Thursday, December 13, 2012

Machu Picchu: jungle trek to cloud city

Hola! Last weekend I embarked on my long-awaited and anticipated Jungle Trek trip to Machu Picchu. My volunteer-mates, Cate and Duncan, and I left last Friday morning for our 4 day, 3 night adventure-packed trip.

Day 1: Cusco to Santa Maria
Mountain biking- Our tour group took a little road trip in our van with  mountain bikes on the roof about 2 hours outside of Cusco. As the bicycling fan that I am, and having been deprived of bicycling for a month (ya, ya, first-world problems, I know), I was looking most forward to riding a bicycle, even a mountain bike. We got geared up with padding, gloves and helments, and behold: rain and fog. The first 10 minutes of riding our sketchy mountain bikes downhill a winding road through the mountains in the pouring rain was pretty miserable, I´m not going to lie. I was honestly a bit scared because it was raining and we were sharing the road with cars and trucks with no bike lanes. All but for of us in our tour group gave up the mountain biking and got back in the van to tail us while the 4 of us hard-core ladies continued to snake downhill the mountain pass through the pouring rain. I am so glad I endured the rain because I ended up having a lot of fun racing big rigs for 2 hours downhill. I might have to take up mountain biking when I get back to the states. When I start making money again, a new road bike might have to wait while I get a mountain bike first. After the mountain bike ride, we got back in our van and rode on to the little town of Santa Maria.
River Rafting- After lunch and getting settled in our hostel, I went river rafting for the first time in my life! We joined up with another tour group and were given a very brief briefing by our rafting guides on how to raft and what to do if we get thrown out of the raft. We even had a little pond to practice our new instructions in. According to our guides, the rafting ¨level¨was a 3-4. However, from my friends who have rafted here in Peru before, they say that the Peruvian rating system is different than in America. For example a Peruvian 3 felt like an American 1.5. I have nothing to compare to but I had a great time and felt like we had a few good runs with some waves and whirlpools and rocks.

Day 2: Santa Maria to Santa Teresa
I have 7 words to summarize this day: 8 hours of hiking through mountainous jungle. It was a beautiful hike. Thank goodness the elevation was lower than in Cusco, because my breathing was back to normal during this trek. In Cusco I can´t breathe after running for only 25 minutes because of its elevation, and probably the pollution as well.We literally hiked up and down the mountains through jungle and also through part of the original Inka Trail. There were several moments when I thought I was going to die. Parts of the Inka Trail were 2-2.5 ft wide trail with rocky mountain on your right side, and sheer cliffdrop to your left. Then we had to cross the river over a janky rope-wood bridge, only to cross it again on a cable car. This was not a cable car like the ones they have in San Francisco. This was a cart with half-foot tall side rails, similar to the overhead carts in the mines in one of the Indiana Jones movies, connected to basically a zipline cable over the river. A man on the other side would then pull you in the cart across the river.
The light at the end of the tunnel of hiking that day were the hot springs at the end of the trail. We could see them from this point at the cable car. Naturally, once we crossed the river we had to climb up a mountain first and back down to get to the hot springs. We relaxed our sore legs for a couple hours then unanimously decided as a tour group to pay to ride a van into the town of Santa Teresa where we spent the night.

Day 3: Zip-lining and more hiking from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes
That morning the zip-lining company picked us up and drove us to their base where we got geared up. Then we hiked up a mountain (since of course you need to start up high before you can zip-line down) and it was all downhill zip-lining from there. I've zip-lined before, but I was a little apprehensive about it this time because we had to brake ourselves...meaning we wore reinforced working gloves and had to grab hold of the zip-line while we were moving at 40 km/hr to stop ourselves. Thankfully our zip-line guides really portrayed expertise and acted very professionally. We soared through the sky from mountaintop to mountaintop over the valley and the river. It was the longest distance I have ever zip-lined. Unfortunately I don't remember the exact length of the longest line, but it was pretty long. At the end of the 4th and final zip-line, we braked at a "platform." I thought the platform was attached to a tree. Nope. It was a couple planks of wood attached to the zip-line cable. The guide at the platform then   removed my carabiners (again, I thought I was going to die), and attached it to the vertical rope on which he repelled me down back to where we started at their base.

After that adrenaline rush, we drove to a hydroelectric plant, where they harness energy from the river to power the towns, to have lunch and a little siesta. From there we commenced our hike. Compared to the previous day, it was easy breezy since we were simply walking along the railroad on flat ground. It was relatively safe, until we had to cross the river on the train bridge. I had been mostly walking on the railroad to keep myself from getting too bored walking for 3 hours, so I figured I had become accustomed to it. When we got to the bridge, our guide said, "If you have fear of heights, feel free to walk on the pedestrian side" (which was really narrow, btw). "If you're not afraid you can continue to walk on the railroad across." So I continued on with my railroad walking along with most of our group since it seemed natural at that point. Worst idea ever. As soon as I was above the river, there was a pair of rail that was about a yard apart. I have short legs. Talk about a horrible combination. I also had Duncan walking behind me so I knew I couldn't make any sudden stops or he'd run into me and we'd both fall through the rail and become one with the river below. Obviously, this was one of my biggest "I'm going to die" moments. I have never shook from fear before until that moment. Clearly, I made it across after a few yard-apart rails, but I'm never going to do that again. I'm all about the designated pedestrian lane from now on.

We eventually made it to the touristic town of Aguas Calientes; the gate to Machu Picchu. We decided to check out the hot springs there, too. They weren't as good as the previous day's, but hey it was nice to pamper ourselves a little bit. We were going to conquer Machu Picchu in the morning, after all.

Day 4: Machu Picchu
We woke up at 3:30 am. I can't even remember the last time I woke up that early. If I'm up at that time, it's most likely because I'm coming home after a night out. After a little breakfast, Duncan and I parted from our tour group, most of whom decided to take the bus up, to tackle the climb up 1,763 stairs (approximately, I counted) to get to Machu Picchu. As the title says, Machu Picchu is cloud city. There was a dense layer of fog that early in the morning so we couldn't see anything. We met with our historical tour guide at 6:30 am and he gave us a great tour of the sacred city for a couple hours. This guy really looked like an Incan Emperor (at least what I think one looks like in my head). Then we had time to hang out and explore the ruins and wait for the fog to rise so we could take awesome photos. Cate, Duncan, and I also decided to check out the Sun Gate, not realizing how far of a hike it was. It really wasn't bad, but we were exhausted and had not mentally prepared ourselves for the effort.

Machu Picchu was a sacred city where nobles, priests, holy people, and their farmers lived. It thrived from the 1400-1500's. When the Spanish invaded Peru, the civilians of Machu Picchu took their belongings and treasures and fled (legend says they took their gold to El Dorado). Unfortunately, there were people left behind, whose bodies were found years later upon the excavation of the city. It remained a hidden secret for a while until a couple Peruvian families rediscovered it in the 1800's and moved in. They used the same terraces to farm and the same buildings to live in. 1911 was when white men came and officially "discovered" it. American explorer, Hiram Bingham trekked through these mountains and met one of the family members that knew of Machu Picchu along the way. Bingham asked him if there were any archaeological sites from the Inkas around, and he brought Bingham to Machu Picchu, who took credit for its discovery.

Machu Picchu is a breath-taking place and highly recommend going there. I loved how the clouds were so close. It's like they're kissing the tops of the mountains and the city. After frolicking in this ancient city in the clouds, we descended down the same stairs. I was exhausted. Then we took the train back home to Cusco. The end.

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