A Travellerspoint blog

April 2010

Machu Picchu

overcast 65 °F

We are finally going up to Machu Picchu! It is one of the new 7 wonders of the world and the main drawing point to Peru (for us at least). Our goal was to get up early so that we could see the sun come up over the mountains and climb the mountain peak overlooking Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu (only the first 400 people can climb Huayna Picchu daily). The first bus left at 5:30 am, so we planned on getting to the bus stop a little before 5. Despite getting there early, 250+ people were already in line ahead of us waiting for the buses. I tried to patiently wait for the buses to start running, but I couldn't wait to get to the top!

The buses finally started to run, and Megan and I attempted to calculate exactly how many people were ahead of us (really it was the only thing to pass the time). We boarded our bus and took off up the zigzag path up the mountain. It seemed like I wasn't the only one who was nervous and excited about reaching the top, as almost everyone was anxiously snapping pictures as we went up the mountain. People weren't taking one or two pictures, but filling up memory cards constantly taking pictures of the EXACT SAME SCENERY. It was a half hour bus ride, zigzagging up the side of a mountain, but people kept taking pictures, and taking pictures, and taking pictures. It was a cacophony of beeps from digital cameras. I tried taking a couple pictures, but it was a fruitless endeavor as they ended up being blurry or blocked by a tree. I upped my game and took a video between two of the turns up the path.

We arrived at the front gate and rushed to join the long line of people waiting to get into the park. Everyone who was in line in front of us for the bus was now waiting in front of us at the gate. Two men were making their way down the line to hand out passes to climb Huayna Picchu, and Megan and I got our entrance tickets stamped. I decided to make a quick pit stop to "drop the kids off at the pool" since the only bathroom was outside the front gate. I paid the S\.1 bathroom entrance fee and ventured in. However, just like everywhere in Peru, there was no toilet paper, and I decided to hold it.

I rejoined Megan in line, got stopped by security because I didn't sign my name on my ticket (I didn't get the point, no one collected my entrance ticket, so why did it matter if I signed it?) which was a pain since I didn't have a pen. After getting into the park, we followed the people in front of us to get to the guard house, which was supposed to be one of the best places to watch the sunrise. However, the people in front of us had no clue where they were going either, and we ended up on the path to the Sun Gate (which was an hour trip hike to the far end of the the site). I decided it was time to be ultra-tourist and pull out the map. By coordinating with our lost companions and using 3 different maps, I was able to point us in the right direction. We made it to the guard house and got the grand view of Machu Picchu just as the sun was rising.

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As you can see, it was a little cloudy early in the morning. We hung out for a while at the guard house to appreciate the view and to see if the clouds cleared. Every time the clouds cleared, several oohs and ahhs came from the people seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. It was really an impressive sight, albeit a cloudy one. You could barely see Huayna Picchu in the background. A couple of llamas were hanging out inside the guard house, so we posed for a picture. Here is also a picture of Megan walking up the hill to the guard house.

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The clouds didn't really clear out, so we decided to start making our way around. A misty rain started to fall, but it only lasted for about 5 minutes (you can tell when it is raining in the pictures because we put our jackets on). We entered through the front gate and walked toward the royal quarters. They believe the royalty lived in this section of Machu Picchu because they would have had the first access to the clean water, the rooms are large, and it is next to the "most beautiful wall". All the stones in Machu Picchu were carved out of granite, not molded like bricks. This means every stone was shaved down using hammers and rocks to get their shape. The "most beautiful wall" is a wall where all the stones are roughly the same size, perfectly smooth, create nice straight lines, and is literally the most beautiful wall in Machu Picchu. As we passed the wall, the "most beautiful man" took a picture with the "most beautiful wall".

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I also stopped to take care of business on the real royal throne.

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Before I go any further, let me explain something about the "mystique" of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu first started being built in the 1400s. Several people have asked me if it was a defendable fortress. While it is secluded and has some natural defenses (like cliffs on three sides), it is not really a fotress. The city walls do not resemble medieval castles and could easily be hopped over. There were sentries, but as it took a week to hike to Machu Picchu, an approaching army would be easily spotted. There were no barracks or stockpiles of weapons found at Machu Picchu. The largest evidence against Machu Picchu being a fortress was that people abandoned the site once the Spanish invaded (instead of retreating there). Cuzco was the capital of the Inca empire, and it is more likely that Machu Picchu was a holy site and retreat for royalty. Remember a couple entries ago when I listed the things the Incas found most sacred? Mountains, earth, the sun, and water (especially water coming from a mountain). Well, Machu Picchu has all 4, including a year-round source of water coming from the mountain. Every other building at Machu Picchu is a temple of some sort. Well, that's what the experts think. EVERYTHING about Machu Picchu is an educated guess. The Incas have no written history, and the Spanish never knew that Machu Picchu existed. It sat unoccupied for 500 years before accidentally being found in 1911. The "mystique" of Machu Picchu is that it could have been anything. It could have been a site to communicate with aliens for all we know. However, in this entry, I'll stick to what the "experts" have agreed upon instead of creating my own theories.

