I know its only been a day…but I´m heading off to the Amazon jungle tomorrow for four days so I need to take this opportunity to journal my time since I arrived in Cusco last Friday. Because a LOT happened to me. Some tragic, but all funny when told in hindsight.
Mirjam and I spent the first two days in Cusco acclimatizing, and trying not to do too much. The first morning, after recovering from the Death by Pan Flute Express, we went out for brunch at a restaurant called Jack´s that was recommended to me by the people I met in Huacachina. It did not disappoint. I had the best breakfast with fresh baked bread, eggs, tomato, potatoes, avocado, fresh orange juice and a piping hot latte. I needed a little bit of home.
We then headed up the hill to check out the beautiful little neighborhood of San Blas which was just charming with lots of very steep narrow streets that twisted and turned endlessly. Continuing up we decided to visit the original Incan fortress of Saskaywaman…which tourists affectionately refer to as “Sexywoman“. From there we could admire the incredible stone work of the incas…some of the rocks used to construct the fortification weighed up to 3 tonnes, and yet were carved and put together to stand for over 600 years without the use of mortar or clay. And none of the stones were rectangular, they were all polygon shapes fitted together like a giant jigsaw. From the top of the hill we could appreciate a bird´s eye view of the entire city of Cusco, the oldest inhabited city in South America. It was much larger than I had expected and surrounded with beautifully lush green hills and valley as far as the eye could see…with just a few snow capped peaks visible in the very distance.
Coming back to the city …I hopped in a cab to have a chiropractic appointment and sort out my bus ravaged body. Getting back I attended the first orientation for my five day trek..and it was a complete waste of time. The agency couldn´t answer my questions, I was the only one from my group in attendance…oh well! This is the Peruvian way, I´m beginning to appreciate.
However, it was my birthday and Mirjam and I had invited a bunch of travellers to come out and celebrate with me. In all, 11 people showed up and the drinks started to flow. We were even joined by a guy from Miami, originally from Israel, who´s birthday it was too! It was a great night out which ended in a karaoke bar (of course!!) with lots of singing and dancing… I even managed to get a very nice good night kiss from my fellow birthday boy (unfortunately he was flying home the next day).
The next day, Mirjam and I awoke with a serious hangover. I stayed in bed most of the day and only ventured out to buy some last minute needed items of gear for my trek like rain pants, and a poncho. Then we went out for a lovely meal and I tried to get to bed at a reasonable hour because I was being picked up at 4:15am the next day!
Of course, I hardly slept. And the pickup was an HOUR late. Which pissed me off. However, I got in the van and tried to sleep, to no avail, all the way the trail head at Mollepata. Beginning to converse with my fellow hikers, I was shocked to discover that I had paid FOUR TIMES what each of the other 11 trekkers had for this trip. This put me in a horrendously bad mood as I felt completely cheated, robbed and lied to. It wasn´t so much the money…but that I had been told that the 19 April was SOLD OUT and that the company was making an exception adding me at the last minute. Well, everyone had booked the trip in the last three days. My poor impression of tourism operators in this country continues to be formed.
Our first day of hiking we covered 19 kilometres and climbed 1000 metres to our first camp at Soraypampa. The scenery and weather changed drastically…we started in very humid, mosquito infested, semi-jungle, and then climbed into an alpine valley with lush green meadows and snow capped peaks in the not too distant horizon. By the late afternoon we had piled on our jackets, pants, gloves, and hats…Our porters (the cooks) and the pack mules were way ahead of us and had laid out a lovely spread of hot tea and popcorn (okay!!) for our arrival. It was so lovely and cozy, I could definitely get used to someone carrying my shit, and cooking for me when I backpack. So spoiled were we. To add to the atmosphere of it all, there was even a little ginger kitten who curled up in a ball on my lap while we ate and drank.
Dinner was not disappointing either…we had cream of asparagus soup, strips of sirloin steak with rice and vegetables, followed by jello for dessert. Yum! After several rounds of cards with my new group of trekkers, I was ready to crawl into my -15 sleeping bag for a good night´s sleep. Thankfully, it was.
