Monday, July 25, 2011

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: No Sub-Subject Required

With my departure into the Bolivian Amazon only hours away, and my blog status already several weeks behind, I am forced to rush through one of the most amazing experiences of my trip thus far: The hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Booked almost 6 months in advance thanks to some intensive itinerary planning (as the 500-person Inca Trail daily limit -- of which over half are porters -- fills up almost as soon as it comes available), the entire South American trip thus far has been dedicated to making our way down to Cusco by July 13th - The day of our departure for Machu Picchu. With the entire trip thus far a constant question as to whether enough time allowed for additional days and/or places, as well as a massive snowstorm only a week prior to our departure that shutdown the Inca Trail for the first time in almost a decade, I consider myself lucky to be writing about a successful experience today.

Nevertheless, while I would love to indulge you all in the daily events of the trail, that would entail almost an endless blog, and in the sake of brevity (mild brevity that is, as this is quite the endlessly extensive blog), I leave you instead with some more general summarization, and a plethera of photos:

The Group: (16 Hikers = Group Max)

The Faster Group (aka the ¨You Run/Guideless¨ Group) = Myself, Laura, an Irish couple, several more Irish and Scots, and an Australian (although sounded more New Zealandish) who provided constant ¨Flight of the Conchords¨-esque humor (sounded almost idential to Jemaine for you FOTC lovers) -- We spent maybe 3 hours in total with a guide along the trail, the rest developing our own insight about the path we were on.

The Lesser Faster Group (aka the ¨Wait for Lunch/Double-Guide¨ Group) = An Aviator-sporting girl from LA (even at night), a young deaf couple, a possibly-deaf couple from Hawaii (as maybe 8 words were heard collectively from them during the 4 days) and 2 American daughters and their amazing 64 year old mother (the oldest person seen on the trail).

19 Support = 16 porters, 2 guides and 1 absolutely amazing chef.

The Itinerary:

Day 1 (7.5 miles) - Cusco (8,500ft) --> Wayllabama (10,137ft) - Easy day of ¨Peruvian Flat¨ hiking (see below)

Day 2 (6.8 miles) - Wayllabama (10,137ft) --> Dead Women´s Pass (13,776ft) --> Paqaymayu (11,480 ft) - Most difficult day of hiking, not helped by an inconveniently-timed onset of ¨runny tummy¨ (becoming quite the weekly experience on this trip)

Day 3 (10 miles) - Paqaymayu (11,480ft) --> 2nd Pass (12,916ft) --> 3rd Pass (12,000ft) --> Winay Wayna (8,829ft) - An almost all-downhill-knee-breaking day of hiking.

Day 4 (3.7 miles) - Winay Wayna (8,829ft) --> Intipati / ¨Sun Gate¨ (9,319ft) --> Machu Picchu (7,872ft) - Final day comprised of an early morning ¨rush hour traffic¨ sprint to the viewpoint for sunrise, followed by 8 hours of exploration (aka endless photo taking)

The Detailed Highlights:

- Hiking Time Overestimation - Although our group was comprised of all levels of hiking fitness, our lead guide Edwin refused to ever provide us with the ¨actual¨ time required to accomplish each section of the hike. What was presented to us as 2 hour sections, typically were accomplished anywhere from 40-60 minutes. Gotta love reverse psychology.

- Peruvian Flat - Alongside Edwin´s preface of our ¨2 hour sections,¨ we also were constantly told of the relatively easy ¨flat sections¨ through which we would traverse on a daily basis. Unfortunately, in Peru, flat ground is not the same as elsewhere in the world. According to the Peruvian Dictionary (I have the only copy if you wish to borrow), flat ground is any specific path that ends in relatively the same elevation, regardless of intense inclines and declines along the way. Thus, a ¨2 hour flat section,¨ according to Edwin, could actually encompass an intense 30 minute climb, followed by an intense 10 minute descent. Perfectly flat.

- Jimmy the Assistant Guide - I honestly have no idea what Jimmy was responsible for, as usually he was seen wandering aimlessly in circles at camp, or nowhere to be seen along the actual trail itself. At one point he imitated the noise a frog by whistling like a bird. Definitely deserving of the $10 tip he earned!

- Amazing Food - I have no idea how our chef Louie was capable of putting together the meals he did, but the food along the entire trek was absolutely amazing. Soup, stews, grilled meat, vegetables, and even a birthday cake for two of our trekkers (I am still attempting to figure out where he managed to find an oven). The picture below should do justice of what Louie had to work with.

- Inside Joke #1 of the Trek = The Rice-Devouring Chicken - Despite being uncaptured via any photographic device, the most infamous temporary member of our group was a chicken met during the first lunch on the trail. With enough rice to feed a small village remaining after our meal, we decided to feed it to a nearby chicken who had been snaking his way through our legs throughout the meal pecking at scraps. All I know is 30 minutes later, the chicken lay on its side, almost comotose from food exhaustion, continuing to devour away at the rice, despite it´s inability to stand up anymore.

- Inside Joke #2 of the Trek = Popcorn and Jam - An invention that is soon to hit the States anyday now, combine popcorn and some jam, and you have one of the most amazing snacks every invented. As an FYI, Jam = Jelly (been hanging out with way too many Brits this trip).

