We flew into Lima, the capital of Peru and spent a night before catching our 22 hour bus ride up into the Andes to Cusco, the old center of the Incan empire. It would be from Cusco that we would embark on both of our planned adventures; first to the Amazon Basin for a 6 day tour of the rainforest in Manu National Park and second, a 5-day hike up to Machu Picchu on the Salkantay trail, an alternative route to the busy, popular and sold-out Inca Trail.
Cusco in itself was pretty amazing as well. The center of town is called Plaza del Armas and within a one-block radius of this square you cannot go a day without seeing some sort of event. There is no wrap-sheet telling you of the days events but you’d be hard pressed to not see one of the following on any given day just by walking around: A protest march against the current government (damn, why didn’t we think of that!), a centennial Incan celebration complete with traditional dress and music, a children’s choir and dance troupe, and a methodical and solemn parade honoring the Virgen del Carmen, Peru’s local version of the Virgin Mary. Including a plethora of restaurants, local ones serving alpaca steaks, cuy (guinea pig – the national dish), and ceviche, and Gringo (white folk) restaurants serving cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes, Cusco is the perfect hub for the numerous adventures available in its vicinity.
Manu National Park
At the advice of friends Rainer and Maggie we met in Scotland, we decided to break the bank (thanks to a string of good days in the market) and book a trip to Manu, the southwestern tip of the Amazon Basin. It is said that the world has 28 ecosystems, Peru has 23 and Manu alone has 14. Starting at 4 a.m. we hopped on the bus with Arturo and Ewa from Poland, Bjoern and Sybille from Switzerland and local guide and biologist Jose. Thus began our 9 hour ascent and eventual descent through the Andes, through the Cloud Forests (a rainforest in the mountains) and down into the flat and dense rainforest, consisting of a whopping 7300 square miles or roughly 6 times the size of Yosemite. Over 80% of the park is off-limits to tourists and only research scientists and biologists are allowed entry. This makes the park an excellent place for study given it´s 15,000+ species of plants, over 150 different species of birds, and the world record for most types of trees, 250, in 2.5 acres. Finally arriving at our first stop, we put on some lifejackets and began white water rafting down the river towards the next village where we would stock up on food. The waters were low so the rafting was lame but given the 100% humidity, none of us had any complaints getting wet. Arturo and I both agreed we received more adrenaline after jumping off a rock and being swept under and past the safety rope, swimming with all of our might towards a rock embankment. The next day we also did a zip line tour through the canopy of the rainforest. Every other activity would consist of hiking, boating and wildlife spotting.
Boating was our only means of travel and 4 of the 5 days we would spend at least 4 hours cruising the rivers, spotting wildlife and learning the history of the park and evident symbiotic relationships. Arriving at our first camp, we were shown our rooms, 2 beds complete with double-ply mosquito nets and raised-stilt construction in case of flash flooding. All of the camps would be similar to this and breakfast, lunch and dinner were prepared for the group on a daily basis. At the first camp we met up with the rest of our group consisting of Israelis, Polish, English and Scottish. During dinners we would hear of our next days itinerary, usually starting at sunrise and finishing at sunset.
Highlights of the park included seeing a clay-lick, a unique feature of this ecosystem where Macaws would cling to the cliff on the rivers edge and lick the clay. The most popular theory for this behavior is they need the minerals and vitamins from the clay to balance their diet of often poisonous fruits from the jungle. Other animals use the clay lick as well, including monkeys. Speaking of monkeys, during the 5 days we saw 7 different species including howler (our natural alarm clock,) spider, black and white capuchin, territorial Wooleys who will pee on your head or throw food if you get too close, as well as a family of nocturnals. While in the boats we would spot Caymans (river crocs) basking in the sun or more likely, barely showing their eyes on the surface of the water patiently waiting for their next meal. A variety of different birds would be spotted most often, including macaws, parrots, herons, hawks, vultures, and peckers, wood that is. On one adventure we took a catamaran into one of the oxbow lakes, a unique feature of a meandering river. Oxbow lakes are formed after 1000’s of years of the river slowly eroding and essentially moving it’s serpentine position further into the jungle. In this lake we saw a family of 6 otters during their first meal. The youngest left behind 3/4 of a fish it was eating and before long a group of piranha’s came to the surface to enjoy the scraps. All the while, we were all looking for the elusive jaguar but unfortunately did not have a spotting. My favorite symbiotic relationship we spotted was seeing turtles on the river banks with a swarm of colorful butterflies fluttering around its head. Jose told us that since turtles cannot blink, and butterflies do not get much sodium in their diet, the butterflies would drink the tears of the turtle so that each would benefit. Amazing! On one of our afternoon hikes, we startled an anteater who was having an afternoon snack on the trail and quickly climbed up into a nearby tree with lightning quick speed. Giant spiders and tiny frogs, armies of ants and hard-to-spot katydids rounded out our animal encounters.
