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Andes to the Amazon: Peru 2015

For as long as I can remember, I've been compiling a bucket list. My collection began in my head, then in a journal, followed shortly by an email draft, until it wound up in the notes section of my iPhone. A few years ago, I decided it was time to tackle a biggie. Scuba a shipwreck? View the Northern Lights? Climb Kilimanjaro? Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Bingo, that was the one.

Two years ago, I began planning and saving. My parents, boyfriend, and friend were all in as well and we began prepping. We hiked a fourteener in Colorado and got a taste for the altitude. We purchased hiking poles, wool socks, and rain ponchos. We booked our hiking permits and were injected with yellow fever vaccines. We triple-checked the expiration dates of our passports and converted USD to PEN. We were set!

I kept a journal during my trip and pieced together the highlights:

Day 1: August 30
Rise and shine in Lima. We arrived late the night before and awoke energized and eager. We had one precious day in this city and wanted to make it count. With that in mind, my very first purchase in South America was Fancy Feast. Let me back up– we were headed to Parque Kennedy, a small park in the Miraflores district, which happens to be home to hundreds of cats. I was not disappointed:

Mom and I were very enthusiastic about this park. The guys humored us. Soon, it was time to return to our hotel; we had signed up for a city tour through the concierge. After a half hour of loitering around outside our hotel waiting to be picked up, we decided to find out what the hold up was. We were informed that a strike had begun in the city center and our tour was subsequently cancelled. This turned out to be easily resolved when another guide (one less concerned about the civil unrest) offered his services. We eagerly accepted.

We began at the Sunday market, where we tasted Peruvian delicacies: chocolate, cheeses, olives and fruits. We were also offered a gooey drink made from aloe vera and chia seeds. The consistency was oddly appealing. Being in Lima, the seafood was fresh and squirming.

My favorite part of the day was exploring the catacombs beneath the Monastery of San Francisco. I held out an entire hour before breaking the "no photo" rule.

Day 2: August 31
The first of many 4:00 am wakeup days. We caught an early morning flight to Cusco, heart of the Inca Empire, settled into the Andes at 11,000 feet. As soon as I stepped off the plane I felt the altitude in my lungs. Good thing we have two days to acclimate before we begin hiking.

We visited the local market and gawked like tourists over the severed cow snouts and skinned pig feet:

Day 3: September 1
We departed Cusco and headed to Sacred Valley, where we visited a women's weaving co-op. We learned the tricks and techniques Peruvian women had been using for ages to dye and craft their hand-woven wool goods. The community is supported by G Adventures, our tour agency for the trip, and sustained by travelers like us. We also got to meet some pretty awesome llamas and alpacas.

This little guy stole my heart:

We stopped at another Inca site, the Pisac ruins. We climbed windy terraces and spotted small caves in the cliffside were mummies were still being uncovered. Later in the evening, we arrived in Ollantaytambo and checked into hostel for our last night in a bed before hiking the Inca Trail. The water wasn't working when we arrived, which caused a slight panic, as this was to be my last opportunity for a shower for the next five days. Luckily, it was fixed by the next morning. (When I turned on the shower, the water pressure caused the shower head to shoot off and hit me in the shoulder.)

Our hostel also didn't provide toilet paper, as I'm sure they assumed we'd just steal it for our upcoming hike. They weren't wrong– I grumbled when I didn't see any in my bathroom and then had to go buy some in town. Despite our minor qualms, the hostel did have a gorgeous view of the mountains. 

After tossing our bags in our room, we headed towards the terraces and ruined of Ollantaytambo. We ascended to the Templo del Sol during the golden hour, which made for an ethereal experience.

Day 4: September 2
This is the day where we finally begin our trek along the Inca Trail. We said adios to beds, showers and civilization of Ollantaytambo as we boarded our bus to the trailhead at Kilometer 82. With our passport stamped, we were on our way. We were told by our guides that this would be the easiest day of our hike, with eleven kilometers of uncomplicated terrain. We passed rivers, a small village, and had our first taste of mountain views on the trail.

