Monday, July 8, 2013

Grateful: My Trip to Peru

Another summer has come and with that thoughts turned towards another trip of adventure, learning, and exploration.  This year, I decided to go to Peru to hike the Inca Trail and to spend a final day of exploration at Machu Picchu.  What follows is a synopsis of the highlights of the trip.  It is hoped that anyone who stumbles upon this blog will glean a tip or two that helps them in their own travel plans.  All photo credits in this blog post go to my friend Bud Force, a very talented photographer and filmmaker from Texas!

Overlooking the Saksaywaman ruins near Cusco.  Life is good ... :)
My "brothers" on this trip were Mike Saad (Wisconsin) and Bud.  We chose to use the outfitter SAS Travel Peru as outfitters are required to hike the Inca Trail.  While many outfitters do this sort of trip, we felt the services offered by SAS were more than adequate for our purposes.  In fairness, both the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are heavily commercialized ventures so if you are looking for a Thoreau-esque trip of solitude, then this ain't it. 

Tuesday, June 18th 

I left Pittsburgh in the afternoon for a 2.5 hour flight to Miami.  After a long stint loitering in the airport, I met up with Mike who arrived from Chicago.  We then had about a 6 hour flight to Lima where I actually managed to get some sleep (thank you, Unisom). 

Wednesday, June 19th

Unfortunately, our flight itineraries diverged here.  I was the first to depart for the city of Cusco.  This was a beautiful 1 hour flight over the Andes Mountains, which beats a harrowing 21 hour bus ride. 

Sidebar: Once arrived, I almost fell victim to a scam.  I was exchanging $300 USD for Peruvian money (the Nuevo Sol) at the currency exchange booth at the airport.  As I counted out the six 50 dollar bills, the man behind the window refused to accept one of the bills as his claim was that the bill was not in good condition.  I turned around, got another 50, and handed it to the man.  When he counted the money, surprise ... $250!  How could this be?  I knew very well I had handed him the correct amount.  I counted the money in my wallet and verified I had given the man $300.  Recalling my diverted attention finding another another 50, I then became suspicious, stepped back from the booth, and started looking through the windows onto the shelves and down on the floor.  Busted!  There was a crisp 50 dollar bill in plain sight lying on the floor.  The man looked at me sheepishly, bent over and picked up the bill, and apologized in Spanish.  Later, I would discover Bud went through the exact same scam.  I wonder how many others traveling through the Cusco airport have "donated" money to the local economy?!

Bud had already arrived much earlier in the morning.  I grabbed a taxi and headed to the hostel, the Madre Tierra.  As the city sits at about 11,000 feet, I was noticeably short of breath.  Once at the hostel, I was immediately served mate de coca (coca tea) by the owner, the Peruvian equivalent to coffee and a wonderful elixir to fight off altitude sickness.  Once Bud and I exchanged hugs and pleasantries, we headed out into Cusco on foot.       

Cusco, historic capital of the Inca Empire, is a reasonably large town that receives a heavy influx of tourist traffic, as it is the jumping off point in southeastern Peru for those visiting Machu Picchu.  It is a town of steep, cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, a mix of crumbling buildings, glorious churches, lots and lots of shops, tinged by a Spanish theme.  Street vendors were everywhere peddling their wares.  We grabbed a quick bite for lunch and headed over to the Plaza De Armas to watch the parade celebrating the Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun).  Mike finally arrived later in the afternoon.                                

A contented Festival of the Sun parade observer. 
Thursday, June 20th

After a morning of the best pancakes ever and strong coffee at Jack's Cafe, the three of us shopped around Cusco.  Word to the wise: everything is negotiable.  Do not pay full-price for anything!  Also, everyone in Cusco will sell you what they claim are 100% alpaca goods.  Buyer beware: good don't come cheap and cheap don't come good.  To get the genuine, quality alpaca goods (e.g., sweaters, scarves, etc.), visit a reputable store like Kuna on the Plaza De Armas.

We then hiked to the majestic large statue of Jesus that overlooks Cusco, Cristo Blanco.  This necessitated walking up *many* flights of stairs to get there, maybe for 30 minutes.  Once arrived, we were but a hop, skip, and a jump from the Saksaywaman ruins, amazing in their own right.  It is hard to believe these beautiful ruins are within eyeshot of Cusco.  We wandered around and did some exploring, took pictures, chatted with some of the locals, and soaked up the winter sun.  Great stuff!

Next, we headed back down into Cusco for lunch.  Be aware that standard table fare in this part of the world may include guinea pig and alpaca.  I thought the alpaca was tough and declined to sample the guinea pig (I just couldn't do it!).

The evening ended with all of us meeting at the SAS office to pay off the balance of the trip, to meet the other trekkers and guides in our party, and to go over our trip itinerary.  If you bring US currency into Peru, take care to bring smaller denominations of new, unmarked bills.  Otherwise, as I discovered, local businesses will not accept it.                  

