Inca Trail: Day Four

The horrifying hour of 4am came WAY too soon.  We had been dead to the world in our unexpected hostel bed and trying to pull ourselves out of bed was extremely difficult.  Not only because of how tired we were, but because our leg muscles were practically incapable of motion after the grueling 22km of the day before.  Considerably less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we met at the restaurant for breakfast and then took off.  Half of our group had decided to tough it out and finish the trek on foot (including stubborn us), while the other half opted to take the bus for $8.  This is the one aspect where I think Peru Treks failed us–our detour and change of plans caused us to have to foot the cost of a hostel room (20 Soles=$7) and the bus, if we chose.  I know that Peru Treks had no control over the trail closure, but with how much we paid them for the trek, I felt that they should have been able to adjust with us and foot these costs.  (More on the cost/value of the trek later.)

What we naively assumed about hiking from Aguas Calientes to the front entrance of Machu Picchu was that we would be walking up the same road that the bus took.  Wrong.  After a couple turns along the road as the sun was coming up, Juan pointed out the “short cut trail”–1,760 steps UP.  Our jaws dropped.  We were all feeling dead from the past three days and now THIS???  It was almost too much.  But inspired by the unwillingness to pay $8 for a bus ride and the stubbornness of wanting to make it the whole way on foot, we started.  One foot in front of the other, stopping for frequent breaks, and sweating profusely in the humid air, we progressed grumpily.  I was so sore and tired and not in a good mood.  By the time we finally made it (after about two hours of steps) I felt like crying and Zach felt like throwing up.  All this to arrive at the main entrance of Machu Picchu along with all the lazy bums who took the train!  We exchanged exhausted high-fives with our guides and the bus-riders from our group, who had beaten us there, and then entered.  By the end, we had hiked 50.5km, 7.5km MORE than the normal Inca Trail!  We basically rock.  Arriving early definitely paid off…we got there around 7am, beating the crowds and the clouds!  We hurriedly pushed ourselves up to the top of the ruins on about-to-fall-off legs in order to get the classic Machu Picchu photos.  Despite all our bad luck on the trek, we were extremely lucky to be at the site on a clear, non-rainy day!  Cheers to that!  The site was stunning.  I couldn’t believe I was finally there after so much planning and hard work, but unfortunately caring much about it was quite an effort due to how tired and sore I was.  I think other group members felt the same way.  You could definitely tell the hikers from the train-riders at Machu Picchu because we were the ones hilariously hobbling up and down the steps at the speed of arthritic grandparents.  Percy gave us a two-hour tour of Machu Picchu, highlighting the most important parts.  It was really interesting, and I wish I would have been more awake and alert for it!  All in all, I think I personally appreciated having seen Machu Picchu more and more after the fact, as I recovered from the trek.  I think that if there hadn’t been landslides and we would have stuck to the original route, we would have been much more energetic and excited to be there in the end.  But what can you do?  Woulda, shoulda, coulda, you can’t control the weather!  Lest I come across like a total Negative Nancy, let me share our AMAZING pictures with you now!

Looks like a postcard, no?
Kind of good for an arms-length photo

We’re sooo tired!
Llamas responsible for trimming the grass

After touring the ruins, we decided we had had our fill and headed back to Aguas Calientes to have one last lunch as a group.  Aguas Calientes is an unapologetic tourist trap, like the Times Square of Perú.  Anyone coming to Machu Picchu HAS to go there, and they definitely know how to exploit the gringos.  Food and beer costs are nearly triple what they are in Cuzco.  We didn’t really find anything redeemable about the town, although if money was not an issue for you, you could probably have some fun and some tasty food.  Luckily our group had a whole restaurant reserved for us all day, so we hung out on the couch reading, writing, and napping until our train left at 6:45pm.  The British-run PerúRail company has a monopoly on the railroad in Perú and thus is also a ripoff.  The ride was unremarkable, highlighted only by obnoxiously yelling drunk people and free coffee and peanuts.  We got off the train two hours later in Ollantaytambo, and spent the last two hours on the Peru Treks bus back to Cuzco sleeping.  We finally got back to our hostel around 11pm, more physically exhausted than we’d ever felt before!

And here we are a week and a half later, finally finishing our recaps!  Despite our complaints about the trek, we were so glad we did it and we would recommend it to others.  Basically, it’s way more satisfying, and, we believe, a better value than taking the train!  Just KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING INTO!  It’s not easy; you must acclimatize; and you have to be in good-enough shape!  You might struggle and get sick despite acclimatizing and being in good shape.  The person in our group who had the hardest time was a former NFL football player.  Also, be prepared for the fact that you might be too exhausted to enjoy it by the time you get to Machu Picchu.  People who are more excited about Machu Picchu then they are about hiking and the Andean scenery should just take the train.  We were equally pumped about both, so we’re for sure glad we trekked!

