And so my brother Per Helge arrived to Lima with the rest of the group of Norwegians. Whereas they were jet lagged and tired and wanted to sleep, Grethe and I had spent the day relaxing by having massages and pina coladas before noon. The group was a mix of 1, 2 or 3 people traveling together, aged 27 to 60. After a quick brief and evening meal with our Danish tour leader Anna it was time to pack up and get ready for an early morning bus ride to Ica.
What do you MEAN we have a lot of stuff…?
Packing up was an interesting display of how 3 different backpacks get ready to travel. Grethe was flash packing; her bags were just about as heavy as she could carry and full of all kinds of travel gadgets. Let me tell you, this chick can inhabit a hotel room faster and more thoroughly than anyone I have ever met! I on the other hand am a backpacker, carrying only the bare essentials of what I need, making it possible to also bring my paraglider. By now I can actually tell you where every single thing in my backpack is located and how to reach it. And my brother? Well he brought me warm clothes from Norway, so his bag actually got rid of weight!
Ica is a small desert coast town 300 km (200 miles) south of Lima. The 5 hour bus ride offered a view of desert sand dunes, natural oases and agricultural fields. Tiny shacks scattered the landscapes crossing the river valley. In accordance with Peruvian law – if you have occupied a plot of land long enough – you end up owning it! The green fields are pretty against the beige desert sands, but the melt water fed aquifer is being used faster than the mountains can replenish it. Peru as a developing country faces many such challenges and problems. It has almost every climate zone on the planet and great biodiversity, and is a fairly rich country in terms of natural resources. It still ranks just 77 out of 187 on UN’s Human Development Index. Its population of around 30 million people is multiethnic and diverse (Amerindians, Europeans, Africans and Asians), and although their economy is the fastest growing in the world (and 39th largest), the poverty level only dropped below 30 % as late as last year.
Although it took some effort adapting to being in a group, our travel flow continued at Las Dunas Hotel: pools, piña coladas and more spa treatments! (In fact, we were so well massaged that we were 15 minutes late for dinner.) The next day was Adventure Day – flying a small Cessna out across the desert, getting a closer look of the mysterious Nazca lines. Hundreds of designs and figures made not by carving or digging, but by removing the thin top layer of red rocks and pebbles, uncovering the light desert sand beneath. Created by the Nazca culture around 1500 years ago, these figures depict monkeys, spiders, birds, whales, humans, trees, triangles and other strange shapes.
No one really knows what these things were for, but theories range from religious rituals to astronomical calendars to aliens… My personal favorite was the “astronaut”. NASA time traveler phone home?! Banking the Cessna to such a steep angle was a fun ride if you ask me, but motion sickness is a common feature on these flights. By the end of the half hour there’d been so many quick turns and figures that my mind got quite saturated. It is quite amazing though, thinking what these people accomplished so long ago. How? I mean, many of these figures can only be seen in their entirety from the air!
Winding down from the Cessna ride meant dune buggying for most of the group, whereas Grethe, big brother and I wanted to check out the oasis Huacachina instead. Grethe tried getting me to go horseriding with her in the desert first, but with my limited skills I opted out. Her goal was to gallop, which she did, for a whole hour. (I would have died trying!) I brought my paraglider to Huacachina, hoping against hope that I might find a place free of turbulence, gusts or unpredictable winds to at least kite. It had been 3 months since my last flight, and I was antsy to say the least. But alas, no. With all the dunes and changing landscapes, winds out here follow the terrain and create impossible conditions for soft canopy gear. I got my wing out and spent the next 15 minutes fighting gusts from all over the place, and finally had to resolve to STUFFING it back in the bag. Argh!!
Next up was the Ballestas Islands just off the coast near Pisco – this is marketed as Peru’s cheap version of the Galapagos islands. A two hour comfortable boat ride took us into large bird and sea lion colonies where we got to take pictures and hear the grunts and shouts up close. Kodak moments: the three penguins climbing the cliff together and the sea lion mom with pup diving and talking just 10 m away. Guano has been mined off these islands for hundreds of years, but now the area is protected and this activity is regulated to once every few years. Before the invention of artificial fertilizers the price of guano was higher than that of gold, and this was once a big part of Peru’s economy. Well, let me tell you, guano (and sea lions) smell really bad, so I am happy not to have to mine guano for a living!!
We then flew from Lima to Juliaca near Puno, a city of 100 000 people on the shore of Lake Titicaca. This was the beginning of our acclimatization towards the Inca Trail, since Puno has an elevation of 3830 m (12,556 feet)! We were ordered to drink a lot, walk real slow, and generally take it easy. No problem – the air was so thin compared to Lima that we felt light headed just stepping off the plane. Being greeted by a local band of guitar and pan flute wielding Andeans made it a very cosy transition though, and several of us bought their cd next to the baggage belt.
