Cuzco and the Inca Trail

June 27-28 Day 1 Flew into Lima from Miami late at night. On my own, I decided to come to Cuzco three days before the rest of the tour group to get acclimated since this was going to be the highest altitude for me and didn't know how I'd react. Fortunately, I met Eric and Elliott from Calif. at the Lima luggage terminal and they let me hang out with them. Elliot's Spanish was the best of all and together we were able to find our contact who put us on a plane to Cuzco. By the way, Lima is a crazy airport even at 6am in the morning. I learned later that the Vice-President of Peru, Conseco, was also onboard the plane from Miami.

We fly over the Andean mountains and soon arrive in Cuzco, elevation 11,000 ft. My compadres were feeling the effects of high altitude but I felt great and knew that I wasn't going to have altitude problems while on trek. We were ushered to the excellent Monasterio Hotel which is an actual monastery leased to a hotel chain by the Archbishop of Cuzco. After checking in, I had loads of energy and decided to scout the surrounding area and ventured to one of the more noticeable sites, Blanco Christo or "White Christ" which looms over the city at the top of the hill. Elliot provided me with a walkie-talkie and so I hiked up to Blanco Christo to test the equipment and see how far I could go on my very limited Spanish. Later I was given a polite shakedown by the guards at the Inca Museum. They kept coming up to me and saying "propina, propina". I didn't know what it meant until later. Now I have a "propina" for you, don't go to the Inca museum by yourself!

June 29-Day 2 Woke up early and hiked about 15 minutes to the ruins at Sacsayhauman and Qenko. The first thing one notices about Cuzco is how clean the city appears to be and how friendly the people are to you as you're walking. There are always young men willing to shine your shoes or sell you horse back riding tickets to the ruins. I usually ignored them except when they kept saying what sounded like "sexy woman, sexy woman". Naturally, I wanted to know what this was all about but it turned out to be the way the Incan ruin Sacsayhauman is pronounced (Sack-Say-uman), the site where Manco Inca fought Pizarro's brothers to a bitter end. The Pizarros arrived in Cuzco in 1532. The conquistadors were mostly illiterate, uneducated adventurers who had little interest in anything besides wealth and power. They say that if Manco had won this battle, he may have very well saved the Incan empire from the conquistadors. I spent much of the day around the ruins and found places where many of the locals played and later ventured up to the ruins of Qenko.

Later in the day, I met up with Elliott who wanted to visit the HOGAR DE LAS NINAS de MALAY, an orphanage for girls. Elliot invited me along for the ride and I agreed since the hogar is located along the Urubamba River in the sacred valley and thought I could get excellent photos. While Elliott toured the home, I played volleyball with the girls, visited a ceramics class and had fun showing my digital camera to the very sweet orphans who were curious about who I was and where I was from. I learned that their mothers gave up most of the girls since birth control is virtually nonexistent in Peru and single mothers are a stigma and a financial problem. After saying goodbye to the lovely ladies of the hogar, the sacred valley, and the "silvery Urubamba", as the poet Neruda describes it, we headed back to Cuzco. The beauty of the valley coupled with the harsh realities of the beautiful orphans at the hogar inspired me to start writing a little poetry. Both Elliot and I vowed to return to the Hogar with others and to bring gifts and make donations. That night, we went out to one of the coolest social bars in town, Los Perros, a local hangout with darts games and friendly tourists and locals alike.

June 30-Day 3 Today, the other trekkers began arriving. Elliott met me at Sacsayhauman and we each took turns standing in the sacred circle and paying homage to the sun. This action may very well have kept both of us from serious trouble later on in the trek. I had my first taste of chicha at Keros across from the Plaza de Armas. Chicha is a thick, home-brewed beer heavy in taste and alcohol content. The taste is an acquired one but this is THE drink of the Incans and is often consumed on all occasions. Mention chicha to any local in Cuzco and they will always smile back at you sort of knowingly. Later I checked out a music festival at the stadium. You know, I had never been in such a place where so many people looked like me! It was a little frightening! Like being at a huge family reunion-extremely frightening! I also started to teach myself how to play the Zampona, a local, native instrument resembling a pan flute.

