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Trial by Trail

The way(s) to Machu Picchu

This is Machu Picchu. We saw this. How we got there is quite the story. Read on.

Wed, July 21

We listened to Jenn coughing all night long, but when the alarm went off in the morning it was "let's go." Really? We thought the antibiotics would kick in, but by the end of the day it would be clear that our trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu would not go on.

In between the decision to go and the decision to go back was quite the day.

We were the first pick up, and we met Freddy (the main guide) and Will, the assistant guide, as well as the others. Anica was by far the youngest hiker, but we were not the oldest. There was a retired couple from England, and a Swiss/French couple who were both older than us. Rounding out our group was the twenty-something contingent (couples from The Netherlands, Canada and the USA, and a single guy from England who would be my tent-mate).

The bus stopped for "second breakfast" at a small town past Ollantaytambo. Were we hobbits, then, trekking to the cracks of doom? Jenn, Anica and I bought a walking stick each. Freddy is very big on having just one, not a pair. Then there was the process of passport control, and handing over our extra baggage for the porters' weigh station, and suddenly we were at the "starting gates" of km 82.

"They're at the post...and they're off!" KM 82 of the Inca Trail

Immediately, everything went wrong. Anica was just plain tired already from being up at 4:30 in the morning and being feeling somewhat sick on the bus. Tired before even taking a step, and then the first ten minutes were mildly uphill. It was hot, the bugs were..bugging her...she was uncharacteristically full of complaints. Great!

Jenn was also labouring from the beginning. We were in the rear. I was carrying Anica's backpack for half the morning. The good views of Mount Veronica behind us were not something we could enjoy very much. The assistant guide, Will, brought up the rear with us, patiently, advising "positive thoughts."

Positive thoughts worked for Anica. She got better and stronger as the day went on. Better after our first break and much better after lunch. She finished the day with the lead group, chattering away, not even realizing she walked the last 20 minutes uphill without water.

Jenn, also uncharacteristically, wasn't catching her breath. It was the bronchitis, not the elevation. We weren't even that high yet. Any sort of incline set her coughing, though. The guides didn't realize that she'd been touch-and-go about even starting the trek. Lead guide Freddy calls the whole group "The Family," but Jenn didn't realize that when Freddy said "now that the family's here..." She thought he was saying that our little family of three was holding everybody up!

Some other impressions: so much food! The food is really good, hot and plentiful. Too plentiful! If I ate everything they put in front of me at lunch, I wouldn't have been able to move! Freddy is very enthusiastic, and says "guys" a lot. Jenn even counted: he said "guys" fourteen times in one minute when explaining about the Inca ruins. He might not be the best guide for us: "guys, I take you the long way. You say, why Freddy? Guys. It's good, guys. You see more. Look, guys, at this Incan ruin. Pachamama, guys.." etc.

"Guys!" Freddy addresses the trekkers.

When we were welcomed to the camp (by Anica, who'd arrived 10 minutes ahead of us), there was a decision to make. Could Jenn go on? The second day is much harder, up "dead woman's pass." I didn't want Jenn to become that dead woman. Surprisingly, there was a little medical clinic just down the hillside from our camp. The guides thought Jenn should see the Doctor, and we did, after dinner, when her breathing and coughing had not improved. The Doctor said "no mas." Freddy and Will looked a little surprised, realizing fully for the first time that this wasn't a case of simply finding the trek difficult nor even related to altitude. It was bronchitis and it was asthma, and continuing up the trail would be impossible for Jenn.

Meanwhile, we had experienced life at camp on the Inca Trail. This first night's camp was situated on one level of the agricultural terraces. Above and below us were farm animals, which triggered my asthma. Ironic, considering the hiking at altitude hadn't. The area was crowded with other trekking groups and local farmers. In fact, I accidentally used some farmer's outhouse the first time I looked for our camp bathroom. Whoops!

Freddy said we had a decision to make: Will, the assistant guide, would be going back with Jenn and arranging for her to meet up with the rest of the "family" at Machu Picchu. Anica and I could continue the trek. Or just me. But, really, there was no decision to make. Would I really leave Jenn to be sick alone in a foreign country? Would I ever forgive myself if she got worse and ended up in the hospital? No, the Inca Trail was over for all of us.

