Monday, June 20, 2016

South America (Peru) - Day 124 - 128: Machu Picchu

We got picked up in Cusco centre in the morning and met the rest of the people we would be trekking with over the next four days. They included Michael and Shahn from New Zealand, three Germans (Simon, Aline and Susi) and an Austrian girl, Helene, as well as Mr. Lee from Hong Kong.

Despite being assured that the company we bought the trek from (Aita Peru) was the one running the show, they had lied - like so many agencies do - and they were just a reseller, not an operator. The company we were actually with was Inca Path Peru. It wasn't a massive issue, but I hate being lied to. Our guide was Leo, a tiny, jovial Peruvian who was far more organised than we had expected.

After a three-hour drive into the Ábra de Málaga cloud forest (4400m above sea level), our first activity was downhill biking. The bikes we were given were a little ropey to say the least, and Gilly's gears made some awful crunching noises, but they were functional. Our destination was Santa Maria, a descent of over 3000m. The rain was pouring, but not quite as badly as on our Death Road ride. Still, it made for slightly slippery conditions, and we had to take care. Fortunately, the entire way was paved with good tarmac.

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Things started off pretty well, despite the weather. That changed when we came across a number of streams crossing the road in front of us. Some of them were gentle enough to power through, but there were a couple which were powerful enough to cause hassle and had to be walked through. The worst of these was the last, about three-quarters of the way through the ride. I was behind Gilly, and saw her attempt to ride through it, only for her to end up being pushed off her bike by the force of the water. She had a sprained wrist, but no serious damage was done. After a few minutes she felt well enough to carry on, but before we set off she heard a shout and saw Leo jumping into the river with the van's driver. We ran up to see what was happening - Susi had been swept over the edge of the road, and fallen two metres (with her bike) into the river below. She was being pushed out to a far greater drop only a few metres downstream, but fortunately Leo's quick reactions had stopped her from going any further. Gilly and I jumped in and rescued the bike whilst Susi was pulled to safety; we'd been told that these streams were known as Gringo Killers, and it's easy to see why: without any intervention, it's quite possible Susi might not be with us right now. We learned a few days later that some American girls also got swept down and lost their bikes completely (but survived). The ride was about 40km in total, and oddly felt a little more dangerous than our death road adventure.

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After that excitement/terrifying near-death experience, we eventually made it down to Santa Maria in one piece. We arrived at our hostel which was far better than we were hoping - we even had a double room to ourselves which was unexpected. Afterwards, we had lunch down the road at a place called "The Only Bar" which had pretensions of being some sort of gastronomic experience (the starter was a tiny cone of spaghetti with cheese on top, next to a tablespoon of pesto) but failed to actually serve hot food. It filled a gap, and we needed the energy as we were white-water rafting in the afternoon.

The rest of the gang other than Mr. Lee decided to sit it out, so the three of us went to the river at Quillabamba and got kitted up. We were assigned a raft leader called Freddy, who was quite possibly insane. The rapids were grade 3 so not super tough, but strong enough to get us wet on a few occasions. After every break in the rapids we were asked if we were ready, and were told to scream "READY FREDDY!" as well as doing high-fives with our paddles. At one point Freddy asked us if we wanted to jump in the water. I did not want to jump in the water. Freddy got into the water, and pulled me into the water off the raft anyway. As I said, insane. Despite probable mental health issues, Freddy and the entire rafting experience were actually a lot of fun. We were on the river for just over an hour, and by the time we got back to the hostel we were in desperate need of a hot shower which the hostel provided, another unexpected bonus as we were told we'd only get one on our final night.

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Rafting

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Day two of the trek involved bona fide trekking. After a lukewarm breakfast at The Only Bar, we set off from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa, a seven hour hike which saw us climbing through the jungle along an old Inka trail. On the way, Leo pointed out various flora in the area, including coca and coffee plants, different fruits, and berries used for their colouring in lipstick. Or in this case, painting our faces with symbols. This seems to happen to us quite regularly when we're in the jungle... We also tried some wild chillies and I can confirm that they were crazy spicy despite their minuscule size.

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We stopped at a couple of houses on the trek, including one Monkey House which had a monkey chained up outside it. I'm not a fan of forcing wild animals to be kept in captivity; the owners claimed that it was only chained up when visitors were due to arrive, as otherwise it'd steal their things. They also claimed that they tried to set it free but it kept coming back and making noise. I don't believe either statement - it looked like it was shackled solely as a tourist attraction, and was probably being driven out of its mind with boredom. It clearly also had anger issues - Gilly got a little close trying to take photos, and it grabbed at her camera and bit her finger hard, drawing blood. Leo assured us that it wasn't rabid, but it did nothing to help our moods and we were keen to move on.

