“I had to piss in my water bottle! I’ve washed it in hot water and with soap, but it still tastes funny!” – Manny, a member of our hiking group the morning after camping in a small tent on a particularly freezing cold night in the Andes.
We’ve just returned from our two-and-a-half week journey through Peru and Brazil, a trip that took us from Lima, Peru’s capital, up through the Andes to the city of Cuzco in order to climb Machu Picchu, then over to São Paulo in Brazil. After São Paulo came Rio de Janeiro, alleged host of the 2016 Olympic Games and a return visit to Lima before returning to New York.
It was a great trek, one that has left us with some interesting experiences, whether they be for good or just plain surreal reasons, but so much has happened over the course of the last fortnight or so that it would be impossible to fit it into one single post. It’s the 4th of July long weekend and we’re both exhausted so Anna is finishing off season six of Game of Thrones and I’m going to write as much of this as I can. You’ll have to bear with me, I’m trying to recall things that now happened a couple of weeks ago, so there might not be a lot of detail in the initial parts, but never fear, there will be an absolute ass-load of photos!
First things first, trekking through the Andes.
Our adventure began several weeks before our actual departure. No, not just Anna’s insanely borderline-obsessive level of focus when it comes to planning flights and accommodation, but also medication. We had to get yellow fever shots and also start taking medication for altitude sickness. Anna suffered from altitude sickness quite badly when she was in the Himalayas, doing volunteer work. She was constantly out of breath, every time she bent over she got an excruciating headache and whenever she lay down it felt as if there were a weight on her chest. Not a lot of fun.
There are several herbal medications you can take in advance to supposedly help counter altitude sickness. The first is taking ginkgo-bilboa tablets, the second is putting chlorophyll drops in water, both of which increase the body’s red blood cell count. So, what is ‘chlorophyll,’ I hear you ask. Well, chlorophyll is a biomolecule that helps plants absorb energy from sunlight during photosynthesis. It’s also what makes plants green, thus, in much the same way that eating too much beetroot makes your excrement purple, this water made it look like we were both crapping lengths of garden hose. It was not a pretty sight.
We flew out from New York on Wednesday, June 15, but we landed relatively late in Lima. By the time we got to our hotel it was about 11:00pm, but we were allowed to check in late and fortunately people eat quite late in Peru, so we were able to go to a restaurant and get something to eat while middle-aged couples danced to a traditional Peruvian band. We’d needed to eat quickly and get some sleep, the next day was going to be a busy one.
Thursday, June 16
We had to catch a flight to Cuzco at about 2:30pm, leaving us little time for lunch. Ceviche is pretty much the national dish of Peru, consisting of raw seafood that is cured in lemon or lime juice with some onion and chilli and this stuff is spectacular! Luckily for us, just down the road from where we were staying were several ceviche restaurants, so we pulled up a seat early at one of the small, neighbourhood stores before the lunch crowd arrived. There was just one problem — The menu was entirely in Spanish and, although we know a few food terms, it wasn’t sufficient to quite figure out the menu and our waiter spoke very little English. There was no need to worry though, because the locals are very friendly and a man on an adjacent table could see we were having some trouble and offered to help. He translated the menu for us, helped us order and sat around chatting with us while we waited for our food to arrive and he waited for his lunch companion. We introduced ourselves, he asked where we’re from, what we do, the usual stuff. When we asked him the same questions, it turned out that he is somewhat of a local celebrity, Ricardo Montoya (right). If you translate what is written in that link, it says:
Ricardo Montoya: Psychologist (URP). He is Magister in American Literature by Queens University, Canada. Master in Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy. Doctoral candidate in Hispanic Studies from the University of Western Canada. He is currently conducting Good Morning Peru and 24 hours.
Yup, besides being a borderline genius, this guy hosts two different TV shows. We continued chatting until our food came, he apologised for his shiny suit while wiping off some television makeup and then wished us a pleasant journey. We scoffed down our lunch and chugged our Inca Kola before heading to the airport. If you’re wondering what Inca Kola is, it is an extremely popular Peruvian soda that looks like a dehydrated tramp pissed in a coke bottle, but in a blind taste test it has the flavour of cream soda with an extra added kilogram of sugar per milligram. Coca~Cola now owns Inca Kola, but this stuff outsells Coke by a mile in Peru, everyone drinks it! In some restaurants, especially fast food places, it is the default, if not only, beverage option and you can buy it in three litre bottles in supermarkets.
