Category Archives: Peru

Lake Titicaca and Arequipa

(Lake Titicaca & Arequipa, Peru – 30 Sept, 2013) Our hike of the Inca Trail was definitely the high-point of our time in Peru. Originally, it was to be our final stop; the crescendo in a 16 day Peruvian symphony. However, our travel plans were forced to change after my ankle ended up in a cast one day after we arrived into Lima. The result, instead of hitting Arequipa and Lake Titicaca before the Inca Trail, we flipped the order and saw them afterwards. Nothing was going to beat Cusco, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, but still Lake Titicaca and Arequipa were two destinations I had not visited the last time I was in Peru (some 14 years ago) and damn if I was going to miss them again.

Jessica was less enthusiastic about these locales and would have been fine heading straight to Chile after Machu Picchu, but we are travel partners to the end; where one goes so goes the other.

Train!

Travel from Cusco- the main city nearest to Machu Picchu -to Puno- the largest city on Lake Titicaca – could be accomplished by car, bus or train. A car, we don’t have. A bus would certainly work and (by far) be the cheapest way to go, but who doesn’t love a train ride, right? Especially after we heard the train ride between Cusco and Puno is considered by many to be one of the top three train rides in all the world! The other two top contenders are somewhere in the Canadian Rockies and Switzerland. Hmmmm… Maybe this train idea deserves some serious consideration.

Jessica and I boarded the train at 7:45 on a cool Monday morning. Whoa! Tommy the Train this was not. Each passenger car was appointed with white linen covered tables and Ethan-Allen style upholstered chairs. These were not the rows of bus-seats we were expecting. A lovely fresh-cut rose dressed each table leaving no doubt this train was aiming for hoity-to-the-toity. A glance around the car found mostly grey-haired (or balding) retirees and at least one gentleman wearing an ascot.

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Yes, I felt a skoasch out of place among all the richy-riches (Jessica did not, btw), but that wasn’t about to diminish my enjoyment of this experience one bit. The train chugged away from the station right on schedule and our 10 hour journey through the Andean landscape was underway.

The last train car was different from the others. Its front half was set up as a bar/lounge area with the final half reserved for panoramic viewing. Can you find Jessica in all 3 pics?

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Click Here to check out the little movie I put together of our super-splurge train ride. Watch for the choreographed food service at the end.

Below is a shot of the only stop the train made during our journey. It was a 10 minute souvenir stop made at both the half-way and highest altitude point of our ride.
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Islands That Float

Once in Puno we grabbed a back-to-reality cheap place to stay and worked on our plans for the next day- a visit to Lake Titicaca, the Uros floating islands, and an overnight stay on one of the Lake’s natural islands. Perhaps some brief explanations would be helpful.

Lake Titicaca is famous for being the highest altitude navigable lake in the world. There are other lakes that sit higher than Titicaca, but none large enough and deep enough to handle big ships like this one can. It measures 233 km (145 miles) across at its longest point and and 97 km (60 miles) wide in the other direction. Our tour guide said it was up to 280 m deep in places, but that seems REALLY deep and I’m not sure I believe him. On the day we were out on the lake, it was clear enough for the far shores to be visible in all directions. The panoramic is stunning. It’s one of those unique places on the planet where capturing the curvature of the earth in one vista is as easy as breathing.

From the boat dock in Puno we hopped into the little ship’s belly with about 20 other tourists and began a slow-motion cruise into the quiet waters of Lake Titicaca. No exaggeration, we were traveling at the wake-quaking speed of 2-3 mph. This was our speed when we departed from the dock and it never increased. I was so curious about the astonishingly slow course we’d set that I asked our guide about it. I figured he would tell me the lake had strict speed limits to preserve the yadda-yadda. Nope. Instead, he explained that we were in a normal boat. “Fast” boats are allowed on the lake, but they cost much more. Not during our entire time on the lake did I witness any of the so-called fast boats.

It took us about 1 1/2 hours to reach one of the Uros floating islands. [Wikipedia gives a better explanation of what these are than I could.]

20131004-195745.jpgStepping off our tour boat and onto the parade-float-sized bed of totora reeds was strange indeed. The texture underfoot was that of a Sealy Posturepedic mattress…. made of straw. There were five or six little house-huts on the island and about that many people- mostly just the women and children were there when we arrived. Such a weird dynamic, we are there for a brief glimpse into their unique way of life and they are there to sell us hand-made trinkets.

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Part of our tour to the Uros islands included a spin on one of their stick-powered reed boats.