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We visited another house an hour or so later, which also had animals - in this case a blue and yellow macaw, as well as a much rarer pacarana. Again, these appeared to be kept primarily for tourists to gawk at, and neither looked particularly happy to be there (the parrot's wings had been clipped and the pacarana is actually nocturnal so should have been kept away from people in the daytime). We were shown a heap of different fruits, tools and vessels used by local people, including a weird brick-shaped potato which looked like it was made from bark, and a clever two-chambered jar which was used for carrying chicha. A lady at the house made organic chocolate using nothing but coarse chocolate and honey - it was chocolate with the texture of dense brownie and tasted divine. We bought a couple of bars to keep us going on the trek. There was also a rack of traditional clothing which we got to try on, as well as a very creepy doll (not that dolls aren't all creepy anyway, but this one was particularly grotesque).

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There are several Inca paths around the area - the "official" Inca trail is just one of these, and most likely the most picturesque. However, we really enjoyed the hike and some of the views were astounding, especially when we reached Huancarccasa and could look out over the valley and the Urubamba river from a tiny ledge along the cliff wall. Susi had a massive fear of heights, so hated every minute of it, but came through like a trooper.

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We didn't manage to do the entire trek as the rain had washed out both the bridge and the cable car system which we were thinking of using instead. As such, we had to take a minibus to the final part of the trail but it wasn't too much of a hardship given we were all knackered anyway. We ended the day with a relaxing soak in some thermal pools, which were the nicest I'd seen on the trip and took the edge off the day's hike.

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It was action time again the next morning, as we were heading out to a nearby zip-lining company after breakfast to throw ourselves off ledges and over valleys attached to nothing but a couple of cables. It felt slightly more secure than the Gibbon Experience we did in Laos but anyone who'd read the disclaimer form would beg to differ, given they denied responsibility for absolutely everything - including your death. There were five lines of increasing length, which you could tackle seated or upside down - we did it both ways, although Gilly had more success using the GoPro than I did. They were pretty quick, but for a couple of them we didn't build sufficient speed to get right to the end so we had to pull ourselves in. The final line was the fastest and longest, and gave us the best views of the valley.

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After the zip-lines, there was a rope bridge. Well, it was less of a bridge and more just a couple of lines with a few planks dotted here and there. We could still hook ourselves up to it so we didn't plunge to our deaths, though one guy from another tour freaked out about how bouncy it was. You just have to trust in the equipment and hope that it doesn't fail when you're 30 metres from the ground.

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After lunch at Hidroelectrica which included a free wet puppy, we walked along the train tracks towards Aguas Calientes. It was a wet, humid walk which covered 16km, but thankfully not steep due to the train - although we were very glad to have bought our North Fake jackets in Cusco as we were drenched by the time we got to the end. We passed one of the trains on the way in; apparently a seat on one of these carriages goes for about $500, and Leonardo DiCaprio booked an entire carriage when he visited because why not.

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On arrival in Aguas Calientes we were treated to a simply magnificent rainbow over the town, making it look like a fantasy painting of an elven village, complete with waterfall. The rest of the town was typical tourist fare, with an artesanal market, average accommodation and bog-standard eateries.

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We found a French bakery amongst the dross, which was selling dense cakes and rich pastries and baguettes, so we filled our bellies with dessert after dinner. We had been given a basic breakfast bag with some bananas, a box of juice and a breakfast bar, but it was going to be a long day so we stocked up on a packed lunch.

At 4am we were up and out of the hostel. The walk to the passport control office was about 45 minutes from the town so, with a backpack full of food and water, we walked down to the queue of people waiting to enter and then got to the base of the ascent up to Machu Picchu.

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There are two options for getting to the entrance from the base. One is to hike up. The other is to pay $12 and get a bus. We decided to walk it with Shahn and Michael, as it was supposed to take an hour or less. On reflection, this was a mistake. By the time we slogged our way up to the entrance for 6:15 we were exhausted and, coupled with the early start,  the climb took it out of us. Leo had done the smart thing and bussed up, so was feeling pretty chipper (the perks of being a guide!) and once inside, he led us into the city and up to a quiet terrace where he gave us a bit of history. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open through the talk, and the rest of our group were similarly knackered since everyone had walked up. If I could recommend one thing to anyone going to Machu Picchu, it would be to take the bus up and then walk down. It didn't detract from our enjoyment of the day in any way, other than making my memory of the facts about the place from Leo feel very sketchy. Still, there were llamas roaming around and since the early morning fog was blocking most decent views of the city, they were a good alternative and happy to pose for us.

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Eventually the fog did clear, and we decided to hike up Machu Picchu mountain with Shahn and Michael. This was one of the toughest treks we'd done, not least due to our lack of energy from the previous climb. It was incredibly steep, and we needed to keep motivating each other to put one foot in front of the other. Michael had some sweets called maca which were basically energy in a toffee form. I have no idea if they actually worked or if it was a placebo effect, but they certainly helped keep us plodding onwards and upwards. We were rewarded with a few rest stops along the way which gave us some indication of what we'd experience when we hit the top.