We arrived at the airport early and were promptly upgraded to business class for no reason at all. Great success. We arrived in Cuzco, but, despite all of our precautions, we were both a bit paranoid about altitude sickness, especially Anna. When I told her I felt completely fine, she simply replied, “It takes a little while to come on.”
Some information about Cuzco thanks to our little buddies at wikipedia:
Cuzco is a city in southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. It is the capital of the Cusco Region as well as the Cusco Province. In 2013, the city had a population of 435,114. Located on the eastern end of the Knot of Cuzco, its elevation is around 3,400 m (11,200 ft).
The site was the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th into the 16th century until the Spanish conquest. In 1983 Cusco was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It has become a major tourist destination, receiving nearly 2 million visitors a year. The Constitution of Peru designates it as the Historical Capital of Peru.
Yup, that is pretty high, but besides getting a little puffed taking our suitcases to our rooms, we had no effects from the altitude. Another remedy for altitude sickness is coca tea and pretty much everywhere will give you some for free. The receptionist at the hotel could see we were a tad out of breath, so he poured us a few cups. It wouldn’t be the last time we would be drinking coca tea, because that is nowhere near the highest altitude we would reach.
Our reason for coming to Cuzco was so we could trek through the Andes to get to Machu Picchu. There are several different routes you can take; One is the Inca Trail, but that is extremely popular and by the time we tried to book a place, it was full. Another option, the one we took, is the Lares Valley Trek. This trek is organised through Enigma travel and the itinerary is stated on their website as follows:
Sacred Valley – Lares Valley – Machupicchu
4 days / 3 nights – Group Service
This less-known hike departs from the Sacred Valley of the Incas to enter a route where amazing mountain scenery, glacier lagoons, valley cloud-forest and authentic textile Quechua communities are combined to finally reach the village of Lares, where you can end the trek by relaxing in its famous hot springs. From Lares we drive to Ollantaytambo and board the train to Aguas Calientes to visit Machupicchu on day 4 of the program. A unique hike to get in touch with Andean people and learn about their traditions and life-style. Social help is appreciated.
Day 1: Cusco to Cancha Cancha
We leave Cusco at 4.00am in a private transport and drive for 2h towards Huarán, the starting point of our trek. On this first day, we walk for approximately 5h following an uphill path that starts in a valley with lush vegetation and that will take us to our first campsite in Cancha Cancha, a small farming community in the middle of a spectacular mountain scenery. We will stop for lunch along the way. Once we get to Cancha Cancha, we set our camp and get to know the local people and their way of living.
Day 2: Cancha Cancha to Queuñaqocha Lagoon
We leave our camp after breakfast to start walking along an ascending path that will lead us to the first mountain pass of the trek, the Abra Pachacutec (4400m/14432ft/3h), from which we can enjoy awesome views of glacier lagoons and the surrounding valleys. Along the hike, we may also have spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains in the area, such as Colquecruz, Minas and Sirijuani. We will have lunch after the pass, to then descend to Quiswarani, a small peasant and textile community, from where we continue following an uphill path until we reach the beautiful lagoon of Queuñaqocha, where we set up our second camp.
Day 3: Queuñaqocha Lagoon to Lares and Aguas Calientes
Today we continue our hike towards the second mountain pass, the Abra Willkiccasa (4100m/13448ft/2h), offering impressive views of both sides of the pass, especially of the Colquecruz and Pitusiray mountains. The trail continues along changing puna, lakes and agricultural areas with roaming deer until we arrive in Cuncani 3h later, another small peasant community from where we follow our hike down a fertile valley with more vegetation, crops and agricultural communities. Along the trail we may see native flowers such as begonias and wild orchids. After an approximated 2h walk we arrive in Lares, capital of the district with the same name, a large village whose principal attraction are its pleasant hot springs, where we can enjoy a dip. After lunch, our private transport will drive us to Ollantaytambo, where we board an afternoon train that will take us to Aguas Calientes. Upon arrival, we are accommodated at the selected hotel/hostel.
