|Flying over the Andes alpenglow, Mendoza to Santiago|
The adventure started before we’d even left Mendoza, thanks to customs and the Argentina visa system not having it’s act together. My study abroad program had us start our student visa process in February, but we haven’t heard about it since. As Katie and I were getting our passports checked out, we learned that our 90 days of tourist time was expired—we’d been in the country for 92 days. We got rerouted into the customs office and had a rough conversation with a rather mean officer that ended in us being labeled illegal immigrants and having to pay 300 pesos (about US$60) to leave the country. We had really no choice in the matter even if it was a 2 day difference, and paid the fee to leave. Upon returning I have learned that this was not the
|Sleeping in the Lima airport, take one|
same fee for my student visa, so I have to pay another 300 pesos for that, and that the fee we paid in the airport is rarely, if ever, enforced. Plus, I finally got my notification to pick up my student visa now, upon returning to Argentina. Talk about awful (and expensive) luck.
|Afternoon light on the hills of Cusco, from the Plaza de Armas|
I was quite surprised by how much we liked Cusco. The city is most definitely a city, but I felt far safer than I have felt in my time in Mendoza. This is most likely because the centro is absolutely crawling with tourists, even in the pre-high season window we visited in. We spent hours just wandering along the steep hills of the city along the cobblestone streets, looking at the whitewashed walls and deep indigo entryways that seem to not just be a trend but a requirement. The architecture was not nearly as European as Argentina and quite clearly a confluence between Incan style and Spanish colonialism. This was much more apparent in the last town we spent time in, Ollantaytambo, but Cusco still had beautiful Spanish cathedrals to boast. Katie and I spent an entire afternoon perched in a café balcony drawing the Plaza de Armas followed by sitting on the sunny cathedral steps, where we ended up meeting quite a few Cusqueños.
|Cusco day one after a 6am arrival|
|Hitchhiking ride #1 approaching Nevado Salkantay|
I was fairly nervous to leave Cusco since information on finding a ride to Mollepata is spotty at best, but we got some help from two Cusqueñas on the street, who tracked down the van stop with us the day before. We were in a taxi to drive us right to where the minivan rides leave Cusco at the end of Avenida Arcopata by 4:30 in the morning (it was around the corner from our hostel, but early morning robberies of walking backpackers are common), miraculously found two spots in a van, and were out of the city by 4:45. We started hiking from Mollepata after the two hour van ride for our first day that was bound to be very long to Soraypampa.
|Campsite night one, Salkantaypampa at 4,100m|
After quite a few kilometers, we decided to opt for hitchhiking and ended up in the back of a truck with a guided group of gringos and their mountains of stuff, which got us to Soraypampa well before noon. Good thing, because the road from Mollepata to Soraypampa appeared to be quite a bit longer than we planned, although beautiful nonetheless. Considering we’d been feeling great at altitude, we decided to ascend 100 meters more than planned that afternoon and ended up being the lone tent on the beautiful pampa of Salkantaypampa at 4,100m, just below one of the most magnificent mountains I have ever seen in my entire life. It was so cold when the sun dipped below the peaks at that altitude that we ate dinner by 3:30 in the afternoon and were in the tent no later than 5, reading Game of Thrones aloud in absurd British accents and trying to keep our toes warm.
|The best lunch spot around, just below the pass|
This was when health status began to deteriorate, although not for altitude reasons. Actually, altitude-sickness-wise, both Katie and I were completely dandy for the entire trip by taking ibuprofen regularly, drinking plenty of coca tea, and being responsible about not ascending more than 500 meters per day between campsites. Nonetheless, I got violently sick in the middle of the night and didn’t sleep at all, right before our second and most difficult day. The next morning I still felt it best for us to go for it, and we took our sweet time ascending the 4,600m pass. This was definitely a difficult hike, but the views made the pain and low oxygen worth it. I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful this entire landscape was in words, but we decided it was a confluence of what we imagined Ireland and the Himalayas would look like together. With speckled lichen covering the rocky pampas below the intricate masterpiece of Nevado Salkantay (Savage Mountain, 6,271m) and glaciers perched precariously on its snow-dusted slopes, it was almost as difficult to hike the pass as it was to tear your eyes away from the view and back to your footing as we ascended. We stopped for lunch just below the pass after reaching it in order to enjoy the landscape and listen to the rumble of distant avalanches as the clouds began to flood in. By midday, we were the last group of trekkers to reach the pass, but this was understandable—during our entire five days on the trail, Katie and I were the only trekkers we encountered carrying all our own gear. Literally every other non-guide on the trail was part of a paid tour group and had pack mules carrying everything other than their extra layers and during-hike water. I was pretty surprised by the lack of other solo hikers, but we still got mad respect from every guide group we encountered. Mountain woman points to the max, indeed.
|Campsite night two|
The second night campground was hands-down the best tentsite I have ever had and probably ever will. By mid-afternoon of our pass day, we settled on an unnamed pampas probably slightly below our first campsite altitude and both collapsed on our sleeping pads right in the open amongst the grazing horses for the last hour or so of sunlight. It was a warmer night and we were actually able to sit outside our tent in our layers as the peaks above us lit up in alpenglow and the stars began to peek out of the dark sky. It was truly the most beautiful place to just sit with our coca tea and dehydrated potatoes and stare in awe at the landscape, hoping to catch sight of the avalanches we heard. Our next morning, we passed through a pampas below our campsite that I now regard as the most beautiful place I have ever been. Between the pass and that pampas, I cannot fathom spending time in a more beautiful place and I am so happy to have been able to enjoy it for our first few days on the trail.