Cost/Value of the trek:

There is much debate on the effects of the commercialization and popularity of the Inca Trail.  The trail was crowded but not unbearably so.  The limit on the number of people on the trail per day is what makes booking so far in advance necessary.  It’s also important to make sure you use a company that treats their porters fairly.  Here is what we paid and what we ultimately thought about the value of our experience (all prices are per person):

Peru Treks total cost=$490

Included: bus from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo ($10), 4 days of hiking, guide and assistant guide, porters, Inca Trail and Machu Picchu entry permit ($93), 10 big meals, tents, water on Days 3 and 4, sleeping pads, Machu Picchu tour, bus ticket from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes ($8), train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo ($37), bus from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco ($10).  (Breakdown info taken from Andean Travel Web.)

Not included: Sleeping bag ($20 to rent, we brought our own), personal porter to carry your sleeping bag and pad ($40, we carried our own stuff), breakfast on Day 1, lunch and dinner on Day 4, water on Days 1 and 2 (you can buy it for inflated prices along the way but we brought our own), snacks, coca leaves, walking sticks, tips for cook, guides, and porters ($25 minimum).

Extra costs we incurred due to landslides: Hostel on the night of Day 3 (20 Soles=$7, this was a decision our group made together; we could have chosen to camp and pay nothing but then it would have taken longer to get to Machu Picchu in the morning), Bus to Machu Picchu ($8, what a huge ripoff for those that didn’t want to hike anymore!).

Overall, I am totally impressed with the service, food and equipment provided by Peru Treks.  I know they’re not making an enormous profit on these treks with all the expenses involved.  Still, because of how much we shelled out, I can’t help but feel that Peru Treks could and should have included some of those extras, especially the three meals they are missing.  We were picked up at 5:30am on Day One and didn’t get back to Cuzco until 10:30pm on Day Four, so the meals on those days should have been part of the price!  Also, as I said before, I think Peru Treks could have shelled out some dough for our hostel and bus tickets due to our forced detour.

I also have one criticism of the Machu Picchu facilities.  Despite the loads of money the park brings in, the bathrooms are absolutely atrocious.  I am not usually one to complain about bathrooms (ummmm, hello, I’m Returned Peace Corps Tanzania, what can I say?) but what is the point of having modern toilets if you’re going to let them be so disgustingly filthy?  There was no toilet paper in any dispenser and literally every single stall was covered in pee or poop splashes.  Not what I expected from the most famous place in South America.

Hiking the Inca Trail Day 3

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Baños Rumbles More: Tungurahua, Part II

After spending one sleepless night with the volcán erupting we ran away to the jungle for two nights and anticipated returning to a more peaceful Baños.  Once back and talking to more people we realized this thing could erupt for weeks or months, probably without hurting anyone.  We had the opportunity to housesit on the other side of town, in an area “protected” (supposedly) from the volcano.  Since we weren’t ready to give up on Baños just yet, we took the offer to stay for 12 more days.  Eruption or no eruption, we committed to staying until the 13th.  All the work entails is taking care of the crazy German Shepherd and turning the lights on and off.  However, we weren’t needed immediately after our return, so that meant two more awful nights in a tent on the slopes of The BEAST.  Every night right around dusk, Tungurahua works itself into a frenzy and by the time the sky is dark you can witness the power of nature.   BOOM with the bass as the ground shakes and the windows rattle and shake, then seconds or minutes before the next BOOM and the ground shakes again.  The sky begins to clear and you see flaming balls of molten rocks as big as your house thrown over 1000 feet in the air.  Then you feel the thump as the lava lands on the side of the mountain. Repeat over and over: BOOM rumble BOOM rumble thump thump BOOM thump thump thump rumble rumble.  This continues until after midnight when it stays quieter until you are finally asleep, then wakes you before dawn with a CRACK rumble BOOM thump thump and you scream “Why are we here and when can we leave?!?”

Once the sun came up on Friday (5 days into the eruption) I picked some tea and noticed the leaves were covered in ash. Later when we walked to town we noticed that our eyes felt dry and irritated and a general haziness had crept up in the night.  Still all the locals went about their day as normal and laughed to hear us talk about how scared we were.  That night was more of the same, relentless and stressful.  We had to get off the side of the hill!

So we survived our last two nights sleeping out and made our way to our new temporary home.  We settled in and it was, as we had hoped, much quieter.  The very top of the peak is still visible but the floor hardly ever even shakes here.  With the rumbles minimized and the added safety of being out of the lava flow zone (so they say), we began to relax for the first time since returning to Baños.  The glow is still there at night, ash still falls from the sky sometimes, and occasionally we are woken by explosions in the night, but we are so much calmer.  We were even eventually able to get some sleep!

As of 17:30 Sunday, December 4th, 2011, the Volcán Tungurahua is still erupting as strong as ever with a continuous rumble and several larger reports throughout the day.  Recently there has been a small amount of ash rain and the sun has been hidden behind the volcanic cloud.  We continue trying to stay calm in our new, safer, house, although we are still vigilantly listening for the evacuation siren and at times wondering why we agreed to stay.

Do you think we’re crazy for staying?  Should we abandon the dog and book it out of town?

PART 1

Eruption Photos

Eruption Video

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