Peru Part VIII: From Picchu to Puno

Visiting Macchu Picchu and the city of Puno

I figure we are out of luck when we arrive at Macchu Picchu’s cloud gate. Typical for the wet season, a thick mist covers most of the ancient city. But when we descend and step through the sun gate, the fog dissipates before our eyes. We watch the ruins of the Inca empire’s last stronghold with a sense of awe and respect; to see this, we’ve been climbing slippery steps for the last three days. We get only a few moments of clear view before the dense clouds hide the secretive jungle city once more. Walking further down, we are greeted by the first hordes of day tourists coming to see this wonder of the world. The mystical sense of ancient times is somewhat spoiled when we arrive at the foot of the city by a long que to visit the first clean bathroom since we left Ollantaytambo. After refueling with some caffeine and going through security, David leads us around the site. Even though the place is bustling with people, the strong connection with the sacred town returns. It is not hard to imagine what life in Macchu Picchu must have been like right before the ruthless conquistadores arrived. The most special place for me is the Temple of the Condor, where the Incas have moved and carved tonnes of granite to display an abstract symbol of a giant condor. The temple makes clever use of the illusion of depth to create an image that automatically silences the beholder of this divine bird. Important dead people would be buried under this condor’s wings, or in its ‘stomach’, so the messenger of the gods would carry them up to the sun. If visiting Macchu Picchu is not yet on your bucket list, you should definitely consider changing that. Although I am a person that will often reject religion as being useless and ridiculous, I think the spiritual connection that the Inca’s had with the sun, the mountains and the plants and animals around them is a beautiful way of thinking. It was essentially a religion that placed sustainability and the circle of life in the center, something that religion-inspired societies of today fail to do. The Inca’s fall came from the Spaniards, but we might be creating our own spiral to collapse.

I can’t get enough of the ambiance that is radiated by the meticulously carved stones, but we eventually take the bus down to Aguas Calientes, a small town that has profited greatly from Inca tourism. Together with other trail finishers we recognize from before, we have our final lunch with David before we part ways. A beautiful train ride takes us back to Ollantaytambo and by car we ride to Cusco. A long night’s sleep has to wait until later, since the next morning is an early one. After four days of being outside for hours on end, I now have to suffer through a ten hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno. The occasional stops at historic sites are overshadowed by the feeling of being trapped in a bus for eternity. The things that make me survive the trip are the beautiful landscape, Hiram Bingham’s Inca Lands and watching Scott Pilgrim v.s. the World twice on Netflix. When we finally arrive in Puno, the surprise of another early rise is not a welcome one…

Puno is built on the shore of Lake Titicaca, a huge body of water that crosses the border between Peru and Bolivia. It is the home of Telmatobius culeus, a very interesting species of frog commonly named the scrotum frog, due to its many skin flaps. It needs this extra skin to absorb enough oxygen out of the high altitude water of Lake Titicaca. Unfortunately, its numbers have drastically lowered in the past years; 10.000 dead frogs were found in October 2016. Pollution is most likely the cause of this great dying of the extremely cute amphibians. A successful breeding program was initiated near Puno, but we weren’t able to visit. Other famous inhabitants of the lake are the Ouros people, the biggest tourist attraction in Puno. For more than a thousand years, they have built their homes on floating islands made out of reed. They discovered the touristic appeal not long ago and have been milking that udder extensively. Nevertheless, it is still an amazing look into these people’s cultural heritage to walk around on one of these islands. To create such a home for some twenty people, they first cut blocks of living reed roots that are stuck together with wooden poles. The roots grow together to form a strong base on which many layers of reed are placed to make a comfortable and dry floor to build on. Ten heavy stones are used as an anchor to prevent the island from floating away. After 30 years, the reed base is not safe to use anymore and a new one needs to be built. But the Ouros do not only use the plants for construction, they also eat it. Supposedly it has very high nutritional value. Although that might be true, I found that the flavor resembles what you imagine a wet heap of compost tastes like.

After spending some time on the small island of Tequile, the boat takes us back to Puno’s harbor. As my mom and I have some unused energy, but running outside on the streets of Puno does not feel safe, we end up in a greasy place called Gymnasio Buffalo. Well, imagine what you would think the average gym owner looks like. Now take the complete opposite of that. Gymnasio Buffalo is owned by a Sunday suit wearing elderly couple with the physiques of heroin addicts. Only a faded picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds us that we are in fact in an actual gym. After some language difficulties, we both get to pick a machine. I take off on a treadmill and am quickly joined by my mother when she finds out the elliptical is in fact not plugged in. On multiple occasions I am strongly urged by one of the owners to turn down the speed of the treadmill, and after half an hour I absolutely have to stop running for reasons unknown (we are the only costumers at the moment). I decide to give the spinning bike a go, but discover that there is no way to set the bike to a higher gear. I am frantically pedaling to keep up with the out of control fitness machine before I’m saved by the grumpy old owner. After a few more minutes on a frictionless elliptical, we decide to call it a day.

