Thursday, September 18, 2014

Adventures in Peru - Dead Woman's Pass (This Is the Hard Part)

Adventures in Peru – 6/11/14 – Dead Woman’s Pass (This Is The Hard Part) – Wayllabamba to Chaquiqocha – 15 Km

“Buenos dias!”  Although technically it is not yet daytime, greetings waft gently into our tent and two cups of hot coca tea are placed by the door.  Do we want sugar?  Yes, please.  We also have hot water to wash our faces and hands. The night was chilly but my gear served me well.

At 5:30 a.m. we all assemble in our dining tent for breakfast:  fresh fruit, hot porridge, a thin type of pancake, dry crusty bread and marmalade, yogurt and cereal, more coca tea.  Carbing up for the big climb as the sky lightens up, revealing nervous faces.  Boiled water is offered to fill up our water containers for the day.  After handing off our extra items to the porters, we are all packed and stepping out by 6:40 a.m.  We will be hiking all day.

The trail ascends immediately up through the cloud forest, a new term to me.  A key difference between a cloud forest and a rainforest is elevation.  Rainforests are located at lower elevations and tend to be much warmer.  Cloud forests are usually located at higher elevations and are much cooler, although still quite humid. This difference in temperature contributes to the mist that is often visible in cloud forests, as the milder temperatures slow the evaporation process.  Topography also plays a role, as rainforests cover land with little elevation change while cloud forests are in mountainous regions with large differences in elevation from peaks to valleys.  We start at an elevation higher than 10,000 feet and walk in a cloud forest until we get above tree line altogether.  Later in the day we will descend into a rainforest.

There goes Maria.  As I mentioned earlier, our hiking order is established, with Cathy, Andy, Chris and Sergi vying for first place, then Maria on the uphills (she is very fast on downhills), myself, Cami and her mother Francine.  Cami starts out with her mom but spends the rest of the day skipping ahead like an 18-year-old and circling back to check on mom.  Did I ever have that kind of effortless energy?

Speaking of effort, the infamous Inca steps begin for real

Speaking of effort, Part 2, I notice several people carrying nothing but water bladders on their backs running past me early this morning, part of a Machu Picchu marathon.  Yikes.

Water flows rambunctiously down the mountain and lush growth is thick on the tree trunks.  I try to take photos of flowers but they don’t turn out well, perhaps because my hands are trembling from who knows what, altitude, medication, exhaustion?  There are exotic blooms everywhere, many small orchids.  This is fuschia. 

Occasionally other hikers pass me and I note critically that they are carrying small daypacks.  I am certain that my load is heavier than anyone else on the Inca Trail today.  Well…except for those porters.  Etiquette dictates staying on the mountain side of the trail so porters can pass on the outside.  Can you see the tiny red team porters and yellow porters in the photo?

I walk alone most of the morning, carrying my thoughts which vary from positive to negative and back again.  There is more tingling in my fingers and I know I should have eaten more breakfast.  The physical work is very intense and there is just no way to go faster and maintain a good breathing pattern.  Tedious, suffocating, inching progress.  I realize my mistake in carrying water bottles because I cannot reach them in my side pockets without removing my pack.  I learn to ask for a hand occasionally when someone passes me.  We are all walking in the same direction and people are very congenial and supportive.  In spite of the physical challenge, I am able to appreciate that the weather is spectacular.  The Andes are majestic. 

After the first 1.5 hours I round the mountain and enter the puna, the treeless grassland of the high Andes.  Time to take off long sleeves, apply sunscreen and get into the zone for more hard work plus sweating.  Washington, who has been trailing behind Francine, works his way up to me and casually starts a conversation.  As we walk slowly, he talks about the flowers we are seeing and more history of the area, asks me questions about where I live.  I realize that, rather than simply asking me how I’m doing, he is assessing my breathing and my pace as we talk.  I am appreciative that he is not the loud cheerleader type (by now I’ve seen/heard a couple of these guides on the trail).  He tells me that I am doing well, have plenty of time, and that we will all meet together at Dead Woman’s Pass.

Do you believe that the universe sends you a boost when you really need it?  Well…a young woman in a Virginia Tech tee shirt passed me (not the same group we met in Cusco earlier) and saw my VT ball cap.  We shouted and cheered and promised to get a photo together at the top.  My pace didn’t change but my attitude lifted. 

