Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Inca Trail

Finally I’m in Peru!!!!! The European journey has given way to the South American adventure at last, and oh man what an adventure it has been.
My mother and I started our travels in Lima on the first day of March, slightly jetlagged from the plane the night before but ecstatic to be in the warmth of a sunny Lima. Our first stop was the city center, La Plaza de Armas, a large square presided over by the government palace and the Lima cathedral. Purely by coincidence, we arrived just in time to watch the bombastic ceremonial changing of the guards in front of the government palace, which occurs every day around noon. Later, we toured the Lima Cathedral, guided by a man so passionate and animated, it felt like he was a character in a play every time he spoke.

In the Lima Cathedral
The next day we traded the beaches of Lima for the mountains of Cuzco. In the Andean town, everything felt fresh and clear under the Incan sky. Breathing the crisp air was a welcome change from the humidity of Peru’s capital. However, the altitude certainly affected us. At 3,400 m (11,200 ft) our legs felt shaky and weak, but after two relatively restful days of light touring and many cups of coca tea, we had acclimatized. A very good thing because the third day in Cuzco was the start of our Incan Trail hike.

One of the main cathedrals in Cuzco
The mountain in the distance says "Viva Peru"
We started off in a valley, a river to our left, alpacas in the distance, and mountains all around. Our group was guided by Armando, a Cuzco native, fluent in Quechua, Spanish, and English. To my surprise, the hikers were very diverse. We were eight: a couple from Sydney, Australia; a couple from Canada; a couple with one from Costa Rica, the other from France both living in Pennsylvania; and my mom and I. And off we went, trekking up the gently undulating hills the first day. The path itself was rarely only dirt. Rather, it consisted of large stones laid down by hand, but it was never completely smooth because the stones weren’t connected. Thus, even on flat land, we had to watch where we were walking. The first night, we camped on a relatively secluded hillside, mountains all around.

The very beginning of the trail

The view from our tent when we woke up after the first night
                What a good practice was the first day! Because the second day was up, up, up, uP, UP UPUPUP! We climbed for at least 2 and a half hours up to the 4,200 meters (13,780 ft) peak called Dead Woman’s Pass, so named for the profile of the mountain and its resemblance to a woman lying in a coffin. As soon as I got the peak, it started raining. And then hailing. I quickly dawned a poncho, grabbed my poles, and started the 2 hour trek down following the Australian couple in our group. After those two exhausting, slippery hours descending, we finally arrived at the campsite, drenched to the core. My socks from that day never dried until we got back to Lima!

An overview of the elevation over the four days

                That night was the most beautiful, though. We were fortunate that the clouds cleared up, and when it got dark, we saw more stars than I have ever seen in my life, even when camping in the country in America. Our guide told us we were looking at the milky way. Aptly named—the stars seem to be suspended in a lightly glowing web of milk. It was breathtaking.

3rd day--Inca ruins

The third and longest day was not too difficult in terms of trekking, which we would conquer in two hour stretches. Some Inca ruins were on the route, as well. That whole day, we were hugging the mountain as we hiked, and eventually the mountainside turned into a rainforest, which they call a cloud forest because, well, it’s in the clouds. It smelled fresh and earthy. Birds’ calls resounded through the dense trees. Toads rumbled when the rains were about to start. Exotic flowers sprouted above, below, beside us. It was as though I could hear the heartbeat of the earth.

Incan ruins bottom right; waterfall down the mountain to the left

On the left mountain, you can see the terraces

                On the last part of the third day hike, we made our route a bit longer in order to see some terraces constructed by the Incans on the mountainside. There were at least 60 enormous steppes, each with its own unique temperature, which allowed the ancient civilization to grow specific crops on each different terrace. And from there, we had an incredible view of the mountains in the distance and the Urubamba River (a tributary of the Amazon) below. Stunning.

                The fourth morning, the day we had been waiting for because of the promise of Machu Picchu, decided to be a disagreeable day. We had to wake up at 3:30, pack everything, and then wait at a check point until 5:30. From there we were to take the 2 hour hike and arrive at Machu Picchu, take a tour of the site, and then return to Cuzco by train in the afternoon. When we awoke, it was pouring down rain. From that moment until the end of our hike, we endured a drenching, taking every precaution to not slip off the side of the mountain. I can imagine that the hike would have yielded amazing views, but the clouds wouldn’t let us see past a few meters beyond ourselves.

                Finally we arrived at Machu Picchu, tired and wet. After a few hours, the rain let up a bit, so we went on a tour of the ruins. Continually being excavated, the site was a place of great religious significance to the Incas with many temples and sacred areas. However, nobody is sure what it was exactly for. A university, a religious site only, a village of special significance? The questions remain. The certainty, though, is that the Incans were incredible architects, as they built these edifices that have withstood centuries of earthquakes, landslides, and great rains. They have their amazing drainage system and their system of constructing rooms sometimes with 32 angles or more to thank for that. In the end, even though the day wasn’t as magnificent as we had hoped, it was still an amazing site that we were blessed to have been able to visit. Because we used my mom's camera only at MP, I don't have the photos with me now. I'll try to get them and post many soon, though.
                A special thanks to Dave and Laura for the wonderful gift of the guidebook! It was very useful in Cuzco and Lima, and hopefully I’ll get the chance to use it in some future travels this semester, as well.
                The next day, we returned to Lima from Cuzco, and after another day my mother left. Now I’m in my home in Lima, living with Chela and Carlos, an incredibly sweet and helpful retired couple. I also am blessed to have an awesome housemate, Elizabeth, who is a religious studies and Spanish major at IU. With her, I have been trying to figure out the ways of the city for the past few days.
                Today was the first day of orientation at PUCP (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Peru), but in the interest of not boring people to death, I’ll save that for next week’s post. Ciao, ciao!

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