Day 4: Machupicchu to Cusco
After an early breakfast, we board a bus to go up to Machupicchu and then immediately begin a complete guided tour of the Inca citadel that will take approximately two hours. We then have free time to walk around, climb the Huaynapicchu Mountain, where one can appreciate spectacular views of all of Machupicchu, the valleys and mountains that surround it (please note that there are only 400 visitors allowed per day), or visit the Temple of the Moon or the fabulous Inca Bridge. In the afternoon, we meet in the town of Aguas Calientes where, if you like, you can visit and relax in its hot springs. From here we take the train back to the city of Cusco, where we arrive after nightfall.
Damn, that sounds tough and the difficulty level is described as “Moderate to Challenging,” but we can do it! We had to go to a briefing about our journey at 6:30pm and we arrived on time, but found ourselves sitting around for half an hour for our traveling companions to arrive. We looked at the board with the names of all the people who would be in our trek and there were only two surnames on the list that weren’t ‘Abel’, ‘Tan’ or ‘Lopez’. Eventually the Lopez family arrived and we heard them well before we saw them, an extremely loud Cuban family from Miami. They were nice people, but damn they were noisy!
We got the run down on the hell we’d be putting our bodies through over the next couple of days from Marco, our tour guide, and to be honest, it didn’t seem to be quite as torturous as the online itinerary suggested but only time would tell if that opinion would last and if our bodies could take it. One big change they made that resulted in me being exceptionally happy was changing the departure time on the first day from 4:00am to 6:00am. Still stupidly early, but not anywhere near as bad as we previously thought.
We went for dinner after the briefing with the intention of trying one of the local delicacies, ‘cuy’. Translation: Guinea pig. This wasn’t difficult to find, they serve it everywhere, so we found one of the places that specialises in the little guys and pulled up a seat and listened to the band playing in the corner. Ordering a beer wasn’t an option, not because they don’t have it or because we had to get up at 5:30am the next day, but more due to the fact that even a small amount of alcohol when you’re not used to this altitude gets you absolutely hammered! We just drank sparkling water and waited for our alpaca skewers and roasted guinea pig to arrive and they were well worth the wait:
Guinea pig tastes a kind of like rabbit and alpaca was a bit gamey, but it all tasted great to me. One thing we would learn and a pattern that would plague us the entire trip, however, is that portions in Peru, and Brazil for that matter, are enormous!
Now to get back to our room and get some sleep, we had an early morning and incredibly tough day ahead of us!
Friday, June 17
I have no idea how we managed to do it, but we both dragged our asses out of bed at 5:30am, got dressed in our hideous German-looking hiking attire and made our way down to the minibus that would be taking us to Huarán, the starting point of this epic journey. Once there we had breakfast and were on our way. Our meals would be provided for us the entire time, but this was the last time we would be able to use what even the most poverty-stricken household would consider a normal toilet for the next few days.
Today was the day that we were told was the easiest. The first part of our hike was a five-hour uphill struggle through beautiful valley scenery and it became immediately clear that we had made the right choice in paying the extra US$90.00 for a donkey to carry our packs for us, because we definitely wouldn’t have done it with an extra 10+ kg (22 lb) on our backs. Sure, we had to make a conscious effort to not step in donkey shit the entire way, but after drinking chlorophyll-water for several weeks, what was coming out of us was the same colour and texture as that of the donkeys, so that little nugget of self-deprecating humour made it a little easier to handle each time we trod in a pile.
There were two guides in our group called Marco, but one went by Marc Anthony and he was funny as hell. He formed a bond with Anna and myself because we didn’t spend the whole time complaining and we wouldn’t get offended when he made smart-ass comments, like the time I tried to let him lead the way, but he simply responded with “Ladies first.” There’s also the fact that he was barely up to my nipples and and we just made J-Lo references to whatever he said.