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Pukara is an ancient city on the way from Cusco to Puno. Not much is left, but a nearby museum gives an interesting insight into the live of the frog-worshipping pre-Inca culture that lived here.
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A colorfully dressed Ouros woman in a traditional reed canoe on Lake Titicaca.
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As you can see, it will be long before the Ouros run out of construction material.
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Peru Part VII: In the Inca’s footsteps

Four days to Macchu Picchu

Christmas morning arrives without any presents, trees or snow. Instead it brings me something much better: our guide David, with a bus to take us to the start of the Inca Trail. As we step into the car, I’m shocked by the amount of porters we’re bringing with us. Eight men sit in the back to carry our tents, our food and cooking gear. Are my parents really that lazy and colonial, to make eight people carry their stuff for them? Not exactly. The Peruvian government has actually made it mandatory for tourists to have so many porters, thus creating more jobs for Peruvian people in the Andes. They also set a limit to the amount of tourists entering the trail on one day, thereby conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the route. Back in the day, David explains, there were practically no rules. Porters carried up to 40 kg on their backs, people camped between the ancient ruins and littered without giving it a second thought. Things are better now. A porter can carry a maximum of 25 kg and his bag is weighed multiple times throughout the trail. My parents let their bags with clothes and sleeping bags be carried by these Peruvian heroes; I refuse to let go of my burden.
The start of the trail is pure chaos. In a small overshadowed spot, hundreds of people crowd together to make their final preparations: applying sunscreen, changing clothes, spraying bug repellent. Some groups have even set up a long folding table, where they’re having a festive breakfast. Funnily enough, a little order is created by the shirts the porters are wearing. Every team has their own colour, and ‘our’ men are easily recognized by their orange outfit. Coincidence? Nope, the company is owned by a Dutch couple. We finish our final preparations and take a picture in front of the famous ‘KM 82′ sign that marks the official beginning of the trail. David’s incredible negotiation allows us to skip right to the front of the line for the control point… and off we go.
On the first day, the pace is slow, with many stops that I deem unnecessary. When we pause for lunch, I realize why the porters have such a weight on their backs: together with tables, chairs and a dozen sets of cutlery they take out an entire extra tent for eating and even a table cloth. Everything is set up in a designated spot and the chef (whose name is also David) starts cooking. He’s in a hurry; usually, tourists arrive a long time after the porters. Sorry, but not these tourists.
I don’t know how David achieves culinary excellence in a tent at 3000 meters, but he makes it happen. After an extensive lunch and a small siesta, we continue to our first base camp: a small field in a local family’s garden. We have this spot reserved just for us, so the only noise comes from the family’s Christmas lights that play a continuous loop of the 8-bit rendition of ‘Feliz Navidad’. It seems that soccer breaks all language barriers, as minutes later I’m fanatically kicking away with my dad and three young kids. As night falls, the temperature drops and we retreat back in our tents.