|Nevado Huamantay, from campsite night two|
|One of our fellow passengers|
|Fernandito the camp cooking kitten|
|Banana trees all over the place|
Our fourth day of hiking was a calm, hot, and slow plow along a road through the jungle that we filled with plenty of singing and fairly ridiculous lengths of speaking in absurd accents just because we were kind of out of it by this point. All was well until we reached Santa Teresa, the low-altitude alternative to our itinerary, when we ended up out on this hot and shadeless wasteland of a roadway in search of fabled hot springs. This was probably the closest to genuine collapse we came, but alas, the hot springs appeared in the shade of a distant cliff!
|Santa Teresa aguas termales|
And man, they were gorgeous pools of the clearest water and absolutely perfect for nearing the end of our trek. We bartered a ride back to town to avoid the wasteland return and ended up in another organized campsite with a bunch of gringo trains. Katie and I both wanted to meet other travelers and actually avoid our grandma tendency of being asleep no later than 7pm, but now it was Katie’s turn to get violently sick. By night four, we had officially swapped places: now I was the motivating friend who felt great and she was the sick and dying friend trying her absolute best.
But we continued on! After half a day of walking along a railroad through the jungle below Machu Picchu, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the town born entirely for tourists. There is a phrase, buena onda, in Spanish that is used rather often that basically means “good vibes”—Katie and I could not get past the really unsettling onda that reeked in Aguas Calientes. It was unnervingly fake and uncomfortable to realize that hundreds of tourists pour in on the Asian-corporation-owned train, stay for one night, and then cart up to Machu Picchu for a few hours before fleeing. We unfortunately spent two nights in Aguas Calientes, the first in the absolute sketchiest hostel you can even imagine. Take note that there is a 30% tax at least on all food in the entire town, in case you ever travel here and want to avoid the unwelcome surprise we got.
|Daybreak view from Machu Picchu|
Getting tickets into Machu Picchu proved to be an all-day ordeal of desperately attempting to prove ourselves as students in order to get a 50% discount from the incredibly expensive entrance fee. Thanks to Alfredo, one of the ticket representatives, we eventually were granted the discount: we were up and outside in an absolute torrential downpour at 5am the next morning to catch the bus up to Machu Picchu. The way the mountains in this region are formed as huge, rounded, and jungle-covered spires, the climb to Machu Picchu is outrageously steep but meant that all the clouds of the heavy rain were settled in the valley, making for a very cool mist covering of the ruins for our first few hours. It was eerie and beautiful to float among the rooms of this ancient city without being able to see past the sheer cliff face on all sides. To add to the beauty we had seen on the trek, we found a perch to watch the dawn sunlight waft its way through the clouds and illuminate the landscape very slowly. It was quite simply unreal. Just absolutely beyond my imagination, of the clouds among these incredibly strange mountains seen from ancient walls.
|Panorama of my painting subject after the clouds lifted|
|The central plaza of Machu Picchu|
|Near the cliff face into nothing|
Something to check off the bucket list, I suppose, but it was very nice to just take my time to enjoy the place we had worked so hard to get to and truly commit the views to memory. Machu Picchu is a beautiful city and clearly built by a brilliant culture with skill in precise cutting of the soft stone found in the area, innovative irrigation methods still used in cities such as Mendoza, and a very intriguing sacred region of the city also used for celestial observation. After a solid eight hours exploring and petting llamas, Katie and I headed back to Aguas Calientes.
|These guys are crazy|
Our final day was spent taking the train to the ancient town of Ollantaytambo, where the streets and many of the buildings themselves are original Incan ruins that are still occupied. We hiked up along a bluff to some ruins to just explore and get a beautiful view of the valley, and had lunch in a local haunt recommendation from our hostel owner that clearly never gets gringo customers, based on the looks we got from the chefs. That evening we were surprised to find that Ollantaytambo was the base camp for a week-long international mountain biking competition called Inca Avalanche. We were right on time for the results ceremony, followed by a couple of professional mountain bikers doing insane jump tricks for a few hours. I now understand why things like the X-Games are so intense—those guys are crazy, but impressive.
|View overlooking Ollantaytambo from some of the ruins|
Leaving from Cusco the next day for another return itinerary of sleeping in the Lima airport and a really great movie selection (not dubbed in Spanish!) on one of our LAN flights, we were sad to leave Peru but content. We survived, thrived, and I even did it all on trail running shoes I’d bought two days before leaving, thanks to stupidly forgetting my perfectly broken-in boots in Patagonia. My friend Mauricio graciously mailed them to me a few months ago, but it appears the Argentine mail system has gobbled them up. It was truly an amazing trip with wonderful company and returning to Mendoza spurred some interesting thoughts on the concept of home. It is great to be back here with my wonderful host mom and the familiar, tree-lined streets of what is now very late fall. The beauty continues.
Much love from the Peruvian llamas, Emilia
Much love from the Peruvian llamas, Emilia
PS- Alternate blog title that Katie and I came up with:
Gormanka and Warmi Eat Savage Mountain For Breakfast [and Then Barf It Back Up]. We thought it was hilarious. And sadly accurate. Oh well.