I believe we left off the night before we headed out to the Inca Trail to begin our trek. I´ll pick up from there. Well, what with the packing and the stuffing of non-essentials into bags to be stored at our hostel I didn´t get to sleep until 11ish which was a little late considering that I´d gotten about 6 hours of sleep in the past 48 hours and we´d be waking up at 5ish. Still, I woke up, showered (gotta be clean to get dirty), ate a lovely breakfast with the traditional coca tea and out we headed.
Now for a quick (well, I can´t promise anything) comment on coca. Coca is what most Americans recognize only as the plant from which cocaine is derived. This is true. Cocaine is derived from coca. However, as a popular Latin American slogan says "Coca no es la Cocaina" or, rather, coca is not cocaine any more than poppy seeds are opium or heroin. Coca leaves have medicinal properties and have been used by locals for hundreds and hundreds of years for those properties and not as a narcotic. They help with altitude sickness, give you energy, make your mouth a little numb if you chew the actual leaves and make delicious tea. And candy. On this trip through Peru, I´ve had many litres of coca tea, some coca candy and have even chewed the leaves along with the traditional ash (uck) to enhance the plant´s properties and I can safely say I have not done drugs. Coca, all in all, is pretty awesome and I can see it being really popular in the states as a kind of tea or energy supplement...were it not illegal. There´s the crux. The U.S. crop dusts coca plantations in Colombia so that drug cartels don´t refine it into cocaine, but the people farming the coca are poor peasants, not drug dealers, and they´re growing a crop that´s been grown for centuries. The drug cartels pay the highest price and so the farmers sell them their coca. Who can blame them? Here in Peru, coca is perfectly legal. The Incas even farmed it. But if you´re caught with even the tiniest bit of cocaine, it´s twenty-five years in prison for you. Fine. We can grow poppies in the U.S. and we can´t make them into heroin. Why doesn´t that work with coca? A lot of innocuous or even useful substances can be made into something harmful -- we aren´t allowed to bring more than 3 ounces of liquid on airplanes because you can find out how to make almost anything into a bomb on the interent-- but we don´t demonize the innocuous stuff. No one is outlawing soap. But they are outlawing coca. The idea of a war on drugs in general is a little stupid. We shouldn´t be fighting the drugs. They´re bad, but the problem is the violence that goes with them and the best way to get at the problem is to fix the broken economies in which being a drug mule is a good career option. Crop dusting some coca plants isn´t hurting anyone but the poor farmers who chose to plant coca over potatoes because it sells for a higher price at market. That´s the general idea of what I think, at least. Í´ve been thinking about it a little over the past few days. I was surprised, when I first was served coca tea because I´d always thought that coca was bad, bad and only bad. Live and learn.
Anyway...now back to our feature presentation:
We took a 1.5 hour bust ride from Cusco (which I´d always thought was spelled with a z...) to Ollantaytambo for a quick shopping stop. I bought two bags of coca candies, a bag of coca leaves, some M&M´s and a walking stick at the guide´s recommendation (all of that...not just the walking stick) and was glad to have all of it along the way (although actually I still have 98% of the coca products...we had tea in the morning and with every meal so I was coca-ed out). We hopped back on the bus to our point of departure, Piskacucho -- 2600 meters (mind you, not feet...that´s 8,530 feet above sea level). Day one was the "easy day." We walked 11km to Wayllabamba("Why-ya-bamba") -- 3,000 meters or 9,842 feet. Sadly, for me it was not easy. I was very, very tired and a little behind. I conked out the second we got to camp, woke up for 5:30 "chocolate time" (hot cocoa, tea or coffee and some crackers or popcorn) and then slept right through dinner. The next day, day two, was the day of death. There were no Inca sites to visit, just miles and miles of up, up, up. At about 7:30am we set out from Wayllabamba (3,000 meters, remember) and walked up to Warmi Wañusca, or "Dead Woman´s Pass," named, supposedly, because it resembles a dead or reclining woman, but really, I´m not so sure. It didn´t look that much like