Altitude sickness can start affecting people above 2400 m (8,000 feet). It’s caused by a reduced amount of oxygen per volume of air you breathe. You lose more water vapor from the lungs through exhaling, and so dehydration contributes to the symptoms (headaches, nausea, dizziness, etc). Alcohol is a big no no at altitude because it enhances dehydration, so we were off beer, wine and pisco sours for a while! Fine with me, as just walking up the stairs to our third floor bedroom proved quite strenuous! The hotel provided unlimited coca tea, a common remedy in the Andes. It has a pleasant herbal taste, and before you ask: No – it is nothing like having cocaine! For future reference though – when in Puno, go to the restaurant called Mojsa at Plaza de Armas (the main square). They serve a warm lime based coca leaf drink with crushed coca leaf that tastes like heaven!
A short bike taxi race and a boat ride from the port in Puno you’ll find the famous floating islands of Uros. A few hundred people uphold the old tradition of building floating islands from the lake’s naturally growing totora reeds, and try to make a living from tourism. (Remember Thor Heyerdahl and the Ra II boat? The boat builders and materials came from here!) People here face a great challenge with the modern generations increasingly leaving in favor of brick houses, TV, internet and cars. The remaining people thus spend their time making things that they know tourists will buy, and so their life styles are less authentic compared to their original culture. Tourism and its effect is therefore a controversial topic even for the locals, but they take the bad with the good – and welcome travelers into their homes on organized visits.
We visited the main island, where the current island president and 6 family groups live. They told us how the islands are built, how ethnic conflict originally resulted in this life style, showed us their handicrafts – and then we got to visit their homes. Grethe and I were invited into one lady’s house and as soon as she heard we spoke Spanish, she lit up and had us dress up in her clothes as proper Uru people! It turned out she was the president’s mother, and was so happy to see us dress up that she said she wanted to keep us. So, we are now the adopted children of the president’s mother – president sisters!! We then bought some of their craft of course, as you do to support your family. Lunch was enjoyed on a reed boat rowed by Mama President and one more native. Talk about fairy tale, with the beautiful views of the lake in the gorgeous morning sunshine…
Several cups of Mojsa later it was time to get back on the bus and drive across the mountains to Cusco, our base for the Inca Trail. The views from the bus were strikingly beautiful and I kept wishing I’d had more time to explore, stop, breathe, smell, taste, talk and touch. But, alas, our only stops were to pee or to buy handicraft at the bus stop at the highest point of the mountain pass! Cusco is the former capital city of the Inca empire, and has a rich history both culturally and architecturally. The original city wall was in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal to the Incas. The city itself is at the bottom of a valley with hills and mountains surrounding it. One hill was within the “head” of the city wall puma, and this is the site of their most important temple, Saqsaywaman.
Our hotel was halfway up the slope of this hill, within walking distance of both the city center and the temple ruins. It is said that the building of this area took around 70 years and lasted through the reign of several Inca kings, demanding the work of around 20.000 people to break, transport (several km), carve and set all the stones. And get this – he biggest corner stones of the foundations weigh over 350 tons and measure up to 9 m in height!
The Chief of Food did not disappoint, on our night of arrival in Cusco the three of us went straight for the nearby restaurant Incazuela. “Para compartir” had long ago become our slogan, so of course we shared everything we ordered here as well – and endeared ourselves with the owner from the get go! By now my big brother had become Grethe’s big brother, and his title was not surprisingly Chief of Wine! As we left Incazuela with our usual wide grins we stumbled upon an Easter parade, and ended up following the Virgin Mary statue and marching band to the main square, where another parade carrying a glass casket with a Christ statue met up with ours. It was an incredible display of catholic tradition unlike anything we’d seen before! I’m telling you – these people know how to celebrate Easter!
Unfortunately at this point trouble was brewing in paradise. Grethe had picked up a stomach bug somewhere along the way, and kept getting worse. By the next morning – the day before our 4 day / 42 km (26 mile) Inca Trail – she was too sick to join the city tour. The rest of us visited Saqsaywaman, the alpacca knit shop (where we finally learned the difference between ‘baby’ and ‘maybe’ alpacca sweaters), the silver smith and another temple. One other member of the group also had stomach problems, so our capable Peruvian tour guide Tito called in the local doctor to make sure everything that could be done would be.