Cuzco is the ancient capital of the once vast Inca Empire, which stretched into Chile. The Spanish conquistadors destroyed significant portions of the Inca civilization while on a quest for gold and domination. Ornate Spanish cathedrals, adobe walls, carved balconies, hidden courtyards, and cobblestone streets add to the historic richness of the ancient Inca city. There are many fine restaurants for dinner and around the central square, colorful Quechuan handicrafts can be purchased and your shoes can get shined as well. Did you know that the new president of Peru was himself a shoeshine boy? I have a saying, "Nobody shines my shoes in Cuzco 'cept Franklin!".

July 1-Day 4 Now begins the more structured part of the journey with group visits to the main Cathedral, Cuzco city, Sacsayhuaman, Qenko and other ruins. Our guide for most of this is Juan Carlos, a self-described "city boy". He says Cuzco was built by the Inca to resemble the form of a Puma, one of the sacred Incan animals. I later saw a rainbow that made it clear to me why there are so many rainbow flags in the city. Relaxed with a mocha (moche?) in the Plaza de Armas, a very important community area where both the Inca and Spanish held important ceremonies including mass decapitations. Spoke with several shoeshine boys including Franklin who could name the president of the U.S. but not the VP, "who we all know is really running things", I told him. Morning hiking tour of the nearby Inca ruins including Qenko, with its zigzag channels, the ceremonial bath of Tambo Machay, and majestic Sacsayhuaman with its perfectly fitted, mortar less stone blocks and zigzag walls. Slowly, I begin to get to know the rest of our tour group made of mostly Americans. Later, we all gather to listen to what our guides have in store for us on the ancient Inca trail.

July 2-Day 5 We leave the hotel Monasterio and drive to our rendezvous on the Urubamba River for an easy half day river trip by paddle rafts through the "Sacred Valley of the Incas," once the "garden" of the empire. It's the dry season so the rapids are considered level 3 at some points. We hit the rafts and instantly become captivated by the beautiful scenery. Even with overcast skies, the river valley is every bit the myth and legend described in poems worldwide. One of our crew decides he wants a better understanding of this and decides to fall into the cold water. It is here, I learn later, that this person describes himself, during this ordeal, as a kind of football in a game of life and death between all the gods in his life. He survives without so much as a scratch and the rest of the river treats us well. Chalk it up to that stint at the sacred circle, I surmise.

The valley has a Mediterranean climate and its hills are studded with ruins and a few villages and simple farmers. Some 12 miles of swift water and mild rapids carry us toward Pisac, where a small village and fine ruins overlook the river. Pisac was one of the largest fortress-city complex of the Incas (and one of the largest of ancient America). High up on a ridge overlooking the valley, the ruins extend from a fortress to a temple complex where we can see some of the finest Inca stonework in existence. I learned that the Incans prided themselves on not having a hungry population no matter the circumstance. Thus, several storehouses were created to hold the abundance of crops. Terraces extend up from the river perhaps 2,000 feet and we descend through a network of stairs, walkways, tunnels, and temples. Now, for those of you who know me, you know that at times I can be very distant. Mostly, I am so captivated by what I'm looking at that I go into a trance where all sound disappears around me. I bring this up because I often missed what the guide was saying while I was off "focusing" trying to take pictures. One thing that I missed while "focusing" was hearing that the hotel (Posada del Inca) we were going to stay at that night was haunted…

Before dinner, Elliot and I kept our promise to return to the Hogar Las Ninas with some from our tour group carrying pens and other gifts. Very fun as the hogar became one big dance party as we danced the "Condor", "The Puma", "The Pescado" and "The Snake". Afterwards, I felt very special having spent time with the ninas of the hogar again. I would suggest to anyone visiting Cuzco to be sure and visit them and be sure to bring pens and other educational items. So now, unbeknownst to me at the time, I spend the night at the haunted hotel. To say I had very strange, frightening dreams all night is an inadequate description. All I can say is that it was the first time in my life I actually would wake up yelling not once, not twice, but thrice!! These nightmares were so real that I had to calm myself down by repeating that they were not real.