Anna and myself were around the middle of the age bracket for our tour group of 12, with five of the others being around 50 years old or older. We were also generally at the front of the pack, but that is because the others all insisted on stopping and feeding every single stray dog they encountered along the way, which equates to quite a few when you are in the mountainous areas of Peru. This worked well in our favour because we had to sit and stop quite frequently and wait 10-15 minutes for them to catch up. Granted, it wasn’t just the feeding of the dogs that held them back, it was also the fact that the air was so thin at that altitude that it was almost impossible at some stages to walk more than about 10 steps without stopping to catch your breath. Hell, I couldn’t even suck in my gut for a photo for more than about five seconds. It didn’t help that Anna and myself had drunk nearly all of our water and essentially all water in South America, including that from rivers and streams, is undrinkable. An error we vowed not to make again.
During this stretch of our hike we encountered some local alpaca and llama herders and their traditional dwellings. We didn’t quite appreciate it at the time, but it is miraculous how they manage to survive in those windowless houses. This was a fact that would become clear later that night when we realised just how cold it gets. These farmers also tend to have quite a few children because they are seen as extra help with the work that yields very little, so there is often numerous people residing in those tiny huts.
After hiking predominantly uphill for over five hours it was time for lunch. The crew with us set up a dining tent, two toilet tents and a kitchen tent and the traditional Peruvian fare they prepared was pretty damn good. Most of us didn’t care so much about sustenance, it was just a relief to be off our feet for a bit. As for the toilet situation, when it comes to bowel movements I’m about as regular as a Metamucil spokesman, but for some reason that part of your body just shuts down when you’re up in those conditions. This was the longest I would ever go without having to take a dump.
Soon lunch was over and we were off again for another three hours, this time making our way through valleys, past ancient cemeteries and farms, watching donkeys, alpacas, llamas and sheep grazing in the surrounding mountains while caracaras circled overhead. Some pictures we took during the day’s hike:
Eventually we set up camp and by this time it was freezing cold. Our legs were rubbery because, although we had only walked 14 km (8.6 miles), we had climbed the equivalent of 196 floors worth of stairs! What makes it even crazier is that when we were having dinner our guides told us that they do this trek at least once a week and we were totally knackered after the first day!
Now, I’ve mentioned in passing that we had two toilet tents, but I didn’t go into great detail, so allow me to elaborate; The toilet tents were tents tall enough to stand in, but not very wide and with faulty zippers for “doors”. The toilet itself was basically a potty — It was a four-legged, fold-up plastic structure that stood maybe a foot off the ground with a small toilet seat that kept a plastic bag in place and that’s where everybody’s business went from the time we set up camp in the late afternoon until the time we departed again the following day. My worst nightmare enclosed in canvas. Anna felt the need to go in the middle of the night and, despite what would be sub-zero temperatures in both celsius and fahrenheit, she mustered up the intestinal fortitude to go out and take a leak. However, when she sat down one of the legs collapsed due to it being a folding stool, but she managed to catch herself at the last minute, stopping the entire bag of excrement soaking the lower half of her torso in the nick of time. We had made friends with two Egyptian girls on the trek, Nadia and Dahlia, and Nadia suffered the same displeasure, too. I guess I can’t blame Manny for pissing in his drink bottle now. I’ve never been so glad to be blocked up in my life.
The night was so cold that almost nobody slept at all. Except me, that is, due mainly to industrial-strength sleeping pills and the fact that I wore thermals, an ice-hockey jersey, a hoodie and my goose-down puffer jacket inside a down sleeping bag. I still felt the cold, but not as badly as others. Another factor in people struggling to sleep was that it was so bright outside due to the moonlight in the mountains. You could walk around outside without a torch with no problems at all.
Saturday, June 18
We were woken earlier than our 6:00am wakeup call by a lot of shouting from the next tent. “I will pay $1,000 for someone to get me out of here! Seriously, $1,000!” It was one of the cuban women shrieking in response to the cold, trying to sleep in a tent and crap in a different one. This hike wasn’t sitting well with her, but we were told at breakfast there were two options. Option ‘A’ was to do the trek in the way it had been outlined and we would be informed about Option ‘B’ later in the day, which would turn out to be in another seven or eight hours. But first, let’s hang out with some llamas and donkeys and then conquer some mountains. There was a small stream near our campsite that had completely frozen over to the point where it was extremely difficult to even crack the surface by ramming it with my hiking pole as hard as I could. Marc Anthony helped Anna across the stream while telling her to be careful. He then looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, your shoes are like boats. You are Sasquatch of Peru!” He would continue to call me Sasquatch for the remainder of the entire trip.
