Friday, July 08, 2011

Trekking in Peru: Game for Anything

To witness Machu Picchu at sunrise on the Winter Solstice is to witness people at their rawest: competitive, unable to resist group mentality, and dare I even say it--primal.

I'm not sure what exactly first piqued my interest in going to Peru, but perpetuated rumours about the closing of the Inca Trail created a sense of urgency. I needed to go there and it needed to happen soon.

In early February, an email appeared in my inbox with a one-word subject line: "Peru." It was from Chloé, typed out on her iPhone. The rest of email was just as succinct. "I think we should go there," she wrote. "This year." 

It was out of the question. I didn't have the money and I'd just booked my trip to Louisiana. 

But then again, stranger things have happened. Together, Chloé and I have created calendars and mobile kissing booths, hosted trivia nights and seduced cowboys from Idaho. We've had country bands dedicate songs to us while we clumsily attempted to two-step, snuck into concerts and hidden in a shower in a one-time stripclub. 

This is the very defining aspect of my friendship with Chloé--nothing is ever out of the question. And sometimes, a three-sentence email is the only catalyst needed. My reply was equally short. 

"I'm game," I wrote back.

So on June 18th, after a whirlwind 48 hours that involved accidentally getting afternoon drunk in Miami, getting ripped off by a cab driver in Lima and witnessing the winter solstice celebrations in Cuzco, we woke up at 3:30 am to begin our Inca Trail adventure. 

While we had been crossing our fingers in hopes that our group would consist of solely of cute twenty-something guys and maybe an eccentric old couple, we lucked out by finding ourselves sharing our breakfast table with the Wright family. 

Standing at KM 82, the beginning of the Inca Trail
There was an ethnocentric comfort knowing that we would be sharing our trek with fellow Canadians. (Western Canadians at that!) Daughter Lauren had just finished a placement in Ecuador, so big brother Jordan and parents Jim and Shirley had come down to join her in South America. 

We had been told that our first morning would be the easiest. But within an hour, we had to strip off our mittens, toques, fleeces and windbreakers. 

Looking down and back at the path that we had covered in the first morning I couldn't help but wonder, "How much harder can this possibly get?"

Chloé and I after reaching the highest point in the trail, Dead Woman's Pass

This is how much harder it can get: the Inca Trail, while rated as a "moderate" hike, is not an easy trek. The classic four-day trek involves three mountain passes, 45 kilometres, altitudes of up to 4200 metres and descents that involve more than 4000 "stairs" (and I'm using that term loosely). 

At 4200 metres, the pace is slow. You take three steps, you catch your breath. You take two more, you catch your breath. For Chloé and I, our strategy was simple: never let your heart rate down. And there was only one rule: only one "whine" a day. (We usually reserved our complaints for the frigid night cold.) 

And that's how it went. For three amazing days, we hiked up and we hiked down. We stopped to eat, and to snack. And when we were lucky, we would stop for "story time" with Eric, our guide, at archeological sites. After our hikes, there would be tea and warm water for washing. And at night, Eric would terrify us with Quechua ghost stories. (I'll admit that I didn't sleep the entire first night.)

For me, the third day ranked easily as one of the best days of my life. I know this seems like a dramatic embellishment but I was just so. . .happy.

The day started at 5 am when I tripped over the tent in dark. I was sent crashing headfirst over what came to be known as the "mini-cliff"--a solid three feet bank made of rock. The landing hurt, but I couldn't stop laughing. 

I was lucky. Despite the chance of being seriously injured, I escaped with little more than a lightly scraped knee. That's when I knew it was going to be a good day.

And it was. There was beer and hot showers and sunshine and Scrabble. There was storytime with wine and a ridiculous photo session. There was gratitude and love that we got to spend our hike with the Wrights and that I got to spend my vacation with Chloé.

"It's been a challenging trek, but the hard part is over," I thought.

I was wrong.

From Winay Wayna ("Forever Young"), it's only a five-minute walk to the gates to the trail to Machu Picchu. At 4:00 am, we were the second group to arrive to wait for the gates to open at 5:30 am.