We left the royal residence and walked down the stairs by the fountains. I stopped for a picture next to the llama, and as I was slowly moving in closer for a better picture, the llama whipped around and went eye to eye with me. It may not look like it the picture, but llamas are big, and they spit. The llama let our a huge fart, started pooping on Machu Picchu, and emphatically let me know that I was encroaching on his territory. I sheepishly backed away and joined Megan at the bottom of the stairs.

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We followed the path laid out by the guide book, walked by the Temple of the Sun, took in some of the views through the Temple of the 3 Windows, and paused a minute to rest in the courtyard.

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The coolest part to me about Machu Picchu (and this may be because I'm an engineer) was how the Incas carved useful objects out of huge pieces of rock, integrated the natural shape of the mountain into their buildings, and somehow everything remained perfectly intact for 500 YEARS with NO maintenance. Here is a picture of a torch holder carved from a huge rock. You can also see in one of the pictures how the carved the stones to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The only collapsed wall I saw during the whole day was in the Temple of the 3 Windows, and that happened when the Incas were still living in Machu Picchu.

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We made our way up to one of the most holy sites at Machu Picchu, Intihuatana (meaning the "Hitching Post of the Sun"). If you look at the main picture, it is the pyramid in the back left corner. At the top of Intihuatana is a carefully carved rock. Initially this site received its name because it was believed that during the summer solstice (the most holy day) that the sun would align directly over the site and create no shadow, as if the sun was resting all its weight on the rock. More recently a new theory has arisen. Now it is thought that the Intihuatana stone is actually an abstract representation of Huayna Picchu (which rises directly behind the stone), since the rock closely mimics the shape of Huanya Picchu (see picture below). There are also several other examples across the Inca Empire where the Incas paid homage to the mountains by carving replicas (like the rock in the Colca Canyon).

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I mentioned earlier how Macchu Picchu has cliffs on 3 sides. Well, being on top of a mountain, they had to use every available space. The cliff next to Intihuatana was terraced and used for farming. I could barely walk down the steps, much less carry anything down them. I am only 3 steps down and can reach straight out to touch where I started.

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We walked down from Intihuatana and walked to the far end of Machu Picchu near the base of Huayna Picchu. The most anticipated part of the trip was climbing Huayna Picchu, but the rain had made everything super slippery and we wouldn't be able to see anything from the top anyways (even from the top of Intihuatana the rest of Machu Picchu was lost in a cloud). We ended skipping the trail up to Huayna Picchu, although I think it may have been closed anyways (I didn't see anyone make their way up). We walked down past the artisan's wall (giant wall that even had rain spouts) and past the wall that supposedly had a bird in it. I think the experts are really reaching on this one, check out the picture of Megan pointing to it, you can supposedly see the beak, the head (with a little bird on top of it), the neck, the body, and the tail feathers. I also added a picture of Megan walking through a double doorjam (an entry way with two door frames) which usually signified you were entering an important area.

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We walked through some more temples (every room that had a large, carved, flat rock that was supposedly an altar was named a temple). There was a room with some bowls carved out of stone floor. Some think that they were used for smashing grain (but why not use a regular bowl) and some thought it was for carving stones (but why not do that in the quarry area). The consensus is that no one has any clue about their purpose. I took a picture with them anyways. Megan took a ride down the creatively named "slide rock" and walked down stairs carved into the mountain where they also conveniently carved a hand rail. I also took a shot looking back up towards Intihuatana.

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We were at another one of the cliffs of Machu Picchu. Check out this view and how steeply the land drops away (and my nervous expression as I stood on the wet grass).

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We were getting close to completing our circuit of Machu Picchu, but there was one spiritual rock we hadn't seen yet (although I had almost had my fill of rocks). It is directly underneath Megan in this picture.

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I found a pathway that led through one of the storehouses.

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However, the path ended just outside another storehouse. I convinced Megan that we could climb around the outside of the storehouse and down over the rocks to the lower level. She was skeptical, and stayed back as started my descent. I carefully and very slowly started down the rock face, but then I suddenly slipped. I could barely heard her yelp as I fell off of Machu Picchu...