a woman to me...Dead Woman´s Pass is 4215 meters or 13,828 feet above sea level and is only about 6km from Wayllabamba. For those of you who don´t like math, that´s a climb of about 4,000 feet (at altitude) over 3ish miles. Then there ware some steep stairs down to our camp for the night at Pacaymayo (a mere 3,600 meters or 11,811 feet). I was BEAT. I arrived at camp at 4:30 and had missed the late lunch that the other, faster, people had eaten. That´s NINE hours of hiking with no food. Sandy was amazing and hung out with me the whole laborious time...and she was starving. A porter did meet us on the trail with about 30 minutes to go til camp with ham and cheese sandwhiches which had been the snack for the day but which we had both passed up since we either don´t like or don´t eat ham. I didn´t think I was that hungry, but since he brought them I figured I should eat it. Let me just say, that may have been the best sandwhich I have ever or will ever eat in my entire life. I´m sorry Subway, I just don´t think you can beat it. When we finally got to camp on day 2 I was pretty tired, but very, very happy to be done with the dreaded second section. I survived...and I had been dubious as to my odds.
A word now about the porters. They are beasts. (I mean that as a complement for those of you who aren´t up on today´s teen slang...which I don´t really use anyway, actually, but there you are). They are all from poor families, as far as I can tell, and get paid 40 soles a day, which works out to about 13 dollars. Their food is included while they´re portering, but still, not a high-paying career choice. I think, though, that it´s pretty decent as far as their other options are concerned. Still, it is no easy feat. Our guide Ruben and our assistant guide Edwin (who are absolutely amazing by the way and if you ever hike the Inca trail you should go with the company we went with -- Qénte -- because it´s locally owned, less expensive, awesome, and has Ruben and Edwin whom you should ask for), said that a porter will trek 5 to 6 times A MONTH. That´s pretty much every day! And, if you haven´t been following closely, it´s not an easy trek. Particularly if it´s your job to carry 20 or 30 kilos (we aren´t clear on the current law, but either way it´s much better than it was even ten years ago) and to run up and down the hills so that you beat your trek group to lunch or camp sites with time to set up tents. While hiking, it´s etiquette to get out of a porter´s way (which is often a welcom 2 or 3 second break) and on the last night of the trek we gave tips. There were, however, 27 porters for our group (because they have to carry our group gear, food, and their things) so it didn´t work out to any spectacular amount. A bunch of us chipped in with whatever soles we had left with us. On a side porter-related note, the cook and assistant cooks were awesome. Everything tastes better hiking, sure, but this was pretty gourmet. We had a big tent with a long table in it and we´d pass around bowls of soup and then plastic casserole dishes from which we served ourselves. I was expecting camp stoves. On the last night, they even made us a cake! At altitude! It tasted sort of like a giant pancake, but it´s the thought that counts and it said "Well Done Chicos" so I like the thought quite a bit :-)
Day three was more tough uphill at the beginning to get over a second pass called Rankurakay (3,900 meters or 12,795 feet), but only for an hour or hour and a half. Then it was down, flat or some rolling hills (still not easy once you´re that tired, but so, SO much better than infinite up). And there were some ruins to entertain us along the way -- that is to say nothing of the scenery which, after descending from Dead Woman´s Pass, began to change from Andean brush to Amazonian greenery. Both, however, were beautiful (although right at the bottom at the beginning of day one it looked eerily like driving out of L.A. north on the 5...). I have a TON of photos, believe me, but I´m not sure when I´ll get them posted. I´m still in Aguas Calientes at the bottom of Machu Picchu waiting for the train...we won´t be back at the hostel until late and then we´re heading out early for our 3 day plane fest to China. I´m excited to have some chill time to read and sleep, but a little sad that all my gross comfy clothes from Machu Picchu will remain gross and unwearable until we arrive at our destination on the other side of the world. Anyway, that´s why the photos may not be forthcoming.