- Notable Mentions - Amazing sleeping bag and tent (a first in my trekking experience), squatter toilets (not sure which puts more stress on the legs -- the Inca Trail or the patient squatting as one waits to relieve themselves), nightly asshole/president card games (I hate being asshole), amazing porters who deserve more respect than anyone else on the trek, my loyal $20 Colombian-purchased shoes which decided to decompose on me during the trail (grass is a great filler for holey soles), Edwin´s insistence on our constant chewing of Coca leaves for energy and altitude-combativeness, hours spent discussing favorite quotes and moments from favorite TV shows/movies (primarily South Park, Team America and Family Guy), as well as Llamas, rocks and of course, more Llamas and some more rocks.

Onto an endless array of pics:

Next Week: Lake Titicaca and La Paz

Our group of 16 ready to commence the 4-day hike along the Inca Trail (apparently spelled with a K on random occasions)

A slightly emaciated (most likely tape-worm/parasite carrying) me, ready to partake on the journey

¨The Inca Trail¨ - Lots of rocks

Edwin the guide providing us with one of many Inca-related lessons along the trail

I really love the donkeys in South America

Day 1 - The only section of flat ground experienced during our ¨Peruvian Flat¨ day

Campsite #1 - Wayllabamba (the slight downhill of the terraces caused almost every hiker to wake up at the bottom of their tent)

Unable to hike for a continuous 90 minutes without stopping for some sort of mandatory food/drink break (I´m not complaining, just stating what occurred)

Remaining aftermath of snowstorms that shut down the trail for the first time in almost a decade - a mere 1 week prior to our departure

One of only 3 people in our group to successfully make it to the top of the highest part of the Inca Trail (13,776 feet) carrying all our own equipment (most hired an extra porter). +5 points for badassness/cheapness

Exhausted porters earning a well-deserved rest

Group shot after ¨meet and greet¨ session with the porters (1 porter was 48 years old and had been doing this trek for over 20 years. He looked tired).

One of many random Incan ruins along the way

More ruins

A tunnel

I think I included too many random ruins shots in this blog

Amazing tent accomodation

The ¨Kitchen¨ - Still have absolutely no idea how all our amazing meals AND a cake were created in this tiny, dimly-lit shelter

Starting our early morning descent (aka ascent, it was not downhill whatsoever) to the Sun Gate

First glimpse of Machu Picchu - A bit underwhelming

Although it did inspire an early-morning marriage proposal

200+ trekkers taking their first of several thousand Machu Picchu photos

The definite highlight of Machu Picchu for me was the overabundance of Llama´s posing perfectly for every backdrop image

Llama attempting to eat Wayna Picchu (the famous mountain behind the ruins)

Attempting to reach my inner Llama

Classic, completely unposed, photo of Machu Picchu

¨The Large Field Area¨

¨Please do not climb on the ruins¨

Standard jumping shot

Very happy a lack of fear of heights allows me to partake in such images (taken shortly after an elderly lady crawled on her knees past this point)

My favorite shot of Machu Picchu (a bit of photoshop work once I am home should bring out the postcard blue skies in this picture)

Llama-covered terraces (the Incas LOVED their terraces)

The first form of transportation this trip that hasn´t been a bus. It of course almost fell off the track 38 times, making it a less-than-enjoyable change of transport mode

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Favorite Things About South America: Cambio

For those of you who have previously followed the worldy adventures of Sarah and Ted Martens, I apologize for the repeat in blogging subject. Then again, after two months of being subjected to this infamous issue, I feel I can´t avoid talking about South America without referring to a topic that dominates life on the tourist front: Cambio (i.e change).

In every country visited thus far, there is one aspect of South American life that is treated as an unimaginable plague, struck upon every poor traveler who is subjected to it´s doom: The Unchangable Bill. Throughout every country visited thus far, there is no greater epidemic than a lack of change for ¨large bills.¨ With the average ATM unexplainably providing bills worth anywhere from $15-25, the only chance visitors have of relieving themselves of these large amounts of currency is to hope they are stolen from their pockets, as no storekeepers, bus stations or even restaurants will willingly accept these large dominations of money. Most would rather actually DENY your business than be forced to give out what little small-denomination bills they have remaining. Thus, travelers are forced to hoard as many small bills and coins as possible, as these are looked upon as MORE valuable than their greater value counterparts. Smart, smart, smart, smart, smart.

Favorite Change-Related Expression: When presenting a 100 sole note ($35) to a storekeeper for a $3 item, I was looked at as if I had just murdered her first born. I am quite sure a few scoffs were also released after my departure.

Favorite Change-Related Experience: When attempting to purchase a 1 sole postcard with a 10 sole bill ($3.50) -- which happens to be the SMALLEST note available in Peru -- I was refused purchase. When attempting to pay with 95 cents which I managed to scrounge together, I was still refused. You don´t climb out of the 3rd world bucket by refusing money South America.

Favorite ATM Experience: Withdrawing $200 and being provided with forty $5 bills. It was amazing. I would have hugged the ATM if it hadn´t possessed the distinct smell of fresh urine on it´s side.