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This picture was obviously a reenactment after I didn't die. Megan rushed around to look down the slope where I had miraculously landed on my feet and prevented myself from tumbling down the slope. This is what it looked like beneath me.

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Megan made it safely down "slippery rock" and we headed towards "spiritual rock". It was not nearly as glamorous as I expected. It was yet another rock carved to mimic the mountain backdrop.

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We climbed back up to the residential area and then went back down to a cave carved into the side of the mountain (down a gentle slope this time). The Incas used this tunnel to detect the summer solstice. First they carved the mountain ridge far off in the distance so that it would pass through a sliver of morning light. Next they carved a tunnel the back of the cave. When the light passed through the notch in the distant mountain ridge and reached the back of the cave, the summer solstice had arrived triggering a series of religious activities. I climbed to the back of the cave to check out the view from the other side.

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Our last temple was actually the coolest. It was called Temple of the Condor because, well, it looked like a Condor. The head was carved into the floor of the temple while two rocks extended like wings in the background. Caves extended under each wing to subterranean rooms.

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My favorite room in all of Machu Picchu was located underneath the Temple of the Condor. This room was where they kept the guinea pigs, which were eaten on special occasions. I doubled checked to make sure that there weren't any hiding way in the back of the holes where they were enclosed.

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We had completed our circuit of Machu Picchu. We took a break on some authentic furniture (of course carved out of rock) while we deliberated about climbing Huayna Picchu. We had expected to spend the whole day at Machu Picchu, but it was only 1 pm. We had read every page and followed the trail of the most in depth guide book available, so we decided we had seen all there was to see. We took one last look, and said goodbye to Machu Picchu.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:58 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains animals historical world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Aguas Calientes

overcast 70 °F

Having left the Colca Canyon and Arequipa behind, we landed in the city of Cuzco. Cuzco had a very different feeling about it compared to Arequipa. A McDonald's ad, a Coca-Cola ad, and a Cusqueña ad were displayed above the airport and were the first things you saw when coming in for a landing. Walking in from the gate, at least 10 different tour companies had booths set up around the baggage claim carousel, and all were clamoring for your attention. Since the trains could no longer make it all the way to Cuzco due to the mudslides, we had to find a way to get to Piscacucho to catch the train. We started a bidding war between several companies to see who would drive us to the train station (as well as arranging to stop by the Western Union so I could pick up the money my dad sent). A lowest bidder finally surfaced, and away we go!

Well, almost. The lowest bidder drove us to a somewhat sketchy part of town (there were no tourists and skinned snakes, pig heads, and plucked birds hanging from shop windows). We were then transferred to a van with 10 other Peruvians. Our guide book warned to not get in a cab with other people and only ride in marked taxis as there had been an increase in driving tourists to remote areas, robbing them, and leaving them stranded. Here we are, squished in a van with a bunch of Peruvians, and about to embark on a 3 hour drive to Piscacucho. Megan turned to me and whispered, "Is this OK?" I confidently answered "of course", but internally I was sizing up the other passengers and preparing myself to fight for the money I had just received from Western Union. The van pulled out of the garage and slowly made its way out of Cuzco. Most of the other passengers started to doze off, but I remained on high alert.

I pulled out the guidebook and tried to follow along in a map to make sure we were headed in the right direction. However, when driving on dirt roads there aren't really any road signs, and there was no way for me to know where we were headed. Shortly after leaving the outskirts of Cuzco we were stopped at a security checkpoint. A police office came up to the window, checked the driver's papers, checked out all the passengers, and then waved us through. I didn't know whether to be relieved that the police didn't see any reason to hold up the van or be worried that we got flagged down in the first place. After about 90 minutes a largish town appeared in the valley of a mountain. Once we got to the main street, half the passengers filed out of the van. I let loose a huge sigh of relief as most of men got out of the van. There was only 3 women and 1 man left, and I felt if worse came to worse, I'd be able to take them. About 40 minutes down the road, the rest of the passengers got out, leaving only Megan, me, the driver, and another girl assisting the driver. Assuming we hadn't reached our destination because they didn't shoo us out of the van, we sat tight. After another 30 minutes we arrived in Ollantaytambo and the van parked. The girl assistant opened the van door and pointed at another van. I guess we were transferring. The new driver looked like he hadn't slept in days and sped off down the single lane road. Kids were walking home from school along the road, but our driver just laid on the horn and zoomed past them all (as kids dived off the road and shook their little fists at us as we passed). The van stopped, the driver motioned for us to get out, and then gestured further up the road. From here we walked.

