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Archive for the ‘Inca Trail’ Category

5/18/10: Inca Trail, Peru

The Inca Trail. Based on our sampling of world travelers, it is the one thing that divides our kind more than any other. It has the power to destroy friendships, but it can also bring travelers together like nothing else. One person will tell you you’d be a fool to miss it. The next will be adamant that it’s a waste of time and money. The first will say that only lazy Americans take the train to Machu Picchu, and that they ruin the site for those who worked hard to get there. The other will tell you it’s ok to be that lazy American – you’ll get a better experience than those elitist Inca Trail folks.

Well, we’ve now completed the Inca Trail and are therefore qualified to join the argument. Our opinion: the Inca Trail is great!

I’ll be honest – we probably would not have done the trail if it weren’t for Dad and Steve. There are many drawbacks for the average backpacker: it costs a lot of money, it costs mucho dinero and then it costs even more money. Let me break down our costs:

  • $495: This is the “ticket price.” It theoretically includes everything for the four days.
  • $2.50: 5% Paypal fee on the 10% deposit.
  • $24: Money lost in ridiculous exchange rate. You have to pay the balance in Soles and even though the actual rate is around 2.85, they charge 3.00.
  • $57: Cost for half a porter (you need him to carry the bulky sleeping pads), plus a sleeping bag rental plus a walking stick. Obviously these are all optional, but most people use them.
  • $15: Ever since the mudslide, it has cost more to ride the train back from Machu Picchu.
  • $17.50: The cost of the breakfast, lunch and dinner that are not included in the four days.
  • $55: Approximate money per person tipped to porters, guides and the chef.

Add this up and the four days on the trail wound up costing each person about $666 (I did not intend for the total to end up this ominous). That’s almost $170 per day – way out of a backpacker’s budget. Sure, getting there are your own just for one day will run you close to $200, but that’s for one day, not four. The Inca Trail is expensive.

What a lot of backpackers do instead is take a lesser-known trail such as the Salkantay to Machu Picchu. Doing such a trail allows these backpackers to turn their nose up at the mainstream Inca Trail-ers in the same way that fans of Indie music do so to fans of Britney Spears. (“Have you heard the new Cleats on Concrete song? Of course you haven’t – you’re too busy listening to the radio.”) I’ve found myself almost apologizing to such trekkers after telling them we were going to do the Inca Trail. “Well, we didn’t want to ruin my family’s vacation, so we thought we’d take them on the famous trail. We wouldn’t actually do it ourselves.”

The fact of the matter though is that we did do the Inca Trail, and we loved every minute of it. Our tour operator, Llama Path was amazing. I know a lot of it was aesthetics, but the team uniforms and the togetherness of the porters along the trail really made them look more professional than anyone else. It was always fun to see the Red Army plowing ahead, or pitching the campsite off in the distance. They took all the hardest work out of the experience and let us enjoy the grueling walk with no concerns other than taking good pictures. Our guides were fantastic – they knew seemingly everything about everything, and Marco talked about it all with more passion than Jim Cramer talking about stocks. Not only did I experience the trail by walking it, but I also experienced its history and culture through stories from our guides.

What made everything worthwhile though was the six kilometer walk to Machu Picchu on the fourth day of the trek. Around every turn I strained my neck to try to get my first glimpse of the ruins just a second earlier than I should. I felt like I earned this view over the previous three days, and when Machu Picchu finally came into view it had that much more meaning to me. The “alternate route” backpackers will scoff at this, or say they had the same feeling after finishing the Salkantay, and those who took the train up in the morning will say that Machu Picchu is Machu Picchu, no matter how you get there. But for me, completing the Inca Trail first made it that much more memorable. I could have stood on the hillside overlooking the site for hours on end and not have gotten bored.

I know that people’s opinions about the Inca Trail are as diverse and as strong as those about politics, or sports, and here I have given you mine: do it, and do it with Llama Path. You’ll be glad you did.
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Picture of the Day: A good angle to get the scale of just how big Machu Picchu really is. And these are only the terraces near the entrance.

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5/18/10: Inca Trail, Peru

For a plethora of reasons, today might have been the most anticipated day of the trip. No other place on our itinerary required such a combination of time, effort, money and intestinal fortitude just in order to get a glimpse of it as did Machu Picchu. Sure, we hiked further and harder in Nepal. We paid comparatively more to see the gorillas in Uganda. We went further out of our way to get to Easter Island. But this had it all. And on top of that, it had more. We had heard from countless other tourists how this would be the best day of our trip. We had seen pictures of the ruins since we were in elementary school. And we had Dad and Steve who flew in from the States almost solely to share this experience with us.

