Friday, 22 August 2008

Hail the mountain conquering heroes

As the trek approached we decided to get in some serious training. Emma, Chris, Martha and Aindreas joined us for 2 weeks of steady drinking/beach/hammocks and eating copius quantities of junk on tropical Ihla Margarita. We had a great time but Venezuela didn´t really agree with Chris. His bag was delayed by airport for 5 days, shoes stolen from our own porch and credit card cloned. Nice work for the gypsy Venezuelans, general consensus - we´re never going back again.

Then we flew to Cusco - a beautiful town set high in the Andes at 3300m or thereabouts. The altitude change was really noticable at first but after 3 days we were ´prepared´ to hike. This is Sians Tale in normal text with additions by Dave in bold....

Day 1 - Sweaty. Uphill. Heart pounding. That was only the short walk from the village to meet our porters. I had serious thoughts that a big mistake had been made and then I saw them... glistening like gods in the sunlight. The emergency horses!!! Walked for an hour or so then called an emergency. Took breaks on and off the horse and after lunch the guide told myself and Emma we weren´t allowed to walk as we were slowing down the group. By late afternoon our four legged friends were communally known as "Sian and Emmas horses". The day stretched on and on with LOTS of walking, it grew dark and we still hadn´t reached the campsite. I was now walking at an estimated 0.5km/hr accompanied by the ever patient Dave and our guide ´Coco`. Hitched a ride in a minivan for a few hundred metres... then struggled the last 10 minutes to camp. When we arrived there was lots of muttering among the guides and we realised that Emma, Chris, Guy and Etienne (the other 2 guys in our group) hadn´t made it back yet. They spent a horrible 2 hours or so lost in the pitch black Andes before finding the camp. We were all in sparkling form and looking forward to day 2.

We spent a nice day walking our way up the valley, hindered only slightly by the thin air at that altitude. Had a great feed of pasta for lunch, and then marched up the hill staying just ahead of the horses and their precious cargo. Towards evening the horse man ran off with the horses to set up camp, so our pace was slowed a little. This lead to us reaching camp after night fall. Got some amazing long exposure photos of the glacier and stars by moon light. It was an icy night with frost on the ground in the morning.

Day 2 - It dawned with a shake of the tent at 4am. Everyone was freezing and not very well slept. The mattresses were made of rocks and the sleeping bag felt paper thin. Trekking time! Today the Salkantay pass beckoned us (Salkantay translates as 'savage mountain'). A winding path up the mountainside rising from 3700m to 4700m. Myself and Emma refused to walk at all but Coco said we should do the first 10 minutes and then the horses would catch up with us. 5 minutes in Emma had a mini fit at the prospect of another day on the mountain. An hour later we were long behind the others with no respite in sight. Luckily eagle eye Clarke spotted the horsemen taking an alternative route and sent them back to us. We then spent a really enjoyable afternoon overtaking everyone on the mountain except for Dave. He kept up with the horses and at one point even overtook us - the man is a machine. The mountain and glacier scenery was spectacular and the sky was a beautiful blue. Felt so well rested that we walked the downhill side of the mountain until lunch and did the entire afternoon on foot!!! We arrived before dark to a beautiful campsite tucked into the side of the mountain. I don´t think I´ve ever been so proud of myself. Total distance covered so far 58km.

After spending the night at high altitude I was fairly well acclimatised and although it was steeper then the previous day it was easier going. Horses are for the weak... In fairness to Sian she did walk the whole afternoon, even passing up an offer of a horse as nightfall approached.

Day 3 - Feeling much better today. Warmer, lower altitude and the prospect of a mostly downhill walk all day. Took 2 breaks on the horse but otherwise did it all on my own! Found a dead snake on the road which I carried for a long time before coming after Emma with it - Totally worthwhile. Lots of walking along the riverside and pleasant jungle paths. That evening we vistited the hot springs of Santa Teresa, it´s one of the nicest places I´ve ever seen. Huge vertical cliffs and mountains on all sides and 2 giant pools of hot water to swim and relax in. They also had a freezing waterfall for the brave gentlemen to dip into. We spent the evening there watching the sun set and the stars come out. In the words of E. Cobban "It almost makes the walking worthwhile".

We finished off the night in the local disco where a quadruple vodka in a jug is only 6 euro. Go Peru :)

Today was a short day, after a feed of rice for lunch (and chasing baby ducklings around a field) we took the local public transport - an open back truck with bars to hold onto along a windy road cut into the steep mountain side. Nice to get a good clean in the thermal baths under the stars. Sian was mountain nurse today, fixing a bloke´s sprained ankle while he remained on his (a.k.a Emma´s) horse.

Day 4 - The boys decided to walk today. Emma & I played with the campsite´s resident baby spider monkey "Panjo" for an hour and then took a taxi. Slept most of the afternoon beside a railway and took a train to Aguas Calientes - the departure point for buses to Machu Picchu! Went for dinner and made our plans to catch the 5am bus. These early starts are a killer.

Had a big lie in today - 8am! After cutting away our dead weight, the four remaining lads headed off on the final stretch to Machupicchu. We had spent the night in New Santa Terese, and this morning we saw Old Santa Terese, which looked like a lost city itself. They had built too close to the river and in 1988 a flood wiped it out. Took a small basket zip line to cross this big white water river and only after we all got safely across did Coco tell us about how last month a tourist got his leg caught in the rope and pulled to his death. We could have just taken the perfectly good suspension bridge beside it.

It was a baking hot day, so much so that Chris had to use his (clean spare) boxers as a sun hat. Was very tempted to take a swim in the icy river. After 3 hours walking we found the girls snoozing in the train station restarant.

Day 5 - FINALLY!!!!! As I said before an early start to join the queuing hordes at the bus station. We were among the first 250 people up on the mountain so the boys all got tickets entitling them to another 2 hr hike up ´Wainu Picchu´. Lunacy. I gave my ticket away to a man who hadn´t been able to get there early enough as he had to walk with his unfit wife. I helped a ´Dave´. We had a tour of the main temples and sacrificial sites (Dave and I accidentally took a wrong turn which gave a bonus 30 mins uphill walking in the wrong direction...).

Its a fantastic place to visit, so many of the buildings are intact and the quality of the stonework is very impressive. It was bigger than I expected so even when crowded with tourists late in the morning it had a peaceful feel to it. While the boys climbed their extra hill we girls spent a peaceful 3 hours sleeping in the shade.

Our wrong turn gave us an oppertunity to walk some of the traditional Inca trail, see the Sun Gates and get amazing view back to Macupicchu as it peeked out from the morning mist. Wainu Picchu was a hell of a climb but well worth it, and worth getting up at 4am to be one of only 400 people allowed up each day. It gave a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountans. The terraces and buildings they made at the top of this tower of rock are amazing. It was actually harder to climb down then up the steep steps, forcing us to walk down backwards at times. Got back to the main Machupicchu site to find the girls sunbathing.

That evening we journeyed back to Cusco by train and minivan. The train was hilarious with a dancing display and fashion show all performed by the attendants. Overall it was the worst trip imaginable as Dave and I had been struck down by food poisoning which we´re only recovered from today.

Our minivan driver decided to make a little extra cash by picking up 8 extra passangers along the way as I silently tried not to puke on them.

Well done if you´ve managed to read all the way to the bottom of our epic tale. Emma - you´re only gone a few hours now but are and will be sorely missed! Gregg arrives in the morning though so its not all bad and we´re off on a 3 day rafting trip on the 24th. All this excercise will be the death of Sian.

Ciao Amigos :) S & D

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