After we began our hike, I started to think that maybe I was on some form of treadmill. We had been climbing a mountain for over an hour and we still didn’t seem that far from where we started. Our hike today would be about five hours uphill through the mountains, reaching an altitude of roughly 4,500 metres (14,700 feet). To put that in perspective, the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner is approximately 9,000 metres (30,000 feet), so we were going to be roughly half the distance above sea-level of an aeroplane! After that climb, we would stagger downhill for about three hours and then we would have lunch.
This was a torturous leg of the journey. Every breath you tried to suck into your body hurt, we could only stagger a couple of steps and then need to stop again, doubled over as we tried to catch our breath, all the while trying to reach the summit of a mountain on legs that still felt gelatinous from the previous day.
About six hours in, while descending the mountain, we all stopped for a breather because our calf muscles were on fire and we were told about our options:
- Option ‘A’: Continue on as normal, which included spending another five hours conquering another mountain after lunch, or…
- Option ‘B’: We could walk for another hour or so after lunch on relatively flat ground and catch a bus to a hot spring for a bath and the first shower we had had in in several days.
We were about two hours away from where we would be stopping for lunch, so our choices were seven more hours including another enormous mountain and camping in the snow or three more hours and a shower. For Option ‘B’ to be chosen, the decision had to be unanimous and all eyes were on Anna and myself. Why? Because we were always leading the pack and all of the others thought we were the adventurous types who enjoy a challenge, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. We just knew that if we were at the front of the group we got to rest longer while we waited for the rest to catch up as result of age, bad knees, ingrown toenails and random stray animal feeding. We didn’t need to even think about it, Option ‘B’ it would be.
With the knowledge of a shower and one less mountain in mind, we all felt a little rejuvenated as we made our way down to an Andean farmhouse for lunch. Only one problem; I had been holding out too long, I was going to have to back one out in that toilet tent. I’ve mentioned many times my fear of having to drop a number two in public, but in a communal bag in a tent was going to be a whole new kettle of fish! Sure, it might’ve almost collapsed on Anna’s leg, but if I sit on it I run the risk of stirring the contents with my genitals! This was going to take some careful planning on my behalf…
I waited until lunch had started and then, about mid way through, I excused myself. The mental preparation began from the second I stood up. Could I really do this? Could I go in a plastic bag in a tent only a few feet from where everyone else was eating? I had no choice. I unzipped the tent and, although I wasn’t the first to make use of the facility, it wasn’t that bad. I shut the dodgy zip as best I could, propped myself up with my hands on the seat, making sure not to make the whole structure collapse, and went about my business.
Upon completion I was proud, I had conquered possibly my greatest fear. It was only when I returned for lunch that Anna informed me that the small hut off to the side of the house was a metal squat-toilet with running water and a locking door. Shit.
We finished lunch and then made the hour-and-a-half walk down to the next village where we would catch the bus down to the hot springs. Some sights from our extremely exhaustive second day trekking through the Andes:
Once in the village we jumped aboard the bus and made a one hour ride to where the hot springs were. That shower felt like magic, a flushing toilet was a gift from heaven and a 70°C (158°F) geothermically-heated pool was incredible on our tortured, crippled bodies.
We had dinner and were told about the plans for the following day: We would make a four-hour bus ride to Ollantaytambo, an ancient town where we would look around for a while before catching a train to Aguas Calientes, where we would stay the following night. The next morning we would meet at 6:00am and climb Machu Picchu.
Then it dawned us… Had we just put ourselves through this insane mountain trek for nothing? We were under the impression that we needed to hike through the Andes to get to Machu Picchu. We asked around and, although the Inca Trail leads directly to Machu Picchu, our trail didn’t. In fact, it was completely unnecessary, we could’ve just caught a train! Still, although our bodies hated us, we had a great time and saw some amazing sights along the way.
Plus, I think we can handle this for a while:
Stay tuned for the next part of our journey when we climb Machu Picchu. Hopefully it won’t be the essay that this was…