Our porters were a godsend– they carried the bulk of our weight– 40 kilos each, ran ahead of us on the trail (in sandals) so they could set up lunch, dinner, and our tents, and were overall incredibly joyful people. When we arrived at our lunch site on the first day, the porters applauded us as we approached. It was pretty embarrassing, considering all that they do for us and how little we actually did for ourselves. After lunch, I took a cat nap in the grass under the sun. I awoke by the sound of thunder. We barely made it to Wayllabamba, our campsite for the night, before the storm hit. When we arrived at camp, rainwater was streaming off our ponchos.

Day 5: September 3
Second day on the Inca Trail. Our 5:15 wake up call was a relief– I'd been holding my bladder since 8:00 the night before. Luckily our tent stayed dry throughout the rainy night. We indulged in the breakfast of champions: Cocoa leaf tea, porridge, and pancakes with animal names written in Spanish in caramel. Pato = duck! (I was crossing my fingers for a cocodrilo, but I don't think the cook wanted to waste that much caramel.)

This was to be our most challenging day of hiking. Altogether, we climbed about 4,000 feet in altitude. The climax of our hike was Dead Women's Pass, at nearly 14,000 feet. We spent the majority of the day hiking towards the pass, stopping to take a 30-minute break at the last place where women sell water. They also sold beer and rum, which seemed like a disaster waiting to happen with the most challenging part still ahead of us.

I found the last half hour of the ascent incredibly difficult. At one point, I overheard a group of young British hikers complaining to each other, "Why the hell did we think rum shots were a good idea? Jesus Christ." I felt superior with my judgement, but the feeling was quickly crushed when they passed me at a much heartier pace, as I trudged along behind gasping for air.

Drew and I finished together, with hikers standing along the final lip of the ascent cheering as we summited. (Wes made Turtleman noises for us.) We took a long break at the top, taking photos, sucking down water, and overall enjoying the epic views from Dead Women's Pass.

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The descent to our campsite was two miles down rocky steps. We flew downhill, finding it easier on our muscles to embrace gravity rather than bracing each step. Our porters rewarded with Chicha juice (a sweet drink made from corn) and plastic camp stools, which we plopped down on as if they were La-Z Boys. Our tents overlook an incredible view: valley & mountains. Mom and Dad arrived a little later; they hiked a big portion with a member of our group who was suffering from altitude sickness. She looked miserable at dinner, wiping away tears throughout the meal. I gave her a handful of Diamox pills and wished her the best.

Several hikers were wise enough to bring along games, so we all played Sorry and some card games around the table. Sorry is one of those mindlessly dull games where you regret your participation within the first five minutes. Even worse, I was forced to pay attention when Dad joined the game, as he is notorious for cheating and would have moved his pieces (or mine) had I not been vigilant. (Even so, he still "accidentally" skipped me a few times when my mind was wandering.) After an hour of Sorry, we switched to cards. Our assistant guide, Daniel, was the designated rule master. The more complicated he made the rules, the harder he laughed as he explained.

The guides have nicknames for some of us. I'm Catalina and Mom (Donna) is Madonna. We enjoyed more steaming hot soup for dinner, which warmed us up. Our entree was chicken with rice and veggies. I'm enjoying this hike and camping so much. I'm starting to get sad that tomorrow is our last night. The nights are cold, my hair is greasy and I'm looking forward to a hot shower in Cusco, but this experience is incredible and I am so glad I'm here.

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Day 6: September 4
Day three of the Inca Trail! This is known as the most beautiful day of the hike, so I was excited to get started. (Spoiler: I wasn't disappointed.) I skipped breakfast since it included tomatoes that touched other things, and we set off. 

The first two hours were all up either stairs or hill, but it flattened out a bit by the time we reached our first Inca ruins of the day, just as the rain began. Our assistant guide, Daniel, duct-tapped my poncho back together, as it began to rip down the front. He was giggling the entire time and complimented me on how fashionable I looked. 

Our last real bathroom break was four hours away from the night's campground. At this point, I actually preferred squatting in the open air, as the trail bathrooms grew increasing disgusting as we hiked. (I started gagging at the stench inside one.) At one point during our hike, someone in our group found a pile of shit in the corner of the men's restroom. Why wasn't in the hole? we all wondered. You squat over the hole! Wes wasn't part of the conversation, so we decided he must have been the Corner Pooper. The name stuck.