Tiny people at the pass

After six hours and a 3,600-foot ascent I reach Warmiwanuska, Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of our trek at 13,900 feet.  The air is full of celebration and cheers from each team as its members straggle up.  Washington gathers the Spanglish team together in a circle, we thank the mountain for the safe journey, and he reaches behind his feet into a clump of grass and pulls out…a bottle of champagne!  From his pack he produces nine little tin drinking cups.  As the cork pops, other groups look at us with envy, and we are known thereafter as the champagne group.  Group photos, individual photos, scenery photos, toasts and smiles all around.  And don’t forget to place the stone you carried up the mountain onto the cairn!

The Champagne Spanglish Team at Dead Woman’s Pass, Inca Trail, Peru – suitable for framing


Me and my new Hokie friend Star, a 2004 VT graduate, at Dead Woman’s Pass

Six hours of hiking, another four to go, and we haven’t had lunch yet.  Some of the group has been at the pass for over an hour and it’s cold.  I’m afraid Francine didn’t get much of a rest.  Now it’s time to lose most of the elevation we’ve gained.  The infamous Inca steps are even more intimidating to descend.  They are unevenly steep but I try to adopt a one-step two-step, occasionally alternating legs, to be as gentle as possible on my knees, and I turn slightly to the side rather than stepping straight down.  For the most part this seems to work and I don’t develop the agonizing IT band pain I have worried about.  I am better able to keep up with the group going down.  Andy shares the same knee concerns and we commiserate.  Washington wisely observes, “Uphill, the mind hurts.  Downhill, the body hurts.”

I am missing any photos of the magnificent landscape during this section, concentrating so fiercely on my steps.  After a 2,500-foot descent we arrive at Pacaymayo at 11,480 feet elevation, our lunch stop.  This is where some groups spend the night, but we are pressing on. 

Washington and Nestor taking a rest in the dining tent before lunch

What’s on the menu?  Fermented potato soup (remember to spill a spoonful on the ground), pumpkin empanadas, chicken sausage rollups, salad with vinaigrette dressing, quinoa, mashed potatoes and coca tea.  Cathy urges me again to eat more, and I don’t finish the soup so that I have room for a few bites.  The empanadas are delicious.  I mention to Washington that my hands are still tingling and the sensation has migrated up to my elbows.  He tells me to stop taking the Diamox, since we are now past our highest elevation.

Vamos!  Our second climb of the day is waiting.  It is hard to get our heads back into the groove.  Haven’t we done the impossible already, conquering Dead Woman’s Pass?  We are assured that we will be glad tomorrow that we are working so hard today.  (True statement.) 

An orchid:  Washington called these “dancing ladies”


Part way up the second climb we visit the ruins of Runku- rakay, an Inca tambo or resting place where travelers would stop over for food and rest for a while until they could continue their trip onward to or from Machu Picchu.  The site is small but unusual for its round shape and it commands an imposing view overlooking the Pacamayo Valley. 

We continue climbing up to Runkurakay Pass, passing two small lagoons.  When I arrive, of course, most of our group is ahead of me and scampering on the rocks off-trail to the tippy-top for the ultimate view.  I am happy to just rest at 12,960 feet. 

Guess what?  Downhill we go.  We have one more Inca site to check out and we want to get to camp before dark. 

When I arrive at the steps up to the site of Sayaqmarka, Washington takes one look at me and tells me I have the option to walk around it and meet them on the other side.  However, Maria tells me in her beautifully accented English that it is not hard at all to walk up the steep steps.  Maria is lying…but I forgive her because I am very glad I did not skip this opportunity.

Sayaqmarka means “inaccessible town” or “dominant town” depending on what you read.  It is breathtaking.  It sits on the tip of a very prominent ridge, protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, and it can only be accessed from the fourth side by the steep 98 steps hugging the edge of the mountain.