The key theme of the rainforest is survival and by and far the most impressive evidence of this are the trees. It is amazing to see how they have adapted and evolved, each fighting or forming alliances with its neighbors in order to receive more sun, water or soil. A great example of this is the giant Kapok tree, which is usally the tallest in this forest at 200 feet. Since it’s the tallest, it obviously gets the most sun and greedily opens its branches to take in as much as possible. Well, for the smaller or younger trees, this has posed a serious threat to their survival. So, one of the trees grew legs! Well, not legs in the sense of our two, but above-ground flexible roots that they literally walk the floor of the forest to better position themselves for more sun. The aptly named Walking Palm has been recorded to walk over 35 feet in a year! Another great example of survival is the method in which some of the trees grow their roots. Since the soil level is shallow in the forest, several trees grow the majority of their roots above ground, resembling buttresses on a Romanesque cathedral. This gives them more leverage to grow taller and also aids in nutrient and water consumption. Some of these roots are so high you have to climb over them like a fallen tree!
After 6 days in the rainforest, we also survived and were glad 2 seats opened up on one of the flights home. We gladly paid the extra to avoid 20 more hours of travel back to Cusco. Bug-bitten, stinky and in desperate need of some clean clothes and a hot shower, we arrived back in Cusco at 2 p.m. for a whirlwind day to prepare for the beginning of our 5-day trek to Machu Picchu!
Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu
The briefing for the trek took place at 7 p.m. that night and we met our group consisting of three Americans, Wally and Sandra from New Hampshire and their brother Peter from Colorado, a Brazilian named Flavia and two English couples, Chris and Pippa, and Mario and Charity. Our guide was Paul (Pah-oool), who has been a licensed guide for 6 years and before that climbed the ranks as a porter and cook on all three of the treks to Machu Picchu, the popular and limited-to-500-hikers-per-day Inka Trail, the Lares Valley trek, and ours, the Salkantay. Paul taught us how to say Machu Picchu correctly, “Mah-chew Peak-chew” and that if we said “Pee-chew” like everyone else, we would be saying “dick.” Not very nice. Given his experience, Paul was very knowledgeable on the ways of the Inka and each night he would give us insight into their lives and ways. I had thought they were a murdering, sacrficial bunch, but Paul assured me I was confusing them with the Mayans and Aztecs, their agressive neighbors in Central America and Mexico. The Inkans were peaceful and loving people and worshipped nature, the mountains, sun, water and earth.
The trek is named Salkantay because it passes by Salkantay Mountain which rises to over 20,000 feet! On the trek, we would go over a pass at 15,200 feet and be met with lots of rain and hail, both of which we were unprepared for as I was hiking in my water shoes and Erin in her “tennies.” Somehow, our feet survived. Porters carried our gear which added up to about 18 pounds and there were two chefs on staff that prepared our meals and snacks. We were woken each morning by the cooks with a fresh cup of coca tea, made from the leaves of the coca plant, a crop used often by the Incas, and which aided in lessening the effects of altitude sickness for us. After our second day of hiking, we began descending down closer to the elevation of Machu Picchu, which lies at roughly 7800 feet and spent the better half of that night in some thermal hot springs working off our stiff joints and muscles. On the 3rd day, we hiked for close to 6 hours before reaching our final tenting spot, where we celebrated with the local brew, Cusquena, and a bottle of local rum. On the fourth morning, the rain was relentless so we had to retreat to a bus to take us half the distance where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the launching city for Machu Picchu and home to more thermal hot springs. Briefed one last time on our itinerary for the next day, we drank red wine and enjoyed our last supper together.