July 3-Day 6 This morning I ask, kind of sheepishly, if anyone else had a similar, sleepless experience. It turns out a few others had including the super-guide Manolo! His description mirrored my own and I suppose that gave me some kind of comfort in s sort of spooky-nocturnal-synchronicity sort of way. This hotel, we heard, probably was the site of some tremendous horrors in the past. Anyway, it all made the haunted tour in New Orleans seem candylandish in comparison. Little did I know that things were going to get even spookier. We soon take the bus to Chinchero, famous for a massive Inca wall located in its town square, with ten of the largest trapezoidal niches known among Inca monuments. Then it is onto the town of Maras. As we leave the bus, I noticed a bronze placard on a tree with the name of an important person named Aguilar. I was excited by this and was hopeful I could learn more about this person who lived in this far off village. Manolo brought us to Maras to see a very well known "Bone doctor". I asked him if he thought the bone doctor could do anything about my finger I damaged a few years back on the day my father died. He said he might and we walked a few yards to a chicken filled yard and there sitting on a bench with a kitten on his lap is the bone doctor, Senor Pacheco who was a dead ringer for my father. They could have been identical twins! I won't go into the myriad of thoughts I had during this mind-blowing experience since it is far, far to personal. Anyway, I'm watching him put some special herbs on my hand, wrap it in newspaper and cloth and all the while thinking that this stuff isn't going to really work. But that isn't ever the point, is it? Is it.

Late we have a nice lunch (with wine again). Some of us hike to the Salinas/Maras salt mines to give fruits to the children working there in very difficult conditions. Somehow, I managed to give the same outward appearance of calm even though the entire time I was thinking, I knew that the way I had see things had somehow been changed forever. Another night at the Haunted hotel, however, this time I couldn't sleep for other reasons….

July 4-Day 7 Morning visit to the Ollantaytambo ruins, one of the few Inca towns that have survived much as the Incas designed it several hundred years ago. There is an extensive communal water system that survives to this day. Manco Inca staged a countrywide rebellion from here in 1536. After the failed siege of Cuzco, Manco, along with remnants of his army and followers, abandoned his headquarters at Ollantaytambo. Fleeing back into the remote Vilcabamba beyond Machu Picchu, he burned and destroyed Inca settlements and sites accessible to the Spanish including Llatapata at the start of the trail to Machu Picchu from the Urubamba River. All around in everywhere I look and see either ancient human or animal faces in the mountains or clouds.

We travel by train along the Urubamba Valley to Chilca (km88) near the banks of the Urubamba River. The official start of the trek begins here at our first camp at a ranger station where, literally, dogs and cats live together happily. I meet "George" The Forestkeeper, a unique character. I chop wood for him as he takes my picture. Optional hikes around the area take us through areas where people still live off the land. The non-indigenous and abundant Eucalyptus trees remind me of some California parks. We all have dinner, play a little music and stare softly into a bonfire. At some point, I remember the moon came out and danced with the mountains a slow, lonely dance. Late at night, we are awakened by a group of drunken, recently fired policemen who were whooping it up as they passed through the camp on route to their homes. Rain falls gently upon our tents.

July 5-Day 8 Today is a long gradual ascent from the Urubamba River to our next campsite at the Lluchapampa plateau. Fortunately, the Incas left a marvelous path, including stone staircases up through cloud forests and open grasslands. As we make our way through the green valley of Patallacta, we run into Juan Carlos, our Cuzco city guide. This self-described" city boy was dressed like Tarzan and leading three gents on a hike in search of vipers. This is what "city-boys" do? The day begins to get cloudy and the hike seems long. We continue trekking to Inkaraqay, passing along the Cusichaca River and through the small village of Huayllabamba (9,800'). Here is the last place to buy water and beer for a few days. One trekker, Linda, graciously buys a round of chicha for our porters who carry nearly all of our gear, tents and food for the next 5 days. From then on, Linda's tent was always the first one up whenever we got to camp! We hike up steep paths that zigzag through a deep, beautiful Andean Valley. We quickly gain another 1000 meters in altitude and lunch in a nice spot. All around are Unca trees blanketed by a light fog, which suddenly settles on the valley. The sunlight peaks through drawing a huge condor upon the side of a mountain. It is my understanding that fruit from the Unca tree attracts the Andean Bear called "Oso de Anteojos" or Bear with Glasses, an endangered species. We see none and continue upward through lush forests with the sound of a waterfall nearby. We finally make it to our campsite at Lluchapampa plateau at about 12,300' altitude. Cold rain takes shelter in some of our tents and in our bones. One trekker, Stacy, is coughing very badly and her health becomes a concern particularly since rain and cold wind is predicted for the next day when we hit our highest elevation at the Warmiwanusqa Pass or "Dead Woman's Pass" as the living call it.

