Post Inca Trail downtime

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November 28th 2007
Published: November 30th 2007
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Well hello again campers. How are we all diddling today? I do hope everyone is fantastically well. I´m currently loving being back in civilisation albeit at 3400m meaning breathing is exercise rather than automatic. But at least the toilets flush!

So...on with the story. Upon tardy arrival at Arequipa, we trotted out en masse to supposedly the best restaurant in South America, Zig Zag, for their Triple specialty grill consisting of steak (dreamy), ostrich (a touch chewy) and alpaca (melts in the mouth). Onwards into town via a fantastic cocktail bar (Adios Motherf**kers all round...basically everything behind the bar in a glass!), we took over the local karaoke bar where I set the ball rolling with a (passable IMO) rendition of In These Arms (Bon Jovi to those with limited musical sagesse). The standard remained high with our other resident singer, Damian, blasting out Robbie Williams, before descending into aural hell with group renditions of Enrique Iglesias (tour leader Jo is his biggest ever fan and had been persuading the group to learn the lyrics in Spanish for this very night), Backstreet Boys, Avril Lavigne, Divine Comedy (Matt ...spoken word...very British!), Metallica (me again, accompanied by drunk shouty dudes in group = poor!) and several other classics (!!) before closing on (and clearing the place out with) Bohemian Rhapsody. On to a club to get friendly with the locals again, we crawled home in dribs and drabs from 4.30 onwards. Somewhat bleary eyed the next day I trekked off with one of the girls in the group, Jo, to the Zig Zag creperie for some of the best breakfast yet experienced on this tour. Culture fix was next on the list, so we went to see Juanita, a 14 year old frozen corpse (not a mummy - just preserved by nature) found on the Ampato volcano (one of the 4 surrounding Arequipa) that is extremely well preserved. Afterwards we bumped into and spent much of the afternoon with an Australian couple, Pete and Penny, who had just got back from spending several months in a puma sanctuary in the Amazon basin north east region of Bolivia. For minimal cost you can look after your own puma in this place, some weighing up to 70kg, playing with them all day long, taking them for walks and the like. Both of us were absolutely blown away by this idea and I´m currently seriously thinking about sticking a month or so on at the end of the trip to incorporate this if at all possible. Tasty kebab and the local home brew, Chicha (made from fermented corn) for lunch then on to check out the Santa Catalina convent, basically an entire walled city that at its peak used to house 400 nuns. An explosion of colours, nooks and crannies, austere living quarters, overviews of the city and some fantastic flora it is a fantastic place to while away several hours. Back for some top notch sunset pics followed by more crepes it seemed like a rather good day all round and a fitting time to retire.

The final day in Arequipa was a slightly more laid back affair, with breakfast out on the roof terrace overlooking the city follwed by a trip to the local mall (think Debenhams but smaller, with a cinema, food court and business inhibiting daytime power cuts). Chill out in the afternoon was followed by a trip to a Morroccan restaurant (passable, nowhere near as good as the one in Nantes) before heading off in a small group to the cinema to see The Heartbreak Kid (Ben Stiller, in English with Spanish subtitles - anyone who´s seen it will appreciate the translations for some very interesting terms!) before staying up all night with a couple of the girls for our 4.30 start the next day. The reason for this ridiculous start was the 6 hour drive needed to reach Colca Canyon to see its resident condors rising on the thermals, a phenomenon only visible in the morning. Experiencing our first high pass (4900m) and feeling somewhat breathless, somewhat abated by copious amounts of cocoa leaves and water, we got to the canyon in time to see some of the condors swoop literally overhead. Having had a hissy fit due to camera malfunction (doesn´t seem to like altitude) and then its inability to focus at speed, my photos were somewhat disappointing of the majestic birds, however we were able to soak in the beauty of supposedly the deepest canyon in the world (sorry Uncle Sam!). Out of breath once more, we headed back to Chivay (3800m) for thermal springs (filmed by the local kids obviously enjoying the gringas in bikinis), fantastic hot chocolate, alpaca kebabs, yet another fantastic sunset and a rubbish local meal in a restaurant catering almost solely for tour groups.

Over yet another sizeable pass, 4300m, we embarked upon a very scenic 10 hour drive to the charming original Inca capital of Cusco, arriving in time for some fantastic food at the Witches Garden, a restaurant owned by a French lady with somewhat unusual styling and very good cocktails. Later onto the highest Irish owned pub in the world and then a local club with free drinks, Matt and I ended up entertaining a charming pair of local ladies until 5am, although we were put to shame by my rival for the resident party animal crown, Pindi, who didn´t get back in until 7 and was still drunk at 3pm the next day! A quick trot around the compact colonial charm of the city centre preceeded by a mammoth feed at Cafe Jacks (proper bacon - how welcome!), I treated myself to a pre-Inca Trail massage before yet another late night on the town with our salsa queens before retiring to prepare for the onslaught ahead....

