Peruvians aren't the tallest people in the world. Not that I can really judge, because even on my best days standing as tall as I can, I barely top the 5´ mark, but that puts me eye-level here. Normally that's a huge improvement, but then there were all those signs, and balloons and tall hats everywhere. I needed an advantage or finding him in this crowd would be a lost cause. Then I saw my opening, a window I could climb up into.
I perched up in that window for over an hour before I saw him walk through the gates. He was, in all honesty, pretty easy to spot, towering over the locals by an easy 6,8, 10". But that wasn't what gave him away, there it was, my smile signed and sealed with the one lone dimple. He saw me too and I motioned to him which door to go out of to meet me. There, 6 months, all gone with one strong embrace, a kiss that I hadn't tasted since Sky Harbor in Phoenix, and the familiar thump of his heart beat with my face buried in his chest. Amazingly, within that single moment, it felt like we had never been apart. It just felt right, familiar, safe...like home. We wouldn't have too long to stand there like that there was a crowd of people trying to get by and a very patient driver waiting to take us to our hotel. We'd be back to the airport first thing in the morning...for a flight to Cuzco.
We didn't waste a minute getting right into the swing of this traveling thing. Morning came fast and we were back at the airport, but this time we would be going somewhere together. That was a very welcome change. It was so nice to have someone to talk to, to share a meal with, to have a hand to hold. I could get used to this. Cuzco, this is familiar, kind of like I've been here before. Oh, that's right, I have. I really must love this kid.
|chewing on coca leaves
|the little hill to the hotel
I'll be honest, he wasn't what I was expecting. He was short, no real suprise there, we were in Peru after all. But he was kind of pudgy and that is something you just don't think you'll see in a mountain guide. Their job is to walk pretty good distances, pretty much every day. Maybe this hike won't be so tough.
You would also think that at this point I would have learned to stop making such superficial snap judgements about people.
His English was also not quite what I was expecting. Up until this point all of our communication in email had been in Spanish, so this poor guy had been subject to my written Spanish for 2 months. For some reason, I just assumed that his English would be better than my Spanish, not so much for me, but for Justin. I was wrong. He had an interesting rhythm when he spoke and had picked up some odd phrases from somewhere along the way that he liked to throw around. But I think his favorites were, "Okay, my friends," "for the first of all," and "macho man."
During our meeting we paid the remainder of the balance and were given a rundown of what to expect. At that time he said our group could be just the 2 or us or as many as 12. He was waiting on some people to make their final confimations. Turns out, you CAN still just show up. He saw the look of unhappiness on my face at the mention of 12 people in a tour. Up until this point I had been re-assured that no matter what our group would never be bigger than 8 people. I am no math whiz, but 12 is definitely more than 8. But at that point there really wasn't much I could do about it. So I just hoped for the best. As for the itinerary of the hike it would break down like this:
Day 1: They would pick us up at our hotel at 5AM and a van would take our group 2.5hours to where we would begin the trail. Breakfast would be served at a restaurant before we started the trek and lunch would be provided along the hike. All said and done we would be expected to hike about 7 hours and cover about 13miles. Camp that night would be at the base of 2 snowcapped mountains (read: cold) at an altitude of 3850meters.
Day 2: Get up early and climb for about 5 hours to the highest point of the hike, 4650meters before we start the gradual descent of 4 hours to camp at 3300meteres.
Day 3: Keep on descending and watch as the weather and vegetation changes to a cloud forest. At then end of the hike that day a transfer will be waiting to take us to Santa Theresa. We would camp there, at 1750meters and have the chance to go to thermal baths if we wanted.
Day 4: Pretty much a flat walk of 8 hours through more tropical vegetation into the park reserves and along the railroad tracks until we reach the town of Aguas Calientes. Sleep in a hotel.
Day 5: Machu Picchu (either by bus or stairs)! with a 2 hour guided tour and the option to hike WaynaPicchu. At the end of the day there was a train then bus ride back to Cuzco.