The doctor arrived on his Harley Davidson to check on our patients. Shots and pills were administered. He was skeptical yet optimistic, even though there wasn’t much time to let the medicine take effect. And, if things got worse there was a real threat of having to go to hospital to rehydrate by IV. I was crushed and in denial. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen!! Moral was LOW as my brother and I packed our bags for the trail while Grethe wasn’t even in shape to get out of bed – she had NO confidence in being able to go on the trail. Tito came by to assure us there was no problem setting up hotels and a train ticket to Machu Picchu if it came to that – but there was still a chance to start the hike and turn around at any point until the second morning if she woke up feeling better. I desperately grabbed a hold of that straw and called upon Pachamama and any other higher power as we went to sleep. Please, please, please, please, please…
Of all things, this was the night when the safe in our hotel room decided to be out of battery, so every half hour or so during the night it would start beeping like a deranged alarm clock. Confused and sleepy I would trudge over and hit a few buttons to shut it up, then a short while later it would start all over again. Well, we all got up at 5 the next morning and incredibly Grethe was feeling like a million dollars (relatively speaking) – she wanted to try the trail! In answer to her question – I would happily carry her all the way to Machu Picchu if needed, and screw breakfast if that meant getting her packed and get ready in time! And so, 50 minutes later her trail bags were packed, big bro had prepared breakfast in ziplock bags to go – and all that with time to spare for a quick shower!! I was blown away. Impressed, awestruck and happy beyond words. Was this for real? Would she really be coming with us? She could hardly stand up just 12 hours ago… What was IN that shot?!
It’s a lucky fact that the entire first day on the trail only demands 12 km (7.5 miles) of light walking with very little elevation difference (300 m / 980 feet), most of which occurs during the last hour. I figured the odds would go up if I carried Grethe’s backpack, which I did all day. This way she could conserve her energy and focus on getting enough electrolytes and rest. Big brother set the pace for us, I provided the drinking bottles, and off we went. To top things off the weather was spectacular – blue skies, sunny and warm. Spirits were high as we followed the Vilcanota River, passed by small inca village and hillfort ruins and made our way into the spectacular mountains.
As stunningly beautiful as the scenery was in and of itself – the experience was even more intense considering the close call of the night before. I was beside myself with joy because I got to share everything with BOTH of “my people”, so needless to say – emotions flew high as we got to our first campsite!
The service and facilities provided by our guides and porters on this trip were absolutely impeccable and beyond our wildest expectations. Tents were always raised and ready as we arrived. Hot water bowls were handed out so we could freshen up every night and every morning. They served three coarse meals for both lunch and dinner – even cake with icing! There was even a portable toilet with its own little zip-up tent just for our group. Our 21 man strong team of 1,60 m / 5”5′ porters literally RAN the trail with their 20 kg / 45 lb packs… and then they’d greet US with applause when we arrived!!
Day 2 is supposed to be the most physically strenuous on the trail, climbing from 3000 m (9.850 feet) across the highest mountain pass at 4200 m (13.780 feet) before reaching the second camp at 3650 m (11.200 feet). One day with two bags was enough, so from here our group shared the load of carrying items from Grethe’s bag. A trusty back troupe had started forming the day before, so from now on Team Badass joined forces with Sigvald. Like Grethe he was also on medication and had to take it easy along the trail. From now on he set the pace, my brother was in charge of drinking breaks, Grethe provided the comedy and I became the photographer. Sigvald earned the title Chief, and we became his posse and fan club! (I will deny any talk of only wearing g-strings at the back to boost moral in front. Specially if his wife Ellen asks, who by the way also hiked the trail, just further ahead.) In between snack breaks I spent my time convincing Anna she needs to get a paragliding license, which in all honesty probably required less convincing than expected – her eyes sparkled as I recapped earlier parts of my trip!
The scenery just kept getting more and more spectacular as we inched our way higher, past the tree line and towards the “Dead Woman’s Pass”. Again we were blessed with a sunny blue sky and comfy temperatures. The trail varied from gravel and grass to intricate stonework steps to rock slabs and round river cobblestone. I had notes for a geocache at the pass, but even though I spent a good 15 minutes looking for it further up in the mountain side I was unable to locate it. With a gps I would have easily found it, but I only had my phone and a screen shot of its map location, so I was unsuccessful. Well, at least I gave my lungs a good workout as I rushed up another 100 m (330 feet) from the pass…
Going down towards camp 3 was mystical and magical – we were headed into the cloud forest climate zone, and the fog was approaching thick and fast as the sun went down towards the horizon. By dinner time it had started raining, which it did on and off for the next 20 hours. Those stolen moments are what make it amazing to be brushing your teeth outdoors with views of the exotically starry southern sky! Grethe and I were the only ones in the group who could speak some Spanish, so we made sure to sit close to the guides during dinner. Elias, the main guide was an absolute comedy show, always joking and laughing, or even doing card tricks and disappearing acts with coins. (So yes, I can now tell a joke about a gorilla in Spanish, I know how to say “kiss me” in the Peruvian language Quechua, and more…) In return, Grethe taught all the guides to say “why” (koffør) and “because” (dæffør) in proper Norwegian dialect. Surely just as useful!