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Amantani, A Real Island

Lake Titicaca has many natural islands within it (in addition to the man-made Uros islands). Two of the largest such islands are Amantani and Taquile. Our tour included one night’s stay with a local family on Amantani island and then lunch on Taquile island the next day. Staying with a family was a part of this adventure we were really excited about. However, the reality of the experience didn’t quite match the hype.

Upon landing on Amantani, we were greeted at the dock by the mama of our host family. She softly introduced herself as Luz-Delia. Jessica and I were paired up with two twenty-something dudes from France, and together we followed Luz-Delia up the narrow pathways to her humble abode.

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The family’s house had two extra rooms that appeared to have been built within just the past few years, and built quite specifically to house visiting tourists…like us. I read somewhere that the local communities used to benefit little from the tourist trade, but eventually got organized and made some demands. They petitioned the Peruvian government’s Department of Tourism to participate more directly with the tourist and reap a greater share of the economic rewards. The result, we were able to stay in a comfortable room owned by Luz-Delia and the rest of her Quechua family on a remote island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. The family served us lunch and dinner the day we arrived, and also breakfast the next day. To our disappointment, however, no one from the family actually sat and ate with us. The interaction we had was more as if we were staying at a B ‘n B, as opposed to us being foreign exchange students living with a host family. All good, but not quite the immersive cultural experience we were hoping for.
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We did interact a bit with the 15 year old daughter of the family, Delia (different from her mother, Luz-Delia). It was Delia that accompanied us to a festive “dance” the night of our stay. Wearing traditional local attire, Jessica and I danced it up with the best of them.

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Quiet. It struck me over and over again just how quiet it was on Amantani. There were no cars, no trucks, no motorcycles, no leaf blowers, no radios blaring, no dogs barking (we were told there were no dogs on the island)….occasionally 20131004-210549.jpgyou might hear a cow moo or a donkey brae, but that was about it. Such a simple life. Our guide insisted the people didn’t even have electricity; though this was clearly not the complete story. We could see that nearly everyone had a solar panel on their roof hooked up to a couple of car batteries; a simple schematic, but sufficient to power a small television set and a lightbulb in every room.

(For the record, Delia told us there were actually 5 dogs on the island.)
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Taquile, Not Tequila

The guide during our Lake Titicaca tour was highly enthusiastic and interesting but quite unfortunately exhausting to listen to. What great potential he had, too. His name was Ruben and he grew up on the Uros islands so obviously he knew the lake and its people well. He spoke four languages: Aymara, Quechua, Spanish and lastly…English. During the tour he spoke both Spanish and his (disturbingly poor) version of English. For us (with our substantial Spanish ¬†skills) this meant hearing his disjointed schpeels at least twice. More often, though, we endured him repeating himself many more times than twice as he would often forget to switch languages. We might get Spanish, Spanish again, and then English.

Here Ruben explains that the ends of the totora reeds are edible. Jessica and I both took a bite. Needed salt.
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Ruben was also hell-bent on getting us to learn a word or two in Aymara and Quechua. No more than simple terms like, Hello, I’m fine, and Thank you. But I’m sorry, Ruben, those languages are tough and asking your group to learn six new foreign language words/phrases (3 in each language) in 2 minutes ain’t happening.

Once we had arrived onto la Isla de Taquile, Ruben herded our group around the island like goats. Every so often he would stop and explain to us certain facts about the island’s history and its people. Within his talks, inevitably, Ruben would say slowly and deliberately the word, “Taquile” followed by the reminder, “…not tequila.” Throughout the day, he did this so many times someone from the group suggested we make it into a drinking game. It practically became a call-and-response mantra between him and the group. Ruben: “Taquile” Us: “Not tequila.” Ruben seemed unaware the entire time.

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A Thief in the Night

The final stop on our tour through Peru was Arequipa, known for its many “white” buildings made from sillar, a particular volcanic stone common to the area. (The name of the stone in English is ashlar.) The buildings are not truly white, by the way, but close enough. ¬†Among Peruvian cities, Arequipa is perhaps the most…uh…civilized. At least things seem more orderly and less chaotic than in other Peruvian cities we’d visited.

To get from Puno to Arequipa, we boarded an evening bus and took residence in the lower “VIP” section. That’s where they have the larger seats that recline like Laz-e-Boys. We left the terminal at 6 PM and would arrive into Arequipa around midnight. The on-board lights were soon dimmed and a great chance to rest had found us. Jessica slipped off to sleep first and I listened to some music for a short while before similarly closing my eyes.