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We came to the rail station, and being about an hour early, we were the only ones there. Megan passed the time by playing games on my iPod, I passed the time by counting my blessings that we weren't raped or robbed on the way up here. About 20 minutes before our train left, other buses began dropping off passengers and the train employees arrived. We boarded the train and took off for Aguas Calientes.

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The train was pretty nice, with huge windows that allowed us to take in all the views. The train had to stop periodically because kids would stand on the tracks and beg. Automated messages warned the passengers to not throw money out the window. However, our conductor threw snacks from the food cart to all the kids. After about an hour train ride, we arrived in Aguas Calientes.

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Aguas Calientes had no cars as it was only reachable by hiking or by train (in fact Aguas Calientes only had one real street). A river gushed through the middle of the town. The town got its name from the hot springs present at the top of town, but honestly I wasn't too eager to check out more "hot" springs. We decided to do a hike up one of the mountains close to town to get our first view of Machu Picchu from afar. I had read about an aggressive hike on TripAdvisor that included climbing multiple 100 foot ladders to reach the summit. 4 of these ladders were lined up together, making a 400 ft ascent. I found a picture of it online, and couldn't wait to climb them.

We dropped our bags off at the hostal and walked down the railroad tracks to get to the trail. This trail was much different from the Colca Canyon as visibility was reduced to only our immediate area. Heavy foliage, vines, and trees surrounds the trail. Everything was slick, which made the steep steps a little tricky.

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After about 30 minutes of hiking, we came to our first ladder. There was only one of them, but it whet my appetite for reaching the rest of the ladders.

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Here is the picture I found online of the ladders (see how the ladders are almost stacked one on top of another).

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Here is what we actually found when we reached the bottom of the ladders.

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They were destroyed by a mudslide! ARGGHHHH! I was not happy at all. Megan was already a little antsy about climbing down slick stones, so I knew it was a losing battle to try and convince her to use the rope to climb around the ladders. I made the best of the situation and took a picture of Aguas Calientes, and headed back into town.

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Once getting back into town, we did a little exploring. We came across the church in the main square, along with the main tourist office for purchasing Machu Picchu tickets, and the main bus station. The thing that really caught my attention were these two Inca statues standing beneath a giant Inca statue. I think the smaller statues were supposed to be doing something (like carrying something), but their hands were empty. This left them looking a little awkward, so of course we took pictures with them. The male Inca statue looked like he was saying "You want some of this?!?", so I mimicked the pose.

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Walking through the main street of Aguas Calientes was analogous to running a gauntlet. Every restaurant had someone standing out front to shove a menu in your face and badger you into coming inside. So every three steps you had to say "no, thank you" to a new person. It was even more frustrating when you actually wanted to look at the menu, because committing to look at one menu meant that you would be hassled extra hard for the next 30 feet. Looking at the menu proved pointless as every single restaurant sold exactly the same things. Pizza, mexican, italian, burgers, chinese, guinea pig, and every other food under the sun was available. We eventually found a classy place that had a giant parrot out front. We chose to sit out on the balcony as no one was actually inside the restaurant.

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As there wasn't much else to do in Aguas Calientes, we ended up sitting on the balcony for a couple hours. We tried the local Inca Kola (which tasted a like a sweet cream soda to me), and eventually got a couple beers. Then menu listed the beer selections as Small Beer, Medium Beer, and Large Beer. When I tried to ask what types of beer they had, the waitress looked at me with a confused expression. She slowly backed away smiling awkwardly, and came back with a bottle of beer and presented it to me. I realized that they only had one type of beer, Cusqueña. Thankfully it wasn't bad. A local band setup right next to our table and began playing some tunes (as were were the only two patrons on our section of the street). Several locals came over and sat down at the tables next to us to listen to the band. It was the perfect way to spend the evening. The band tried to leave after 3 songs, so I put S\.10 (about $3) in their tip jar and asked for "uno más". They quickly set back up and started playing again. After the song, one of the band members made some type of comment (he said it in Spanish, and like I mentioned several times, I'm not fluent) along the lines of "if we get tips like this we will play all night". I thought he was mocking me, but they kept playing and playing and playing. I didn't complain. Here is a video of them playing.

After two medium beers, we called it a night and made our way back to the hostal. Tomorrow we are going to Machu Picchu!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 05:31 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains hiking train Comments (0)

Condors and Arequipa

sunny 75 °F

As the adrenaline rush of successfully making it out of the canyon wore off, our sore feet and tired legs made my heart leap as I saw Roberto waiting with the van. I drank a cup of coca tea for breakfast, building up energy for the rest of the trip through the canyon and back into Arequipa. Our first stop was the biggest attraction in the canyon, Cruz del Condor.

