Friday, January 19, 2007

Inca Trail, Day 2: Why Most People Take The Train, Rain, and Lobo's 20 Minutes

Reaching the Top
Perhaps My Face Betrays My Feelings About Day 2??

I'm an athletic guy.

In high school, I got a Varsity letter in Football and Lacrosse. I played Lacrosse on NYU's club team. I go to the gym at least 3 times a week. I own many pairs of athletic shorts.

Why am I telling you this? To impress the ladies? Yes. But also, to impress upon you how serious I am when I say that there were many moments during Day 2 of the Inca Trail that made me want to die just so I wouldn't have to hike anymore.

Before we departed, Lobo informed us that, on day two, we'd be going from 3000 meters to 4200 meters in elevation. At that same meeting, shortly after he told us that, I very seriously asked if we would have time at Macchu Picchu to do the optional, extra steep hike to the top of Huanya Picchu. Clearly, I had no grasp of what 1200 meters really is. We don't do metric in the Kick Ass States Of America.

The day was to take 7 1/2 hours. 3 hours up to the first mountain pass, 2 1/2 hours down to our lunch site. Then an hour and a half up, and two hours down. Wait.. that's 9 hours. Well, that's what I recall anyway. It seemed much, MUCH longer.

There's a little drizzle coming down as we begin our ascent to the first pass, through forest, alongside waterfalls, up a steep, stepped path "paved" with rocks resembling the "Astrocrag" from the classic Nickelodeon game show "GUTS." The steps never end. I keep looking ahead, expecting things to be flat around the next corner, so that finally my burning lungs, aching quads, searing calves and crunching knees can take a little breather. But it doesn't happen. Every time I turn a corner, the trail keeps snaking upward. By the end of the first hour, I'm leaning on my walking stick pretty heavily, praying that it won't break under my weight.

Meanwhile, the weather alternates rapidly, without warning. One second it's chilly and rainy, and I zip up my sweater and rain jacket, putting on my winter hat. Then, around the next bend, the fog clears and the sun shines down with all its might. We strip off our layers and reapply sun screen, only to have a new cloud descend and the cold rain whip down again. I can't tell if my sweater is soaked from the rain or from my sweat. Probably both.

At one point, we're continuing our climb when we hear a sound in the distance. Jay points at a tiny orange speck, high on top of the next mountain range, barely visible through the fog. "I think that's where we have to go," he says.

"That's impossible," I reply.

At this point, I'm having delusions. Beneath the rocky path, to the right, is a mountain valley filled with green fields of grass. I fantasize about rolling down from the path to lie in the meadow. Perhaps it's an easier hike down there! I should just do it! I should just jump off this cliff right now! I'll land on the pillow soft grass below! It looks like such a gentle slope!!

I almost did it. Jay had no idea how close he came to travelling the rest of Peru alone.

Somehow, we make it to the top of the FIRST pass. The FIRST. Of THREE. See the video below. I say, "Nunca Otra Vez," which I believe means "Never Again." But my Spanish isn't very good.

Lobo tells us that the archaeological sites are spaced out perfectly, the same amount of meters between each one. Simon asks him how the Incas could measure those distances.

"That's how far a llama can walk," Lobo replied.

Yes. That's right. Every llama can walk the same distance. They're like a walking tape measure. That's not a Snapple Fact, that's a fact.

According to Lobo anyway. You learn something new everyday.

I must be stupid, because at this point I was looking forward to the downhill section. I'll just roll down...

Within 5 minutes of beginning our descent, Jay and I fall on our asses. We just eat it, brutally. It's barely a path we're walking down, its more like jagged rocks drowned in rainwater. Actually, that's exactly what it is.

Somehow, we soldier on to the lunch site. It starts pouring. Our group huddles in the tent. It's coming down harder and harder. From the inside of the tent, we have to push up parts of the roof because rainwater is puddling up. Lobo says we can wait 20 more minutes, but if it hasn't cleared up by then, we have to troop on. This meets with groans from the group. Other trek groups are camping down here for the evening (and according to the online Andean Life itinerary, so should we), but there's no more room for us. And if we're going to make it to the next campsite before dark, we'll have to brave the downpour.

When 20 minutes are up, the rain has let up a bit, so we continue on. Up and up. By now, the rocks we're stepping on have practically become a waterfall. After about 30 minutes we reach Runkuraqay, some circular ruins that overlook the valley. From there it's a steep waterslide climb to the second pass. There's supposed to be a great view from there, but all we see is fog (this was to be a reoccurring thing).

Long Way Up
Leaving Runkuraqay, To The Second Pass (No, that's not the top)

By the time we reach the third pass, I've figured out how to use my walking stick as a lever, holding it in two hands in front of me, stabbing the ground and pulling myself forward. It works great, although one time I slip and almost end the family lineage (you guys know what I'm talking about).

We get to the turn off for Sayaqmarka, which Lobo informs us means "Inaccessible Town." Thankfully, we're not headed up that way. Lobo says to me, "Only 20 minutes to the campsite."

20 minutes! I feel a burst of adrenaline. I can make it. 20 short minutes, and I'll be able to lie on the cold, hard ground in my tent! Never has that sounded so inviting.