We were not let down.

You may have seen these exact pictures countless times, but this time they’re a bit different: we took them! We witnessed Machu Picchu firsthand. Nothing could ruin these ruins for us. (Although at various points during the day my last night’s dinner attempted to come back up and soil the soil, but in the end it failed.)

The history behind Machu Picchu is incredibly interesting even for a guy who slept through every history class he ever took, but this isn’t a history blog so I won’t go there. And my elementary school level writing won’t be able to do any justice to this incredible ancient site, so I’ll let our pictures speak for themselves. (I’ll caption the pictures just in case you don’t understand them.)

We awoke at 3:30am, lined up at the gate at 4:30am and were released down the trail at 5:30am. Imagine Black Friday at Wal-Mart taking place on a skinny trail on a mountain and you'll have the exact opposite picture of the orderly speed-walking everyone did to get to Machu Picchu this morning.

Our first view of Machu Picchu, from the Sun Gate.

Only three of the 11 of us didn't get sick at some point, but we all made it.

Did Steve just eat the world's hottest chili pepper? Nope, that's just Machu Picchu.

Yellow flowers, courtesy of The Real Steve Curry.

Dad's cowboy hat had the best view of anyone.

Actually, our view was pretty good too.

The green lawns and pretty flowers are the government's attempt to make Machu Picchu more photogenic. It works.

Little known fact: they modeled Huayna Picchu after my face.

There is nothing but pure hate in this faux-bunny's eyes.

Try not to fall off the back side of Machu Picchu – it's a long way down.

I was sitting down to avoid throwing up.

No caption needed – what a honeymoon!

One of the most fascinating things about Machu Picchu is the exquisite stonework and the incredible ingenuity of how it was put together to withstand anything nature could throw its way.

Plus there are spots to keep Zhou-sized people out of the sun and rain.

Steve is definitely buff enough to have helped in the building process.

Despite the awesomeness, it was a long day.

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Puzzles for Postcards

Hidden TV Characters (Find one famous TV character hidden forward or backward in each of these, must be at least five letters long)

Climbing the stairs of this tall urban office really makes the cowboy’s old rural legs sore.
“The Smiley Face is a registered trademark of Wal-Mart, Inc.” ran early morning headlines.
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Ohio Picture: At the end of the trip we’ll conglomerate all the O H I Os and send them to Zhou’s old boss at Vanderbilt: Ohio State president Gordon Gee.

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Picture of the Day: People seem to enjoy bad pictures of us, so here you go. This one reminds me a bit of American Gothic.

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5/17/10: Inca Trail, Peru

I’d like to introduce you to The Woman Who Asks Inane Questions (and Thus Ruins the Magical Storytelling Atmosphere for the Rest of Us). She will henceforth be referred to as TWWAIQ. You must imagine her speaking voice as an annoying, nasally and British. For full effect.

Marco: …and then the Incans fled to Machu Picchu, but the Spanish-
TWWAIQ: Marco!
M: Yes?
TWWAIQ: Is Vilcabamba where the Spaniards finally defeated the Incans?
M: Yes.
TWWAIQ: Oh.
M: So, as I was saying. Many Incans fled to Machu Picchu. No one knows if the Spanish managed to-
TWWAIQ: Marco!
M: Yes?
TWWAIQ: Where is Vilcabamba?
M: points It’s that way.
TWWAIQ: Oh.
M: As I was saying…

M: points up You can see the avocado growing here.
TWWAIQ: Marco!
M: Yes?
TWWAIQ: points Is that an avocado tree?
M: … Yes…

And that’s how it’s been the last three days. I think I’ve had enough. But other than TWWAIQ, day three on the trail has been great. A short walk, a long nap, and the opportunity for showers (none of the Currys took advantage, but everyone else did). Perfecto.

Salkantay. I think.

The Curry boys.

I've never seen these two colors together in nature before.

Sunset.

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Picture of the Day: There are two Currys in this picture.

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5/16/10: Inca Trail, Peru

[Editor’s Note: For over eight months you’ve only been able to read what Zhou and I could find rattling around in our heads. You’re about to be in for a real treat – our first guest post from the road! Today we welcome The Real Steve Curry to bring you the action from Day 2 of the Inca Trail.]