Friday, June 21st

After a bit of a delayed start, our bus, loaded to the gills with guides, trekkers, porters, cooks, equipment, etc., left for a 1 hour drive up the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  We briefly stopped for a light breakfast, and then made our way to a final supply stop at the village of Ollantaytambo.  Here, the guides and porters loaded up with coca leaves (please read this interesting link).

Finally, a bit before noon, we arrived at the Inca Trail trailhead (Piskkucho).  After some paperwork, the team was off.  The weather was sunny, cool, and perfect for hiking.  Back in Morgantown, I had trimmed the weight of my pack down to a little over 20 pounds, so the hike was pretty tame for me.   Today was an easy ascent over 14 kilometers of moderate trail with occasional cobbles and rocks thrown in.  Running parallel to the trail was the Urubamba River flowing towards the Amazon River.  360 views showed the snow-capped Andes Mountains extending as far as the eye could see.  Along the way, the main guide (Freddy Munoz) described certain flowers and even an ancient Inca "storage house".

Lunch was ridiculous -- literally a delicious, multi-course meal served under a camp wall tent by cooks and porters.  I don't eat this well at home and was stuffed.  Not too long after lunch, we crested a rise, looked down the other side of a steep drop-off to see the Llaqtapata ruins.  They were just an amazing sight.

Finally, after about 6 hours since we started hiking, we arrived at our campsite (Wayllabbamba) where the porters had already pitched our tents and were busy prepping dinner.  In no time at all, the temperature dropped considerably and the stars came out in full force.  Freddy pointed out the constellation Scorpius and the Southern Cross, the first time I had ever observed it.

Saturday, June 22nd

At 5:30 am, the porters tapped on our tents and served us coca tea.  Shit was going to get real today and the hike would be a challenging 12 kilometers with lots of steep vertical gain/loss.

I should add upon my comment earlier at the top of this post regarding solitude.  One of the pleasant surprises I had this trip was the people in our trekking party.  In a nutshell, they were wonderful!  They came from all different areas, all different ages, and all different walks of life.  Any fears I had a priori regarding feeling compelled to interact with lots of people and sully my wilderness experience merely required a change of my perspective.  In fact, the people in our trekking party greatly enhanced the experience, in my opinion, and I am grateful that our paths intersected at this point in time.

The day began with a steep climb up through rainforest and became steeper still.  The weather became overcast and the trail gave way to rough stairs ... lots of rough stairs made of rocks and cobbles 1-to-2 feet high.  Onward and upward the trail climbed towards the so-called Dead Woman's Pass (~ 13,800').  About 1,000' below the summit, a steady, cold rain began to fall.  Fortunately, I had donned my rain suit already, yet my uncovered sleeping pad eventually soaked through.  We stopped for a brief lunch on our feet; the conditions were too miserable to permit anything else.

Chugging up Dead Woman's Pass.
Once we got to the top, a journey that took us 5 hours, the sun began to peek out of the clouds and our group reconvened to take in the view of the other side, a valley dropping into the tropical Amazon Basin.

Looking ahead from the top of Dead Woman's Pass.
After a little while, our party began a very steep descent down many, many stairs.  While I did not use hiking poles on this trip, here is where one could benefit from them I suppose, especially if the trail was at all wet.  After about a couple hours, we once again came to our prepared camp.  There was enough of a breeze that I was able to dry out my sleeping pad.  Whereas today was much harder than the first day, many of us did not stay up for too long after dinner before jumping into our sleeping bags for the evening.

Sunday, June 23rd

This third day of our hike could be described as an "unforgettable" 16 kilometer trek.  After an early morning wakeup call with some coca tea, we left camp for a brisk ascent up to the Runkurakay ruins.  After Freddy's excellent history narrative, we ascended a second major pass (but not nearly as bad as Dead Woman's the day before).  We then descended through a high-altitude jungle of trees and flowers I couldn't identify, bamboo, orchids, and cycads and eventually came to a two-tiered set of ruins very close to one another -- Sayacmarka (top), and Qonchamarka (bottom).  Here we stopped to listen to Freddy again and got a chance to wander around the ruins.      

The weather was mostly sunny and in the 60's as we headed into camp for another big lunch.  The group was treated to a first-class demonstration of the Texas two-step by Bud and some willing participants from our group.  This generated much amusement among the guides and porters!

After lunch, our group set off on what I felt was the nicest part of the hike, a "ridge ramble", if you will, that was flat enough (by Peruvian standards) that it didn't require lasar-beam focus to prevent tripping over a rock or falling down a segment of stairs.  Looking off into the distance, you could see mountains stretching forever, waterfalls with massive drops,  and a carpet of lush, green vegetation.  There were even a few segments where the trail dipped into a tunnel.

Eventually, we came to a place where other outfitters had established a camp.  From this high vantage point, one could look directly down on the Phuyupatamarka ruins.  In the background were the ancient convex terraces of Intipata and further behind, Machu Picchu Mountain was now clearly visible!  At last!  After walking down to Phuyupatamarka and listening to Freddy talk about it, there was a massive, unrelenting descent that seemed to drag on forever.