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This cross doesn't seem too special, but people don't come to look at Cruz del Condor. They come to the area for the amazing view of the canyon, and to see the largest South America bird in flight. At 8am every morning a family of Andean condors rides the rising air currents, sometimes flying within feet of the spectators (we saw at least 6 different birds flying through the canyon beneath us). Here is Megan with the view in the background, and a picture/video of the condor flying directly over our head (enjoy the quality of the video as it starts half way through, Megan thought she was taking a picture).

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After appreciating the condors for 30 minutes, we set off back towards Chivay. We stopped off at a couple spots along the canyon for Roy to point out some interesting sights. One of these sites featured burial sites in the canyon wall from the time of the Incas and the pre-Incas. These burial sites were literally on the side of the canyon wall, seemingly unreachable by people. The sites were carved out of the cliff face, the body was placed inside, and then sealed in by packing rocks in the opening. They are hard to see, but in the picture below you can see 8 burial sites on the far left sitting on the white rock about 20 feet above the vegetation hill (they look like stacks of pebbles). A much larger and more important site is visible in the center of the picture. You can tell it is important because of its size and because it has been painted red, which over time has stained the rock beneath the site.

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While looking at the burial sites, we also spotted a viscacha (cousin to the Chinchilla that the residents will catch and eat). The viscacha scurried away when we tried to get closer, and Roy noticed a rock sitting on the canyon rim. It turned out to be a very special rock, as it had been carved centuries ago to mimic the landscape of the canyon. The Incas and pre-Incas worshipped 4 primary things: the earth, the mountain, the sun, and the water (especially water flowing from a mountain as this is where the gods lived). Sacred objects often blended several of this spiritual objects together. This rock was likely sacred because it combined the earth and the mountain (since the rock had likely fallen from the mountain and was shaped to resemble the terraced land), and because of its proximity to the burial sites. From this picture you can also see the extensive modifications the Incas and pre-Incas made to the canyon to make it inhabitable and farmable. Terraces extended as far as the eye could see and are still in use today.

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While Roy was climbing back up from the rock, a man passed with his herd of goats and sheep. I had no clue where he was going. I couldn't remember any pathways leading off the road for miles. The reason I took this picture was to document the world's worst herding dog. The man was constantly running around the road keeping the herd together and beating the heinies of stragglers. His dog on the other hand, leisurely strolled up the pathway.

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A little further up the road we came to another small town. This town had a large, beautiful, white church. Roy dropped Megan and I off to explore the area. It was hard to tell how old the church was, but one of the bell towers had 1865 written on it. The inside was decorated much differently than my church back home. There were no windows and the walls were covered with tall wooden structures with pictures and mannequins of saints. The paintings and mannequins were very graphic, Jesus often being blood covered with gaping wounds. Mirrors had been inserted decoratively between the paintings. I later found out that people originally put mirrors in the churches to entice the locals to come into the church.

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We left the town, stopped in Chivay for lunch, and then headed back to the tops of the mountains. At the highest point of 16,000 feet, we stopped to take some pictures. Mounds of stacked rocks surrounded the area (these stacks had sacred meaning because they mimicked the mountain and were often created to bring good fortune to the person who made them). As was the case anywhere a tourist might show up, women sat on the side of the road selling their wares.

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From here we had several hours of driving ahead of us, mostly through the dusty highlands that we had passed through on our first day. 3 days of hiking and waking up at 3 am caught up with our group, as Megan, Roy, and I all took naps.

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As we came back into Arequipa, it was hard not to see the gigantic eyesore on the horizon. A giant concrete plant sat right off the highway. It used the volcanic ash and rock rich land to produce the concrete.

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Arequipa sits directly in the middle of 3 volcanoes, some that have erupted recently (and threaten to erupt again soon). The volcanic rock surrounding Arequipa is white in color, and Arequipa is called the "White City" because these bricks are frequently used in construction of buildings. Now, when I hear "White City", a grand image of a majestic city comes to mind. However, no buildings in Arequipa were very majestic, a large majority seem run down. Nothing was over 2 stories tall, and everything looked old. If I had to name Arequipa based on appearance, it would be something like "Dusty, Gray City with trash littering the road side). I was surprised at the appearance of the second largest city in Peru, it seemed much smaller than I expected (especially for being home to a million people).