Today was day four. We woke up at 3:50am (after a bad night´s sleep for me, sadly...after feeling GOOD after the hike on day three -- good enough not to nap before bedtime and to make all meals -- my frustrating and constant runny nose from day two morphed into a full on cold with the sneezing and the dry coughs, or what I like to call "Machu Picch-flu"...I´d rationed my role of toilet paper carefully along the trek, blowing many snot rockets (don´t ask, don´t tell) along the trail instead of using the tp to blow my nose, but the night of day three my tent mate also had runny nose issues and I gave her the remainder of my roll in the hopes that she´d quiet down her snore/moaning...she used up the roll but didn´t really quiet down...ah well)...Anyway, we woke up mega early, had tea for breakfast and headed of to Intipata to watch the sun rise which was awesome. Then there were another 6km of flat, down and rolling hills to get to Intipunku -- the Sun Gate -- and then from there down to Machu Picchu. I suppose it wasn´t too terribly difficult objectively speaking, but I was beat and found it difficult indeed. Still, I made it to Machu Picchu -- I´m not sure exactly what time but I know I was there by 8am. I got my passport and my journal stamped with the Machu Picchu emblem at the checkpoint and headed in...again...because we´d had to head out first to get to the checkpoint where they make you leave your pack and walking stick. We toured around with our guides for another 2 and a half hours, learning some interesting facts and seeing the sights (and moaning every time we got up from a seated position or tried to go down stairs), then it was free time for an hour or so. Four of us (the crazies: Liz, John, Zack and Katie R.) opted to climb on to Waynapicchu ("Little Mountain" as opposed to Machu Picchu which means "Big Mountain"), the rest of us chilled out or wrote in journals and then headed down on the bus into Aguas Calientes for lunch.
Ah, lunch. It was a buffet. We were NOT the people that buffet wanted walking in the door. We were RAVENOUS and it was delicious. Much food was eaten and there was much rejoicing. And the bathrooms were BEAUTIFUL. There was soap and toilets and toilet paper and flowers in a bowl of water and potpourri. After lunch, I tried to wipe up a bit and changed into comfy clothes. When it was time to head out and say goodbye to Edwin and Ruben I nearly cried. Honestly. They were just so nice to me. And Edwin particularly was such an interesting guy. He´d be talking to Robin near me for about a hour on day three and wow...he came from a poor family, taught himself English (and still is), picked a career he thought would be lucrative enough but chose not to go into the drug trade and had a lot to say about the importance of education and the importance of self-advancement. And he was so sweet, too. I was too tired to be embarrassed about my lack of hiking speed, but even if I weren´t I might have avoided the sentiment, they were so encouraging. I have both of their emails and I´ll be sending them photos. The thought makes me happy. :-D
Anyway, I really wanted to buy a shirt that said "I Survived The Inca Trail." Normally, I´m not much for those touristy shirts, but this one I felt I deserved. But I hadn´t brought much money and had only 2 soles left (and it´s about 3 soles to the dollar). Then, magic happened. I found dollar bills in my pocket that I didn´t know I had!!! And Aguas Calientes is SUPER touristy so I thought they might take them...AND...THEY DID!!! I could have even gotten change in dollars but I got soles to pay for the internet cafe which you should all appreciate. So I am now the proud owner of an odd green colored shirt with a map of the Inca Trail (including altitudes if you look closely), a coca leaf that says "La Hoja Coca No Es Una Droga" and the happy phrase "I Survided The Inca Trail." Hooray!
Anyway, you´re pretty much current with me now. I love getting all your emails and wish you all well on the various trips everyone seems to be going on. And if you´re not going for a trip, I wish you well on your staycation or just work as the case may be.
I´m off to Cusco and from there to Lima to San Salvador to L.A. to Beijing to Kunming.
Keep keeping me posted!
Love, your still alive,