From Baja to the Land of Fire #13: Lima, Part II

12: Lima, Part II

Cuzco-Inca Trail-Cuzco

14 April 2002
The next day we slept until late and walked around the small center. In the afternoon my father went on a tour to the cemetery in the desert with the mummified bodies. My brother and me were tired.

At 8 o’clock in the evening we were on our way for the 20-hour bus trip to Cuzco, in a warm and crowded bus filled with many families with small children. Within two hours we crossed our first pass at 4200 meters (besides temperature and a barometer, my brother’s watch also shows the altitude). We were in the Andes! Especially my father and brother enjoyed the ride through the green mountains and crossing small rivers streaming over the dirt road. I, of course, had seen it all before.

At around 4 o’clock in the afternoon we arrived in Cuzco, the tourist center of Peru. It is not only the tourist center but also the historical center of the Inca empire, of which the Machu Picchu ruins are an example.

After checking into our hotel with a great view over the city and the nearby Plaze des Armas in particular, we walked around a bit. We quickly discovered two features of Cuzco as we returned to our hotel, completely out of breath and cold. Cuzco lies at an altitude of more than 3500 meters; this affects the amount of air you breathe and it makes it cold after dark.

The next day we booked our 4-day tour of the Inca trail. Our father went on an afternoon cultural excursion of the city, visiting nearby ruins, museums and cathedrals. I was getting down with a cold so I needed to rest before the big hike, unfortunately.

In the meantime Arlen and I had been writing several emails to each other, so I knew she was alive and well and we were missing each other very much. We just had to be patient.

The next morning at 8 o’clock we joined the eight others of our group in the bus, which would take us to the KM82 mark where we would start our 4-day hike of the Inca trail.

This first day turned out to be disappointing though. The road to KM82 was closed between 7 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon, because of repairs on the road due to some landslides a week or so earlier. So we didn’t start until 3 o’clock in the afternoon, for the first 4-hour hike. This meant the last part of the walk was in the dark and we couldn’t see anything. This was too bad, because up to then it was great walking between the mountains and deeper into the Andes, and seeing the snow-covered peaks of +6000 meter mountains in the distance.

Besides us tourists we were joined by two local guides, a cook and five porters who carried all the necessary equipment (tents and stove) and food. After our very adequate dinner we returned to our tents to get some sleep before the infamous second day of the trail.

We woke up early to the knocking on the tent – and a cup of tea! Very nice. After another satisfying meal we started for our 7-hour hike. The second day of the trail is well-known to be difficult, because this day the highest point of the whole trail must be crossed: a pass of +4300 meters. We’d reach it by climbing the Inca steps, a kind of stairway for giants. The killer feature here is the altitude. And even though we were pretty much adjusted to the altitude after a few days, it still hit us like a wall.

Everyone walked at their own leisurely pace and the distant pass, which was already teasingly visible hours before, seemed as distant as ever as I moved consciously one step at a time, as in slow motion, step after step. Breathing in breathing out breathing in breathing out…

Most of us had bought coca leaves before the trip, and were now chewing these as they helped the body against the lack of oxygen. Also the mate de coca, a tea made of the leaves, was very welcome, like a cup of coffee. I didn’t really feel any strong reaction, as I do with coffee, but I felt it helped.

These leaves are essential for the people living and working in the high altitudes. It is very bad how the Andes countries are being pressured (by whom do you think!) to make the use of coca leaves illegal, as they are also used in the process for making cocaine.

Sometimes you would momentarily lose control of your breathing and feel like you were suffocating. The guides carried a bottle of oxygen with them, just in case you couldn’t catch your breath anymore. In the last 30 minutes before reaching the top of the pass it had started to rain, and this continued after the pass. In the distance we could still see the sun shining down into the valley. The big fat heavy raindrops soaked me through and through by the time I reached the second camp. And until we could all find some warmth in the communal tent, which was being set up, we were all shivering and probably wondering why we paid so mmmmuch money to be so ccccold and wet. Especially Andrea and Katharina, the two German girls who had changed too late from their light summer clothes to warm clothing. They shivered under their glistering, silver thermal blanket.

The late lunch came like a gift from heaven as we were sitting shivering in the big tent, receiving a hot bowl of soup and a cup of mate de coca. This was a wonderful moment. Then I went to the tent I shared with my father, changed into my dry clothes and crawled into the sleeping bag where I stayed until the call for diner, skipping the snack break of fresh popcorn.

The next morning, the third day, I was again sitting in my sleeping bag with a warm cup of mate de coca, enjoying the distant views of the grey-green sharp mountains. These were slowly being blanketed by the in-moving clouds. By the time we finished breakfast there was a mist all around us, which would follow us for the rest of the day. So, on our 8-hour hike to the third camp near the final destination, I walked through mountains and valleys I couldn’t see and two more passes before arriving just at sunset at the next camp. I did enjoy this mystic sphere though, although I would like to see the mountains and valleys the next time.

On the fourth day we got up at 4 o’clock in the morning so we could start early on the short 2-hour hike to the famous sungate, from which we should see a magnificent view of the sunrise over Machu Picchu, the greatest of the Inca ruins.

Luckily I had seen the view from there several times before on posters and postcards, since there was nothing to see because of the clouds. We waited for more than an hour, before continuing the last 30 minutes to the ruins. Things were clearing up by the time we got there. Just after we started our guided tour of the complex the sky turned blue, and we had a good view of the Sungate.

What can I say, ruins are ruins. The special thing about Machu Picchu is the way the grey and brown buildings and structures lie on the top of a slope of a green mountain (the Picchu?) between other mountains and, in the distance, snow-peaked mountains. They don’t know exactly what the function of this site was, since they only discovered it last century. Much remains a mystery.

To make up for the Sungate thing, Andrea, Katarina, the Spanish and Norwegian guy and me climbed the very steep Wayna Picchu. This is a ‘small’ mountain right next to the main site, from where a magnificent view of Machu Picchu and its surroundings are visible. Since we also went to the nearby Templo de la Luna, we were hiking another heavy two hours and I could feel it in my bones and knees and muscles and lungs.

From Machu Picchu we went to the nearby village of Aguas Calientes. At 4:10 in the afternoon we left with the train back to Cuzco, where we arrived five hours later. Well, we arrived one hour earlier at the outskirts of Cuzco, but then the train had to zigzag its way down the mountainside for an hour, until it was level with the city.

The next day we did nothing much, just rested from the past days before heading towards Lago Titicaca and Puno.