July 6-Day 9 Crossing the Warmiwanusqa Pass turns out to be my favorite hike day of the trek. After consuming boatloads of coca tea and feeling energized, I storm up the pass leaving the group behind. To my surprise, it begins to snow and it begins to cover the rock steps. I enjoy saying hello to a few wild llamas and alpacas and revel in the silence and beauty of this pass. Although the weather doesn't permit any photos, this unexpected snowstorm is so beautiful and mesmerizing that I never notice the high altitude nor care to try and take any video. Fortunately, Manolo, concerned about Stacy's cough, had her sent back down the mountain with a few porters to see a doctor. Finally at the top of this first pass and highest point on the Inca Trail there are wonderful views of the surrounding snow-covered peaks. It is soon apparent that everyone is surprised by this snowfall during the dry season. There are some concerns among the guides and we hear later that a group behind us had to return to camp due to the severity and danger. At one point, as I stood at the top waiting for my group, three Australians scamper up the pass in nothing more than shorts and t-shirts. I don't care how tough Aussies think they are, it WAS freakin cold up there! The rest of my party arrive and after brushing the snow off our backs, we carefully descend to Pacamayo (11,800'). Our campis just below the second pass at the Runkuraqay ruins. A few porters slip and fall on in the snow. I help Lori down who is kind enough to report that she may "pass out" at anytime. Her following reports were less "alarming" as the snow is soon replaced by icy rain. We all make it down safely to our wet, cold lunch site at the foot of the falls near Pacaymayo. Everyone is a little bit miserable from being so wet and tired. We continue down to our swampy, slushy camp for the night at Runkarakay, a beautifully remote site with a haunting presence amid the ghostly mountain mists. Now my tent-mate Jeff is beginning to fall ill as well. At Runkarakay, everyone is essentially wearing wet clothes around the dinner table as we listen to the story about the minor coup, which just took place among the porters. Martín is declared head porter and I quickly seek him out and give him my heavy duty hiking gloves. There is nothing more admirable than a power play in the middle of a snowstorm on the way to the first outpost of Machu Picchu. It something that would have happened during the Inca civil war of the 1500s. We celebrate the coup with a party with the porters and they seemed to have enjoyed one of my jokes (Translated in Quechuan, of course). We go to sleep wet and cold. I wake up in the middle of the night grudgingly to use the bucket we call a toilet. The entire site is bathed in such a bright moonlight that I don't even notice the chill while I stare whimsically at the ancient and sacred rocks all around us. The sky is clear and I believe the next day promises a sunny day.

July 7-Day 10 Hurray! It's a wonderful, clear blue day and we look forward to being dry once again! As we move towards our last campsite at Phuyupatamarca. A steady climb takes us over Runkuraqay Pass (12,900'), with whimsical views back towards Warmiwanusqa. We descend to the ruins at Sayacmarca, a fortress city located on a hill between two valleys. Sayacmarca, I believe, means "Town of Soldiers" or something like that. This is also an area where overgrown Inca ruins are still being uncovered. After a picnic lunch, we hike across the third (and last) pass to our camp at Phuyupatamarca ("town at the edge of the clouds") at 11,906 feet. The trail turns into rainforest and the magnificent trail twists and turns into several beautiful jungle areas. We reach Phuyupatamarca, which has remarkable views of the Urubamba Valley, and interesting ruins lie just below the campsite. Nearly all of us get the opportunity to wash our hair at a sacred bath near the ruins. The water is clear and fresh and welcome. It's our last day with the porters, so we give them gifts and money and I get to have my poem PUMA read to the entire group, first in English than Quechan. Unfortunately, Jeff is feeling worse and is taken down to the nearest town by Wilbur and a few porters to be checked out by a doctor. As this point, I think the others are betting that I'll be the next one to fall ill.

