23.01.2014 - 07.02.2014
Hola from Peru! Tim and I have been gone for only a little over a week, but already we feel like we've experienced and seen a lot.
On January 23 Tim's parents, Barb and Steve, drove us from Madison to Chicago. After locking up and saying goodbye to Tim's condo, we made our way down to the windy city, where we got dinner with Barb and Steve and Tim's close friend Jon who lives there. That night I made some phone calls to my family and best friend to talk one last time while still in the states, and then went to bed around 9pm. For me, it was a sleepless night with anticipation and excitement keeping me up. Bright and early the next morning, a Friday, we went to Midway Airport, said goodbye to Barb and Steve, and Tim and I proceeded onto a long travel day to Atlanta, then Mexico City, and at last, at 1am, to Lima, Peru.
Our first few days were spent at Dragonfly Hostel in Miraflores, enjoying the neighborhood, Park Kennedy, and the cheap food. I practiced my Spanish (Yo soy un penguino!), and we both enjoyed walking around the city. On our first day there we took a long walk along the coastline to Barranco, a neighborhood about an hour's walk away from our hostel. The Lima coastline is fascinating, in that you can clearly see how the entire metropolis seems to be perched along the edge of the cliffs lining the coast. I wonder what keeps it all from just erroding into the Pacific.
While in Lima, we had our first experience with Peruvian healthcare. Before we left the states, I had begun developing swollen lymphnodes in my neck and a very sore throat. Knowing we were going to be hiking the Inca Trail in just a few days, I was anxious about being sick during the trek. Thankfully (or at least, conveniently), self diagnosing myself with some kind of infection and getting antibiotics was as easy as going to the pharmacy down the street and asking for 15 capsules of amoxicillan for $4.50. Healthcare friends, I know this probably makes you cringe a little. I'm sorry.
After two nights in Lima, we flew to Cusco (about an hour and half flight away) to begin our itinerary with Inca Trail Reservations, the tour operator we chose for booking our hotels in and flights in addition to the Inca Trail hike. Once we got to Cusco, which is about 11,000 feet above sea level, things went downhill for me. In addition to my painful sore throat which was worse than ever, I also suffered altitude sickness, resulting in no appetite, confusion, and feeling out of breath while just laying down. To make matters worse, I also began shitting waterfalls. A mere two days before the most challenging hike of my life, I had to face the reality that I had a sore throat, altitude sickness, and traveler's diarrhea. I will forevermore refer to this experience as the Trifecta of Doom.
Meanwhile, while I was sleeping all day in our hotel room, Tim was out exploring the town. He spent some time reading in the main square and enjoying the surprisingly sunny weather (it's rainy season in Cusco). Unfortunately, Tim came home that day red as a lobster from sunburn and with a sprained toe. We were a pretty sorry pair (though we both agree that I was the sorrier of the two of us).
Our second day in Cusco I was able to pull myself out of bed for our planned city tour, visiting the cathedral in the main square, a monestary and Saksaywaman. Our tour guide could tell I was not faring too well and he offered me some "witchcraft" to make me feel better. He left me and Tim for about 5 minutes, and when he came back, he had several cotton balls soaked in some kind of liquid. He told me to rub the liquid on my hands and cover my nose and mouth with them and inhale deeply. The smell was strong, like rubbing alcohol mixed with something else, and made me cough. Our guide said it would either cure me of my altitude sickness, or I would turn into a frog. Sure enough, I felt better within the hour, though still became out of breath very easily, but at least I had more energy and did not feel confused all the time.
The next day, we left Cusco and made our way on an organized tour to Ollantaytambo, about 2 hours away, stopping at many sights throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas. During this tour we made our first friends, a Canadian couple named Alyssa and Dan, and enjoyed lunch and good conversation with them throughout the day. That night, I was still generally ill with my Trifecta of Doom, and I debated starting the hike with Tim the next morning. Ultimately though I decided to try it, knowing that if I needed to turn around after the first day, I probably would be able to.
The next morning our guide Carlos greeted us at our hotel and walked us to the square to meet up with a van that held the other members of the team we'd be hiking with. Right away we met Josh, an Australian med student who was very friendly. We knew right away he'd be one of our main comrads during the next several days of the hike.