Next Week`s Topic: Long-Distance Bus Rides - An In-Depth View (Previously skipped, although soon to be rebirthed)

Completely natural, unstaged pile of money that happened to be just perfect for this blog post

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cusco: Tourists, Massages and Some Ancient Stones

After spending numerous hours pouring through over 400 photos from the past week in Cusco and along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I have successfully managed to narrow down the load to approximately 50 ¨unexcludable blogworthy¨ images. Given the lack of attention span from the average blogger, as well as my own desire to avoid spending the next 5 hours in the internet cafe, I have decided to split this blog into two separate parts. Thus, I leave you with part one of this unintentionally-planned two part series: Cusco.

As quite possibly the most popular tourist destination in South America, the once capital of the Incan Empire resembles nothing of the sort from centuries ago, and instead has been replaced by a city that thrives upon the needy, wanty, oh-so-photo-happy, tourist. With Incan ruins and ancient cathedrals sharing lucrative space with a McDonald´s, KFC and endless massage parlors for the weary hiker, this once beautiful city, although still incredibly beautiful, can most easily be summarized by the following two words: ¨No Gracias.¨

With constant offers for tours to Machu Picchu, massages, special restaurant promotions, massages, any llama-ordained item thought possible, and of course, more massages, it is almost impossible to navigate the busy streets of Cusco without street hawkers bombarding their way into whatever semblance of serenity you would hope to have. A casual stroll down the road involves at a minimum, 85 ¨no gracias´s,¨ and thus, despite the overwhelming amount of amazing touristy sites within the realm of Cusco, I spent the majority of my pre-Inca-Trail time avoiding anything related to tourism. The usuallly avid ¨sight-seer¨ in me instead found more comfort watching English-subtitled movies in the hostel, as well as frequenting the same 10 sole ($3.50) 4-course restaurant day-in and day-out. Nevertheless, I still leave you with what highlights comprised my four days of ¨waiting¨ in what, somehow turned out to be, one of my favorite cities in South America:

- Stone Walls - With the Incan Empire priding itself on architectural structures that have lasted almost a millenium, one thing that is unavoidable in Cusco are shapely stones that seem to dominate the sides of every building in this city. Stones that fit perfectly with one another, stones that fit somewhat perfectly together, and even stones that don´t fit perfectly at all. All are found throughout the city. Supposedly there is even a stone that has 12 sides, although I could only count 9. I love lamp.

- Cuy - With only several days left in Peru, I decided to depart from my 10 sole ¨go-to-meal,¨ and dedicate my 2nd to last night in Cusco tracking down and consuming one of the most infamous local dishes in this gastronomically-friendly country: Cuy. More commonly referred to as a Guinea Pig everywhere else but South America, Cuy can be consumed in many different ways, but only one way is the ¨true¨ proper culinary style: Whole. Thus, as I sat alone in a quiet restaurant, as nobody shared my enthusiasm to devour their 3rd favorite pet as a child, I stared in confusion as an entire Guinea Pig lay before me (head, arms, legs, even claws). Unknowing how to begin, the friendly owner of the establishment provided me with the encouraging words of ¨Come todo¨ (eat everything). Thus I began to slowly devour away at what suprisingly was a very delicious meal, until of course, my fork no longer found meat, and instead found several squishy organ-esque objects located within the Guinea Pig´s now-half-devoured corpse. Several deep breaths later, a heart and 1/2 a liver were uncomfortably settling in my stomach (I did not find any other organs, and thus assume they made a similar path as the aforementioned bits). With the only remaining aspect of the Cuy left to eat, the head, I avoiding partaking in prying this poor critter´s jaws apart to sample´s it´s bite size brain, and instead left the restaurant officially removing ¨ furry childhood pet´s¨ from my future to-eat list.

- Honorable Mentions: Reunion City (encountered almost 15+ friends from every country traveled to thus far all randomly in Cusco at the same time), Llama Girl´s (see photo below).

That´s about it. I leave you with an onslaught of pics:

Next week: The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

Cusco - Beautifully touristic (I was offered 3 massages, 8 meal promotions, and 5 taxi rides during the taking of this photo)

What´s a beautiful plaza square without the world´s favorite restaurant? (Minus the yellow arches to preserve ¨tradition¨ of course)

One of the many plazas scattered around the city of Cusco

Love me some night/fountain shots

Giant stones at the nearby Incan Ruin Sacsayhuam├ín (or more commonly known in Gringolandia as ¨Sexy Woman¨)

Those are some damn well-fitting stones!

The Llama-welcoming crew anxiously awaiting tourists for a $0.30 classic ¨llama and native woman¨ photo

The greatest part of tourism = Hilarious t-shirts

More hilarious t-shirts

Couldn´t resist the temptation to earn U of M a new fan

The National Incan Flag (apparently the reason for their demise in population wasn´t due to the Spanish invasion...)

Quite possibly the most protected manikin ever

¨Free Hugs¨

Cuy - Your favorite childhood pet served just as you remember... kinda...

It´s OK to play with your food if it once was a pet (I think I might be going to hell for this one)

Poor delicious delicious guy