We were excited for the hike. Everything sounded great. We were told to look for duffle bags with our trekking poles and sleeping bags at the hotel the following day. We were supposed to load up the bags with all the critical things that we would need and leave the rest behind at the hotel. Oh, and to be ready at 5 am for the van. Until then we had nearly 2 days to enjoy Cuzco. We shook hands and took the streets. 5 am. See you in 2 days at 5 am.
In those 2 days I discovered that Justin had a strange fettish, albeit addicion, for peruvian blankets. He couldn't stop looking at them, talking about them, thinking about them...he had to have them. He also likes to make friends with little kids trying to sell him hats. We all have our odditites. Along with his love of supermarkets, snowcones and soccer jerseys, I guess I shouldn't be shocked by this new obsession with blankets. I think we might just learn a whole lot about one another in this next month. That happens when you travel or camp and we will be doing both. All of a sudden I'm getting nervous. What if this whole thing doesn't go well at all. People can get crazy when they are cold, wet, hungry, dirty, tired, etc. I know. I get crazy. What if he does too? What if, at the end of this thing, we kind of hate each other? I guess we are going to find out.
I was so tired. I never get much sleep the night before I know I have to get up early for something. I was hoping for a comfortable seat in the van so I could try to snooze. But since the van was packed so tightly Justin and I got the last 2 seats, up in the very front, with me riding in the middle with a metal bar in my back. Super. Our friend Wilson, at this point, is already getting in trouble with me.
Well at least the ride will be nice. The scenery should be interesting. The driver seems friendly, and at least I could chat with him a bit. I was trying to convince myself not be too upset. Maybe all these people are just sharing the transfer and then we will split up with different guides and groups? Maybe the rain will clear up and then I can see the scenery? Maybe this metal bar digging into my spine has unforseen health benefits? Maybe I am just cranky right now because I'm sleepy. That has to be it, because I was coldly judging the converstation that was going on behind me. Some girls just talking on and on and on about all the bad things that have happened to them on their trip so far, almost like it was bagging rights. I could tell by the accent...Americans. They probably had it coming. (I realize this was not nice, but that was the state I was in.) And then the fun really began. We got a sicky on board, let the vomiting begin. Really...just, super.
The ride took a bit longer than expected. What with all the pulling over to let someone out and all. I felt bad for the girl. All of a sudden that metal bar in my back and the lack of sleep seemed small in comparison. At least I wasn't yacking all along the highway.
We did eventually make it to our destination and had some breakfast. The weather had turned and it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. The sun came out, the mountains were all beautiful green, I'd had breakfast...things were, really, looking up. There were 2 more people at the restaurant who would be joining our group. This now had roll call up to 15 people. It was at this point that Wilson asked us all to get together so he could explain some things. The gist of it was that because our group was so big there would be 2 guides and we would be split into 2 groups. We would all eat together and camp together since the porters and guides worked as a team. So at that point they separated us. Justin and I were in a group with 2 dutch guys, 3 canadian guys, and 2 argentinian girls. The other group was 3 canadians, a swedish girl(the one that got sick), a british girl, and 2 american girls. The other group took off with the other guide, Ivan, and we were left with Wilson. We had a little get to know eachother session. Where everyone had to circle up and say their name, where they are from and what they do. Kind of like the first day of school. I was suprised by the diversity of our group, we really did have people from all different professions. But I didn't want to stand around talking, I wanted to get started on the hike.
My eagerness would eventually be put in check. At that point I hadn't actually done any walking yet, so it was easy to be eager. It didn't take long before I noticed that this was harder than it should be. We were keeping a pretty steady pace, but the climbing took it out of me pretty quick. I would recover alright, but then within a few minutes again I realized I was working hard. And I wasn't even carrying a pack. I just had a little daypack with water, layers and a camera. I mean, I know it's been a while since I had done any hiking, but it really should not be this hard. It was ok, the breaks were welcome opportunities to take in the view.