As dusk approached, after about 6 hours of actual hiking, we arrived at our campsite for the night.  Quickly, we dropped our packs and briefly walked to see the (concave) terraces of Winaywayna.  It was fitting, quiet end to a great day of trekking through the Andes.  Winaywayna is Quechua (language of the Incas) for "forever young".  Tonight, this is how I felt in my heart...

The highlight of this day, however, was an impromptu birthday cake made for one of the members of our group, Valerie Lokar.  When one of the guides tried to deliver a birthday cake "face plant", evasive Val was able to swiftly flip the cake up into the face of another guide.  Of course, rumor has it that all this was caught on film ... somewhere :)

Monday, June 24th

Ugh!  At 3:30 am, we were instructed to arise and get ready to march in 30 minutes.  After breakfast, we staged for an hour at a trail checkpoint to await clearance by the park officials.  We than hiked through the pre-dawn gloom for a short while and arrived at the infamous flight of very steep stairs known as "The Gringo Killer" just as the sun was coming up.  At the top of the stairs was the Gate of the Sun (Intipunko) and it was here where my breath was truly taken away.  Directly below, about 1/2 a mile away, was the grandeur of the ruins of Machu Picchu, flanked by the conical Huayna Picchu.  This rare moment exceeded anything I could have ever expected; I was almost moved to tears.  I will never forget Bud and I silently sitting there waiting for a bit more light for him to take some pictures.

Our group then descended down towards the ruins them self, pausing for a picture.            

The crazy cast of characters!
Most people are surprised to learn that Machu Picchu was not "discovered" until 1911 by Hiram Bingham (the Spanish never found it).  You want to talk about a colorful life well-lived?  Read "The Lost City of the Incas".  Another great resource is the video PBS Nova's "Ghosts of Machu Picchu".  Once we got to the ruins, Freddy gave us a wonderful guided tour of about two hours.  The 15th century engineering was remarkable -- huge polished boulders were so precisely put into place.  There was an elaborately engineered water system we saw up-close.  Carefully designed experimental terrace gardens had been constructed, upon which llamas casually grazed.  We also saw a sacrificial temple, the so-called sundial, gardens and courtyards, and wandered around rooms and the guardhouse.  It all went by so quick until the influx of tourists arriving in buses via the road that leads to Machu Picchu became too much to tolerate, an abrupt reminder that humanity is never too far away even if one had backpacked 4 days on rough trail through the Andes to get here.                    

We took a bus back down to the small town of Aguas Calientes for showers, rest and decompression at a modest hotel.  Several in the group decided to soak in the local hot springs.  Later that evening, many of us headed out to celebrate, dance, and relive the experience over a strong pisco sour.  A pisco sour is a traditional South American cocktail made from a potent local grape brandy.  While I rarely drink, I did try one and thought it was pretty good, the perfect way to end our South American adventure.        

Tuesday, June 25th

At dawn the next day, I snuck in a quick run before the town woke up.  Later in the morning, many of us were then treated to a short, peaceful train ride through the mountains back to Ollantaytambo.  Personally, I found this to be a great way to see Peru and really enjoyed it.  Highly suggested!  Once arrived, we had to commandeer a "taxi" for another short jaunt back to Cusco.  From here on out, the rest of the day was consumed by eating, shopping, and packing.  Bud, Mike, and I were all tired and ready to head home for an all-day travel-a-thon the next day.


I am grateful ...

Some people do not like to travel.  Other people's definition of travel is to hunker down at a resort or to lay out on a crammed beach.  That is not me ...  When I travel, I want to learn, I want to be a participant and not a spectator, I want to "live" the culture.  I don't want to sit around with my face glued to a smartphone and I don't want to relax.  Life is too short to waste ... I can relax when I'm dead.  

I am grateful to have the time, money, and health to do this.  I am grateful to have some wonderful friends, Bud and Mike, who were willing to share this experience with me and grow our friendship trust accounts.  I am grateful for those who actively trekked with me, the participants, the guides, the porters, everyone, and my friends back home who trekked with me in my heart.  I am grateful for never letting go of dreams, listening to my dreams, and the hope that comes with the dawn.  I am grateful for the Inca culture to have the capability and forward vision to build something so mind boggling so that an ordinary guy like myself could enjoy it 600 years later.

Where joy is, gratitude follows.  I am grateful ...


  1. What a marvelous adventure.

    1. Thank you, Maurice. You can obviously relate as you have been there too!

  2. Sounds like you had a great time Phil!! Glad that you were able to take time to go out explore, and appreciate the world around! Machu Picchu is definitely on my bucket list!

    1. Emily, what with your spirit I have no doubt that you will get down there one day :)

  3. Reading this I felt like I was sitting across from you at Black Bear mesmerized by your story-telling. Thank you for bringing us along on your adventure.

    1. Ha! Thank you, Maria. I was just at Black Bear the other night ... except unfortunately you and Tad weren't sitting across from me trading war stories :-(