Fresh faced and with a 5kg weight limit on our main baggage (still managed to get my personal rucksack to weigh a ton - just the job for a 42km trek at altitude!), we headed off with our local guide to the Saqsaywaman (pronounced sexy woman) temple nestled in the hills above Cusco. With walls in the shape of a lightning bolt, the temple is thought to be dedicated to the sky gods and features some immense monoliths, the largest of which weighs in at a hefty 127 tonnes! Onwards via some local pottery displays, we stopped off at a llama farm where we got to feed all the different varieties of Andean camel (some with very interesting haircuts) before progressing to the spectacular settlement of Pisac, nestled high in the hills over the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The tour continued via a Chicharia, where we again got to sample the local brew (this time tasting somewhat like sour flat beer - strawberry variety infinitely preferable) and play the local game of Sapo where you throw coins into a board - different holes are different values, jackpot is getting it into a bronze frog´s mouth. Finally we arrived at our destination for the night, Ollantayambo, home to yet some more fabulous hillside ruins, where we equipped ourselves with funky walking sticks/pimp canes and enjoyed a final bevvy before turning in early in anticipation for the start of the trek proper.

Arriving by minibus at km82, our entry point for the Inca trail, we got our passports stamped and crossed the bridge to start the trail in the pouring rain. Rarely have I been so glad of waterproofing - jacket, trousers, bag cover and poncho just about doing the job! Taking 3 hours to cover 8km may not sound impressive, but it was enough to have us all yawning upon arrival at our first campsite, overlooking a stunning valley with glaciers in the background. Cold, wet and tired, we were energised by the discovery of litre beer bottles for sale and warmed up by the gargantuan (and remarkably good) meals prepared by our porter chef, Alvino. Bedtime on the trail is a bit of a rude shock (yet surprisingly welcome) to the nightowls among us, with the whole group being nicely tucked up by 8.30! Not the most comfortable night´s sleep ever, our tent was too short for both of us, necessitating us lying diagonally to be able to stretch out and me being kicked throughout the night by a restless Matt. A nice lie in, day two we were woken by the porters at 5.30 with cocoa tea before troughing down a massive breakfast and being introduced to our entire entourage. Praise for the porters, they carry 25kg each (20kg for the guys with the gas bottles), run up the trail in very worn sandals (feet look like overly weathered cracked leather), overtaking us, gettting into camp and setting everything up before we got even close to arriving. While Tucan are one of the better employers for them, they work for a paltry 160 soles (approx 25 quid) over the four day period. Look for inspiration - turn to these guys. However pretty a campsite, its overall rating must be measured by the quality, or lack thereof, of its toilets. These ones left plenty to be desired, with offerings of all varieties left over the seat (along with footprints - people actually stand on them to go, and then miss horribly), contributing to our team motto, "suck it up princess" and encouraged much breath holding (knew the swimming would come in handy!).

Toilet shenanigans finished, off we set for the dreaded Dead Woman´s Pass, ascending from 3000m to 4200m in the space of 3 hours through forest and up barren paths, overshadowed by the mighty Andes. Not exactly a walk in the park, this part of the trail had me wringing the sweat out of my t-shirt halfway up, chewing cocoa leaves like they were going out of fashion (not v nice either - burn your tongue after a bit - I´m guessing the same process whereby deviated septums occur in users of colombian marching powder), and stopping every 30 steps for breath. Puffing, panting and generally worn out, some good old Swedish death metal spurred me on (I love my MP3 player!) to the top, cheered on by those already up and waiting. Stopping to recover my lungs, freeze in the somewhat chilly gusts, soak in the surrounding grandeur, spur on other team members and pose for photos I had a welcome 45mins of sitting around doing sweet FA before popping over the top and working my way down the descent, arguably more tiring than the first part. Barely five minutes on the descent, my camera again decided it didn´t want to play with the other children, accompanied by me swearing profusely at volume and cursing Nikkon back to the stone ages, nearly turning it into a sacrifice to be launched into the cloudy nothingness, so any photos for that leg will have to be supplied by my esteemed amigos. Some time and several blisters later, I completed the 16km haul, arrived weary and achy to a round of applause from the group´s forerunners (also known as our resident sickos and health zealots!) and warm chicha. Boots a-steamin and all my clothes utterly sodden in sweat, it was very welcome to change into warm dry clothes, enjoy the (flushing - very exciting, although still flooded!) toilets, eat a meal fit for several kings, play cards, enjoy the cloud rolling into the valley, and crash out at a ridiculously early hour once more.