Before too long it was lunch time. The other group was already there along with the porters and cooks. We all gathered around the makeshift table and waited for lunch. It was a very typical Peruvian lunch, soup followed by main (rice+something else). Our drinks were warm because they had boiled to water to purify it and then put in mystery flavoring. Which, in retrospect, may explain the unfortunate liquid poop that followed me along the duration of the trek.
After lunch the 2 group thing pretty much came to a stop. We had one guide, Ivan leading the group, and the other, Wilson, taking up the tail, and all of us just spaced out in the middle. It was a big spread too. Jeannie, one of the American girls and 2 Canadian brothers generally would lead off the group and the 2 Argentinian girls took solid command of the end. Once I got over the innitial disappoinment of having such a large group, I actually found it to be pretty nice. With everyone hiking at their own pace, Justin and I pretty much felt like we were alone, except we didn't have to carry anything and camp and food would just be ready.
And it turns out, we really did have a pretty great group. As the days went on we got to know each other, and everyone was really cool. I was forced to aknowledge that yet again, my snap judgements were unfair. Everyone was friendly, had interesting stories and was quick to share a joke or laugh....and at times, it was really great to have that much support.
That first day felt like the longest, mostly because it started so early. But after lunch when Justin and I were free to hike at our own pace we had a lot of time to just catch up and talk. It didn't feel like it, with him there at that moment, but we had been apart for 6 months and there was a lot of catching up to do. I guess more on my end then on his. Most of my stories he knew about because there were up here on the blog, but he had been busy doing things too. It was just nice to finally get that chance to really hear what he had been up to, what he had been thinking about, and what he was hoping for our future together. Our future together, yeah, that sounds nice. It's not just what I'm doing here and what he's doing there, but that, still at the end of this, we both want there to be a what-we-do-who-knows-where-together.
The description that Wilson gave us turned out to be pretty accurate. We did climb all day the first day and camped at the base of this beauty. I was ready to get there. There was a small, but constant throb in my head, and I really was looking forward to laying down. Camp was a bit different. They pitched all the tents inside a big tent. They said it was because it got really cold there. I thought it was a bit odd, but didn't complain. Outside of the master tent the ground was just a mess with mud everywhere. At least this way we only had to deal with it when you had to find the outhouse. They served dinner that night, but I could hardly choke down any food. I just didn't have an appetite and I think my body was having a challenge equalizing; I just felt bloated and gross. I wasn't the only one. I noticed that most of the group just pushed the food around on their plates. Food was the last thing on my mind, all I wanted was to go to sleep.
I crawled into the tent. Justin had already started to set things up in there by laying out the sleeping pads. If you even want to call them sleeping pads. We were promised top quality gear for the trek, so I left all my stuff at the hotel in Cuzco. Granted I would have used the tent that they brought, because mine is a tiny one man, but if I had known the crap they were giving us for pads and bags I definitely would have brought my own. Besides, at this point, I had bonded with my sleeping pad and bag. Sleeping with these others just felt all wrong. I assumed that I was just dog tired enough that it wouldn't matter how crappy the gear was.
I was wrong. It did matter. I slept for maybe an hour that night. I was cold, clammy, and could feel EVERYTHING on the ground below me. That and with so many tents right next to one another, you could hear everything that was going on around you. If someone turned, unzipped anything, talked, snored...you heard it all. I don't think Justin slept much either.
I was actually glad when they woke us up at 4 am. Well, woke those up that had been sleeping. We must just well get on with it, I can't sleep anyway. We packed up everything but the tents and all gathered around the table for breakfast. I knew I should eat something, but I still wasn't hungry. That's weird. I am always hungry.
Today was a big day. We would be climbing to the highest point of the trek. The estimated trekking time to the pass was 4 hours. We had the option of paying for a horse to take us up if you didn't feel strong enough. I am not going to lie, I seriously considered it. I felt pretty crappy. Not sick or anything, just really weak. I hadn't slept in 2 days, hadn't really eaten either...and had hiked for 7 hours the day before, that and it really was hard to breathe.