Occasionally, you will hear stories from other travelers about how they got robbed while going from place to place. Way back when we were in Costa Rica one guy told me he’d been mugged twice while traveling through Nicaragua (I think it was). One guy had his backpack taken while on a train (in Europe). And then of course, there are the stories of people having their things stolen from them while traveling on the buses….especially at night! Yikes!

All of this was going through my head as I reclined there in my bus seat and tried to drift off to sleep. My backpack was down at my feet so I looped my leg through one of the straps. Surely, if anyone creeps in to snatch my bag while I’m asleep, I’ll feel it and catch the little perp in the act. But, then…that’s not comfortable…having that strap around my leg was restricting my movement. I repositioned myself so that my leg was out of the strap but still leaning against the bag. I’m so ready to sleep, but my sloshy mind starts to rehearse what I might do if I actually catch someone stealing from us. But still so sleepy. Eventually, slowly, lazily… I slip into sleepville.

What’s happening!? I feel something! This is it! This is the moment I’d prepared for! With those last unconscious thoughts I opened my eyes and saw a slinky silhouette crossing at my feet! My arms instinctively rallied into fight mode. My head is thinking, I got you, you little perp!

Then, as my eyes come into focus, I see that it’s Jessica trying to cross over from her seat to the aisle. She’s midway through her maneuver and looking at me with a laugh. “Oh, sorry. I was trying so hard not to wake you.” “What’s with all the [she mimics my crazy fighting arms movement]?” I tell her that I thought she was little Peruvian girl, come to steal our bags.

By then Jessica is laughing so hard she’s ready to pee in her pants, after all, she was getting up to go to the bathroom. “You should have seen your face,” she keeps telling me. After she returns from the bathroom she’s still laughing uncontrollably. I guess my thief-catching face is more funny than brave.

Four Days Relaxing in Arequipa

As a travel destination, Arequipa doesn’t necessarily have a main attraction…it IS the main attraction. Simply a nice city with highly walkable streets and an ample number of interesting landmarks to entertain visitors. Colca Canyon- the deepest terrestrial canyon in the world -is a nearby hiking hotspot, but at 5 hours away (and only accessible in a 4×4 vehicle), it’s not close enough to Arequipa to qualify as a main attraction.

Enjoying a city tour in Arequipa. Jessica beneath some arches made from the white volcanic stone called sillar. Street food!
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Hostels in Arequipa were generally more expensive than Jessica and I had become accustomed to in other parts of Peru. I think we paid $42/night at the Hostel Solar in Arequipa… though we really loved it. Our room was the largest of any we’d stayed in. The ceilings must have been 15 feet high! Breakfast was included in the price and served on the building’s cool roof-top terrace. While sipping coffee (Jessica), and orange juice (me), we admired two of the three snow-topped volcanos that immediately surround Arequipa. (The third volcano was behind a building.)

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Two of the friends we’d made while on the Inca Trail (Caroline and Patrick (from Quebec)) were traveling on a similar trajectory as us and we were pleased to meet them for dinner in Arequipa several times. Feeling like you have friends out on the road is a wonderful sensation. (Though, it does prompt us to miss our friends and family from back home.)

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My first ever shoeshine!

After Arequipa we plunged headlong into a day and a half of travel before arriving to Santiago, Chile, the next stop on our world tour. That double-scoop of travel included a 17 hour overnight bus ride from Arequipa to Lima, followed immediately by an Amazing Race style cab ride from the bus terminal to the airport. They recommend arriving 3 hours early for International flights; we only had 1 hour to give. We were jumping airport lines like criminals, but we managed to make our flight in time and not get arrested. Three separate flights and 12 hours later, we were in Santiago.

Travel days can be hell. But our plan now is to slow down the pace for about a month. What will that look like? Return for the next post and find out.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Before sharing the toils and triumphs of our Inca Trail hike, here’s me getting the cast cut off my foot just two days before our hike began.

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Hiking The Inca Trail

(Inca Trail / Machu Picchu – 18-23 September, 2013) Let’s get one thing straight from the onset, hiking the Inca Trail is no walk in the park (with or without an injury). It is a formidable challenge. Obviously doable… since thousands of people accomplish the marathon-sized trek each year. However, romanticized notions of the actual hiking experience itself should be set aside; the hike is grueling– long, steep uphill muscle-numbing climbs are followed by never ending descents that pound the knees into aching submission. It’s tough.

As immensely difficult as it is, the unique experience of hiking the Inca Trail is most definitely worth every step.