Day 3 panned out with yet more cocoa tea (see a theme emerging here?), many clothes to shelter from the damp cold morning air and me nearly leaving my damp rancid t-shirt behind on a rock. Cutting straight to the chase, we had a cheeky 300m ascent to 3900m past an ancient Incan watchtower to the Runkurikay pass where we were offered the most fantastic views, the most memorable scenery that I have yet experienced, with glaciers on either side of the pass and a 360º rainbow encircling the sun. With speedy cloud movement, we were offered an ever changing backdrop on both sides, and a small group of us stayed put at the top for some time reeling off photo after photo, soaking in the scenery and enjoying Iceman (our resident Icelandic dude, Hakur)´s fish biscuits, dried fish that is remarkably tasty and good for you too. The only blight on this otherwise perfect morning was 2 of us managing to stand in human excrement and spending the next hour trying to remove all traces with grass and spring water! Descending down yet more steep steps (not friendly from the waist down!) we arrived at the Winay Wyna Inca ruins, nestled up steep steps in the rock face, before descending down into a completely different climate of cloud forest, somewhat reminiscent of Costa Rica. Wearily trudging along in the mizzle, we conquered the Puyapatamarka pass at 3600m, enjoying a celebratory sachet of whisky (!) before descending ever more precariously steep steps for the next few hours. Thighs, knees, ankles and feet well and truly buggered we arrived at our final campsite (2700m) in the shadow of the mountain of Machu Picchu. Here we gave thanks to the porters and guides (my effort in by best Spanish!), buying them beer and cigarettes, before having a few beers to celebrate with the guides (again good spanish practice - one had given us all nicknames from Lord of the Rings!), enjoying the first proper toilets in 4 days and heading to bed at 10.30.

Rudely awoken at 4 the next morning, we packed our bags and donned our stinking clothes for the last time, before trekking off down to the control point for entry into the national park at 5.30, passing along the way the infintely less satisfactory camp toilets (one hole, 3 offerings nowhere near it - dirty bastards!) before an hour and a half ramble along narrow paths with precarious drops to reach the Sun Gate. Completely enshrouded in mist, we could see precious little beyond it but biding our time for a good half hour we were finally rewarded with our first glimpse of the city of Machu Picchu poking through the clouds. Following a 45 minute descent, utterly dwarfed by the surrounding goliaths of mountains, we finally arrived at our destination in time for a photographic frenzy of breathtaking views. Thankfully early around the site, it was not too seething, but following a gargantuan breakfast at the local cafe, we had to push our way through swarms of tour groups and gaggles of school children. The current cap per day is 5000 people, which seems like entirely too many, and hugely detracted from the overall experience of the place, as with other such modern wonders as Chichen Itza and no doubt the Pyramids. Having walked the trail we all felt like we deserved the final reward of entering the city, but hordes of buses coming up from the local town have inevitably destroyed much of the original charm. Don´t get me wrong, it is still absolutely beautiful and well worth a visit, but the pilgrimmage was the part that made the trip for me. Several hours later and utterly photo through doorway/arched out, we descended to the local town of Aguas Calientes for an entirely welcome hot spring dip (5 days of grime happily washed away in the showers) accompanied by a cold beer before hobbling back into town ( I got grit in one of my blisters!) for a marathon feast and getting the train / bus combo back to Cusco. Fantastic takeaway pizza, a bottle of red and a nice hot shower capped off a somewhat lengthy and tiring day.

Waking up with aching everything and the room smelling remarkably like a zoo, it was entirely welcome to put all my clothes into the laundry and limp off down to the nearest massage parlour. The rest of the day passed without much event, taking in some touristy sights (the 12 sided stone for starters, Cathedral, couple of museums), having a second massage, taking in a hot cup of quality coffee and then heading on out for a group meal and salsa lesson in a Cuban restaurant. Run by a Brummie, the food was passable at best, but the dancing was fantastic although I didn´t enjoy as much as usual due to feeling lousy, which I still am today. Head hung in shame, this party animal had to drag himself off to bed early last night leaving the others to stay out and salsa the night away. Still not fully on form I do plan to bounce back in style tonight....

Well that´s it for now...up to date with blog at long last. now begins the ordeal of uploading photos. Could be here all year....
Love & best wishes to you all, hope everyone´s all gravy. Can´t believe it´s nearly December - almost time to shave off the beard that I´ve been nursing for charity for the last month. Can´t wait - starting to look a bit like a bum. What´s new I hear you cry....

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