Moonrise over the mountains at the Inca Trail campsite

Thurs, July 22

Breakfast at camp this morning, followed by goodbyes and best wishes, and "see you at Machu Picchu," and then...we headed back. Weird feeling. It could have been a miserable feeling, except that Will, the assistant guide, was now assigned to guide us, and he turned out to be exceptional person. The trail back was mostly downhill or flat, especially with the easier route that Will chose, so Jenn found it a lot easier than yesterday. But, even a few steps up were causing her trouble. She can't take a really deep breath even when resting. Throughout the day, her condition made us all realize that it was the right decision not to continue. In fact, it was pretty weird to be walking 12 km back after deciding to "stop" the trail. In total, we hiked 27 km in two days on the Inca Trail and finished right where we started.

Jenn and Anica, on the trail, heading back

Will kept guiding us, teaching us, really, about the flora & fauna, history & culture of his own Quechua ancestors. We saw Patallacta (aka Llactapata or "town on a hillside"), an Incan ruin, from a different angle than yesterday. This is a town that the local people destroyed and hid from the Spanish so that the conquistadors wouldn't continue down the valley and find Machu Picchu, which was the royal retreat of its day. It worked. The Spanish never found Machu Picchu. In fact, nobody knows what Patallacta or Machu Picchu (which means "young mountain") were actually called in the pre-European days. These are the local names being used when (people like Hiram Bingham in 1912) began looking for the lost, last capital of the Incan empire.

Spectacular view of Patallacta from where we ate lunch on the hike back

By afternoon, we were back at Pisacusco, the little town we'd started at. There, our newly-hired "personal porter" had the rest of the things. He would accompany us on the "collectivo" to Ollantaytambo, which Will got us on. We thought there was a cat on board, until we realized it was the chorus of a Peruvian pop song on the radio.

Back in Ollantaytambo! When Will heard we'd stayed here before, he asked us if we'd like to stay in the same place again. Yes! So we hiked across town to Apu Lodge. Francis and Barry were so surprised to see us, and confused - weren't we on the trail?- but luckily, they had a room. It was like coming home.

We met up with Will later at Heart's Cafe, after he'd bought our train tickets to Aguas Calientes (the Machu Picchu town). Although we were paying extra for these things, we were not paying extra for Will's services. This was part of the Peru Treks policy: one way or another we would complete the journey to Mach Picchu and meet "the family" at sunrise. What was above and beyond the call of duty, however, was the care and compassion that Will showed us. We treated him to lunch and talked at length with him about cultures, lifestyles, superstitions and family. It was a wonderful conversation, particularly because Will handled it all in English, despite his own opinion that his English was so limited.

We talked with Francis and Barry again later, back at Apu Lodge, and heard about their own travel horror stories: extreme weather crossing Drake's Passage to Antarctica, followed by getting caught in the 8.8 earthquake in Santiago, Chile. So they know how things can go wrong travelling!

Cactus & Snow on the Inca Trail

Fri, July 23:

Not too much rest for Jenn. She's not getting better, but she's not getting severely worse either. So, on we go. By train, to Aguas Calientes. The train, although not something we wanted to do, was beautiful. Glass walls and ceilings to enjoy the mountain views. During a long delay, Anica got a game of hangman going, and the fourth passenger in our group of seats, a solo-travelling lorry driver from Birmingham, joined in.

Aguas Calientes is a bizarre town. It's purely for tourism to Machu Picchu, and most people stay just one night. Every day is the same here. In fact, I didn't see a newspaper for sale anywhere. Every restaurant seems the same, too. The town looks nice, surrounding by the kind of mountain peaks you'd recognize from the famous photos of Machu Picchu. There's a brand-new plaza (i.e. town square) with a statue of an Inca emperor. The train track runs down the centre of the main street. Back in February, this is where tourists were stranded when worse-than-ever floods caused landslides that destroyed both track and trail. It was quickly rebuilt, but we spotted the signs of both the devastation and the reconstruction.

Anica and I went to the "aguas calientes" themselves (thermal springs), but it was a disappointment, especially for Anica, since the waters were only just warm, and most of the people there were young couples with drinks in their hands. There was no place for a kid to just play or splash, even though Anica wasn't the only kid there. I felt so sorry for Anica; she's been so patient with everything - worried about her Mom, but also willing to give up the trail, and just go with the flow and all the changes of plans. Anica's shown us the very best traveller's attitude the last couple of days. Like she says, "at least we've got a story to tell." Jenn and I agree: it might not be the adventure we thought we'd be having, but it continues to be an adventure.