It’s amazing how drastically circumstances can change in a short period of time. Three days ago, I was blankly staring at (I mean, thoroughly engaged in) an Excel spreadsheet at a quiet desk in Arlington, VA. It’s still pretty serene where I am now, but instead, I’m staring across the Andes mountains at 4,200 meters (~13,800 feet) above sea level with my dad, brother, and sister.

This sure is a nice change of scenery.

Last Friday to Sunday mornings, I woke up at 8:15, 11:15, and 10:30AM. This weekend, it was 4:00, 3:15 and 5:30AM. What can I say, there’s just a lot more to get done in a day in Peru.

As a brief introduction for those of you who don’t know me (TRSC), I’m Kevin’s younger but wiser brother. Unlike some people, I have not had the opportunity to quit my job, get married, and travel around the world for ten months. However, I have been fortunate enough to take six days off from work to fly down to Peru to see my family. You probably have gotten to know Kevin pretty well over the last eight months, so I’ll just say that I’m a lot like him, except I prefer Mom’s seven-way chili (and beef jerky for breakfast apparently) to chili dogs.

Kevin and Zhou have given me the opportunity to write a few posts during my time here with them, so I hope you can get 10% of the enjoyment that you get out of Kevin’s posts and 5% of what you get out of Zhou’s posts. Now that we are through introductions, I will leave you with a MadLib of our second day on the Inca Trail. The crossed out words are how I would have have answered the MadLib back when I used to do them 15 years ago, and the underlined words describe today’s actual events.

I was stupidly groggily (adverb) awoken by the porters at 5:30 this morning. On tap for the day was 1,300 meters of uphill hiking and 1,000 meters of downhill in an estimated 11 hours. To get physically and mentally prepared for this stinky daunting (adjective) day, we were offered energy-boosting Coca leaves. Unlike Red Bull and 5-hour energy, Coca leaves are icky illegal (adjective) below 7,000 feet. Fortunately, we were above 10,000 feet, so I can safely say that for the first time ever, the Curry family each threw in a lip and headed up towards Dead Woman’s Pass.

That delicious stone supposedly activates the Coca.

Early on in the day’s trek, we were passed by some killer tigers dainty llamas (adjective + plural animal).

While llamas really are quite interesting animals and Zhou’s second favorite on their entire trip, following behind them can be poopy poopy (adjective). Despite the smell, we trekked onward to reach Dead Woman’s Pass by 10:30AM, now covered in boogers sweat (noun)and gasping for farts oxygen (noun). Our descent was long and steep, but was filled with idiotic enjoyable (adjective) conversation about movies among other things. I may be summarizing (and/or fabricating) a bit, but I think we all agreed that Mighty Ducks Dumb and Dumber (movie) is the funniest movie ever made. After rolling into camp around dusk, Ken Griffey Jr. Zhou (person) demanded delicious pizza popcorn (food), which we were rewarded with. We played a card game with some others in our group called freeze tag/dodgeball/Hungry Hungry Hippos Oh Heck/Judgment/Hiram Bingham (games x 3) depending on where you are from, before an excellent meal cooked up by Michael Jordan Chef Jorge (person). We ended the night with a hilarious group floss session under more Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stars (plural noun) than I have ever seen at one time in my entire life. And yes, our butts teeth (body parts) were clean, even though it has now been 48 hours without a shower.
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Ohio Picture: O-H-I-O from 4,200 meters.

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Picture of the Day: Our Inca Trail group of 11 at Dead Woman’s Pass.

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5/15/10: Inca Trail, Peru

Yo soy porter. I’m a porter.

My name is Roman, I’m 22, and I don’t speak any English. (At least that’s what I want the tourists to believe – I actually speak mucho Ingles and I serve as the informant to the other porters. How else do you think I’m writing this post in English?) I’m the head of this Llama Path team of 17 which will guide 11 bumbling tourists through the Inca Trail over the next four days. I’m here to tell you a little about what I do.

For 25 days a month, 11 months a year, I walk over steep terrain for very little pay with 25 kilos (over 55 pounds) on my back. At least that’s what I’m supposed to tell you. You see, they have checkpoints set up along the trail which are supposed to make sure us porters aren’t carrying more than 25 kilos, but they’re all for show. Me and my team have carried much heavier loads than that. My friend, Wilfredo – he’s 48 and has been a porter for over 12 years now – says he’s carried loads pushing 40 kilos before. His 30 plus the packs of tourists who couldn’t handle the trail with any weight on their backs. Turistas estupidos.