Jessica and I signed up for the classic 4 day/3 night Inca Trail hike, which begins at Kilometer 82 (yes, that’s literally the name of the town) and ends in Machu Picchu. At 44 kilometers (26 miles) in length, it is literally a marathon.

Day 1, Excited to Be Hitting the Trail

Our spirits soared as the day began. We’d reserved our spot on the Inca Trail hike 7 months prior and now (finally) our day of departure was here. Excitement, apprehension, and eagerness rose out of bed with us at 4:45 AM the day of our hike. A shuttle bus picked us up from our hostel a bit later and we were officially underway.

Our guide introduced himself as David, a well-educated Peruvian guy of about 30 years old. He spoke English well despite having grown up in a tiny farming village in rural Peru. His father sent him to school in Cusco at a young age where he eventually got his university degree in Tourism and History. David spent the first few minutes in the center-front of the bus introducing himself and describing what our morning would look like: First, we’d continue our bus ride for an hour and 40 minutes through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to Ollantaytambo. There we would make a brief stop for breakfast. Then an additional 30 minutes of rocky-roaded bus travel was needed before arriving to Kilometer 82, our starting point for the Inca Trail.

Getting organized at Kilometer 82.

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There were a total of 12 people in our group, five couples plus two guys that had been friends since their days together in the Air Force. Here we are at the trail head, all fresh and full of energy.

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And so we began walking. That first day was mostly easy slopes up followed by gentle descents. For the better part of the day, we hugged the Urubamba river, a picturesque flow of rumbling glacier-melt that rushed through the valley as if late to an important event. The river’s song became our soundtrack and even when a turn in the trail prompted us to say good-bye to the Urubamba, we still followed one of its tributaries so that the sound of tumbling water was ever-present.

We stopped for lunch midway through our trek and then hiked another few hours to the first campsite. Along the way, we paused several times while David filled us in on some of the more interesting plants the Inca’s used as medicines. We also got our first real introduction to the porters or “chaskis” that accompanied us the entire hike. Chaski is a Quechua word that means fleet-footed runner, and they certainly were. Meaning, they didn’t actually accompany us on the trail as much as they ran past us carrying food, cooking equipment, and our tents. Our group of 12 was assisted by….get this… a total of 18 chaskis.

Our guide (David) sharing his knowlegde. Chaskis hauling their huge packs up the trail. Campsite #1.
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Chaskis Make the Trek

Before you scoff and chortle at the proportion (or disproportion) of chaskis to tourists and conclude that our hike must have therefore been a cake-walk, I warn you, don’t even go there! What the chaskis did for us was to make our hike of the Inca Trail many times more enjoyable that it otherwise might have been. However, I assure you…they did not carry us on their backs (nor did they even carry our personal backpacks).

To fully appreciate the role of the chaskis and the greater chaski culture one must first know a bit about their history. Prior to 2002 tourists and tour companies for the Inca Trail hired chaskis to carry the camping equipment without any controls or guidelines. This led to the severe chaskis-abuse. Chaskis come to work on the Inca Trail from poor farming communities throughout the Andean region of Peru. They are typically not highly educated, but of strong physical stock. Trekking companies would routinely take advantage of them by requiring that they carry packs of 60, 70, 80 or more pounds, and then not provide them with adequate food or sleeping conditions.

That’s when the Peruvian government stepped in to regulate. Now (by law), chaskis are not allowed to carry more than 18 kilos each (about 40 lbs). At the start of the trail they go through a weigh-in procedure (just like long-haul truckers) to ensure no packs exceed the limit and also that weights are distributed fairly among the chaskis. Further requirements are that chaskis be provided a sleeping bag, shelter, and food equivalent in amount to what is cooked for the tourists they serve.

Chaskis at the weigh station (next to the rushing Urubamba river).

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These government regulations revolutionized (and humanized) the Inca Trail “industry.” I didn’t hear specifically how much the chaskis are paid, but our guide said that (when tips are included) they can earn an amount equivalent to what a first year teacher would make in the states (adjusted for cost-of-living differences, of course). They work hard for it, but compared to what they could earn working on the farm, it’s good money.

Day 2, The Hardest Day

We were warned the second day of our trek would be the most difficult. We had to hike up and over a 13,677 (4200 m) foot pass in order to climb out of one valley and into the next. The trail itself is constructed of small and large stones planted individually with thought and care. Its width averages about 4 1/2 feet wide, but varies from 2 feet wide in places to 5 or 6 feet. The height and depth of the steps is mostly what kills you…and then of course, the sheer number of them. The Inca people were not tall, but they sure as heck made some tall steps.