But then I knew if I did get a horse I would never forgive myself. I wanted to do this. Besides, the uncomfortable, miserable, painful part is what makes that view all worthwhile. I can't cheat myself and get a horse. Besides if all these other people can do it and if my pudgy mountain guide does it, I can totally do it too.
When we were all done with breakfast we were free to start hiking. Justin and I began, being sure to set a pace we could sustain. The view was increadible, with Salkantay looming right there in front of us. The further we climbed the more majestic it looked. The valley we had camped at was shrinking behind us, and eventually both the peak of the mountain and the valley below us were hidden in clouds. The view would come and go as the wind, clouds and sun shifted. We had a lot of time to take it in...stoping every few minutes to catch our breath.
|Salkantay in front
|the valley below
We kept plodding along. By the time we were reaching the pass it would be forward progress of 1 minute to 1 minute of rest. But we were getting there. We won't be the first, but we did it on our own two legs, and we did it. That really is the part that matters. Our celebration at the highest point was short-lived. The weather had turned and it was raining up there. It was cold and cloudy, but we were there, and THAT was worth something. Breathless, dizzy, cold and wet we made it: Salkantay pass. From there it was smooth sailing, easy by comparison, all downhill.
|Please note the elevation
All of a sudden breathing felt easy again. Oh yeah, suck in that air. We had been working so hard for 4 hours. Working to move our legs that felt like lead, working to take a breath, working to turn a grimmace into a smile, working to remember why we wanted to do this in the first place, working to find the joy in those nauseous moments. At least we had eachother, a kind word of encouragement, a hand placed reassuringly on a shoulder, a promise that it will all be worthwhile, it will all be ok....it IS all ok, and, hey - I love you.
So now it gets easier. We have been through the hardest part and it gets easier. If only the rain would let up. Within a few minutes we had a rhythm, with our trekking poles clicking along side us. Soon it was lunch...soon it was camp. But yes, it was still raining.
There was not master tent tonight. At least we would be sleeping on grass. That should be softer than the ground from last night. I was optimistic for a good nights rest. Only problem was it was wet out and it soaked right through the tent and the pads. We got off ok comparatively - other tents were completely flooded. I still didn't sleep. We're on to 3 days now, but at least I am eating again.
The next day picked up where the previous one left off, more easy downhill. By now the group had really started to mesh, and it made the time go by quickly. The scenery had also changed significantly, it had gotten warmer, the greenery more dense and the air heavy with oxygen and moisture. We could see evidence of landslides everywhere. Sometimes they blocked our path and we had to cautiously climb over the pile of loose dirt the spilled over the path and down the cliff along side. We got to cross rivers. These were much nicer than the rivers I faced in the south, pleasantly warm by comparison and much shallower. We stopped along the way to purchase snacks. This was the mark of a true businessman, a little stand set up along the side of the trail selling bananas to hikers...when we could see he pulled the bananas right off the tree next to the stand. We joked it wasn't even his tree. 100% profit, that's the way to do business.
|Justin enjoying some real fresh bananas
Well, it would help until the rain started again. Which it did, it IS still rainy season here.
After a few hours of sitting around we were starting to get nervous about this transfer. We had seen 2 other groups show up after us and get picked up already. This didn't look good. Wilson, miraculously, was nowhere to be found. Actually, throughout most of the trek so far he really hadn't been around much at all. We had spent more time talking with and eating with Ivan than with our official guide. He was definately not earning himself a good tip. A van did show up, but it wasn't big enough to take us all. We were a group of 15 people not the typical 8 so we had to split up. They took as much of the gear as they could so at least they could start to set up the next camp and as many people as they could fit. Justin and I were lucky, we claimed seats and were off the Santa Theresa.
