Four A.M. start time in Cusco. It’s a two-hour bus ride to our start point at Ollantaytambo.
It’s a great group of about twelve. There’s Luc, a dedicated mountain climber who really doesn’t need this kind of structured hike. Somewhere along the way he’s thrown in his lot with two Irish girls who have been traveling together long term. There’s three Canadians: twin brothers, and one of their girlfriends — I still don’t remember which one. A group of three Americans: a girl from Washington, her young brother, and another guy friend of hers.
The last couple, when asked to provide their nationality, announce themselves as “California,” because “it’s different” than the rest of the U.S. Perhaps to underscore their point, they have also brought 27 liters of water instead of the purification tablets we were told to bring at the prep meeting a couple days prior.
The first day is all uphill, but it’s gradual, and the weather is favorable. Leaving the town behind, we hike along roads until we reach the beginning of the trail proper. The views along the way are fantastic, with deep valleys spreading out behind us, and the towering face of Salkantay being gradually revealed as our hike goes on.
Luc and the Irish are usually leading the way, and the Californians are bringing up the rear, partly due to the 27 liters of water they are carrying, partly due to the guy’s intermittent playing of pan flutes.
Camp is not so bad, even if we are above 13,000 feet. Our tents are set up for us by the porters, and we’re actually in sort of a super-tent, which is to say kind of a wood structure covered in tarps, so the wind really isn’t bad, even if it’s quite cold outside. The toilets are fairly dreadful, and there aren’t really enough to go around anyway.
Very early start on day two. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
After breakfast we break camp and, true to form, I am almost left behind while taking a dump. I hustle to catch up with my group and we make the steep final push for the Salkantay pass. A lot of switchbacks, but given the relatively cool temps at high altitude, the sun is not too oppressive, and the path is not a difficult one. Before long I am standing at the highest elevation I’ve ever experienced: 15,092 feet. At the top we take plenty of time for pictures, and wander off the path a little to overlook a mountain lake.
As we make our way down the far side of the mountain, the climate begins to change, and the snow-capped stone peaks give way to vast mountainsides of almost tropical-looking vegetation. Somebody starts singing the Jurassic Park theme song and everybody confesses that they were thinking the same thing – the landscape is reminiscent of the approach to Isla Nublar in the original Jurassic Park movie. Over lunch we rack our brains trying to think of the other theme music from Jurassic Park. Some insist there is none. I am convinced they are wrong. Finally one of the Canadians realizes he has it as his wake up alarm music and everybody is relieved.
The Californians miss lunch as they’ve been trailing again. My chocolate is starting to melt and I feel like it won’t make it to the end of the day, so I give it to them when they catch up. They seem grateful.
There’s a lot of downhill, and now I’m generally loping into the lead, although Luc is usually right up there with me.
We end the day well under 10,000 feet at a camp by a river and some waterfalls. There’s some signs of civilization here – you can actually buy beer at the camp.
On day three, we are not so much in wilderness anymore: large parts of the day are spent hiking past small villages and road construction. After lunch we actually get piled into a van for part of the trip, on the way to some hot springs, and our eventual destination — a campsite outside the town of Santa Teresa.
Everybody is pretty excited about the hot springs, if not for any other reason than it’s our first chance for a shower since we started the trek. The Californians seem to be having a little bit of an argument. “I don’t think you should bring the crystals to the hot spring,” is the only part I catch.
The hot springs are a welcome break from hiking, and the view can’t be beat, nestled between mountain peaks. The late afternoon shadows made it hard to capture the contrast between the setting sun on the peaks and the shadows in the pool, but you’ll get the idea.
After the hot springs, there’s a bonfire. It’s fantastic. My photos from this, sadly, were on my phone and got deleted before I could save them.
