Sunday, October 7, 2012

Peru-Day 2

I couldn't sleep well fearing our 2 am wake up call might be missed, which led to weird dreams about my mom fearing for our safety and sending my dad and sister's boyfriend to get us. But, the alarming call came and we jumped out of bed to ready ourselves.

Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere and the rooms were situated in blocks with a spa, cinema, culinary kitchen, restaurant, wine bar, pool, and peacock reserve to navigate in the total dark, though under a blanket of what Scott described as the stars he once saw in Africa. I wished we had more time to stare but our trip to the lobby was going to take nearly 20 minutes and we had no clock or watch to reference (the first of several items forgotten) so that had to wait.

We navigated the massive spa compound in total darkness, but somewhere in my directionally challenged mind, I remembered our path from a few hours before when we visited the business center. Our driver was waiting and we left our excess luggage to officially set out on the hike we came to do.

I'm a nervous person by nature, so sitting in a van for the next two hours careening up and down mountain roads gave me ample time to worry about how prepared we were for the trip. My OCD tendencies also set in, second guessing the tour company's supplying of our bedrolls, sleeping bags and tents. Scott, ever the reassuring one, tried his best to calm my fears.

We finally reached Cusco again and met up with 7 other hikers in our party, two guides, a cook, two wranglers, and five porters. Fear took over once again when I saw everyone's authentic hiking gear, down jackets, and beanies on these people. We had packed in layers- long sleeve shirts, a lightweight hoodie (me), and sweatshirts. No true jackets. Alas, it was what it was, so we dozed more for another two hours, waking up once to share the narrow uphill road with other cars and occasional horses en route somewhere. We braked for a final use of a bano, a modest enclosed space that local code enforcement would shutter at.

It was here that what we lacked found a saving grace-I had stolen a role of toilet paper as backup Kleenex for Scott, who had developed a cold prior to leaving, and gifted it to me officially that morning. Turns out the hiking team does not provide toilet paper for camping litrine use, so we survived four days on an incomplete role of tp and my travel size anti-bacterial gel. By the third day we were counting and negotiating squares. That was fun.

After another hour plus of driving, we arrived at the base of the Salkantay Trail, our path for the next three days.

This green girl has no idea how crazy it is going to get.

The Salkantay Trail is another option for reaching Machu Picchu, the road less traveled if you will. The classic Inca Trail is most popular route, however, we were unable to secure reservations that suited our travel dates, so Salkantay Trail it was. The trail is billed as less crowded and offering more opportunities to interact with local villagers. It is remote, with extreme conditions, and in my opinion, suited for an intermediate to advanced hiker. I fear I may have oversold our abilities upon booking or Peruvians skill barometer is not on par with the US.

The views so far of the landscape of Peru had been breathtaking, but staring at our path and the surrounding views was intimidating. I'd never seen mountains so high, some snow capped in the not too far distance. It was in the upper 40s/lower 50s, and I was panicking in my shirt, hoodie, sweatshirt and jeans. When the sun peaked over the mountain it certainly helped warm our bones. I should note that we had purchased a horse to carry our belongings the first and second day, however, these prideful Americans had only brought two backpacks with our clothes and essentials to carry on our own. Others had extended gear-hiking sticks and larger items, that the horses were able to carry. We did not wisen up and rearrange our load until the next day when we got down to one pack and the camera to carry. Might have made the upcoming day easier, but cest la vie.

The porters loaded up the camping gear (finally confirmed we were set) on the horses and set out our breakfast spread-coffee, coca tea tea, hot chocolate, and a hot egg scramble. We introduced ourselves to each other-an Argentinian couple now living in Miami, four friends from Canada and the US, and a lone Italian traveler who knew Spanish and Italian. I could have kicked myself for not keeping up with our Italian lessons-what an opportunity to practice! Instead, he got some great hellos, goodbyes, and good days from me and somehow we met in the middle with what Spanish I could muster. Funny enough, this trip brought back a great deal of French. Not helpful, though.

A note about coca tea. It is perfectly legal in Peru to chew coca leaves and drink coca tea, indulge in coca candy all in the name of battling altitude sickness. When in Rome, eh? I cannot say whether it helped me or not in hindsight, very well could have had a placebo effect, but there were some very low painful moments and I was going to take any aid I could find.

Following breakfast, our guides gathered us in a circle, for what I thought was going to be a prayer, and instead, we chanted "haku" in unison, a Ketchiwan word for "lets go" and off we went.

We hiked for eight hours that day, or roughly 8 miles-our slow pace due to the practically vertical grades. Eight miserable hours. The first day was by far the worst. We encountered nearly every negative element one can while hiking--rain, hail, snow, and steep grades both up and down. When lunch finally came, the morale of the group was low. We were cold, already aching and ready to dissaparate to our campground, still a good four hours away. By this point, I decided to take advantage of the two horses in our party. This was both good and bad, as my lips, fingers, and toes were numb, and sitting on a horse was not going to help me get warm, but by weighing my options, I decided to save my strength instead and not tackle parts of the trail that Spiderman should have effectively managed. Also, we had never purchased quality ponchos for the trip, but I had picked up a pair of the cheapy plastic variety for $.75 each and they truly saved us in the absence of actual jackets, keeping our cotton sweatshirts and jeans dry.

Now this was funny, a local selling their goods after one of the many summits we made that day. Felt a bit like Disneyland, exiting a ride to find souvenirs. However,  it was the only time we encountered such a sight.
Tres miserable.

Our victory the first day was reaching Salkantay Pass, the highest elevation we would encounter while on the trip, over 15,000 feet at a temperature in the low 30s. It was a cinematic moment, naturally, the snow, hail, and rain coming down, booming thunder, and this all following an avalanche in the neighboring mountains that we had witnessed about 30 minutes prior. Photos with frozen fingers were taken and finally a descent began. It was certainly a moment for adrenaline and personal victory for both Scott and me.

VICTORY! And only 4 hours left in the day of hiking!
It is amazing what elevation can do for the weather, just descending a few hundred feet brought the temperature up a few degrees and our spirits were lifted.

Our guide, Paul. I asked him how many of these treks he's led and he's stopped counting.

Local wildlife consisted of sheep, horses, and cattle. No predatory animals up here.

We continued hiking the remainder of the day, and I believe everyone, even including the Italian, Marco, who was by far the most experienced having hiked The Alps and Mont Blanc, was grateful to see our campsite. Now, I do enjoy camping, but I REALLY enjoy camping without the work. When we arrived, the tents were set up, mattresses and sleeping bags arranged, and tea time, followed by dinner, was in an hour.

The loo, complete with scenic views.
We siestad, dirty with mud, fatigued by the epic climb, and still cold at this high elevation, but tea time called. Tea time, which was observed every night of camping, consisted of coffee (which was delicious, even sans cream, and I am cream lover), tea-both coca and regular, and hot chocolate. Additionally, our appetizers were popcorn and what the Peruvians dubbed "nachos" which were fried or baked wontons. No cheese to be found. Womp womp. For dinner we dined on a hearty chicken soup and called it a night-a frosty night, bundled in layers in our sleeping bags. Ultimately, after acclimating, we were quite warm and my fears disolved. A good nights rest was definitely in order. We went to bed around 8 p.m. and would get our morning wake up call complete with coffee service outside the tent flap, at 530 a.m.

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