Archeologists and historians are not sure of the purpose of Sayaqmarka (as with all Inca archeological sites, there are no written records so best guesses vary).  Perhaps it served as another rest stop along the way to Machu Picchu, but it is very different from Runkurakay.  It is an elaborate site in a strategic and inaccessible location with no place to cultivate crops (however, Intipata is not far away, a massive site for crop cultivation).  Sayaqmarka consists of two parts, a solar observation post called the Temple of the Sun (the Incas were very big on astronomy) and a residential section with a sophisticated canal system for collecting water and filling ceremonial baths.  Was this a retreat for religious purposes?  Fascinating stuff.  Note:  you can only see these sites by hiking the original Inca Trail.

Fascinating, but the sun is winding down and we are all running out of energy.  Vamos!  We soon arrive at our camp for the night, Chaquiqocha, still at 12,000 feet elevation.  How grateful are we for our porters who carry our stuff, put up our tents, blow up our sleeping mats and prepare our food?  Grateful beyond words. 

Hot chocolate and popcorn are waiting for us and we eat greedily as though it may be taken away.  (More appears when the bowl is empty.)  Supper includes a wheat/noodle/vegetable soup, beef and vegetables au jus with white rice, cooked vegetables with sausage, shoestring type French fries, purple corn consommé with flour.  More hot chocolate, please.  We linger a long while in the dining tent, talking over the awesomeness of the day. 

As Cathy and I crawl into our tent for the second night of our adventure, I feel slightly less stressed.  The big challenge is behind me.  Home is far away and I loosen my grip on whatever is happening there.  Along with the altitude meds, I’ve given up on taking my antibiotics, for good or ill.  Life feels a little simpler up here closer to God.

“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”  ~Sir Edmund Hillary

“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”  ~Friedrich Neitszche

Friday, August 29, 2014

Adventures in Peru - First Day On the Inca Trail

Adventures in Peru – 6/10/14 – Beginning the Inca Trail – KM 82 to Wayllabamba – 13 Km

Alarm, alarm, 4:30 a.m., pick-up at 5:00 a.m.  Final do-I-take-this-or-leave-this and we are climbing into the van of our outfitter, Xtreme Tourbulencia.  A couple of streets away we pick up four more sleepy people.  The sun rises as we drive out of town and begin creeping up over the mountains. 

At the little town of Ollantaytambo we stop for a simple buffet breakfast, a little small talk with our new companions whose common language is Spanish.  We are still all shy and hesitant, wondering just whether we want to do this thing or not.  I am so nervous, it’s hard to eat.  Be sure to use that bathroom, don’t know when the next one is coming or what it will be like. 

Another hour in the van, lurching to and fro on a narrow unpaved road squeezing past the occasional vehicle and people leading cows, and we arrive at the Beginning, known locally as Kilometer 82 (8,500 feet elevation).  Here we receive our sleeping pads and strap them onto our backpacks.  Local women are selling trinkets, bandanas and Gatorade.  Are we ready?  Will we ever really be ready?

Our guide is Washington, a 28-year-old Peruvian man (his mom named him after a soccer player).  He has a soft, modulated voice and a brilliant smile and tells us that we are now a family and will rely on each other.  We play a game of introducing ourselves around the circle.  Maria and Sergi are a young couple from Barcelona, Spain, and 18-year-old Cami and her mother, Francine, are from Switzerland.  Andy, Chris, Cathy and I are on our best behavior so as not to fulfill the stereotype of obnoxious Americans.  Alas, we only know one language, while our new European relatives are multi-lingual (Cami has us all beat at 5 languages).  Washington repeats everything in English and Spanish.

Vamos!  A phrase we will hear many times over the next four days.  Walking beside the Urabamba River towards the first checkpoint to show our permits and get our passports stamped.  The porters go through a separate checkpoint where their loaded packs are weighed to ensure that they are not carrying more than their limit, strictly enforced. 

Our first family photo at the check- point:  from left, Andy, Chris, Cathy, me, Cami, Francine, Maria and Sergi

The rules of the trail:  I especially like “Don’t fire” and Don’t’s Smoking”

We cross the Urabamba River on a wide footbridge that seems to burn behind me, no turning back.  I try to keep a lid on my emotions as they swing in a wide pendulum arc between despair and determination.  The sky is a vivid blue and the air is warm but tolerable (remember, we are from North/South Carolina, we know what humidity is and this ain’t it.)  Washington tells us how many hours we’ll be hiking between points and reluctantly, when pressed, tells kilometers and meters of elevation gain, so I practice my conversion skills to determine miles and feet.  In retrospect, this day is only moderately demanding, 13 kilometers (8 miles) and modest elevation gain of about 2,000 feet (but more than half of that in the last 4 km).  Otherwise my main job is to drink water, look for a place to pee, breathe, put one foot in front of the other and try to look around at the scenery.