July 8-Day 11 We awaken to a beautiful, cool sunrise. This is our final day to Machu Picchu. A birthday cake the porter's have made for trekker Mary Webb, surprises her. Imagine having a group of people hike for 4 days with just enough flour, cake-filling and candles to get up at 4am at altitude 12,000' and make YOU a birthday cake! Along the way, we stop at a small bar/restaurant where we meet up with guide Wilbur and trekker Jeff who wasn't feeling that bad after all. After a refreshing Cusquena, the beer of choice for anyone hiking the trail and only because you can't buy any other kind of beer. We stop to visit Huinay Huayna also known as the "Forever Young" ruins. Legend has it that if you drink from the nearby falls, you will remain young forever. But even old ruins look magnificent, don't you think? Around the mountain we see the Urubamba again and make our way towards Intipunku Pass or "Sun Gate". At 8,900 feet, this is the original entrance to Machu Picchu and so we stop to lunch overlooking incredible Machu Picchu. It's a beautiful day, bright and sunny like a postcard. Machu Picchu, nestled between striking peaks high above the Urubamba Valley, exists as an incomparably well-reconstructed ruin of staircases, terraced hillsides, altars, temples, fountains, and vistas. I sit back and let my eyes take in the valley. Earlier in the trek, I realized that perhaps our good Ancestors look after our bodies, here in the present, in exchange for the chance to see the old homeland once again through our eyes since they cannot do so alone. In a way, we are thanking them for their protection just by letting them see their old homeland through our eyes. After a short respite, we hike into Machu Picchu and spend a few hours sightseeing before heading to our hotel at Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aquas Caliente. Everyone's a bit tired and my knees are shot. We all celebrate together and even Jeff and Stacy are in town with us now.

July 9-Day 12 We have the early morning to explore the ruins in Machu Picchu courtesy of Wilbur. Machu Picchu was not a city at all. I learn that it was probably built by Pachacuti Inca as a royal estate and religious retreat in 1460-70. Its location - on a remote secondary road in nearly impassable terrain high above the Urubamba River canyon cloud forest - almost ensured that it would have no administrative, commercial or military use. But Machu Picchu was mostly forgotten even before the Spanish came. Small pox was the conquistadors' advance guard. Huayna Capac and an estimated 50 percent of the population died of small pox sometime around 1527. Inca government suffered, and after a period of turmoil, the empire fell into civil war over Inca secession. Machu Picchu was probably abandoned at this time - both because it was expensive to maintain and with most of the population dead from war or epidemic, it was hard to find the labor to keep it up. We all watch the sunrise on the Ancient peak and pay homage at the sacred stone. Some of us take optional hikes to either Huayna Picchu (9,000') or to the Inca Bridge. It's a spectacular aerial view of Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu, which means "Young Peak". Hiking up Wayna Picchu is like climbing up the neck of some great puma to the back of its head. The climb is a bit treacherous as the path essentially is a stone ladder carved into the side of the mountain. Ropes give some security but the height and danger has a few hikers concerned.

Lunch and then a train ride back to Cuzco for a night at the Monasterio. Unexpectedly, sisters from the Hogar find me and Elliott to thank us for our donations. We are each given warm Alpaca scarves along with even warmer hugs. I go out in search of Franklin to have my shoes shined and later join the group for a final night's dinner and merriment. Late at night we all share last minute thoughts of our finest memories of the trips and say our goodbyes with hugs and kisses. One of the unexpected joys of this trip for me were the individuals who brought their own perspective and separate joy along to share with mine. This was a journey I'll always remember.

July 10-13-Day 13-16 An early morning flight back to Lima. I decide to stay there for a few days to recover. Some others head into the Amazon and others go back home. Lima is quite a different and unmagical city. Called the City of Kings it is also known as "The Saddest city in the World". I wholeheartedly agree with the latter.

Let's see. Coming up next: Europe and Asia and more of the U.S.

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