I haven’t even mentioned the high altitude. Maybe that’s the most challenging aspect of it. Ascend too many steps too quickly and you’ll feel your heart thumping furiously in your chest. Ascend too slowly and people will pass you up and make you feel like a chump. (I’m not sure which is worse.)

The morning portion of day two was heavy on the uphill, but nothing compared to what we faced in the afternoon. If you look closely deep into the photo below, you will see the camp where we ate lunch. The uphill climb from there was steep and relentless, especially the final rise to the pass. Jessica and I both used the walking sticks we’d rented to leverage our way up step by agonizing step. I reached the high-pass first and snapped Jessica’s final push to the summit.

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Clouds enveloped us from time to time creating a mystical scene.

Our afternoon hike began at the base of the V far below.

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Though our group celebrated heartily and took a good many photos, the day’s hike didn’t end at the high pass. What goes up must come down, doesn’t just apply to Frisbees. Though our legs were stressed and tired from muscling up the 200+ stories worth of stone steps to the ridge-line, several hundred more giant, narrow, uneven, Inca-stone down-steps awaited us on the other side. Hiking downhill may take slightly less brute exertion than going up, but not by much. Each step down applies compression forces to the joints that accumulate quickly into aches and pains. Especially when the steps are large, uneven, and slick from the messy rain that started falling on us as we carefully lowered ourselves down the mountain.

The arrow points to the passage over the ridge. From there, follow the trail as it plummets sharply into the next valley and our Day 2 campsite.

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As I mentioned, Jessica and I had both been using our walking sticks all day. They really helped take a degree of pressure off our legs. We stopped to lengthened them a few inches for the downhill. Jessica, still burdened by a latent ski injury, took each step slow and careful. And the way I was treating my freshly sprained ankle was just asking for trouble, so I took it super-slow on the down strokes, too. Each of us shrieked more than a few times as occasionally our steps settled down at just the wrong angle for our injuries. But with patience and steady determination, we reached the campsite below, exhausted and thrilled the hardest day of our hike was over.

Day 3, Beware of the Gringo Killer

Our guide warned us that Day 2 was the hardest day, but let that record show that Day 3 (the longest day) was a helluva close runner-up. Ten miles of trail would be covered on the third day, three miles more than we had hiked on either of the first two days. Our rewards for the extra effort were spectacular views of soaring glacier peaks and lengthy green valleys partially filled by ghostly clouds of moisture. We caught sight of a shimmering rainbow just after a light rain, too. We also stopped to visit several Inca sites along the trail and had ample chance to marvel at their accomplishments.

Aside from the Incan Ruins and breathtaking views the trail delivers, the actual stone trail itself is quite a head-shaking achievement. It is more than just the sum total of hundreds of thousands of large stones being placed along a path. In many places, the Incans built-up the trail by several meters so that the path you walk on practically floats next to the mountainside, not on it. There are a couple of “Incan tunnels” where the trail dives behind a sliding rock face. Along parts of the trail, you’ll find slits- 4 inch wide “channels” -carved into the stone path to allow water to drain through the trail without eroding it. All in all, the Inca trail is a feat of engineering that rivals even the great pyramids.

Our group pauses for a “family” photo. (By day 3 we were like family)

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The last couple of hours of our third day on the trail were perhaps the toughest of all. Our guide told us this section was affectionately known by the locals as the “gringo killer.” We would face 2,000 steps downward before arriving to the campsite for the night. It’s called the gringo killer because of the toll it takes on the knees. The tough downhill scramble we’d completed the previous day was only about 500 steps, now we’d have four times that many to overcome. And on this longest day of hiking, we had the additional threat of darkness to contend with. Yikes!

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By the time Jessica and I made camp, it was indeed nightfall. The chaskis applauded our shaky-legged arrival into camp and handed us a welcoming cup of strawberry punch and a freshly-popped snack of warm popcorn.

Best Camping Food EVER!

Typical camping food is what? Maybe hot dogs, macaroni ‘n cheese and trail mix. If true, our meals were anything but typical. Our first day’s lunch was stuffed trout with a side of rice and veggies. Other meals included broiled chicken, ceviche, pasta salad, and even quiche. Almost every meal began with soup, but I’m talking really top-notch soup….like, four-star-restaurant quality soup! Many moments on the trail were quite chilly so the soups warmed our hands as well as our stomaches.

Check out the spread.