Tonight, with a modicum of luxury at a "hostal" called "Gringo Bill's," Jenn actually got a good night's sleep for the first time in four nights.

Sat, July 24:

The big day! Machu Picchu. Will had us up early to get on one of the first buses to the site. It's a 7km bus ride along a twisty dirt road of cutbacks up the mountain to Machu Picchu itself. We were there just before sunrise. I went up to the part overlooking Machu Picchu while Jenn and Anica waited at the front gates. Jenn wasn't even up to walking these ten minutes of steps. Anica volunteered to keep her company, and Will came with me.

I took many versions of the famous photo as the daylight grew, and I welcomed Freddy and the hiking group in from the trail. They'd had it rough: several people had developed "the runs." Perhaps the food had gone downhill as the trek went uphill. Freddy had also been very adventurous with his choices, like getting them up at 3:30 in the morning so they'd be the first group through the "sun gate."

A slightly different view of Machu Picchu

All of us went down the steps and through the gates again after "second breakfast" (another of Freddy's favourite phrases). Then we got a great tour of Machu Picchu. Here, I have to give Freddy a lot of credit for his enthusiasm. Jenn and Anica got their first look at Machu Picchu from the highest of the terraces, almost as good a viewpoint as the one I'd climbed up to at sunrise. Freddy got our group - just our group - into the actual sun temple for a talk about how it was built and it's significance. Both Will and Freddy have been part of the conservation projects here at Machu Picchu.

Massive natural rock incorporated into the Temple of the Sun, Machu Picchu

When the tour ended, and the group split up, we went up to the sun dial structure, the highest point at Machu Picchu, then went down closer to the green area and tree in the center of town, where the grazing llamas are the only lawnmowers.

Despite it all, Machu Picchu impressed me as one of the world's most spectacular sights, maybe the most spectacular. It's the combination of nature and human achievement in architecture that's so impressive, like the Great Wall of China or the tombs at Petra. The other thing about Machu Picchu that struck me is that it's big - it's a huge area, not some little hilltop patch of ground, but a town that can be filled with hundreds of visitors and still look and feel mostly empty. The typical views of Machu Picchu actually make it seem smaller than it really is, which made it more impressive when we were actually there.

Looking back from the centre of Machu Picchu to the terracing above it


Our denouement was hanging around Aguas Calientes for the afternoon, waiting for the backpackers train back to Cusco. We spent a lot of that time in the lobby of Gringo Bill's, and some of it with the other trekkers. Most of them, however, were drinking, including Freddy, who had a generous collection of the big Cusquena beer bottles in front of him by the end of the afternoon. He was still in charge of getting us to the train, so it was a little worrisome.

But, by midnight, we were back in Cusco at Torre Dorada. We thought we'd be welcoming the comfort of this slight splurge after roughing it on the Inca Trail.

Sun, July 25

Number 1 priority: get a doctor for Jenn. The people at the Torre Dorada, fortunately, can and will do anything for you. They have an amazing "concierge" style service here, better than most five-star hotels. They had an English-speaking doctor who specialized in travel medicine making a housecall right to our hotel room before the morning (Sunday morning!) was even over. Then, they had a pharmacy deliver the prescriptions - again right to our room. It was a relief to here the doctor say: yes, you can fly tomorrow, you can go to the jungle (the fact that the jungle is at sea-level might even help Jenn). His diagnosis was acute bronchitits.

We went to Bembo's for lunch, the Peruvian McDonald's. This was a treat for Anica; she'd been really curious about it. It was indeed better than McDonald's. Bigger, better burgers and still a kid's meal with toy (yet another stuffed animal for Anica - she started this trip with one and now she's up to four!).

The rest of the afteroon was supposed to be rest at the hotel for Jenn, but our laptop self-destructed in the middle of uploading photos and that made it not at all restful. The laptop, like us, had made it all the way around the world but found Peru to be too much. Francis, from Apu Lodge, had agreed with this; a friend of hers had offered this welcome: "Come to Peru and watch your body fall apart."

The doctor had recommended that Jenn not go out in the cold Cusco evening. When we told Mariela, at the front desk, this, she said she could arrange chicken to be delivered from a favourite local "Polleria." (Torre Dorada only serves breakfast). This turned out to a very memorable meal. They set us up in the breakfast room - table setting- just for us. The full chicken came with fries, potato salad, other salads and little sauces in plastic bags. It was so good!

After dinner, we packed...again!

Posted by jennrob 10:49 Archived in Peru

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