A second wind flows through my body. I jab the stick into the ground. Step step. Another jab. Step step. I'm really moving now, ahead of the whole pack, save for Simon and Avi, and one of the Australians, Peter. Jay, who ran the NYC marathon, is lagging behind. I'm feeling pretty good about myself.

But after 20 minutes, the campsite is nowhere in sight. Lobo that bastard!!

Don't lose hope, my mind screams. Strangely, it's the beef corazon that drives me forward. Must... make... it... to... facilities...

After another 20 minutes, I see a guide from another tour. "How much longer?" I ask him.

"5 minutes," he says, and I almost hug him.

In actuality, it's more like 15. But when I get to the campsite, I'm so happy I almost forget the horror I just put my body through. "Piece of cake," I say to Alex. "I'm ready to go to Macchu Picchu right now..."

(...on the train)

Everything I brought with me was soaked, despite carefully putting my clothes in plastic bags. My one sweater was a sopping mess.

Traveler's Tip: Don't be an idiot. Bring at least two lightweight but warm sweaters. Cotton tends to get soaked and stay soaked.

Other things I wish I brought:

More than one "Sweat-wicking" Shirt From Eastern Mountain Sports
Blister Pads
Face Wipes or Moist Towelettes
A Port-a-John

After seeing me show up to dinner in my only dry thing, a short sleeve t-shirt--despite the frigid night air--Lobo takes pity on me and lends me an extra sweater he was using as a pillow. I love this guy!

Jay, Alex, Lobo and Me
Jay and I with our awesome guides, Alex and Lobo

And so concluded day 2. For us anyway. Simon and Avi were not as lucky. Since they arrived first, they chose the tents set up closest to the trail, at the bottom of a steep hill that the rest of us had to climb to get to our tents.

That night, a storm hit. Their tent was flooded, all their stuff got soaked.

Traveler's Tip: Camp on High Ground.

Ironically, their tragedy would turn out to be one of the best things to happen to me and Jay on the hike. More on this tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Day 3-5 - The Valley, My Stick, Cow Pies, Nicholas Cage, Macchu Picchu Here We Come...

Valle Sagrado
Valle Sagrado

Day 3 was spent on a tour of the Valle Sagrado, the Sacred Valley-- a lush green valley cut by the Urabamba river and spotted here and there with old towns and tiny farming villages. I started that morning feeling pretty ill, and probably didn't help things by trying an Andean beer called "chicha," which is prepared by fermenting chewed corn. Yep, that's right. They chew corn, spit it out, and then, a few days later, viola! It's beer. Kind of. Like beer that someone's spit chewed up corn into, anyway.

A girl paints ceramic musical instruments in the Sacred Valley town of Pisac

In the valley town of Pisac (which the Spanish built as a ghetto to contain the Quecha people), we bought some souvenirs from the large street market. In one shop we found off the beaten trail, we found a girl painting pottery. I bought some for myself and my parents. Jay bought a souvenir from the girl too... a 2006 calendar of naked women that was hanging on the wall. Only 5 soles! (which he dropped, losing it under a display case. Graciously, the girl said it was ok, and Jay didn't need to shell out 5 more soles.)

We also got the first preview of what we'd be up against hiking the Inca Trail. The short climb to the top of Ollantaytambo, an impressive-looking Inca fortress. If you're planning on going to Peru, I suggest preparing by taking the stairs instead of the elevator... for like three months-- because walking up those uneven Incan steps at the high altitude isn't easy (especially with some angry beef corazon still coursing through your veins).


We made it to the top. But on the way home, I partially passed out in the back seat while Jay made friends with some of the others on our tour bus. I was not doing well.

The next day was Christmas, and a lot of things were closed up during the day, so we took it easy. That night we met the group we'd be hiking with- 13 others, not including me and Jay. The Jets-Dolphins game was on TV that evening, which made me happy (and it's pretty funny listening to the all spanish commentary interrupted by familiar phrases like "Chad Penning-tone"). But I had to turn it off before the end because we were getting picked up at 5:30 AM to be driven to the start of the trail.

After picking everybody up, including several of the porters, the bus drove to Ollantaytambo, where we'd stay for a half hour to pick up supplies and eat breakfast. I bought a Kit Kat, which was the only solid food I'd eat on day 1 of the hike. Jay bought a flashlight from a girl on the street, which he then discovered didn't work.

Jay: "That little..."

Adam: "Jay, forget it... let it go..."

Jay didn't of course. He went back to the girl. I was all prepared for an embarrassing scene, but to my surprise, the girl gave Jay a new flashlight that worked (at least for a couple of hours).

Several village children were selling walking sticks, from 3 - 7 soles each (of course, depending on how rich you look, they'll start at 10 or 15). Should I get a walking stick? I wondered. Will I really need it? Or will I just end up getting stuck carrying it around? After a moment of deliberation, I purchased a stick for 3 soles. I can always ditch it on the trail, I thought.

Traveler's Tip: It was the best purchase I made all trip. That stick became my best friend, and later, during the particularly hard moments on the trail, I proposed marriage to it (We get hitched this summer). A dollar on a walking stick is little compared to the value it brings on those dire, hopeless, no-end-in-sight climbs and descents.