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Eventually, after a slow, inexorable climb where we met a few people on the way back down who offered support and constant time checks to our destination ("Only ten minutes more, guys!", "Not far now!"), we reached the top and promptly collapsed in a nearby shelter to devour almost every scrap of food in my backpack. I'd never felt so completely ravenous before. We must have stayed there for a good hour, just eating and recovering, working up the energy needed to fully appreciate the view. And what a spectacular view it was, justifying every ounce of effort we'd expended to get to see it.

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It's hard to describe what it feels like to look down on a place like Machu Picchu, but if I was to try: wonderment at what their civilisation must have been like, awe at the construction of buildings which have stood the test of time, and gratefulness that the Spanish considered it not worth their time to do anything with - especially not destroy. It seems that the resident Incas may not have even met the Spanish, instead they were pretty much wiped out by smallpox before they were invaded.

After a good amount of time spent enjoying the views with the rest of the group - who had arrived just before we finished eating - we made our way back down to explore the city. It took about an hour to get down compared to almost two coming up. I love descents.

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Dark clouds lurked ominously a few miles away, whilst it was bright and sunny over the city itself. It lent a lovely contrast of light and shadow to our panoramas. Shahn had gone to the bathroom outside the entrance without taking her passport and Michael, unaware that he was carrying both, wandered around obliviously while she had to wait outside in hope he'd realise. Eventually the guards took pity and let her in after an hour to see the rest of the ruins. Whoops. Hilariously, whilst trying to take a jumping shot in front of the ruins to add to my collection, I was informed that I was "not allowed to jump" in Machu Picchu. I don't know how fat they thought I was, but perhaps the weight of my landing would be enough to send a shockwave through the city and reduce it to rubble. I acknowledged this request politely, then when his back was turned did it anyway. Machu Picchu remained standing. Thank the gods!

We took a look around some of the more important areas of Machu Picchu, including the temple of the three windows representing heaven, earth and the underworld, and Inti Watana which looks like a sundial but was also potentially also used as a calendar; it has a very odd shape and experts are still unsure of its actual purpose.

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Machu Picchu is one of those historical sites which is on the must-see list of pretty much every traveller in Peru. Rightly so, since it's an architectural wonder and despite my trepidation that it'd be a tourist-filled let-down, I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to see it. I only hope that the government doesn't allow it to degrade. We'd already seen evidence of corruption - the tickets we were handed were dated for a few days in the future, in order to get around the maximum daily limit of people allowed to enter each day. As such, there's a very real risk of excess tourism to cram in the crowds and make more money at the cost of the site's preservation. Hopefully UNESCO can help keep this wonder intact for future generations.

We ended the day at about 4pm, making our way back down to the base (accompanied by a dog for most of the journey), and grabbed a pizza with Michael and Shahn at a local restaurant. We had train tickets to get back from Aguas Calientes, and for some reason when we arrived at the station they had upgraded us to the "premium" coach for free. I think this basically just meant we got a snack and a drink, but we weren't complaining. We stopped at Ollantaytambo where we'd been told someone with a visible company name would have our names on a sign - we found the guy, but our names were nowhere to be seen. After some confusion we were directed to a bus and got a seat, only to then have another irate guy from the same company come over five minutes later and tell us that we were on the wrong bus and we had to move to a second smaller minibus. Communication in South America: not great. We got back to Cusco at about 10pm and into Hostel El Arcano about half an hour later. The room we'd had previously and had re-booked was not available, although we struggled to understand from the guy on reception why not. We were given smaller digs with a curtainless window and a shower that refused to provide hot water, so gave up and collapsed into sleep.

We were woken up the next morning by the owner, who was asking why we weren't in the room we booked, a question I'd loved her to have answered the previous night. Shrugging it off and explaining the situation, we went to Jack's Cafe for another huge breakfast, before wandering around the town picking up bracelets and getting a massage for our aching limbs. Massage parlours are everywhere in Cusco, capitalising on the Inca trail trekkers. However, very few of them are qualified masseuses, and after a bit of searching I found a place that apparently offered good massages by people who had some idea what they were doing. We flicked through a book of possible massages, and whilst I picked a different one to Gilly who paid a couple of quid more, we compared notes later and found that we'd basically had the exact same massage with hot stones. It was very relaxing and I felt great afterwards, but anyone visiting Nueva Vida should probably just opt for the cheapest one in the list.

Collecting our bags from the hostel in the afternoon, we made our way to the bus station for another overnight bus - this time to Ica. Another 16 hour journey awaited us!

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