What happened after the gates opened can only be described as madness. Picture this: you're on a mountain path just wide enough for one person. To your left is a wall of rock. To your right is little more than some foliage preventing you from falling over the cliff's edge. The path winds and curves and you have no idea what's ahead. Tree stumps and roots aren't the challenge though--it's the unexpected steps up and down built by the Incans more than half a millennium ago. Oh, and did I mention that it's pitch black out?

Now imagine this: there's hundreds of people on the trail, speed walking and pushing past one another to make it to the front of the single file line. No one wants to pass on the right--it's too close to the cliffside. But no one wants to wait either. This is the summer solstice! They have to make it to the Sun Temple before sunrise! People are running flailing their ridiculous walking sticks behind and in front of them so no one tries to pass. People are on their hands and knees climbing steps. People are shouting profanities at one another, all in the effort to get to the front of the very quickly moving line of people. If you stop, you'll be trampled. And if you don't move quickly enough, you'll be trampled. Manners are gone. So is the quiet solace of the previous three days. All that's left is gang mentality and survival of the fittest.

My sweaty sheen following the most ridiculous hour of my life.
And then, after an hour of nearly-running, you're at the Sun Gate and everyone stops at once. It didn't even matter who got to the gate at 4:00 am or who was in the front of the line--everyone all arrives within five minutes of one another.

As for the the solstice? Well, it's cloudy. There won't be a sunrise today.

But we had arrived. Even though I had only just met the Wrights three days before, there's no one that I would have rather arrived at the Sun Gate with.

And then there was the day at Machu Picchu. I feel like I'm about to betray tourists everywhere, but I also feel the need to be completely honest here. After the previous three days, there was something decidedly underwhelming about arriving at Machu Picchu. 

On the first day of our trek, Eric told us that he didn't even want us to think about Machu Picchu, he wanted us to think about the trek. He was encouraging us to live in the present, rather than dwelling on our eventual destination.

By the time we arrived, that's all it was--the destination. Maybe underwhelming isn't the right word, but I had a sense of disappointment. The trek, which had been an exhilarating and challenging four days, was over. We had spent three days alone on the trail, shivering in the cold, playing Scrabble in our tent, struggling to catch our breath in the thin air and walking in silence. 

It was over and I wasn't ready for it to end.

On the four-hour and 92-km train ride home (you do the math), Chloé and I played game after game of Scrabble, while the Wrights sat beside us, playing game after game of Take Two. (Their family friendly name for Asshole.) After a bus ride and a short, but somewhat terrifying cab ride, we arrived at our hotel. Back to civilization.

Our first order of business the next morning? Go for a hike.

Teary-eyed at the loss of my camera.

The rest of the trip was a bit of a blur. My camera was stolen. I incurred a serious hangover. Chloé got food poisoning. Lima was polluted and grey. We watch half a dozen pirated DVDs in our hostel room, turning up the volume to drown out the sound of Miraflores' traffic. But somehow it didn't matter. The trip had already been everything that I wanted it to be.

A week earlier in Miami, Chloé and I had drunkenly sat in the warm water as small silver fish nipped at our feet. As our bikini bottoms filled with sand and our skin began to burn, we talked about our families, our relationships and our careers. It was one of those perfect days, when you know you're on the edge of something good.

"You know why I love you?" I told Chloé. "It's because you're always game for anything."

If You Go:
  • Trekking: Skip the middleman. Why trek with an American or Canadian company when you can support a local company? Enigma Adventure Tour Operator came highly recommended to me by a co-worker and it was well-warranted. Our guide was exceptionally knowledgable, the three-course (!) meals were always delicious and the cooks were accommodating to dietary restrictions. Key piece of advice: Hire a porter to carry your bags. There's no need to be a hero on your vacation--you're there to enjoy the view. 
Enigma's porters and cooks with our group.
  • Hostels: After days of using Andean toliets and bathing with wet wipes, Piccola Locanda in Cuzco is a special post-trekking treat at around $50 a night. More a hotel than a hostel, it has hot water, clean rooms and a lovely cafe area. 
  • Lima Adventures: If you're not sick of ruins and taking pictures of old rocks, Huaca Pucllana in Miraflores is worth a visit, if only to see these creepy hairless dogs:

All photos courtesy of Chloé and the Wright Family.

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