Just as things are starting up, we are all gathered around the bonfire, and the music gets up. A fairly attractive female starts gyrating at the fire and immediately makes a beeline towards me. This is terrible. For one, it’s way too early in the night for such a thing, and two, I had noticed her previously. She’s hiking with one of those guys who is either her father or her boyfriend, and regardless of which it is, it’s kind of tough to engage in the sort of provocative choreography she so clearly was looking for in front of that dude, especially when you haven’t had enough Cusquena to make you stop caring about such things, yet. Later she ends up making up with somebody else behind a tree over by the tents.
The party is just a great time though. Our guide gets thoroughly wrecked and is having a great time dancing. We’ve got people climbing up on rocks, dancing and singing and having a blast.
The next morning starts off with a good laugh. It is the birthday of an unnamed member of our expedition, and the cooks have made a cake for him. We gather almost all the crew together, except for unnamed female, who cannot be found, for a surprise wake-up edition of Happy Birthday. The joke is really on us though, when the tent opens and previously missing female is in the tent with the birthday boy.
(For the record, my birthday is in March. This was May.)
The day itself is really spent hiking along train tracks to reach Aguas Calientes. There’s not a lot of variation in the terrain, but there is some excitement when we look up and realize we can see the edge of the ruins high atop a nearby mountain.
Not all marvels are ancient. There’s also the hidroelectrico, a massive
By late afternoon the trek is really over. We’ve reached Aguas Calientes, which fits the dictionary definition of town, even if it’s a ramshackle sort of place that only exists to give people a place to stay before they get up at 5a.m. to hoof it up to the ruins. But we are staying in real beds, so who can complain.
The hike up the stairs to Machu Picchu is a hell of a slog. It seems way worse than any of the final ascents in Patagonia, or even final stretch toward the Salkantay pass, probably because it is stairs all the way up, and you can’t really take any baby steps, plus the people behind you keep coming, so it’s hard to take a break. It is also almost totally dark, except for my headlamp. But the payoff is that we reach the top just before the first tour bus drops the bus-taking slackers off. And as it turns out, if one person in your group is in line, anybody who is up there when then gates open can go in at the same time, so thanks to some of the younger and more intrepid Team Toto members, I’m one of the first 50 people into Machu Picchu that morning.
At the ruins there’s two mountains you can climb. The more popular one is Huayana Picchu, which is the mountain that you see in the typical postcard shot of MP, right behind the ruins. It’s an hour up and is very steep. The other option is Macchu Picchu Mountain, which is a little less steep, but is two hours up. The Huayana Picchu tickets had sold out by the time I had made my plans, so this was my only option. If I had been buying day of, I probably would have skipped it altogether, but Luc, the Irish girls, and the Canadians were all going up, so I was going with them.
I was completely miserable and dehydrated by this point.
I got down the mountain, decided I’d seen enough of the ruins, nearly created some new ruins in the visitor center bathroom, and stumbled down the stairs back to town where I bought up all the Gatorade I could find, rehydrated, took a nap, and finally wandered back to the town square to meet up with the rest of Team Toto for post-trek drinks.
By __ it’s time to catch the train back, and we are all feeling in pretty high spirits. Talk of keeping the party rolling at the clubs at
As so often happens, the pre-party gets a little too aggressive and becomes the main party, and everybody crashes. In the morning, I’m off to Lima to meet Shannon.
Shan’s flight lands a few hours after mine at the airport, and by the time we get her bags, it’s early evening when we check in to our hotel. I’m excited to see a friendly face for the first time in three months, so there’s no stopping us from hitting up the nightlife. We end up in an area which is seriously called Calle de los Pizzas after the numerous restaurants serving up pies during the day. By the time we get there it’s all transformed into the nightlife scene and we bar hop around until it’s way too late.