Day 2 was going to be the toughest, with over 11 hours of hiking and climbing over the pass at 4950 metres- 15250 feet. I felt ready for it, physically, but was still nervous about the altitude. We were extremely blessed with fantastic weather, and the clouds soon dissipated to reveal glorious 6000 metre peaks all around us. I found the trekking poles very helpful as we began the gruelling switchbacks, up, up , up to our goal. I was the fifth to make it to the top and felt really good, just a little breathless. The biting wind also took a hold once you had stopped for a few minutes. After taking in the vistas of the glaciers overhead, and hearing them crack and move, it was time to move on to our descent back into the sub alpine green meadows and then further down into the jungle.
After nearly 7 hours of walking we stopped for lunch and ate ravenously. I couldn´t fathom that we still had 3 hours to go. That section of the trail was the toughest, and your aching muscles just willed the campsite to come into view as we went around each and every bend. I was starting to feel very weak, my stomach was hurting badly, but it wasn´t until I arrived into camp that I began to suspect that there was something very wrong with me.
I sat down, exhausted, on arrival. Then I thought to myself: ¨”oh, I´ll just lie down for a few minutes before I get into my tent and change”. That’s when everything went downhill. In a matter of minutes, I began to feel nauseous. Then the world started spinning around me, and every time I tried to sit up I was sure I was going to be sick. I was feeling really bad and worsening. Then I started to shiver, and I realized that I was lying on the ground in my sweat soaked clothes, and that I needed to get out of them quickly. I just couldn´t move and I began to panic. I willed someone to help me, but no-one seemed to notice me lying on the ground. Eventually, my tent mate asked if I was ok…I explained, though terribly embarrassed, that I was going to need help getting in the tent. With her´s and Nico´s help, I got in the tent, and somehow managed to get into dry clothes and curl into my sleeping bag.
No sooner had I got in my bag than I needed to get out again..and crawling just steps from my tent, I threw up. That was when things got bad, and things started exiting me from..um..both ends, shall we say? A fever began to spike and I was unable to keep water down.
What had I eaten or drank different from anyone else? I couldn´t think of anything. My guide, Nico, was convinced I had altitude sickness. All I knew is that things were bad and I wished to be anywhere but in the middle of nowhere.
Concerned with dehydration, my guide gave me hydration tablets and lots of water, which I promptly threw up. Nothing was staying down. It was so awful. He fetched me some Gatorade from another campsite, and I managed to keep sipping that throughout the night, thank God.
It was by far one of the longest nights of my life. I didn´t sleep at all, but just lay there writhing in pain and nausea for over 12 hours. In the middle of the night, I knew I had to go to the bathroom, but I had no idea where it was, or how on earth I was going to muster to the strength to walk there. I woke my tent mate who explained that it was about 200 m east of the tent, and that I should just head to the river.
There I was, in pitch black darkness, stumbling horrendously with my headlight trying to stay upright to get to the latrine. I stepped in donkey shit. In sandals. I tried to avoid chickens and nearly walked into a mule. Finally finding the outhouse, my heart sank as I saw that these toilets were no more than holes in the ground.
Now, as any of you who´ve had the pleasure of using such facilities will know…a good ¨”aim” is difficult at the best of times…but when you are delirious and have diarrhea….well, lets just say, that I missed….and creating such a disgusting mess that I threw up again.
I couldn´t go back to the tent like this…so I tried to find the water bucket that is used to flush the toilet…it was empty. So I hobbled down to the river and tried to rinse my feet and sandals, but the current was so strong I nearly got swept away.
Its all really funny to recall now, in retrospect, but I can assure you that at the time, it was severely lacking in humor.
Back in the tent, I was so uncomfortable and sick, that the only relief I could find was in scratching all the mosquito bites on my legs. Well, that soon got out of hand and I think I scratched myself till I bled.
In the morning, my guide came over and told me that I had to get up and walk. I just wanted to crawl up in the corner and die. God. How was I going to walk?
I can´t even begin to describe how hard it was to get ready and start walking when I felt like collapsing at every step. I was so dizzy and nauseous, it was a battle of the mind just to keep going. At one point, unable to go any further, I sat on a rock on the trail and just started to cry. It was especially difficult not having anyone else that I knew there to offer even so much as moral support. Some hiker came over and pointed out that I didn´t look so great. “What an astute observation,” I thought to myself sarcastically…but when he explained that he was a doctor…it was like music to my ears.