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We even ate fancy pancakes for breakfast on two occasions. (They were “fancy” because of the little carmel syrup design they swirled around the edges.) Someone from our group commented, “I don’t know how they cooked 12 pancakes and served them all to us fresh and hot. Whenever I make pancakes on a camping trip, I have to cook them one at a time.”

Each main course was followed by an item of dessert, too. We had chocolate pudding, a fruit-cobbler-ish type of dish and even jello on one occasion. Don’t you need a refrigerator to make jello? Perhaps it was simply cold enough outside.

Day 4, Arriving to Machu Picchu

This final day of our Incan adventure started alarmingly early…as in 3:20 in the freakin’ AM. An early start was needed for several reasons; to eat breakfast, pack-up our gear, and still get a good spot in line at the Machu Picchu check-point. Also, because our team of chaskis was leaving us; their last act being a mad dash down the mountainside to the make the first train back towards Cusco.

The early morning light was slowly spilling over the mountains just as our group passed through the check-point at 5:30 AM. We marched dutifully behind our guide for close to an hour more, in this final push towards our Machu Picchu goal.

Most visitors to Machu Picchu arrive through its “main” entrance, but there are actually several routes to get there. The Inca Trail approaches the city through the Sun Gate, a separate, but connected Inca site located to the east of Machu Picchu city. The Sun Gate’s connection to Machu Picchu is both spiritual and astrological; on the morning of the fall equinox the sun’s rays will exactly beam through the Sun Gate and strike a particular “astronomy” building at the center of the city, thus marking the start of a new season. (Those Incas were geniuses!)

Our group took seats at the Sun Gate steps, still an hour’s hike away from Machu Picchu itself, and waited for the sun to rise over the mountains. Machu Picchu lay below us, but was totally obscured by clouds and fog. The sun was surely there on schedule (I think), but its rays could not penetrate the white mist…at first. The more patiently we waited, the more the scene began to change and clear. First we saw pieces of mountains across the way, then whole mountainsides. The fog thinned more quickly as the minutes passed. Then, there is was….the famed Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, slowly emerging through the parting clouds. It was the moment we’d be waiting for. A burst of claps and cheers erupted. Machu Picchu is truly a jewel on earth.

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Just a bit more hiking down from the Sun Gate finally delivered us to Machu Picchu city. We had arrived. Once there, David shared with us his significant study of the site before saying his good-byes. We were then free to explore the place on our own, which we did in earnest.

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After hiking so hard and for so long, reaching our Machu Picchu goal was satisfying, but not a pinnacle moment. It was the hike itself, THAT was what we had come for. Machu Picchu is a phenomenal place and I’d recommend everyone visit it at least once in their lifetime. But if you have the time, money and courage, I’d really recommend you hike the Inca Trail.

Animals on the trail…

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Aguas Calientes Extra

I’ve heard a lot of people poo-poo Aguas Calientes, the small city that lies at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. Jessica and I stayed there one night before traveling back to Cusco by train. Yes, it’s touristy and a little overpriced compared to the rest of Peru, but it’s also a beautiful place. A river runs right through the middle of it before curling its way around the mountain. Several simple bridges cross the river and sidewalks line its edges. The whole town is surrounded by high mountain walls giving it a hidden treasure type of appeal.

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We would have been happy to stay in Aguas Calientes several more days, but we are also certain more hidden gems await us in other parts of the world. Onward we travel…

Forced Slow-Down In Peru

Just 10 days before our date with the Inca Trail, I busted my ankle. This ain’t good, my friends. I’m gonna need that ankle! Hiking the Inca Trail is not a trivial pursuit. It’s four straight days of hiking on the steep and rocky mountain passageways once traveled by the Inca people. For three of our nights we will sleep in tents on mountain clearings beneath the same stars the Incas once worshipped. At the end of our hike we will see the sun rise on Machu Picchu.

At least, that’s the plan. For Pachacuti’s sake, I need that ankle!

30 Hours to Lima by Bus

The third stop of our round the world trip is Peru, the next country south from Ecuador. To get there we decided to forego the speed and luxury of flying and try out a 30 hour bus ride. Jessica was VERY apprehensive about this prospect. Totally understandable, after all, this would be the 20th bus ride of our trip (so far). Some of those 20 bus rides weren’t so bad, but a few of them were downright painful.

We’d heard from several fellow travelers that Cruz del Sur is the bus company to go with. Furthermore, it was recommended that we spend the extra money to upgrade to VIP service. VIP? That’s gotta be for us. The regular bus ticket from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Lima, Peru was about $60. Just $30 more would give us that upgrade we so richly deserved. Compared to the $500 (each) plane ride either price seemed like chump change.