A cemetery beside the trail, kinda like walking in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

There goes our trail

Looking down the valley at Mount Veronica:  inspiration

The Inca Trail is strictly regulated, about 500 start permits per day, including guides, porters, cooks and paying customers.  Our group of 8 trekkers is supported by one cook, one guide, and 7 porters that carry our sleeping tents, dining tent, food and cooking gear, including an enormous metal tea kettle for boiling all our water.   Each group is distinguished by its team color so it’s easy to find ours at camp at the end of the day, as well as cheering the porters along as they pass us hauling their unbelievably large loads.  Our team color is yellow and because we are half-English, half-Spanish speaking, we nickname ourselves the Spanglish Team (yet another nickname surfaced later).  There is also a red team, a purple team and a Green Machine team.  Some teams are twice or even three times larger than ours; we much prefer our small “family.”

Our cook, 26 years old, has been supporting Inca trekkers for 7 years

Our Spanglish Team porters, ranging in age from 18 to 59.  Most of them are farmers, working a couple of weeks each month as porters and then rotating back to take care of their farms.  So much respect for their smiles, their work ethic and their tender loving care.

The first five hours still feels like civilization, passing the local livestock grazing along the trail with the Urabamba flowing energetically alongside.  Washington leads our group as we stay together, stopping often to describe the native flowers and history of the area, distracting us from the gentle climb.  He encourages us to find a small stone to carry to the high point of the trek tomorrow, Dead Woman’s Pass, at 13,900 feet.

Stopping at local “stores” where we can purchase bottled water, sports drinks and snacks.  At some stops the toilet is free but the toilet paper costs one sol.  Good thing I brought my own!

A highlight of the day is really a double feature, the Inca fort called Huillca Raccay and the Inca site called LLactapata or Patallacta (8,700 feet).  There is some confusion around the name of the latter.  On many maps it is labeled as Llactapata, the first “stop” along the Inca Trail after KM 82, but deeper research calls this place Patallacta and there is a sign at the site that says the same.  If you Google Llactapata you will see conflicting information and photos of differing sites, including the one pictured below.  It was first noted by Hiram Bingham shortly after his discovery of Machu Picchu but he didn’t spend any time exploring it.   Let me know when you finish your dissertation and final conclusion.  Anyway…

Patallacta is believed to be a stopping point for Incas making their way to the ancient city of Machu Picchu, a crossroads of trails at the head of the valley, possibly an agricultural station used to supply other Inca sites in the region, perhaps including Machu Picchu. The settlement includes over one hundred buildings, houses for the workers and soldiers, including five baths.  The site’s stepped terraces molded around the hillside are breathtaking from our viewpoint at Huillca Raccay, a fort built by the Incas which affords a commanding view up and down the Urabamba Valley and also controlled the entrance to the Cusichaca Valley.

If only I had a tape recorder to capture all of the information Washington imparted over our four days together.  Most of the time I was so tired that I couldn’t absorb the facts and details, but I do remember his passion for his country’s history.

Huillca Raccay

Huillca Raccay

Past Patallacta the Inca Trail turns away from the Urabamba River, crosses the Cusichaca River, and begins climbing.  Before we can get too fatigued we see Nestor, one of our yellow team porters, grinning widely and waving a yellow bandana.  He is flagging us down for our first meal on the trek.  The dining tent is set up and inviting us to rest and eat.