The guides weren't lying– the views today are incredible. Fog-soaked valleys & lush green peaks rising above. We even spotted a rainbow, which seemed pretty braggy and a little overkill on Mother Nature's part.

Lunch = The grand finale. Our cooks went all out: quinoa, rice, grilled chicken tenders, roasted veggies, olives, pizza, shish-kabobs, & garlic bread. We were stuffed and satisfied when our cook reappeared, this time with a cake, decorated with icing and all. The icing read, "Well done sexy llamas!" It was divine. The reality that someone carried an oven up here was insane.  All the porters, guides, and cooks gathered together for a group photo. The fog had begun to roll in, so the background was soft white.

We began the 3-hour descent down the many, many stairs leading to camp on fully loaded stomachs. We stopped at terraced ruins along the way and climbed to the top for a view of Machu Picchu mountain. It's identifiable by it's rainbow flag on the summit. When we arrived at camp, we enjoyed happy hour snacks: tea and popcorn. (Despite the overwhelming lunch, we attacked the popcorn like piranhas, gulping down handfuls at a time.)

We all stuck around in the dining tent until dinner, playing card games that involved carefully laying out teabags, slapping them, and yelling. At one point, we almost knocked the table over in our enthusiasm. Our guides wisely intervened with dinner.

After dinner, Dad was nominated by the group to give his sentiment to the porters, which was translated into Spanish by Angelo. Dad thanked our porters for their cheer, their grace, their helpfulness, and for making such a great impression on behave of Peruvians. It was the perfect display of gratitude. We all applauded the porters and shouted out "MUCHAS gracias!" It was a nice role reversal to applaud the porters.

It was bittersweet evening. I was excited to finally reach Machu Picchu the next day, but I was going to miss this hike and the friends I'd made. Our four days together had gone by so quickly.

Day 7: September 5
The 4th and last day on the Inca Trail! Our porters woke us up at 3am so we could scarf down some jam and bread, grab cheese sandwiches for the road, and head to the gated entrance. The historical site explicitly does not let hikers begin the final trek of the hike until the sun begins to rise, so we had time to kill until the trail opened at 5:30. We passed time by playing cards; it only took a few hands into "Presidents & Assholes" before we were exuberantly yelling and throwing our cards down with intent. That woke us (and everyone else) up.

As soon as the gate opened, we booked it on the trail. It was about three miles to the Sun Gate and we wanted to be among the first there. I ran until I hit the "Gringo Killer" vertical stairs, which rendered me to a half-assed tired trot afterwards.

The view from the Sun Gate isn't the postcard view of Machu Picchu, but at least we were finally seeing the destination we'd been working towards for the past four days. We stopped to eat our cheese sandwiches, then began our hour-long descent towards the ruins.

Our first taste of Machu Picchu was reaching the upper terraces. It was a little surreal to be surrounded by so many people (especially ones that looked so clean and put-together). The site's bathrooms were heaven– clean floors, toilet paper, and working sinks with SOAP. They even had mirrors, but it was horrifying to look into them. I was sunburned, mosquito-bitten, and greasy-haired from four days without a shower. My best fix was throwing on a hat and applying tinted chapstick. We collected our last Machu Picchu passport stamp and began our tour, led by our guide, Angelo.

Angelo recommended that we hike up to the Inca Bridge. The views of the river were great, but we weren't sure why we subjected ourselves to yet another hike after 30 miles on the trail. Back in Machu Picchu, we popped open our contraband beers ...and were swiftly reprimanded before we took three sips. We asked the ranger to take a picture of us before we were kicked out. He agreed, as long as we held our beer behind our backs for the photo.

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Instead of leaving, we recapped our booze, tucked it back into our packs, and explored the rest of the ruins closest to Waynu Picchu. I could have spent hours longer at Machu Picchu, but we had to catch the bus down the mountain for lunch at Hot Springs 2 (why not 1?) in Agues Callientes. It was in this base town that we said goodbye to Daniel, our cheery assistant guide and card game official. We caught the train back to Olyantambo, followed by a three-hour bus ride back to Cusco.