There were 10 of us total in our group, plus 2 guides and a team of porters and a cook. We were quite a mixed group- two Austrian men, a guy from Holland, a Canadian, two Australian med students, a Spanish couple, and me and Tim, but the mix of backgrounds and personalities worked well and I think everyone generally enjoyed the company of most everyone else- a good thing considering how much time we would end up spending together.
The first day of our hike was fairly easy, especially relative to the other days. I still struggled with my breathing from the altitude, but thankfully didn't have any other issues. Throughout the hike, our porters woud pass us, weighed down with packs and equipment to make our hike possible. These men were truly impressive. Ranging in age from 20 to 64, they not only are capable of completing this hike quickly, but with a lot of weight on their backs, and often in footware that made me marvel at how easily they were able to navigate across the rocks of the trail- some were in sandals!
That night when we reached our first camp, everyone was happy and relieved to have completed day 1, but a bit apprehensive about what day 2 would hold, since we'd all heard it was the most challenging day of the hike, with about 4 hours of totally uphill climbing. Our first dinner was delicious- our cook did a great job throughout the trip keeping us well fed and full on a mix of carbs, proteins and veggies every day, as well as providing us with plentiful amounts of coca tea to keep us going.
The second day was indeed the most challenging, but also very beautiful at certain parts. We started around 7am with a 2 hour ascent to a break spot. I took it very slow due to my difficulties breathing at the higher altitude, but surely, one step at a time, we made it to the break point, and two hours after that, to the highest point in our hike, just over 14,000 feet. I expected my legs to be sore but surprisingly they weren't at all- for me, the unexpected challenge was in getting enough oxygen and maintaining steady breathing.
While hiking this day I was reminded of a memory from when I was younger, maybe 7 years old, at a family reunion with my late uncle Dale (he died of lung cancer when I was 10) and my younger cousin Tory. We had been walking down a trail at the park or reunion was at when a snake crossed in front of us. Dale held us back and told us to be careful. A simple memory, but it led me to also think about his lung cancer and how lucky and grateful I am to have lungs healthy enough to carry me along this challenging hike.
Tim also spent some time lost in his own thoughts, listening to music and observing nature around us, and becoming overwhelmed with how lucky we are- both to be on a trip like this and to have found each other.
After the long climb and a brief break, it was time to head down the other side for about 2 more hours. This may have been even more miserable than going up had been- it was rocky, slippery, rainy, cold and seemed to descend forever. We eventually made it to camp of course, and like the rest of the group, we were exhausted.
It was a rainy night but Tim and I were lucky enough to have stayed fairly dry in our tent. The next day, our last full day of hiking, was long but beautiful, taking us along steep cliffs, through caves, and by waterfalls and streams. The hike was moderately difficult with ups and downs throughout, but the weather was in our favor most of the day and it was generally a very enjoyable hike, until the last 2 hours, when it poured nonstop. Even with this rain though we were still grateful that overall we had great weather during the hike despite it being the rainiest month for the region. We had expected much more rain.
Day 4 of our hike only included about 2 hours of hiking, but we had to wake up at 3:30am in order to beat the crowds to Machu Picchu. Reaching the Sun Gate, our first view of the famous ruins, was celebratory for all in our group, giving us energy to make it the rest of the way down to Machu Picchu and to enjoy the guided tour Carlos gave us once we got there. After the tour we had free time to roam the ruins the rest of the day. Tim and I sat and watched a baby llama and a mama llama for a while and explored what we had yet to see of the ruins. Our group spent the afternoon in Aguas Calientes, the nearest town, for the last team lunch before our train to Ollantaytambo and then a van ride back to Cusco. We didn't get back to our hotel until midnight that night, but despite being exhausted Tim and I each enjoyed what was likely the best shower ever before bed (our first in over 4 days).
Our last day in Cusco was also my birthday, and we spent the day relaxing and went to a street festival that night with food, music, games and fireworks with our friends from the hike. The next day we flew back to Lima, where we've been since Monday now, eating ceviche, lounging, and touring the capital city.
Tonight we are going to eat more empanadas and tomorrow we head on to Chile!