As we entered the bus and walked down the aisle to our seats, I kept an eye on Jessica’s face. Would she hate it? But just then a shaft of light beamed down upon us and a heavenly choir took to song. Jessica slid into her seat, practically a Laz-e-Boy recliner, and smiled. The bus was fabulous! This 30 hour ride wouldn’t be bad at all…and it wasn’t. In a very real way, it forced us to slow down a bit and enjoy being still for a change.

A Little Help From Our New Friends

Sometimes the best part of traveling has little to do with the place you are visiting and everything to do with the people you meet while there. So it was for us in Lima. We want to give the highest of thanks to the Gutierrez-Leon family, our wonderful hosts for our time in Lima. They picked us up from the bus terminal and introduced us to historic Lima during the drive to their home in the eastern suburbs of Lima proper. That was just for starters. They had no idea what they’d signed up for.

We’d arrived to Lima on Saturday. Just as I do upon arriving in any new city, I immediately scouted the area for Ultimate. To my delight, the local Ultimate team held their weekly practices the following day (Sunday)…and not too far from where we were staying. I touched base with (Fred Burke) one of the organizers and he enthusiastically invited me to join. It would be my first time to play Ultimate since beginning our travels, so obviously I was super stoked!

The team welcomed me warmly and practice commenced, led by a American/Canadian named Sean Harkins. We ran through a few good drills and then started playing a game of 5 on 5. The outdoor field was artificial turf and remarkably great to play on. A small chunk of the field was being used by a couple of soccer teams so our field was not full-size, but nearly so.

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I was feeling great, having tons of fun, and playing my usual awesome game when it all went to the crapper in one faulty step. I was defending a deep throw and just about to leap up to make a smokin’ D, when my jump-foot planted on top of the receiver’s causing my foot to roll completely onto its side. I felt the disgusting wrench of tendons and ligaments being stretched beyond their limits. Immediately I knew this was no minor injury. My first thought, “I’m done.” The pain was sharp. I winced and rolled on the ground for a few minutes before getting some help off the field.

The story of my injury is not all bad. Jessica was videoing the play with her camera and caught the whole thing. How great is that?!

There Is A Doctor in the House

Turns out that my extreme misfortune was encased in a whole lot of good fortune. Luz Gutierrez, the mom of our host family, is not just a helluva nice woman, but also a family doctor. After the game, we kept to our standing plan of eating ceviche and drinking Pisco Sours with the family at one of their favorite restaurants. My busted ankle surely felt better once my belly was full of classic Peruvian ceviche and my head vaguely imbued with Peru’s national drink. (The ice applied to my ankle and the ibuprofen I took probably helped, too.)

By the time dinner wrapped up evening was upon us. The family showed us around Peru’s historic district by foot (the main plaza and the president’s residence, etc) and took us for a stroll through one of the downtown parks. It was Sunday night, but it was a street party, too. Throngs of people swirled through the space, stopping to watch street entertainers, or posing for photos. And eating, eating, eating. Every few feet there was a vendor selling everything from rice pudding to cuy (guinea pig) to “picarones” -Lima’s version of the funnel cake.

During our walk I was limping along but mostly able to keep up with everyone else. Though stepping up or down curbs was especially difficult. It was becoming clear that I should probably get my ankle x-rayed.

Midnight in a Strange Place

What I had was probably just a severe sprain, but if there was a break or tear somewhere beneath the swollen skin’s surface, and it went untreated…it could seriously jeopardize so much of our travel plans.

Early in her career, my Peruvian mom worked at a particular medical clinic close to the center of Lima. She knew their service would be relatively good and reasonably fast so it was to this clinic that they took me even though by this time it was about 10:30 pm. So weird to find myself sitting in a wheelchair inside a Peruvian medical clinic on a Sunday night. I’m looking around the place thinking, how the hell did I get here?!

I got x-rayed right away but it took about an hour and a half for me to see a doctor. He was an older gent who didn’t seem phased in the least at finding a bum-footed gringo in his clinic that Sunday just as the clock was calling for midnight. He’d already seen it all, I suppose. Almost reflexively, his recommendation was to throw a cast on it. And not one of those cool, air-pump, walking casts. No, he was old-school all the way. His assistant appeared with a tub of water and rolls of plaster-infused fabric. The doctor gently dipped a roll into the water and then proceeded to wrap my foot and ankle like a grade school art-project. One wet roll of plaster circled on, then a second. In just 5 minutes it was dry and I was encased.