Alex, the youngest of the porters, wakes me up at 5:30 with a hot cup of tea. That’s a very welcome luxury: the second day is famous for being the toughest. After a hearty breakfast and a mouth full of coca we begin our 1100 meter ascend. I’m the first to arrive at our meeting point, having passed tourists and porters alike. The view is amazing: the snow-capped peak of mount Veronica rises 5800 meters high, while the steps I use to climb are surrounded by a lush green environment. Spanish moss and bromeliads dominate the plant life around me. Llama’s and alpaca’s graze in the distance. However, it’s nowhere near quiet at this midway plateau. Hordes of hikers gather to buy supplies from the last shop on the trail. Porters and guides enjoy a glass of chicha, low-alcoholic corn beer that’s traditionally made by chewing the corn and mixing it with saliva. When we’re all gathered, we begin our final ascend of the day: the Dead Woman’s Pass. Although this sounds very intimidating, it’s simply named after the shape of the mountain ridge, which indeed resembles a female figure lying on her back. 45 minutes later, I’m standing at the Inca Trail’s highest point: 4215 meters. As I’m waiting for my parents, the phenomenal panorama is sporadically obscured my thick clouds. I’m cold from the strong wind when they arrive for a much needed picture moment.
From here to the basecamp, it’s only downwards. Quickly walking down the slippery slopes is difficult to master, although I see porters literally running down the mountain. The cloud forest down below encourages me to pick up the pace. The vegetation has returned when I arrive at the large base camp at 3800 meters. To my surprise, no one from our party has made it there yet. When the porters arrive, they’re quite astonished to find me already sitting in the grass. When my parents and David come down, I’ve helped with setting up the tents and already started organizing my own. After lunch, we won’t be hiking any further. I decide to explore the base camp and its surrounding a bit. The place is booming with activity. Many people are arriving just now, or have given up and are being escorted back to the trail’s beginning. The few squatting toilets present are not the best; taking it to the bushes seems like a better idea. I notice the different levels of comfort in which people make their journey. Apparently, we’re on the low tier. I see special toilet tents with chemical disposals underneath -imagine being the porter that has to carry that- and gigantic dining places and sleeping tents. The most ridiculous thing I find are groups that brought a masseuse with them, including a special massaging tent. I stroll around the site and take a few pictures of the plants and streams. After dinner, we call it an early night and wrap up in our sleeping bags.

The longest day starts early. When I crawl out of my tent, the porters take turns in weighing my backpack. I get nods of approval from all of them. We start hiking up the next mountain pass and I look back at the Dead Woman’s Pass from yesterday. Our first stop, Runkuraqay, was once a resting place for chasquis, the running men of the Incas who used this trail to deliver important messages to and from Macchu Picchu. The clouds roll in as I arrive at the top and start making my way down the tall stony steps. I wait for David and my parents at the foot of Sayamarca, another ancient Inca settlement. The fog that obscured my view before now disappears and reveals an ocean of green beneath me: the cloud forest. The prospect of walking through the jungle again excites me. David gives us a short tour of the town and tells us about the sacrifices the Incas made to their gods. Llamas, corn and potatoes would be taken by a priest to the glacier and buried beneath the snow; almost as if they were feeding the mountain spirit. The next part of the trail is absolutely stunning. The pathway is one hundred percent original, and it takes us along steep cliffs and through humid caves. The amount of green around me increases every step and the millions of trees from the cloud forest stream from the mountain flanks. Since I’m walking alone, it is completely silent except for the wind and the birds. We have lunch at Phuyupatamarca, looking out over the still functioning fountains of the city. Even after decades of being a guide, David is still passionate about the route, especially this segment. We spend the afternoon walking down through forest that grows increasingly dense. David tells me he often spots snakes crawling over the path, but I can only find a shy lizard that quickly scurries away. Suddenly, the trees make way and reveal a stunning view of agricultural terraces and the valley below, where Aguas Calientes is split in two by the Urubamba river. We silently sit at this spot for a while, taking in the natural beauty of the scene. It’s only a short walk down to our final basecamp, where we arrive around 5 pm. This camp is even more crowded than the last one, as this is the final camp for every single group: there is no place to sleep beyond this. Tourists, porters and guides roam everywhere, and the place fills up as the evening falls. For our last dinner, David the cook prepares a feast. I don’t know how one makes a warm apple pie without an oven, but he achieves the impossible. This evening is our opportunity to say goodbye to the porters, as they will not be joining us tomorrow. I thank them all in English and David translates it, both in Spanish and Quechua. After the ceremony is over, we settle in for a very short night.

It is 3:30 when I wake up in my tent with hot tea for the last time. After a very quick breakfast and another goodbye to the porters, we walk to the line before the gate to Macchu Picchu. It’s as crowded as can be. At 5:30 exactly, the last control post opens and we rapidly pass through. The steep and slippery path is full of people, many of which try to walk as quickly as possible to be the first in Macchu Picchu. A few of them slip and make some nasty falls. Fortunately, the path is beautiful and the sky is clear as we make our way through the final stage of the journey. At last, we climb the steps to the cloud gate, and there it is: Macchu Picchu.

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The ecstasy of reaching the top of the Dead Woman’s Pass.
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Our amazingly funny and knowledgeable guide David.
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Chewing coca keeps me going.
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The orange team.
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The view can’t have been much different hundreds of years ago.
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The trail slowly descends into the cloud forest.
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Small fruit growing around our second basecamp.
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A beautiful flower at an altitude of 3200 meters.
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I could hear this stream from my tent at the second basecamp.
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Two fathers, two sons.
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The view of the Urubamba valley, coming out of the cloud forest.