Things I learned on the Inca Trail: Every scrap of toilet paper is precious. When you're so worn out you feel like you can't take another step, look around and enjoy the views. When it rains, EVERYTHING gets damp. (RIP Kindle.) Hiking poles are a godsend. Hiking above the clouds is glorious. It's easier to run downhill than carefully pick your way down. Stairs are harder than switchbacks. A deck of cards brings everyone together at camp. Don't drink cocoa leaf tea after 6pm. It's far better to pee outside than to face the trail toilet holes. I can survive four days without a shower.

Day 8: September 6
Woke up at 5:30 and I feel like I'm coming down with a cold. It was my last full day in Cusco and I didn't want to miss anything, so I downed five cups of cocoa leaf tea and swallowed some mystery pills that the non-English-speaking pharmacist handed me after I made gestures to indicate my cold. We watched a parade in the main square, toured the  Catedral Basilica de la Virgen de la Asuncion (it's a mouthful), and meandered through the streets to look for souvenirs for friends.

Drew and I stumbled upon a Peruvian fusion restaurant and decided to try it out for lunch. We tasted shrimp coated in quinoa, guinea pig + mango bruschetta, duck prosciutto, and finally caramelized banana for dessert before the inevitable food coma hit.

Later in the day, I wound up back in the same pharmacy I'd visited that morning. This time, it was on behalf of an (unmentioned) member of our group. I had the pleasure of ad-libbing my way through another portrayal of an affliction– this time, pantomiming the need for hemorrhoid cream. It was not my finest moment, but she got the message. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around and reading my book. We had another prep meeting with G Adventures that evening to discuss the details of the next portion of our trip: visiting the Amazon rainforest. We were thrilled to find out that we would be staying in bungalows, not a-frames like we'd feared. There was also a strongly likelihood we'd have access to hot showers, depending on how well the solar panels were doing that day. We crossed our fingers for sunny days.

Day 9: September 7
At this point, I'm a regular at the pharmacy down the block. Most of us had achy stomaches and didn't want disaster to hit during our journey to the jungle, so I picked up several bottles of Peruvian Pedialite that we could chug before our journey. We all said goodbye to Drew– he's en route back to the USA because of vacation day concerns. The rest of us piled into a van and headed to the Cusco airport.

When we walked down the stairs and onto the tarmac after landing in Puerto Maldonado, we were greeting with hot and muggy air. It felt wonderful. We hopped on yet another bus, this time to take us to the G Adventures office where we were to repack our bags for the jungle. We were told to only bring the essentials we'd need, so we left the majority of our clothes and all of our hiking accessories behind. We hopped back on the bus with significantly lighter loads, and headed to the river for the last leg our journey: a two-hour motorized canoe ride up river.

Our animal sightings went up the roof. Along the river bank, we spotted baby capybara, turkeys, and a horde of parakeets. Upon arriving at the lodge, we were greeted by monkeys playing in the branches. Brown agoutis and squirrels rooted around the jungle ground for fallen Brazil nuts.

I was surprised to find out I have a bungalow to myself, which was a relief. It has mosquito netting around my bed, a single candle for light, and a thatched-roof ceiling.

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I walked around the paths and took some Polaroids of the lodges and trees, then met up with the guys for a swim in the river. Little fishes nibbled on our feet as we waded, which tickled. As soon as I got out, I felt a strange sensation on my legs from the knees down to my toes. It felt like extreme pins and needles, but was excruciating. My legs began to go numb and I started to drag my feet. I had to lean on Wes to make it up the hill. Eventually the problem started working itself back down my leg and into just my foot, where it eventually faded entirely after about ten minutes. What the hell was that? I massaged my calves in the shower with warm water and chalked it up to some side effect of my altitude sickness pills.

We encountered a very angry German in the main lodge, where we'd gathered to grab drinks. His hand was shiny and massively swollen. He was having a hard time explaining to the bartender that he needed a bag of ice. I ducked behind the bar and grabbed a chilled glass for him to use until ice was located.

