Wednesday, August 20, 2003

My good friend Amanda had some great adventures in Peru while I've been over here in Scotland--in a fun email she sent this morning she outlined a lot of her journey, and I'm posting it here because

a) she's so cool,
b) she's climbing mountains when I'm complaining about walking ten blocks,
c) it has the taste and feel of a good, short travelogue.

Without further ado, here's Amanda:

I spent two days in Cuzco to adjust to the altitude (around 11,000 feet) before we set off on our trip to Machu Picchu by way of Salcantay mountain. We started off at 6 am in Cuzco and drove for a few hours northwest to Mollepata, where we met up with the horses and mules that would be carrying us and all of our stuff for the next four days. We each rode a horse or mule, and there were three other mules to carry our stuff and camping equipment. We also had a cook and two Ketchua men who took care of the horses. I felt pretty embarassed about the entourage we made as we rode along the trail; I felt like a Pasha princess being carried on a litter to a mountaintop castle. I had anticipated walking the entire way, but our guide, Hugo, specializes in doing the trek on horseback, so I soon found myself riding for 6 hours a day and developing inner thighs of steel. I also accumulated lots of impressive bruises and about 100 mosquito bites.

It began raining when we started off in Mollepata, and it didn't really stop for the next two days, changing to snow when we hiked and rode over the Salcantay mountain pass. Rain is one thing in the northwest, but it becomes a different entity entirely when you're at 12,000 feet. We camped the first night at the southern base of the twin peaks, Salcantay and Humantay, and watched as fog swept in from the valley below and wrapped around the mountains. Some Ketchuans walked by our campsite late that afternoon after having walked over the moutain pass, and they told us it was snowing pretty hard. They were smiling, happy, and wearing short pants and sandals. I was wearing long underwear, wool, and fleece, and I was freezing my ass off. All the Ketchuan people I met along the trail were sweet, friendly, and incredily strong and hardy. They put physical strength and endurance into a whole new perspective for me.

The next day we summited Salcantay. I walked for some of it - about an hour and a half - and reached about 13,000 feet on foot before I got back on my horse. I had never experienced physical exertion at that altitude before: my muscles ached and felt exhausted, my head began to pound, and I felt incredibly lightheaded and short of breath. Victorino, the Ketchuan guy leading the horses behind me, smiled at my exertion and shared some coca leaves with me. He was wearing sandals and appeared to be in a fine mood. The top of the pass was almost completely obscured by fog and snow, and there were little pyramids of stones all around where Ketchuans leave an offering after making it to the top of the pass. We camped that night on the other side of the mountain, and had an incredible view of the twin peaks and the green jungle mountains that opened up into the valley below us. The next morning I woke up at about 5 am and saw the snowy peaks of Salcantay and Humantay reflecting the light from a full moon, making them shine against an indigo blue sky littered with bright white stars. I have never seen anything so dramatically beautiful.

The next day we hiked down into the jungle valley. We saw incredible bamboo, various kinds of orchids, insects, reptiles, and dramatic waterfalls. The air warmed up, and I felt my bones start to defrost after two days of freezing rain and snow. We were in the jungle for the last two days, following first the Salcatay river and then the Urubamba river along a trail that climbed and descended various jungle peaks. We had a couple of scary moments where the trail was washed out and we had to trust our horses to navigate the gaps, sometimes leaping over gaps in the trail. We passed trees growing coffee and coca, and saw coffee laid out to dry in the sun. The last day was very hard, as our horses climbed the last mountain before our descent into the valley and arrival at the train that would take us to Aguas Calientes and eventually Machu Picchu. We must have climbed about 5,000 feet in about 2-3 hours, then hiked down the other side, as the trail was too muddy and slippery for the horses to carry us. Although, to be honest, I was kind if horsed out by that point. At the top of that last mountain we could see Machu Picchu and the high green peaks that surrounded it. That night we had our first shower in four long, sweaty days, drank some beer, and collapsed in bed.

Machu Picchu was incredible, and we had a weird guide who spoke English in Tourrette-like fits and starts and addressed my friend Chris as Arnold, because he had big muscles like Arnold Schwartzenegger. After our odd tour, we explored the ruins and climbed up to Huaynapicchu, the little rocky peak that looks down on Machu Picchu. From there I finally saw the top of Salcantay in the light of day. The next day we headed back to Cuzco by train, only to be thwarted by a transportation strike that halted all trains, buses, and cars for a 50 kilometer radius. We walked four hours with our packs to the next town, Ollataytambo, where we explored the ruins on the town's mountainside and stayed the night. The next day we finally made it to Cuzco, where we met up with my friends Kim and Allison, who has been in the Amazonian jungle for the past 10 days doing research for Allison's dissertation. We spent the next few days exploring the Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, outside of Cuzco, both by car and on foot.

Today I'm wandering lazily around Cuzco and buying presents for people before I return. I'll probably spend the afternoon drinking coca tea and people watching. I'm sad to be leaving Peru, but I plan on coming back soon.