Jay bought a walking stick too, an impressively decorated one, for 7 soles. We then hopped back on the bus for a brief drive to Kilometer 82 of the Inca Trail, where we'd begin our journey. The raging Vilcanota River flowed rapidly below us as we crossed the wooden bridge onto the same trail where, thousands of years ago, Quecha pilgrims walked to Macchu Picchu. Of course, they were without hiking boots, waterproof rain jackets, and our special "sweat-wicking" t-shirts.

The Crew
Our Inca Trail Friends

And so we begin...

We're off...

The trail's pretty easy. The most difficult thing I find immediately is avoiding the cow, donkey, horse and llama poop that litters the ground. It's everywhere! What do they feed these things?? I find myself looking down a lot more often than I'd like, just because I have no desire to have my boots smelling like crap all four days.

Stop Pooping!
Watch your step!

But whenever I look up, it's beautiful. The weather is cool, the rain is holding off. There's fog, but it mostly hangs just around the mountain tops. Along the way we pass some very tiny shanty towns. Before we started the day, our guide, Lobo, gave us small packages with snacks, candy and juice-- none of which I feel like consuming. So I give it to some little kids.

(The True story- I couldn't get my damn juice package open, so I gave up and gave everything to the kids.)

The first Inca ruins we see are at Llactapata. We stand on the hill above, staring down at the small town, nestled at the foot of a mountain, right along the river.

Our Guide, Lobo, Shows Us Llactapata

From there, we go downhill a bit, where I meet an old couple from Seattle. They have to be at least 60. We have a discussion about the movie, "The Family Man," starring Nicholas Cage, which they had seen a few nights before.

Old Man: So... the message of the movie is, you can't be both a successful businessman and have a family?

Me: Yeah, what's with that moral?

Old Man: I mean, and then he gets back from that alternate reality, and that woman who was his loving wife (Tea Leoni) doesn't even care to see him, really.

Me: Yeah, she's got a serious job. Are we supposed to believe she quits it so she and Nick Cage can start a family?

Old Man: And also, those two adorable little kids he has in that alternate life... they just don't exist? What's with that?

Me: Yeah! I thought the same thing. Why couldn't he just stay in that life?

Old Man: It just doesn't make any damn sense.

We stop for lunch, and are greeted by our porters (who all ran past us earlier, carrying all our tents, cooking supplies, and other essentials). We're given warm blueberry tea/juice, which was pretty damn tasty and refreshing. When we all sit down in the dining tent, we're presented with an avocado salad done up as if it were served in a fine restaurant. Impressive. The spaghetti con watery tomato sauce? Not so much. But still, quite a surprise. Of course, me and Jay can't really eat anything.

I talk with Alex, our assistant guide. He's a young guy, working his way up the ranks to someday become a head guide. We have a talk, in mixed spanish and english, about America. He asks about immigration. "Are illegal immigrants a big problem?"

I try and explain that, no, it isn't actually a big problem, but our politicians make it into one for political purposes. "En Nuevo York, personas no preoccupan sobre immigracion. Pero, en otros estados (por ejemplo, Texas), muchas personas no se gusta immigrantes, ilegales y legales. Es un mejor problema aquella."

Thanks Mr. Russo!! (9th grade Spanish teacher)

Of course, Alex speaks better English than I speak Spanish.

Back on the trail, it starts to get a bit tougher. Just a little incline, but enough to feel the altitude draining the air from your lungs. Still, we press on. Jay, the two English blokes on our trek, Simon and Avi, and I are well ahead of the rest of the group, not quite sure where to stop for our campsite. I'm nearing my limit. It's getting dark. That's when Lobo comes running up the trail behind us.

"You guys passed the campsite!"

We all look at each other.

"How far," I ask.

"About 40 minutes," Lobo replies.

I'm about to cry. Nobody else looks too happy either. 40 extra minutes of hiking!!!

"Your kidding, right?" I say.

"Yes," Lobo replies.

Turns out the campsite is about two minutes ahead. Oh Lobo, what a kidder!

The camp site was already set up when we arrived, on a grassy patch overlooking a foggy ravine. There I was introduced to the concept of a campsite toilet, or as the Peruvians might call it, "el hoyo jodida en el suelo." At dinner, Lobo gave us some pills (hey, when in Peru...) and some strange vegetable tea that tasted like sort of like "chicha." Everyone in the group talked about other treks they'd been on. Jay, not so casually mentioned he'd been to Mount Everest base camp. Only reluctantly did he provide the small detail that he'd traveled there by bus. Meanwhile, I'd only hiked down Mt. Washington. It was clear we were the least experienced of the group. Even including the three girls from The OC on our tour("Oh, we're like totally not like those Laguna Beach girls...). Sing it with me, kids: "Macchu Picchu... Macchu Picchu... here we commmmmmmmmmmmme..."

Then, still feeling pretty terrible, me and Jay bickered about where to put our boots and bags in the tent and soon passed out.

Day 1 Campsite

Hike, Day 1, over. Tomorrow-- "the hardest day," according to Lobo. How bad can it be?

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