Our jungle guide, Jose, led us on a night nature walk. Highlights: little white tree froggy, moths doing the dirty, a jungle rat, some walking sticks, and a fluffy little sleeping bird that looked like a lemon. After dinner, a bat flew into my head as I walked back to bungalow, so I mentally added another animal to the list.

We all giggled like middle schoolers when we saw the roots on this tree:

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Day 10: September 8
I enjoyed my first shower in the Amazon. I thank my lucky stars that the water is hot. I sipped chamomile tea for breakfast and read my book in the hammock outside my bungalow until our 7:00 am meetup time. I can't believe this trip has turned me into an early riser.

Today, we're embarking on a jungle hike. We groaned when we were told this, but recovered quickly when we were assured it would not be as arduous (or lengthy) as a day on the Inca Trail. We hopped on the boat for a short ride to the trailhead. Once we reached the shore, our guide yelled out, "ANACONDA." I vaulted off the boat and onto the shore, hoping for a glimpse, but it turned out to be a little water snake sunning itself on the mud. Severe disappointment (and incredibly muddy shoes) ensued.

My disappointment didn't last for long; during our hike through the jungle, our guide, Jose, began yelling and shoving us backward. "Go back! BACK." He had spotted an enormous Bushmaster snake, coiled up alongside the trail. At about two meters long, it's the largest venomous snake in South America. It's tail was also rattling furiously. I tried to nudge closer for a better picture, but Jose yanked the straps of my backpack and this was the best I could do:

Jose turned out to be an expert at luring animals out of their hiding spots. He wiggled a twig in front of a hole, causing a curious tarantula to come check things out. He also stuck a piece of saltine on the end of a stick, prompting an electric eel to edge out from under the dock. As we were walking along the jungle path, he stopped and lifted a leaf, revealing a fat toad hiding underneath. We were wildly impressed. 

On the canoe ride back across the lake, Jose tossed us some granadillas, which we peeled up slurped up noisily. The seeds are gooey with a crunch center. We tossed saltines off the side of the canoe and watched piranhas slap the surface of the water in intense mini feeding-frenzies.

When I got back to my bungalow, I showered off all the deet, sweat, and sunscreen. I watched in horror as a cockroach fell from the window and inside my toiletry bag. My first instinct was to go get help, but I ultimately decided that as a strong, independent woman, I could deal with my own cockroach problems.

I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on my hammock with a book and listening to insects, birds that sounded like water droplets, and distant thunder.

I hunkered inside my bungalow during the ten-minute downpour, attempting to hold the blowing curtains closed. My bed got pretty soggy.

I sipped a gin and tonic while we waited to start our caiman boat tour. I heard somewhere that quinine works as a natural anti-malarial, so I felt pretty smug about my drink decision. Jose took us out on the motorized canoe for a night of caiman-spotting. In addition to caimans, we saw a capybara family! One huge daddy capybara with giant balls, his wife, and seven babies.

It's our last night in the Amazon. On the way back to my bungalow after dinner, I flipped over a giant beetle that was stuck upside down legs kicking wildly. A few years ago, I would have screamed and run at the sight.

Day 11: September 9
Another 4:30 wake up call. I spent my last morning in the Amazon sipping cocoa leaf tea and watching little agoutis scrounge through Brazil nuts outside the dining bungalow. We had two hours in the motorized canoe to say goodbye to the jungle. We boated, bussed, and eventually flew back to Lima, where we hopped on yet another bus to take us the two hours back to our hotel for one last night in Peru.

At this point, I was hot, motion sick, and uncomfortable. Upon arriving at our hotel, I collapsed in bed for two hours reading my book, then had a beer in the lobby next to the open courtyard windows. Our last dinner in Peru was phenomenal: parmesan scallops, ceviche, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I was in bed and deeply asleep by 9:30.

Day 12: September 10
I'm starting to get used to these early morning wake-ups. Showered at 3:30, scarfed down some bread and jam, then caught a bus to the Lima airport.  I splurged on one last bag of oversize Peruvian corn nuts and bought a book at the airport for when I'm sick of reading off my iPhone screen. (R.I.P. Kindle. It didn't survive the moisture of the Inca Trail.)

I spent the next eighteen hours of travel reading my book and editing photos with VSCO.

Adios, Peru. It's been one wild ride.