The next day we wander around Miraflores, the vibe of which I can best describe as a pretty nice city that never left the 1980s. There’s no real architectural highlights, but it’s not a dump either. Plus there are some pretty cool cultural attractions. Shan didn’t make it to Machu Picchu, but it turns out Lima has it’s own historic ruins smack in the middle of Miraflores. The ruins of Huaca Pucllana are actually at least a thousand years older than Machu Picchu, and far more easily accessible. The setting isn’t quite as majestic as Machu Picchu, of course, but there’s some llamas, giant guinea pigs, and very strange dogs at the end of the tour, which is worth the price of admission. After that we stop by the Inka Market, which is Lima’s version of the ubiquitous crap markets that exist seemingly anywhere tourists might goIn the afternoon we head towards the ocean shore. While it’s warm enough to walk around in t-shirts, it’s not quite beach weather, but we take the stairs down the seaside bluffs and across the coastal highway to walk around the shore. We also stop by the nearby Parque del Amor, which is mostly a terrible sculpture seemingly made out of scrap metal and some mosaics designed by somebody who, in my imagination, was trying to replicate Barcelona’s Parc Guell on his lunch break while the original was described to him via shortwave radio. At night I find a sports bar to watch the Blackhawks sadly get eliminated from the Western Conference Finals. A surprising amount of Chicagoans are in attendance. Despite Hawks-related sadness, we take it relatively easy that night as we’re planning on moving on the next morning .
My running joke with Shannon is that she’s the first American tourist in history to come to Peru but not make it to Machu Picchu. On the other hand, spending the entire week just in Lima doesn’t seem enticing enough, so to add some variety we head a few hours south down the Pacific Coast.
Our first real destination is the coastal town of Paracas and its two natural attractions: the Islas Ballestas, also known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos (Peru tourism board needs to work on the marketing), and the Paracas National Reserve, a rugged landscape of sandy seaside cliffs. On the way, we stop by the city of Pisco to try out some more of the namesake local liquor. I’ve been a fan of pisco sours since day 1 of the W trek, when I had a couple in Refugio Grey. Shan has only been in Peru for two days but she’s equally on board with the cocktail, and dinner in Pisco seems to be only appropriate.
Pisco is not a particularly appealing town, and even the main pedestrian drag is a little shady at night, but we finally find a promising looking chifa. Peru’s location on the Pacific has made it a natural destination for Asian immigrants over the years (so much so that in the 90s, Peru’s president Fujimori was of Japanese descent) and chifa cuisine mixes typical Chinese food with traditional Peruvian ingredients. After dinner, another bus takes us the
All in all, not a bad way to spend my 100th day on the road.
We’re lucky. It’s the first time in a week that the boats have been able to go out in the weather.
Not far off shore, a dolphin pops out of the water not 10 yards away from our boat.
There’s penguins and birds I can’t identify, and seals sunning themselves on the rocks, but perhaps my favorite aspect of the islands is the remains of the guano-gathering operations that once operated here. Nowadays, the remaining structures more or less are guano, or at least completely covered in it.
Underneath us the sea teems with red krill.
We won’t be able to get as far as the Nazca lines, but there’s a mysterious carving in a bluff that we can see from our boat. Nobody really has any definite information about who made it. There was a civilization in the area that dated back to around 200 BC, but the carving could have been made as recently as the 1700s by Spanish explorers.
Back on dry land, we head just a bit further south to the Paracas National Reserve, a stark coastal desert area with cliffs overlooking red sand beaches. It’s not a Yosemite or Torres del Paine, in that the area probably wouldn’t warrant a trip on it’s own, but since we’re already down here it’s definitely worth checking out. On the other side of the peninsula from the red sand, there’s a few seafood restaurants serving up the catch of the day. Perhaps the highlight of my entire time in Peru comes as I watch massive pelicans line up at one of the restaurant’s back doors to be fed leftovers.
Then it’s back to the town of Paracas for dinner and pisco sours on the seafront. No one would mistake it for a luxury resort, but with the palm trees, the sand, the sea, and the sky, what’s the difference? There’s almost nobody around, anyway. And for me, it’s the last chapter in my with the Pacific Ocean, starting in El Salvador, tempting me in Nicaragua, returning in Panama, ………Chile,……….Peru.
The city of Ica is only about an hour inland from Paracas. The drive in is the only time I can recall having desert on one side of the road and vineyards on the other, a fact that I should have paid more attention to at the time.