I’d heard about the food on these Inca Trail adventures and I can add to the testimony:  it is elaborate, fresh, delicious and plentiful.  Napkins and cutlery are laid out as place settings.  Our lunch begins with a slice of avocado topped with grated cheese and finely chopped green pepper and onion.  Following is asparagus soup, boiled chicken legs, a slice of cooked sweet potato and julienned vegetables in a lemony broth.  We pass small tin plates and cups around the table and serve each other from big platters.  I am a bit disconcerted when I realize the water is warm, and Washington explains that warm water is absorbed into the body much more quickly than cold water.  Before we eat our soup, Washington explains that it is customary to pour a small spoonful of soup on the ground to thank the earth for its generosity in providing food.  (By the end of the trip, we were all doing this.)  Despite the inviting sights and smells, I find it hard to eat more than a couple of bites of each dish.  All the meds I’m taking, plus the altitude, are having a major effect on my appetite, a problem I struggle with all through the trek.

A nap after lunch, right?  Sorry.  Now the hard work begins.  The group spreads out as the trail gets steeper and I slow down, pacing myself to a steady crawl.  I like the separation, alone with my thoughts, and I remember climbing Mount Whitney with reliable slow, short steps.  I notice that Francine is a little slower than me.  Do I take comfort in this?  At least I am not last?  The hiking order of any group gets set pretty quickly and then doesn’t change much.  I am okay with my next-to-last spot.  Over the remaining two hours of the day we gain about 1,500 feet in elevation. 

Nestor is waiting again with his yellow bandana at the side trail to our campsite and I cross the last bridge. 

At Camp Wayllabamba (10,130 feet) our sleeping tents are set up in a cozy row and other groups of tents are nearby.  As we dump our backpacks, the porters bring bowls of warm water and paper towels so we can freshen up before our meal.

Nearby is a bath house with flushing toilets… fortunately I had been forewarned by a friend who had done the trek.  One picture is worth a thousand words.  This is how much of the world works, friends.  Today it wasn’t so bad, but after the tough climbs and descents of subsequent days, my thighs were so sore that squatting over the toilets is a super- human feat.  Too much information?  Better to know before you go...

More pleasant things:  supper!  The evening meal is very calming, a sigh of contentment knowing that after eating I can lie down in my tent.  The menu features vegetable soup, fried local trout, cooked potato (did you know that Peru produces over 3,000 varieties of potato?), white rice in a tomato vegetable sauce, poached apple, and a special tea to help us sleep.  Cami is vegetarian and there are some alternative foods to accommodate her. 

During supper Washington answers questions and gives a description of tomorrow’s hike.  The distance will be 15 kilometers and includes two high passes, the first one called Warmiwanuska or Dead Woman’s Pass (13,900 feet) followed by a steep descent, and the second one called Runkurakay (13,100 feet).  Very intimidating, and my stomach begins churning. The first few kilometers are in the cloud forest, then breaking out above tree line into hot sun as we approach the first pass.  Washington explains that each person will walk at his or her own pace and he will walk behind us.  There will be many hikers tomorrow making their own pilgrimages up the mountain.

One surprising and welcome development:  we can pay extra to have porters carry some of our gear tomorrow.  In a flash the eight of us pool our resources to hire two porters to carry about 5 pounds for each person.  I could unload my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, my book (what made me think I was going to read anything?) and my bathing suit.  Most important is the psychological weight reduction.

Because we are close to the equator, sundown is near 6:00 p.m. and sunrise is near 6:00 a.m. and our wake-up call for the “big day” is for 5:00 a.m.  Yes, we will be getting up in the dark - again.  Cathy and I are sharing a tent.  We both struggle to get our gear organized to be ready on time in the morning.  I feel a little disoriented and have trouble deciding where to put things.  Will I need this before morning?  How cold will it get tonight and what should I sleep in? 

A cold and clear night. I think there are stars, but it is hard to see them with my eyes closed.

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, August 11, 2014

Adventures in Peru - Cusco and Sacsayhuaman

Adventures in Peru – 6/8/14 & 6/9/14 – Cusco and Sacsayhuaman

I have been on some incredible hiking adventures over the past several years, and on those trips we talk, talk, talk about future adventures.  If you’re sitting around the campfire or the dinner table at the right time, wondrous opportunities present themselves. 

Hey, whaddaya think about hiking to Machu Picchu?  You know, that place in Peru?  Sure, sign me up!

Our group of four – Andy, Chris, Cathy and myself - made plans for early June, flights, hotel reservations, booking a guided Inca Trek (you don’t just go there and start walking, it is all strictly regulated by the Peruvian government) and side trips for another week. The countdown began.