Let’s use today as an example. I’d spent the last three days hiking the trail with one group of 16. Then after they ate breakfast at 4am this morning before heading off to see Machu Picchu, I took all their stuff on the shortcut path to the train station and dropped it off there for them to pick up later. I then hopped on the train, got an hour of sleep and showed up at km 82 to meet a new group of 11 tourists ready to start their hike. After some hikes I get a day off, but not this time.

I could tell when I met the new group that this would be a fairly easy hike. There are eight young, fit Asian kids and one older gentleman who I wouldn’t have been so sure about but he showed up in a cowboy hat, so I know he can hack it. There’s one suspect British couple, but I’ll hope for the best there. The group dropped off their stuff and the two guides led them away. Let me paint you a picture: the 13 people carrying either nothing or very little (except for that one good-looking guy – I think he said his name was Kevin – he was carrying quite a large pack, but he had the muscles that could get it done) marched down the path toward the start of the trail. They were full of energy, practically prancing, ready to start what would be one of the best four-day periods of their life. Why will it be so good? Us porters.

We'll be helping these jokers over the next four days.

We carefully apportioned out all the ridiculous crap we carry in order to make their experience “as memorable as possible” – four person tents that will sleep two people, unnecessary sleeping mats, a huge tent for eating under, copious amounts of popcorn for the small Chinese girl – then strapped it onto our backs. Here I must confess. I’m glad our packs have waist straps and other gadgets to distribute the weight. I’ve heard of the Nepalese porters who carry even more weight than us using straps on their forehead. I won’t be moving to Nepal anytime soon.

Anyway, once everything is packed and ready, we each strap on our load and fall into line like a team of army rangers. (The tourists actually call us the “Red Army.” Is it just me, or was that name taken a long time ago?) From this point on, we are never allowed to wander off on our own again. We will hike in this line at all times, and if someone gets sick they must deal with it and keep up. It is in this line that we will one-by-one overtake all tourists on the trail – most importantly though our own group of 11.

That's us! About to overtake a few more victims.

Gaining ground.

We hike non-stop – up steep slopes, over high hills, down dangerous inclines – and use frequent tourist breaks to help us pass them. Usually we’ll see them sucking water, taking pictures of animals, begging for mercy from the trail. But when a group isn’t taking enough breaks – this group being an example (I told you this group would be relatively easy) – their guides will sit them down for long talks like this one.

The ruins that are the subject of this talk.

The reason that we need to overtake the tourists is the less-appreciated part of our job – the setting up of things. As soon as we arrive to the lunch site, we take off the packs and get to work pitching tents, setting up tables, hanging towels, filling basins of water, putting together a makeshift kitchen, etc. Our resident porter-who-doubles-as-a-chef, Jorge (who’s completed three years of culinary school and could cook on Iron Chef if ever asked), goes to work whipping up food not only for the 11 tourists and their guides, but also for the 17 of us. By the time the tourists show up, all they need to do is put their non-existent packs down, wash their hands in the basins and sit down for lunch. We bring them the feast that Jorge cooked, they eat, then they nap and leave.

The basins outside the lunch tent. They each get their own even though clearly one big basin would do just fine.

Siestas and tea.

I bet you can guess what happens when they leave. We pack up, strap everything on again and then hustle down the trail to set up the overnight campsite. There we pitch the tents, boil more drinking water and Jorge not only makes dinner, but happy hour snacks and desert as well. Come on! We’re hiking the Inca Trail! You don’t need happy hour snacks and a desert! But the tourists love it – they eat happily for two hours then shuffle away to their tents for the night. We wait around to clean up and tear down the table and kitchen, because we sleep in the tents they eat in. Then tomorrow morning we’ll get up long before them and do it all over again.

All the while posing for pictures at their beck and call.

[Editor’s note: Roman wanted me to tell everyone that he’s not this jaded about his job. He actually enjoys it a lot of time – the camaraderie between everyone and the beautiful hike – but he felt it was important he write angrily for effect. Perhaps it will encourage the next group to give bigger tips. He sure caught on to the concept of blogging quickly.

Me, I loved day 1 of the trail, and I agree with Roman that the porters had a lot to do with it. I can’t wait to get back out for day 2.]
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Pictures of the Day: Roman didn’t allow me any room for pictures in this post, so I’ll have to stuff mine into the PotD section. First, my family: the “Black Army.”

Second, I’ve forgotten the thrill of getting new passport stamps as we did on the trail. Steve hasn’t.

Third, walking stick handles.

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