There wasn't much to the town and the campsite really left much to be desired. The tents were soaked. The sleeping pads stank. The ground was soft with mud. By now I had taken the opportunity to express my disatisfaction with Wilson when he finally did come around. My biggest complaints were about the gear. Actually, that was really all, but that was key. The size of the group really didn't bother me in the end. I think it was just because everyone got along well and we were all (with the exception of the 2 girls from Argentina) at about the same physical level and kept a strong pace. But the quality of the gear was really unacceptable. By now, Justin and I had heard what the rest of the group had paid for the tour...half of what we paid. Half. NOT COOL.
We paid double for what exactly? We paid double for the security of getting a tour? For one breakfast? For a pair of trekking poles? For shitty gear and flooded tents? For a guide that wasn't around and spoke broken English at best? We paid double for late transfers and bad seats? I was not happy about this and thought that he should know. I had trusted him and felt we had developed a relationship through the 2 months of planning, but now I was pissed. You don't want me pissed, and tired and hungry. But that was what our dear friend Wilson got.
I think he just needed a little shaking. That night we had a room to sleep in. That night we had our transfer and entrance to the thermal baths covered. That night I got an apology. That night I almost forgave it. I still wasn't pleased, but at least I wasn't fuming. That's progress I suppose.
The ride over and back to the thermal baths was bit of an adventure in it's own right. We had waaay to many people in the van and the road snaked dangerously close to the rushing river. To top it all off, it was dark with no street lamps to throw some light on the winding, bumpy dirt road. We take a turn to fast this van is going into the river...and we all die. Those thermal baths better be worth it. But of course they were.I figured it would be hard to impress me with thermal baths as I has been to a few other on this trip, but these really did take the cake. It may have been because we had been hiking for 3 days and they were the closest thing to a shower I'd had...or maybe it was the way they looked carved right out of the cliff. Either way, a couple of hours of soaking in thermal baths will put anyone in a better mood. It was a beautiful set up and we were basically the only group there. There was a series of pools that got warmer the further you moved away from the river. But the river was nice to have. When I got to hot I would just scamper on over to the river and go for a quick plunge. It was cold, but the clay-like banks were warm on my feet and the contrast felt really nice. Justin couldn't believe it when he saw it. I, of all people, was willing to submerge myself in cold water. He stepped in about knee high and said to hell with it and went back to the warm pools. I stayed a bit longer with the water up to my chin and my toes buried in the warm clay. I'm in a thermal bath on my way to Machu Picchu. Huh, that's a little surreal.
The next day was our last actual day of the hike. By the end of it we would be in the town of Aguas Calientes with the option of hiking to Machu Picchu or taking the bus. Today was scheduled to be pretty easy - a mostly flat walk and then some walking along the railroad track.
|Ha! Dangerous? I live for dangerous.
Please God, make sure he is ok. Was there a river there? Was there not a river? How far was it? Did he hit his head? Did he break a leg? Where the hell is our guide now?! Our friends Mischa and Frank also saw him fall and took off running toward him at the same time I did. Mischa got to the bridge before I did and I saw him jump down off the edge to whatever was below. Please God, I hope they are ok. Please, make this be one of those dry river beds...please.
I got there a second later and saw Justin standing (good sign) with his feet in the little bit of water that chose to make this a tributary to the monster flowing just 15 feet away, with Mischa standing by supporting him. I jumped down too to get the pack off him and help guide him to the edge where he could climb back out. We passed the pack to Frank who took it, and very cafefully across the tracks to the other side. Once we got Justin out of the ditch and sat him down it was time to see how he was doing. Nothing broken, thank goodness, and he managed not to hit his had in the spectacular fall between the sleepers - but he was pretty shaken. His knee took a pretty good knock and he has some scrapes up his leg. But really, all things considered, he looked alright. He was pale and a little bloody, but still able to walk. Mischa and Frank waited until he said he was sure he was ok before they kept going up the path. I could see, however that they never got too far ahead and kept looking back to check on us. It was best to just keep him moving, not to give him enough time to sit and get stiff...not give him enough time to think about what just happened. We still had a lot of train tracks to walk, I was just praying we didn't have a lot more rivers to cross.