Turned out, he thought I had caught a virus, and promptly gave me some drugs which he explained might help with the nausea and dizziness. He said that if I still wasn´t keeping liquids down within 6 hours that I should stop and have an IV administered.
Yeah, that´s likely in the middle of the jungle.
Thankfully, the drugs helped a little and I was able to keep going and keep some liquids down. After about an hour, a local came by on horseback, and after some negotiating, I managed to bargain my way onto his horse in his stead. It was a relief not to be walking, but the horse trotting and crossing rivers and large rocks jolted my insides so bad that I threw up a couple more times.
After what felt like eternity, we reached our lunch stop for the day, I slid off the horse and crawled over to a nearby tree and lay down in the grassy shade, so incredibly grateful to not be moving anymore.
I didn´t eat much those next 2 days, but I was beginning to feel better by that evening…even well enough to go to the Hot Springs in Santa Maria with the rest of the group. It was an incredible setting, and it was so nice to get a sense of cleanliness after 3 days of roughing it.
Thankfully, the next day was pretty easy, without much climbing…just a long trek along the River Urumbata towards the train tracks leading to Aguas Caliente…the town at the foot of the mountains of Machu Picchu. It was now lush green jungle and we saw lots of beautiful birds, cascading waterfalls, and got eaten alive by swarms of mosquitoes.
The night before our dawn climb to Machu Picchu I was again, unable to sleep a wink. The entire next day I ran entirely on adrenaline and the excitement of seeing a sight I´d been dreaming about for nearly 20 years.
We set out at 3:30 in the morning with headlamps to tackle the very steep climb up the incan stairs to the entrance gates of Machu Picchu. It was a ridiculously steep climb, but it felt worth it when we claimed one of the first places in line to be allowed in. Walking into the ruins just as dawn was breaking is a spectacle I will not soon forget. Nothing can prepare you for that first glimpse of this wonder of the world, and as I gazed on this lost city of the Incas, surrounded by the mist enveloped green peaks, I couldn´t help but be overcome with emotion and tears flooded my eyes. It was so unreal…to finally be here.
We all raced through the ruins to get ” in line ” for permits to climb the famed Wana Picchu mountain, since only the first 400 hikers are permitted to get to its summit on a daily basis. Nearly 5000 tourists visit Machu Picchu on any given day.
After a two hour tour led by our guide Nico on the history and story of the city, it was time to head up the peak. I was so tired that I nearly fell asleep standing during the tour, so I´m not sure how I managed to summit the 700 metre climb. It was ridiculously steep and narrow, and having to make room for some people descending as we climbed was particularly precarious. I was a puddle. My legs shook with the effort. Just when I thought we´d reached the summit…we had to CRAWL through a very narrow tunnel like cave in order to emerge on top on the other side. It was barely large enough to push my body through.
The view made it all worthwhile…the ruins below us formed the shape of the condor and looked like a small spec all those metres below us. The bridge we had crossed the river on the day before was but a brown spec on the valley floor below us.
Most unfortunately, despite being the one person who had paid through the nose for this trip, I also seemed to be the one person singled out to return to Ollantaytambo and on to Cusco on the 2pm train- everyone else on the trip was reserved on the 6pm train. I was very upset at having to leave the site early as I wanted to spend the day there. Having said that, by the time I descended from Wana Picchu, and climbed up to the Guard House to take some of those iconic photographs…I had been walking for nearly 10 hours and I was completely wrecked. I would never have suspected that of our gruelling 5 day trek, the day in Machu Picchu was going to test me physically the most.
I was so dead that I decided to take the bus back down to Aguas Caliente. Sadly, I didn´t even get to say goodbye to the rest of my group, only Nico, who had tried unsuccessfully (bless him) to change my train ticket to the later departure.
By the time the train pulled into Ollantaytambo 3 hours later, I was convinced that I was going to spend the night here and get some rest, and take advantage of the location to see the Sacred Valley before heading back to Cusco the next evening.
Turned out to be a good decision. Actually relieved to be all alone for a change, I ate a quick dinner and then promptly fell asleep around 7pm…only to awake 14 hours later at 9am the following morning. I had needed it.