In May I got serious about training.  Running, walking, hiking, Stairmaster, etc.  Of course, nothing can train for high altitude lack of oxygen and I knew I wasn’t good at that (remember Colorado?)  Got the prescription for Diamox and all my immunizations were current.

Two days before departure it all slid sideways.  A serious health issue arose in a family member that took all my mental attention.  Then I developed diverticulitis (inflammation of the intestine), got antibiotics from my doctor, who didn’t think going to Peru was a good idea.  There was a problem with my smart phone and I couldn’t have global service, no phone calls to keep up with the situation at home.  Taken all together, karma did not want me going to Peru.  But I went anyway.

I began taking the Diamox the day before departure and all during the flight I felt as though strands of hair were brushing my cheeks, but it was a tingling side effect of the medication.  Other side effects I experienced were extreme dry mouth and loss of appetite.  All would get worse as the days went on.  The alternative was headache and nausea.  None of it was fun.

After 13 hours on 3 flights we arrived in Cusco, Peru in the early morning.  Passing over the sharp snow- covered peaks of the Andes felt surreal. 

One crazy cab ride later we rang the doorbell at Casa Elena, our accommo- dations for the next two days. Casa Elena is very conveniently located in the San Blas quarter known for its arts culture and is just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cusco.

 The owner served us coca tea upon arrival, the traditional drink to help acclimate to the altitude (Cusco is at 11,150 feet).

After a brief lie-down, we hit the streets in search of food and sight-seeing.  We had been warned what to eat during our acclimati- zation before our Inca Trek (bland food, potatoes) and what not to eat (guinea pig, a Peruvian favorite).  No problem with the guinea pig, but I would like to try it later in the trip.

Cusco is an intriguing small city, population about 450,000, modern and ancient cultures evident in architec- ture, food and clothing of people mingling in the streets.  Walking around the center city is fun if you have a little sense of direction yet are willing to get a little lost.  The Plaza de Armas is the happening heart of historic Cusco.

Iglesia de La Compañia de Jesús at the Plaza de Armas  

A big multi-day parade was going on in celebration of Corpus Christi.

After a meal in a safe-looking touristy hotel we admitted to our jet lag and went back to Casa Elena to crash for a couple of hours.  Later on we ventured out for another meal at Cicciolina, delicious food, elegant yet laid back atmosphere.  In Peruvian culture they do not bring you the bill for the meal unless you ask for it several times. 

After a hard night’s sleep under heavy blankets aided by Tylenol PM and ear plugs, we rose early and tackled the hotel breakfast:  liquidy yogurt, granola, fried eggs cooked to order, thick papaya juice, fresh pineapple juice, sweet coffee cake. 

Today’s plan:  climb the hills above Cusco to explore the Inca ruins of Sacsay- huaman and get up close and personal with Cristo Blanco.  These are two independent and vastly different cultural icons of Peru.  [And before you critique my spelling of Sacsayhuaman, we saw it spelled a myriad of ways and I chose one I could remember, even if it doesn't match the signage here.]  For a much better history lesson than I can give, see here.  In the briefest summary, the Inca people or Quechuas were doing just fine in central South America until the conquering Spanish came across the water in the early 1500’s, decimating the native culture, razing their religious structures and introducing/ imposing Catholicism.  The capital of modern Peru is the city of Lima, but Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire.  Sacsayhuaman is an amazing remnant of that culture. 

The journey started right outside our door, of course going up many steps. 

The one time I paid for an “authentic” photo.  This lovely native Peruvian woman was less than five feet tall.  She charged one Peruvian Nuevo sol, which equals about 35 cents in American currency. 

Llamas roam freely around Inca ruins as part of the grounds- keeping staff.   Andy didn’t charge me for this photo.

First we hiked up to the Cristo Blanco (White Jesus) statue.  The story I found goes that it was erected as a display of gratitude by a group of Christian Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco in 1945.  The statue is 8 meters tall but seems much larger.  Its proximity to Sacsayhuaman and yet its position slightly higher and turning away – symbolic of what?