Needless to say, I was a bit more careful from there on out. Realizing in retrospect how reckless I had really been bounding along the tracks like I had. At least tonight we had a hotel to look forward to...and a shower and some clean clothes. We were seperated from the rest of the group and were told that we had reservations at a different hotel. Apparently it was supposed to be nicer and soften that blow of double the cost. All I cared was that it was quiet and there was a hot water. I left Justin in the room while I went to get our bags with Wilson. They had been sent with a train so we didn't have to carry the duffle bags. We had just enough time to shower up and meet the group for dinner. By then Justin was doing better, not nearly as pale, but was walking with a noticeable limp.
At least tomorrow all we had was Machu Picchu and we could very easily take the bus there. There was no need to climb a few thousand stairs through the same thing we had been walking through for 2 days just to meet at the same gate. Besides we has pre-purchased our tickets to WaynaPicchu and that was already a promise of a couple thousand steps anyway. As much as I'm sure my backside would appreciate the workout, I wasn't really in a rush to climb stairs all day. Tonight was our last dinner with our group, who we had actually bonded with pretty well over the course of the last four days. Tomorrow we would all be going our seperate ways. Oh yeah, I remember this part, you finally start to get comfortable with people and places and then it's time to move on again.
There was some complication and really pissed off group members at that dinner. We were supposed to fill out a questionnaire about our experience on the tour and give our comments on the guide. I actually felt bad for Wilson at this point. Yeah, he wasn't the best guide I had ever had, and I there were some thing about the tour that I found a bit unsavoy, but overall I still really enjoyed myself. But there had been some problem with printing the entrance tickets for 3 of the girls and they about ripped him a new asshole. I can't blame them, I would have done the same thing if I hiked for 4 days just to find out the night before I was looking to enter a wonder of the world that my guide didn't have my ticket to get in. He said he had a solution for them, but even to me it sounded a little fishy. In my selfishness I was glad that it didn't happen to us. Maybe that whole paying double paid off in the end?
Since Justin and I decided not to hike from Aguas Calientes to the gate we were able to sleep in. The others that chose to hike, would have to start at 4 am...and we all just had to stand outside and wait for Wilson until 7:30 anyway. So, we slept in.
|Most of our salkantay trek group with a cloudy WaynaPicchu in the background
That is exactly what we did, with Justin's hurt leg and everything. We kept hoping that we would get a great view but the clouds never really did break for us. After climbing around the top for a while we decided to head down to take a few more pictures and then get back to Aguas Calientes so Justin could buy some blankets. That boy and his blankets. I just didn't have the heart to say no...I mean, he fell off a railroad track, the least I could do was oblige to his desire to buy blankets. We should have plenty of time to get down and wander around the ruins a bit and still have time to shop before we get on the train.
We hadn't gone very far down the path when we saw a trail that said something about caverns. I didn't hike that trail last time and had no idea where it took us. So we decided to go for it. Besides, we had plenty of time. How far could this be anyway? About an hour into it, I could feel Justin's anger burning into the back of my skull and I was pretty sure he was contemplating punching me in the kidney and leaving me along the trail somewhere. We did see a very small cavern, but nothing at all worth the effort and we still had to hike back. At this point I was hopeful that it take us back to one point near the begining of the trail. We had dropped a long way and it just made sense that we would be near the exit. But of course, I was wrong. The trail dropped and dropped, but eventually it started to climb again. Climb? What is this about? We ended up climbing practically all the way back up to the top of the freaking mountain. We legitimately hiked WaynaPicchu twice, and neither one of us was very happy about it. Because after all that, we still had to hike all the way out. The only good thing was that the weather had cleared a bit and when we got to that famous view, at least you would be able to see the ruins behing us. We just had to get there. After several long moments of silence and lots and lots of apologies on my part I think the desire to punch me had subsided. We hiked stupid fast to get to out and to the lookout. Clearly the elevation here was no longer a factor. That was good.
|why did you make me hike WaynaPicchu TWICE?!
|We're still smiling...and that IS MachuPicchu back there