Thursday, May 21, 2009

Machu Picchu 2009 wow!

On May 3rd, our group of 9 individuals set off from Vancouver to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  We landed in Cusco after staying overnight in Lima. The altitude change was immediately noticeable (Cusco is 3400m above sea level). We were all a little shocked at how out of breath we were simply walking up a ramp in the airport. We spent the day in Cusco and discovered a city full of charm and character. Many buildings showed Incan foundation with the Spanish building right over top of them. We met our guide Virgilio that night for a briefing of the hike and what equipment would be needed.  He immediately put us at ease with his experience as a guide on this trip and his sense of humour. He went over the list of required gear and took the time to answer any questions we had. We were all in a panic to make sure that we didn’t go over our 6kg limit and spent the night packing duffel bags, weighing them and then repacking again.

                   We left Cusco the next day and went into the sacred valley where small farms were encapsulated with large beautiful mountains. We entered a textile village where Virgilio explained how the women make their goods. They would dye the wool using local insects and or plants, spin it and then weave it using looms in what seemed to be so effortless for them. We then visited the ruins of Pisaq and Ollantaytambo. They were incredible as we saw Incan construction first hand and up close. It is so meticulous and precise given the tools available to them at the time. It was incredible to climb up these mountainsides (The Incas had an affinity for stairs. Lots and lots of stairs) and view these long, narrow agricultural terraces which stretched all the way up the mountain. They were engineering feats and spectacular to witness. Virgilio was so knowledgeable and passionate about his Incan heritage that his enthusiasm was absolutely contagious. He was truly thrilled to share his all he knew with us.

                  We woke up early to make the drive the beginning of the Inca Trail at km 82. We met the porters briefly before they scooped up all of our duffels, placed them into larger bags along with the rest of what was needed for the hike: tents, sleeping bags, mats, food, cooking vessels, water purification vessels, dishes, cutlery, tarps, dining tent and fold up chairs. It was unbelievable what they could carry. The Andean men aren’t very big. Being 5’7’’ I was the same height or taller than them and they were carrying ½ their body weight in gear on their backs. The porters went to get weighed in while we showed our permits and passports at the gate. We finally began our trek and soon noticed that the porters carrying their gigantic bags on their back were passing us. They were in tiny rubber sandals and running over rocky inclines in altitude and passing us. We couldn’t believe it. We had running shoes, hiking poles and nothing weighing us down but a tiny day bag and we couldn’t keep up to them. One by one they passed us hurrying by so they can set up lunch before we get there. The hike was stunning and we were surrounded by cactuses growing prickly pears and trees yielding huge avocadoes. We made it to the lunch tent after 2 hours and we were surprised to find a dining tent set up and water basins outside so we could wash our hands. We came into the tent to find a table covered with a table cloth, little stools and our napkins folded origami-style. We ate the most delicious soup with garlic bread. We all assumed that was it and were ready to leave the table but they weren’t done. They brought out fresh trout grilled and wrapped around vegetables plated perfectly which was beyond delicious. We were so impressed by what the cook could create on the side of a trail in the middle of nowhere on a tiny Coleman stove. They had fresh water all ready for us and we were ready to finish the last or our 12km for that day. We arrived at our camp site which was overlooking a corn field. There were chickens everywhere and we would often have to wait for donkeys to pass before being able to take the trail to our toilet. Upon arriving to camp we were shocked to see our tents were set up with our bags lined up and wash basins ready.  Our “waiter” Oscar invited everyone to our dining tent for tea and a snack before having some free time before dinner. Virgilio would always come and sit with us to learn more about our lives and answer questions we had and ensure we were having a good time. We bundled up and went to bed as the temperature neared zero degrees.

                  I was woken up by Oscar on Day 2 saying “buenos dias senorita” sweetly outside my tent. I opened the zipper to find him waiting out there with tea and a basin of water to wash up in. The attentiveness to our group was unprecedented. After breakfast we all met in a circle to meet our 12 porters and cook. They ranged from 18-40 years old. They were all farmers but as this was the dry season and couldn’t farm until the rainy season they worked as porters to make extra money. They each explained what their responsibilities were and what they carried. It just reiterated to us how hard they worked. Yet, they always had a joy about them and were so lovely to us. Day 2 was the hardest day as it was uphill rock steps the whole way to dead woman’s pass at 4200m. It was tough and we needed many breaks but once again the porters just passed after we left a good hour before them. Summiting the pass was a fabulous feeling but it was raining and very windy at the top so we quickly started the steep decent to our second campsite through the jungle-like surroundings. The terrain was made of steep rock steps that were now slippery due to the rain. I couldn’t imagine doing it without the tread of my trail runners and help of my poles let alone just in sandals like the porters. But as before, we came to camp to find everything set up and the porters all around clapping for us as we entered.

                  Day 3 was the easiest day but there were a lot of tricky downhill portions that need thoughtful footing. The porters wanted to ensure that were had enough fuel to last us until lunch as this was our longest day and gave each of us a care package of snacks and a lollipop. There were several ruins along the way and Virgilio explained the significance of each one at length. His famous phrase was “Vamenos” which would leave us scurrying after him down the rocky steps. Once again we returned to camp after a long day to cheering porters. Our campsite was off a cliff and the view outside my tent was spectacular. This was our last night with the porters and they wanted to do something special for us. We had Jell-O for desert! How they made Jell-O on the side of a mountain is beyond me but they went that extra mile to give us a taste of a classic favourite from back home. 

                  We woke up at 4am on Day 4 to hike the last 2km in the dark to watch the sun rise over the Machu Picchu ruins. Before leaving we all thanked the porters for the phenomenal job they did. They allowed us to see a picturesque part of their country that would have been unattainable to us otherwise. It was our turn to clap for them and we did so with glowing gratitude.

Pictures do not describe the beauty of Machu Picchu nestled between the 2 mountains. Virgilio led us through every nook and cranny of the astrological learning site explaining the purpose of each building, the hypothesis behind the function of the ruins and the scientific research backing his points. It was an incredible experience.

                  The trip would have been good due to incredible archaeological sights and beauty of the country. What made the trip great was due to the hard work of the porters and our guide. It was their unbelievable drive and work ethic to beat us to every campsite while carrying all of our gear and ensure everything was set up with no detail overlooked. It was the little things from serving tea tent side, to the lotus folded napkins, to the round of applause upon entering camp to the Jell-O on the last night. Little things go a long way. Our guide was passionate and enthusiastic about his work. He was great at what he does. It was the ultimate service experience.

Martie Hirsch

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