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By the time Ramiro (the dad) and Luz carted Jessica and me back to their home it was close to 1:30 in the morning. They both worked the next day. My goodness, they were doing so much for us hapless gringos; all with splendid good humor and grace.

Cucharas, Nerviosos and Guacamole

One evening after dinner with the Gutierrez-Leon family, Jessica suggested a friendly game of Spoons. You know, the card game where spoons are placed in the middle of the table, one of which will be grabbed by whomever gathers four-of-a-kind first. Once one spoon is taken, it’s a free-for-all grab of all remaining spoons. Since the game is started with one less spoon than the number of players, someone gets the boot each round. We played a couple of games of spoons and laughed and smiled throughout. Jessica (of course) ended up the Spoons champ.

It was then our turn to learn a new card game. Nerviosos, it’s called (best translation: Nervous Ones). It’s a simple game, but a bit challenging to describe. Suffice it to say that you have to be quick, but not so anxious about being quick that you jump-the-gun; that will cost you as much as being the slowest. It’s a fun family game we can’t wait to bring back to the states.

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Our last night with the family, Jessica and I insisted on cooking the family meal. We attempted enchiladas, but fell a bit short regarding the sauce (just not that tasty). We did manage to score a big success with our guacamole. Who knew avocados, onions, tomatoes, lime juice, and salt & pepper could impress so throughly?

For dessert, Jessica made her delicious crustless apple pie and served it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. BAM! Another big hit was scored!

Wrecked Ankle Wrecks Plans

Aside from food and games with the family, not much happened during our days in Lima. I was laid up with my foot elevated and Jessica was pressed into take-care-of-Gary mode. Canceled were the next two major stops on the Peru portion of our journey- Arequipa and Lake Titicaca. Postponed, really. We hope to still make those destinations, but it will now have to come after Machu Picchu, not before.

Among the changes we attempted to make was a postponement of our hike of the Inca Trail. It was coming up in just 10 days. I needed more time to heal before tackling such grueling hike. No can do, we learned… changes were NOT POSSIBLE under any circumstances. Everything about the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is strictly and tightly controlled by the government. When the tour companies say they can’t do anything, it is truly because they can’t.

Ready or not, we had to hike it as scheduled. After 5 days of bumbling around (and breaking stuff) in Lima, we thanked our host family as profusely as possible and then boarded a flight to Cusco– gateway city to Machu Pichu. The doctor prescribed that my cast stay on for a minimum of 20 days. For me to hike, it would have to come off in 9. Hopefully, the 9 day rest would be sufficient for proper healing to take hold.

Cusco, Navel of the World

We love Cusco! It’s a vibrant city with such a happy vibe. Still with the cast on my foot, our ability to get around Cusco was sorely compromised. Though, we did manage a city tour on one of those open-decked buses. That was cool. We also visited the Inca Museum. Interesting, but lacking in many key ways, like only half of the exhibits had placards in both Spanish and English. Some exhibits had neither. Anyway, we were happy to be out and doing as much as we could with me on crutches.

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Jessica stands with Chief Pachacuti, the 9th Incan leader and the one for whom Machu Picchu was built.

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Cusco is really an amazing place. The streets, sidewalks and public plazas are perpetually filled with people and more people. Many are locals, or course, but it’s obvious that thousands are foreigners from all over the world. The name Cusco is derived from the Chechwa word Qosqo, which means navel. So named by the Incas because it was the center of their empire. Prophetic, it seems to me, since Cusco has become such a lively gathering place for people from all parts of the world….collecting themselves in Cusco like lint in a belly button.

A random and colorful parade crossed our path so Jessica snapped a couple of photos.

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Since arriving in Cusco, both Jessica and I have experienced a bit of altitude sickness. Not surprising since we’re hovering at around 12,000 feet. Need air, please! Nothing to worry about and good to go through it and survive before starting our hike of the Inca Trail. Now, let’s just hope my ankle and Jessica’s knee can survive, too.

I am publishing this post on the even of our Inca Trail hike. My cast came off yesterday. Honestly, my ankle didn’t look so hot. And walking on it was more difficult than I expected…especially at first. But the more I walked on it the more flexible and less painful it became. I think I can do it. I will tape it up tight and wear an ankle brace. Jessica will be wearing her knee brace, too.

Wish us both luck, friends. My next post will report if we made it or not. Don’t go away.