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Half of all Peruvians live beneath the poverty level. The average income for a Peruvian is $50 a month. Driving into Arequipa these facts really hit home. The "houses" were basic at best. The buildings did turn a little nicer as we got more into town.

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One thing that did not turn nicer as we came into the city was the traffic! Street lights were infrequent, but I don't think it would have mattered as no one paid attention to them anyways. It was a free-for-all, as drivers flew through blind intersections trusting that a meager horn blast would protect them from a collision. Pedestrians played Frogger as they dodged traffic. I was incredibly thankful that we opted for a private guide instead of renting a car as we originally intended. There was no way I would have survived driving in this city.

We were dropped off at our hostal and made our goodbyes to Roy and Roberto. The hostal was fantastic. It had two open courtyards and everything had a rustic authenticity. It also had hot-ish water for showers!

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I made a quick phone call to my dad to make arrangement to have money wired to me in Cuzco (our destination for tomorrow). After reassuring him that I had not been kidnapped and that he wasn't paying a ransom, he agreed to send the money. Megan and I ventured around Arequipa and looked for a place to eat. We saw a sign that said "salad" on it, and thinking that they may have an English menu, we went in. Well, there was no English menu, and the waitress knew no English. After making several chomping motions with my mouth and repeating "sí" to every question we were asked, the waitress left awkwardly. Eventually a mystery meal was brought out to us. It consisted of some type of fried meat, sitting on top of a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, and broccoli. It was delicious. We spent nearly 2 hours at the restaurant, but not once did another patron come in. This would be a common occurence throughout our stay in Peru, I'm not sure how much Peruvians actually eat out. Someone suggested that everyone eats a big buffet lunch and then only snacks lighty at dinner.

We walked back to the hostal, took showers, and then passed out. We had a 5am flight to the tourist capital of Peru, Cuzco (and eventually up to Machu Picchu).

Posted by Mike.Flynn 06:10 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains churches animals historical world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Colca Canyon

sunny 75 °F

So let me paint a picture for you. We just completed a 20 hour plane journey through 3 airports and a 6 hour car ride over a bumpy, dirt road. We are at an elevation of 10,000 feet. We each have 30lb packs on our back. It is 5pm and the sun is setting over the mountains. And we are about to hike to the bottom of the deepest canyon in the world.

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So maybe it wasn't the best trip planning to do the most physically demanding part of our trip immediately after arriving in Peru, but we had limited time and a lot we wanted to see. We were amped up on adrenaline and excitement and coca tea, we were ready for anything. After a 30 minute hike, we reached the canyon rim. The views were amazing! From the rim of the canyon you could look straight down to the canyon floor 4,000 feet below (the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall). The walls of the canyon were incredibly steep, and it was dizzying to look straight down.

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The "trail" was not much of a trail, but rather a series of steep steps over loose gravel and sharp rocks that hugged the canyon rim. Each slip on the gravel made you feel as though you would plummet over the side. You think going downhill would be easy, but imagine going down a set of very steep stairs that constantly shifted with a 30lb pack on your back while looking at a 4,000 ft drop square in the face. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the best footholds were filled with donkey poo, so it was either sure footing or poo-free boots. The donkey poo didn't just magically appear, it was dropped by the donkeys walking up the trail. The trail was barely wide enough for me, much less for a donkey, so it was a tight rope act when passing a donkey train. Roy warned us to make the donkeys walk closer to the cliff's edge so we wouldn't accidentally be knocked off. Well, it will come as no surprise that the donkeys didn't want to be near the edge either, so it was often a wrestling match to see who got the inside track.

In the last picture above, you can see where we would be sleeping the final night. This area is called the Oasis because of the hot springs present at the bottom of the canyon. If your eyes are really good, you can see the zigzag trail leading down to the Oasis that we would take tomorrow (the more zigzags, the steeper the trail). About half-way down the canyon wall, we were presented with views of the towns we would be walking through the next day.

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After rounding a corner, we could see the village we would be sleeping in that night, although it looked like it was directly beneath us.

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Not long after that point it got too dark to see. We flipped on our headlamps and continued the rest of the way by flashlight. We could no longer see how far the drop was (which was somewhat comforting), but you also couldn't tell how much progress you were making. The trail seemed to go on forever. My legs were tired, each step was strenuous. It was the toughest hike I'd ever done (excluding the glacier hike). I think the altitude and travel exhaustion had finally set it. After 4 hours we reached the bottom of the canyon and began the hike back up the other side. We finally reached our destination, and it felt great to finally sit down. Our hut was a square, brick room with a thatch roof, a dirt floor, and a large stone that served as a night stand. I didn't care, there was a bed. After a quick meal prepared by Roy's mom, I slumped into bed. Megan came in and screeched, she had spotted something about a foot from my head.