Cristo Blanco

Looking down at Cusco from the base of the statue

Looking over at Sacsay- huaman from the base of the statue

An example of dry stone wall Incan architec- ture.  The ancient builders did not have the concept of the wheel to help move the heavy stones and they did not use mortar to bind them in place.  They cut notches in corners and shaped stones to fit together so tightly that a blade of grass or piece of paper cannot slide between them.  During an earthquake the walls could shift and resettle without collapsing.

We spent several hours wandering around Sacsay- huaman, not really understand- ing the details of the history, but enjoying the sunshine and the energy and learning to breathe at 12,000 feet.

Looking across the great plaza, a gathering space for thousands of people for ceremonial activities

Sacsay- huaman

An intact building with a recon- structed thatched roof.  After the siege of Cusco in the 1530’s, the Spanish used the site as a quarry for stones for building Spanish Cusco, and within a few years Sacsayhuaman was largely demolished. 

A hint of steps to come

Llamas on the move

Looking at Cristo Blanco from Sacsay- huaman

Exploring tunnels

Nooks and crannies

Another wrong decision, easily corrected:  I had bought a new non-toxic, eco-friendly sun screen for the trip, and during our walkabout of Sacsayhuaman I got fried even with multiple applications.  Later in the day at a local pharmacy I found something better (friendly to me if not the environment) and had no more problems with the sun.  At such high elevation, don’t take any chances on sun exposure.

Walking back down to town was SO much easier!  Intricacies of red slate rooftops

We ran into some fellow Virginia Tech Hokies – boy, did I cheer up at that!  Turns out they were here to do the same four-day hike to Machu Picchu (different outfitter) and we saw them in the coming days on the Inca Trail.

Back in town, we ate a delicious lunch at Limo, recommended by friends – heavenly mint lemonade

We explored the Mercado de San Pedro that the locals use (not the touristy one), fascinated by the fresh food, meats, lack of refrigeration.  My photo taking was surreptitous because I didn't know if I would be asked to pay for them.

A juice bar like you’ve never seen

Beans and spices and herbs – oh my!

Local fruits

We wandered on a circuitous route through the city, following Cathy as she hunted for a good deal on an Alpaca jacket (she found one eventually), then back to Casa Elena to rest some more and meet with a representative for our trek to begin tomorrow.  For dinner we found a place nearby called Justina’s, tucked away in a courtyard, kitchen downstairs just large enough for a wood-fired pizza oven and five tables upstairs and – surprise - bluegrass music and Southern rock on the sound system.  One of many surreal moments in Peru, eating excellent pizza and listening to Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” and Ralph Stanley’s “Man Of Constant Sorrow.” 

Okay, now for the serious trip preparation. 

Part of our guided expedition included porters who would carry all the food, everything for food prep, and our tents for sleeping.  Each participant was responsible for his/her own sleeping bag and mat, clothing and personal items. [Note if you are planning a Machu Picchu trek:  the mats were provided by the outfitter, wished I had brought my own which is smaller and weighs less].  What will I need for 4 days, 3 nights, with highs in the 70’s and nighttime lows in the 30’s?  I had my 15-degree down sleeping bag and a silk liner, chose my heavier fleece jacket and Primaloft jacket, long underwear top and bottom, one pair of hiking pants, gloves, hat, a couple of short-sleeved hiking shirts, a new little inflatable pillow, a book, head lamp, toiletries, multiple medications, camera, bandana, a bathing suit for the hot springs at the end (more on that later).  Another wrong decision:  I chose to carry water bottles rather than my Camelback, thinking I would keep better track of my water intake if I could see it.  While that was true, it was a much bigger pain to use them and I probably underhydrated because of the aggravation factor.

Packing, repacking, taking things out, putting things back in, the normal chaos before an extended backpacking trip.  My pack was not as light as I wanted, probably 18 pounds with full water bottles.

I was able to text back and forth with Jim at the hotel, nervous and preoccupied about things back home.  Cathy kindly let me use her global ready phone for a couple of calls.  My normal pre-hike anxiety was increased exponentially and I went to bed with racing thoughts and waited for the alarm to go off at 4:30 a.m.

Are we having fun yet?

“Take a walk outside – it will serve you far more than pacing around in your mind.”  ~Rasheed Ogunlaru