Ica is an incredibly bustling city of 100,000, with apparently extremely low unemployment due to not only the local vineyards, but also avocados and asparagus farms, and everything that else that goes with cities of that size. While the burgeoning prosperity is great for Ica, it doesn’t make for a particularly relaxing vacation environment, so after a quick lunch in the town square watching a socialist parade march by, we grab a tuk-tuk and head for the nearby oasis of Huacachina, which is a place unlike any other I’ve visited in my whole life.
If you see a photo of Huacachina, the big secret is that it’s not really remote at all. It’s maybe three miles to the center of Ica, and a mile past Ica’s outskirts. But with the giant dunes encircling it, you immediately forget that civilization is that close. All that remains of your universe is a dozen or so buildings huddled around a dingy lagoon.
At dinner we order a bottle of Peruvian wine. Three questions got answered in one sip: 1) Why have I never heard of Peruvian wine? 2) Why do they make so much grape brandy instead of wine? 3) Why is there a vineyard in the desert? Answer to all three: Peruvian wine is fucking terrible. I will grant you that’s a broad statement based on a sample size of one, but for the relative price and presentation you might have expected $15 a quality, and we would have been happy with $5 quality, but what we got was basically fruit juice with paint thinner.
The most exciting thing about the dunes is the prospect of actually skiing down them. Months prior, I had passed up the chance to go “volcano boarding” in Nicaragua, which you may recall was really sledding more so than snowboarding or skiing, and didn’t see that awesome. But a number of places in Huacachina offer modified snowboards for zipping down the dunes, and one shop, at least, had a few pairs of old skis and boots you could use. This is very exciting to me and I decide I will be back the next morning to go dune skiing.
It doesn’t happen. I end up crippled, and prepare yourself for this, a hemorrhoid. It lasts just long enough to keep me from skiing. Thankfully it resolves itself — I will not describe this process in detail — just in time for our 4 hour bus ride back to Lima. After touching on it in every Central American country I was in, as well as riding through half of Chile on it, this is my last segment on the Pan-American Highway
Lima gets a bad rap, but I like it. It definitely lacks the European grandeur of Buenos Aires or the natural setting of Rio, but it’s got an exciting energy even if it is set in a bit rawer of an environment.
We’ve got one more night in Lima before we head back. This time we’re staying closer to the historical city center, but we make it out to Barranco for one last proper meal at Amoramar before Shan heads back to the states, and I head to Brazil.
At night we hit up Lima’s Parque de la Reserva, famous for its interactive and colorfully lit fountains. As tourist traps go it’s a worthwhile one, especially for a pair of photographers.
With Shannon gone, I have a ton of time to kill at the airport. Sitting at a cafe, I play my favorite travel game, guess the wifi password. I try “lima2014” and several others before finally giving up and just asking the waitress que es el clave por el wifi. Turns out it was lima2013. So close.
It’s dark by the time I arrive in Iguacu. The humidity . There’s the language barrier now too – while I can read signs relatively well after a few adjustments, my ears aren’t at all accustomed to Portuguese, and I can’t say much of anything.
Brazil comes with all kinds of logistical annoyances, the first of which is finding an ATM where I can get some money out. A few guys from the hostel join me on a trip to the commercial district a few blocks away to try to get cash. In one store, there’s no less than 6 ATMs, and I’m the only one who is able to get any cash, and that’s after failing with 2 different cards on 5 of the machines.
The town really exists only to serve as a tourist base for the falls, so there’s not much else to do.
It’s been raining like crazy for weeks prior to our arrival, and the falls are somewhat flooded.
We’re able to see the Brazilian side, but the Argentine side is closed. I feel sad to miss out on another point of view, and what would have been my eleventh time crossing the Argentine border in less than two months. It could have been worse. The next day, the Brazilian side was closed to visitors too.
If media reports were to be believed, I shouldn’t have made it out too far out of the airport in Sao Paulo before being robbed, murdered, and buried in the foundation of an alarmingly behind-schedule stadium.
Chun shows up
Ride to airport