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I was too tired to care and just rolled over. She loudly insisted that I squash it immediately. She then proceeded to throw the covers off the bed and check everywhere for more scorpions. Satisfied that the bed was scorpion free, she passed out within 30 seconds of laying down.

The next morning we woke, drank as much of the purified water as we could stomach (it took 4 hours for my purification tablets to work so the water had to sit overnight), ate a quick breakfast, and snapped a couple pictures. The first picture is the view from our room of Roy's pet alpaca. You can also see me standing outside the kitchen and a picture of the room we slept in. The last picture is a view of the last 30 minutes of the hike down the previous evening, notice the zigzag path.

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The trail was more level today, as we laterally made our way through multiple villages along the canyon. Roy explained that most of the people were moving out of the canyon, so there are more houses than people. The first village we came to had a population of 20. There is a school for children aged 4-12, but for further education the children had to go to Cabanaconde or Arequipa. Once the children left, they only came back occasionally to help with farming or to come home for festivals. Most of the people we saw were extremely young, or extremely old (older than 65).

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Roy began to point out various plants and features of the canyon. He didn't speak perfect English, but he was able to get his thoughts across. He really like to make a generic statement, like "See this insect egg, it is used for women's cosmetic" and then before we could ask a question, he would ask for us "Why?", and then give the answer, "because when crushed it turns pretty red". It also seemed that a majority of Peruvian culture dealt with the llama (he pronounced it yama), alpaca, potato, and tomato. Along the trail he gave us some of the local fruit. One was plucked straight off a cactus and a had a sweeter flavor. Another looked like a green banana that had a coconut texture and giant seeds. A third was extremely sour and used occasionally as a mixer in alcoholic drinks.

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We hiked up into the second village, which was a little larger than the first (had around 35 people). This village had a single room hospital (which was built 9 years ago) which also had electricity (brought in 2 years ago). Here is Roy standing outside the hospital.

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Walking into the village we passed a large cross which had been decorated with flowers and painted red. Roy explained that for the festivals the crosses were decorated. There was a church with a largish courtyard that was used for the main festival. There was also a larger school with 12 kids, which even included a basketball/soccer field (although I'd hate to be the one to chase a long rebound down the canyon).

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After passing through the village we curved along the canyon wall before coming to a lookout point. Here you could get a great panoramic view of the canyon. We could see the villages we just walked through, part of the path from the day before, and a view down into the Oasis.

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We could also get a view of tomorrow's trail leading out of the canyon.

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We crossed the river at the bottom of the canyon again and walked into the Oasis. We reached our destination and it felt good to take off the hiking boots. We had about an hour before the sun set, so I decided to take a dip in the "hot" spring. The pool was a concrete bowl that had mountain water running into it (straight from the mountain, no pump necessary). A pipe in the bottom drained the water out to the pools below. The "hot" spring was hotter than any water I had felt in Peru, but it was still like jumping into a swimming pool in April (pretty darn cold). Megan eventually got in waist deep, and Roy flirted with girls by twirling a hula hoop on his neck.

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Our hut was made of bamboo this time, and still had a dirt floor and a stone serving as a night stand. It was a little more breezy than the first night. We ate dinner next to the pool and then hit the hay early. We were exhausted, and our hike out of the canyon started at 3am.

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We were a little worried about making it out of the canyon. Remembering how difficult it was to hike into the canyon, I didn't want to think about hiking back out. I hired a mule to carry our bags and save our legs as much as possible (and also carry us if we got too tired). We strapped on our headlamps and began that long hike out of the canyon. It was strenuous, but I felt much better than the first day. We made it about a third of the way up the canyon before Megan decided she wanted to ride the mule. While I was happy that Megan wouldn't be too worn out for the rest of the trip, I dreaded her decision because that meant I had to carry my pack. I continued up the path, trying my best to stay upwind from the mule. Eventually the sun came up, allowing us to see back down into the canyon.

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After 3 1/2 hours, we reached the canyon rim. We were all exhausted, but it felt exhilarating to reach the top. Here is me, Roy, and Megan at the top (Roy is average height for a Peruvian and is 26 years old).

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We headed into Cabanaconde for a quick breakfast, and then hurried over to see the main attraction for the Colca Canyon, the flight of the majestic Andean Condor (the largest South American bird).

Posted by Mike.Flynn 05:06 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains hiking local_food Comments (0)

We Arrive in Peru!

sunny 75 °F

Megan and I are off to Peru! It is my first trip to South America, and neither one of us speaks Spanish, so what could go wrong?