Day 3 would be not the hardest, but the longest, covering 16 km (10 miles) and a second, much lower pass. Scenery changed into more Lord of the Rings like forests and mountains, and since it was cloudy and rainy most of the time we missed out on the grand views along the trail. It did however provide a sense of anticipation that was unique to that day and that climate zone. The guides chilled out by reading to each other form their Spanish – English dictionary at the back. One guess as to whether they love their jobs?! Shortly before the camp site we walked through another Inca ruin with an impressive number of agricultural terraces, and we could see our tents long before we got to them. After a long day Grethe and I proceeded to reinstate our tent as the spa tent, administering muscle soothing treatment to sore legs. Well, honestly, what are friends for?!
Our last day of hiking started at 4 in the morning. It was time to reach the destination of our dreams… Machu Picchu! All the other groups on the mountain probably thought the same, so we spent a good half hour in a line to check out of the camp site. Anew we were greeted by another day of sunshine, and reached the steep flight of steps up to Intipunku (the Sun Gate) around 8 to get our first glimpse of something nothing short of wonderful – the entire valley surrounding and including the famous old Inka city! Light had just crawled over the ridge in front of the city, and was moving down toward the Urubamba river far below. I was speechless. This was finally the view I had been waiting so long to see. W.O.W…!!
We took a minute to just LOOK and try to take it all in. We made it. There it was. Here we were. The magic was palpable! Then the guides snapped us out of it, took the mandatory group photos and herded us in one tight bundle into the site to get our tickets, passports stamped, and wait for our designated time to start the walking tour. Well, I didn’t know much about Machu Picchu before (careful with the pronounciation, by the way – “pichu” means penis in Quechua, while “pik-chu” means mountain). This morning I learned that this place was never found by the Spanish because the rivaling Inca brothers in Cusco and Quito never led them along the necessary paths.
Unlike popular belief, this was not a retreat for the rich and famous, it was a university town that educated the next generations of astronomers, architects, agriculture experts and religious scholars. They had the best of the best here both in terms of geography, climate and people. And, quite a bit of the restoration that was done by the early explorers after Hiram Bingham “rediscovered” it in 1911 was done incorrectly. Still, the quiet power held by the incredible presence that is Machu Picchu was absolutely beyond description. We got to see and walk among the temples, the priests quarters, the residential terraces, looked through the astronomers windows towards the summer solstice peak near the Sun Gate, passed the aqueduct systems that brought water to the city… The time available to explore was waaay too short and my mind was working overtime to absorb everything. Simply put: I have to come back!!
On the train back from Agua Calientes the train staff put on a fashion show / culture demonstration in the isles. I was pooped from a long day of mighty impressions, so I slept like a log the whole way. I have been told it was quite entertaining though… When we got back to Cusco, it turned out that Tito had arranged for the silversmith AND the textile store to stay open just for Grethe, so I got to take her shopping for souvenirs and clothes as well. See – the better it gets, the better it gets!! Cheers!!
We now only had one more destination left on our tour. Even though I’d rather have stayed behind to see more of Cusco, it was time to go check out the Amazon. An hour’s flight east of Cusco is Puerto Maldonado in the jungle, and an hour up the river is the Tambopata National Reserve and our next accomodation – the eco lodge Posada Amazonas. It was hot. It was humid. We were all effectively human sprinklers of sweat as we snaked our way off the long river boat along the path to the lodge. All around us were sounds of creatures we didn’t know the names of. We went on a jungle walk and climbed the 30 m (100 foot) lookout tower just in time to see the sunset above the canopies. Then the mosquitos found us (or rather just me!) and we hurried back for dinner. The lodge also offered night walks, but I wanted to rest, so the evening was spent in a hammock talking the hours away while trying to synchronize swing speeds. Now, if you think the jungle is full of sound during the day – you should hear it during the night!!
We also had a tour of the local medicinal garden and had the medicine man himself tell us about the different plants, the recipes for some of the remedies, and got to taste and buy some of his brew. Cough sirup? If you ever need anything that will give you hair on the chest, I know where to refer you… My favorite tour though, was the morning lake trip. Getting to see the family of 7 wild giant otters do their morning fishing, checking out the local mini monkeys and going fishing for piranhas (!!) made it all well worth getting up almost earlier than we went to sleep!! And boy, do I have a new found respect and relief for not having piranhas in my own coastal waters… (snap!)
And so as always – all good things must come to an end. The tour was over. Grethe and I talked Anna into letting us take the whole group to dinner at Huaca Pucllana in Lima on our last night together, and then there was just a quick city tour of downtown Lima left before Grethe and the rest of the group got on their plane back home to Norway. Well. I hate goodbyes. I suck at them, I don’t like it when people leave, and after the past three magical weeks I was NOT ready to let go yet…
But, my brother and I had another plane to catch – to La Paz, Bolivia.
Our fun was not over yet – we had another organized tour in store, and WOAH did they have some amazing scenery waiting for us…