the better part of the deal. Oh well. We got the much desired chess board :)

As our dutch friends decided to call it an early night we figured we might as well do the same, and so we headed back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Next morning we boarded the bus for Cusco, the party and gringo capital of Perú (and possibly of all of South America). More about that to follow soon.

Posted by markus at 09:42 PM | Comments (0)

September 01, 2003

Hiking in the Colca Canyon

After breakfast on Saturday it was time to leave Arequipa for the Colca Canyon - the world's second largest canyon (twice as big as the Grand Canyon). Having not slept the night before I spent most of the 7 hours on the bus in a vertical position fast asleep. I did wake up when we stopped for a break at the highest pass on the trip measuring 4,900m in altitude. Before crossing the pass we also indulged in some coca tea at a small restaurant next to the road. Apparently coca tea, or mate de coca as it's called in Spanish, is supposed to help alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness. Luckily I haven't suffered any form of altitude sickness yet on this trip, but a cup of coca tea is never wrong. The drink is made simply by soaking coca leaves in hot water. It tastes alright and gives you a funny feeling afterwards. A step up from drinking coca tea, however, is chewing coca leaves. The effect is much stronger, but the problem is that your cheek goes numb after a while (it feels just like you've taken a local anaestetic).

Before anyone asks, no I cannot bring home any coca leaves. You are not allowed to take them out of the country. So if you want a cup of coca tea or some leaves to chew on you simply have to visit Perú (or any of the other countries where coca leaves are legal).

In the afternoon we arrived at our hotel in a little village in the Colca Canyon. Having checked in and rested a while it was time for the first hike - a simple one hour stroll up a mountain to enjoy the sunset over the canyon. The funniest incident occured as we came across a cow (or it came across us) who was blocking our path. Trying to not disturb it and take a detour through the bushes we instead put the cow on the run, much to the dislike of the indigenous woman who apparently owned the creature. Ten minutes and a few cactus bruises later (damn they hurt these things) a few of us had finally managed to direct the cow back towards its owner. Having reached our destination we stayed and enjoyed the view for a while after which we returned down the same way we'd come.

In the evening we had dinner in a peña - a type of small restaurant where there's a show every night. Typically there's a band playing (yes, with panflutes) and a few people dancing local dances. Later the guests are invited (or almost forced) onto the dancefloor to take part in these dances. The highlight of the evening came as Martin's food arrived. He'd ordered Cuy (guinea pig), a local delicasy, but even though we'd read and heard about it, the sight of the complete fried guinea pig (very similar to a hamster) on the plate still shocked most of us. Even the teeth were there. You just have to see the pictures.

The next day we made an early start to drive up to Cruz del Condor to watch the gigantic birds flying in the morning hours. After an hour's agonising wait we were finally treated to a grandstand show. Flyby after Flyby just meters away yielded a few nice pictures.

Next it was time to pick up a few things in town for a picnic in the afternoon, after which we set off for a second hike in the Canyon. This one was slightly more demanding, especially since Martin, Owen and I decided to race a couple of local girls to the summit. We reached the summit in about half an hour chipping heavily for air.. the altitude really takes its toll. I even had blood in my mouth after the ascent. The reward was nice however, as we sat down and had a well deserved picnic in amazing surroundings.

The stroll down from the summit was around two hours. At the end of the trek we arrived at a hot springs complex, and I can't describe how good it felt to get into the hot water after the slightly chilly end to the hike.

Back on the bus I was struck down by a fierce headache, and after sleeping through most of the bus journey back to the hotel I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. After a good 10 hours' sleep I woke up feeling a lot better in the morning however.

After breakfast we left the hotel and steered our path towards Puno on the shores of Lake Titikaka. More about that later.

Posted by markus at 09:02 PM | Comments (0)