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Peru is home to the Amazon rainforest and flat coastal plains of the Pacific, but we would be spending most of our time among the peaks of the Andes mountains. Our trip started in Lima, the capital of Peru. After negotiating the "random" screenings to enter the country (every sketchy person got stopped while all women and children passed right through, I got strip searched while Megan got the green light), we made our first attempt to read Spanish signs to find the domestic terminal. On the way through the airport I found the ATM machine and decided to get some local cash. After entering the correct sequence of numbers, i was given S/. 400 (about $135), and then made my way to the change station for some smaller bills. About that time, a man came running up to me frantically screaming in Spanish. I had no clue what he was telling me, but he kept pointing at the ATM machine (which was loudly emitting a series of obnoxious tones). It was then I realized that I had left my ATM card in the machine. I ran over to the ATM, and just as I arrived, the machine turned quiet. I think I even heard it gulp as it swallowed my card. My adventure in Peru just got amped up a notch. I knew no Spanish, I stood out like a sore thumb, and now I had to survive for a week on $135.

Well, we didn't have time to dwell on losing the ATM card as we had to catch our next flight to Arequipa. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru with about a million residents, but the airport had a single gate and was about the size of a high school gymnasium. We met up with our guide (Roy from Colca Tours), boarded a van, and we started our journey to the deepest canyon in the world, the Colca Canyon.

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Not long after we got out of Arequipa, the road became unpaved, and then turned to gravel, and then turned to a glorified dirt path. I had wondered how a journey of 160 miles would end up taking 6 hours, and now I knew. I was taken back by how simple the "houses" on the side of the road looked. They were square, single room structures made of white brick. The roofs were flat pieces of tin held on by stacking rocks on top. Obviously no electricity or running water.

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After a couple hours, we pulled off and stopped at a rest stop (really the first inhabited structure we had seen since we left Arequipa). The driver needed a potty break, and the guide suggested we drink some coca tea to get acclimated to the altitude. Coca tea is made with cocaine leaves, and helps your body process oxygen and gives you energy. I couldn't really tell a difference after drinking it. I'm guessing it does something, because I can't imagine people drinking it for the taste (put some grass in your next glass of hot water, you'll get a feeling for the flavor). The guide was a big fan of coca leaves. He said it "gave him energy for driving" and packed a lip full of leaves. Here is us enjoying our tea, and mine was served in a Winnie the Pooh mug.

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The area between Arequipa and the Colca Canyon is full of active and dormant volcanoes. You go over 16,000 feet in the air, and the dusty land is sparsely populated with light weeds. The occasional llama or alpaca or vicuña can be spotted, especially as we drove through the national park (llamas are the biggest, alpacas have shorter necks, and vicuñas are skinny versions that can run super fast). Our guide, Roy, told us how people used to capture the local llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas to shear them and sell their wool (which can fetch a pretty penny, $500 a kilo for vicuña hair). The government set up a protected area for the animals, and now the government comes in regularly to shear the animals (and presumably keep the money). The volcanoes are visible in every direction and are a mighty backdrop.

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Eventually we came down out of the mountains and the town of Chivay popped out. It is not a large town, but it is the largest town in the area. We stopped for lunch (we ate alpaca) and a quick break. The women in the Colca Canyon dress very distinctively, adorned in very bright colors and layered wraps. Donkeys are really the only thing on the road (I don't think we passed another vehicle the entire time we drove from Arequipa to Chivay other than at the rest stop).

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After lunch we left Chivay and headed along the beginning of the canyon rim to Cabanaconde. It was another couple hours worth of driving, but the scenery kept me captivated (Megan opted to take a nap). Terraced slopes made the canyon walls farmable. Green plants and vegetation abounded here (in stark contrast to the tops of the mountains we drove through). People walked the road, often riding or leading donkey trains. And with each mile, the canyon got deeper, and deeper, and deeper...

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It was a little unnerving riding in the van. The road was not very wide, and it was extremely close to the edge of the canyon (I swear our wheels were riding on the edge). However, it was really the only place for the road to be as the canyon wall occasionally rose sharply on our side. The crème de la crème was when we had to go through a tunnel. This tunnel was a glorified hole in the ground, and was pitch black. Definitely not for the faint hearted.

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We came out safely, and shortly thereafter reached our destination. The driver, Roberto, dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, and Roy led us over the edge of the canyon wall. Our 3 day hike of the deepest canyon in the world was just beginning.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 17:24 Archived in Peru Tagged animals local_food Comments (0)