Waking at 4:45 was easier than I thought and we rushed out the door to wait in the crowded bus line up to the site. The reason it’s so crowded is for two reasons: first, the light is better in the morning so pictures turn out better and second, most people want to hike up Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain you always see in the background in pictures, which only allows 400 people up per day. Our group fit into both categories so once arriving at the park and going through ticketing, we hightailed it over to the gate of Huayna Picchu to reserve our spot, just barely making it in to the 10:00 slot. The next 3 hours were spent touring around the sights of Machu Picchu with Paul as our guide. This area is special because it’s the best preserved Incan site that wasn’t destroyed or built over by the Spanish during their conquest in the 16th century. Hiram Bingham, an American historian, pronounced that he “discovered” the lost city in 1911 but it’s noted in his writings and journals that he was led to the location by local villagers. So, it is now recognized that he didn’t discover the site, but he surely gains credit for reporting on its significance and uniqueness. The site took anywhere from 30-50 years to build and an estimated 500-600 Incans lived there but only for an estimated 100 years. There are several theories as to why the site was abandoned but the one most widely told is the people suffered from a smallpox epidemic. Fortunately, the Spanish never found the site, most likely because if left alone, the site would be covered by jungle growth in about a month! The two most notable features of Machu Picchu are its unique contruction techniques and the various sites built to track the moon and sun cycles, mainly the solstice and equinox. The Incans were expert craftsmen and farmers and the bricks laid were made to fit perfectly together without mortar and has also withstood numerous earthquakes. Their style of construction was copied in an ill-attempt by the Spanish which has led to many guides poking fun at the differences, pointing to one wall they say “Inca” and the next, “Incapable.” Resentful and bitter? Just a little. Sites to track the sun’s cycles were very interesting as well, where Incans built unique sun-dials to track the seasons. Like any indigenous people, this was important for farming cycles and also led to the worship of these times.
After the tour, we began our hike up Huayna Picchu for a grand view over the site and the surrounding Urubamba Valley below. The hike in one word is strenuous. A steep and high-stepped switchback up the steepest face of the mountain gives above average hikers an anaerobic meltdown for roughly 45 minutes. Guides tell you that the average Incan time was 18 minutes to the peak but after reaching the top, I really don’t see how that is possible. But, I guess if you were lugging around 2-ton rocks for building all day every day, you’d be in pretty good shape too. As one final note, I expected the site to be overcrowded and extremely touristy but it was bigger than I imagined and did well to swallow up the 3000+ tourists allowed in every day. Unlike most other touristy places, you don’t exactly feel like a tourist while there. Although it’s possible that it’s just another part of the magic of Machu Picchu.
Back to Cusco for another day and a half where we met with Peter, Wally and Sandra for dinner the first night and lunch the following day before catching another 20 hour bus back to Lima. Flavia even stopped in for dinner on the first night which was a great surprise. We got along really well with our group especially our American counterparts. Somehow it’s comforting to be able to relate to everything with fellow American’s as they also know the joys of peanut butter and the extremely important difference between jam and jelly. Also, the combination of the aforementioned makes for one hell of a sandwich, and boy, Americans sure do love sandwiches. They know FoxNews is slanted right and they hate George Bush just as much as anyone, but with reason, not just because it’s cool. Wally, Sandra and Peter, we’ll miss you guys, all of our laughter and talks. The last week with you guys was really special and we hope to see you again soon, be it in New England, Colorado, or wherever the wind may take us. We love you guys and look forward to the reunion.
Next stop, Santiago for a few days and then a week in Patagonia! Six weeks to go and may time go slow! GOBAMA!