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













Sunday, August 3, 2014

AT Project in VA: The Shortest Hike Report Ever



Appalachian Trail Project in VA – Jim & Molly Denton Shelter to US 522 - 5/26/14 – 5.2 miles

Calm cool night, then up and on the trail early.  Because of the extra miles yesterday, today was a short morning walk. Cathy and Anonymous hiked with me as far as the super secret side trail to Tom Johnson’s neighborhood (where we parked our car) and then I continued on to US Highway 522.  They picked me up, we all cleaned up and grabbed some food.  Six-hour drive home.  Another successful weekend on the AT.  




"An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day."  ~Henry David Thoreau





Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AT Project in VA: New Personal Record Yogi Berra Style



Appalachian Trail Project in VA - 5/25/14 - Morgan Mill Stream to Jim & Molly Denton Shelter – 22 miles


On the trail very early, before 7:00 a.m., 16.2 miles to cover today to Manassas Gap Shelter.  Two more ups-and-downs right out of camp, no easing into it, and we reached the southern end of the Roller Coaster.  There was still significant elevation coming, but the climbs are more gradual with luxurious flat stretches to lollygag on.  We paused at the side trail to Rod Hollow Shelter, where we could have pressed on to last night, and talked to the last people leaving there.  Sounded like it was a full house and I’m glad we opted for a quiet campsite beside a babbling creek.

Through a wet boggy area

Daisy fleabane

Rue anemone

On the AT through northern Virginia there is some noted feature about every half mile, and if you are the type of hiker that likes to keep track of your progress this is a dream section.  If you like solitude and a wilderness ain’t-nobody-ever-been-here-but-me feeling, you will be miserable.  I am more of the former, keeping an eye on the clues, but I also appreciate hiking alone in my zone.  Cathy and Anonymous stayed ahead of me and out of earshot all day, but I was only a few minutes behind every stop, and I thoroughly enjoyed the pace.  Crossing streams and roads and connecting side trails kept me oriented and wildflowers and rock walls kept me entertained. 

South of Ashby Gap (crossing US 50/17) the trail wanders into open meadows on a rutted road bed.  Ahead of me I could see a trail sign (couldn’t read it yet) and a trail coming in from the left.  This is the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail, which leads east to Sky Meadows State Park and gives easy access to the AT.  As I approached this intersection I noted other hikers, including three young men accompanied by a large unleashed dog and a couple walking toward them with a dog on-leash.  Something told me to slow down…sure enough, the unleashed dog attacked the other, whether in play or in earnest, I don’t know.  I heard lots of growling and barking and yelling.  The owners sorted the animals out, but I could see the law-abiding (aka leashed) dog owners were not happy with the clueless guys (who subsequently leashed their dog...I mean, why carry the thing and not use it?) 

Three-quarters of a mile farther I reached the main side trail to Sky Meadows Visitor Center, where the three of us had planned to meet up.  The bench was occupied and there were perhaps a dozen people congregating, but no Cathy and Anon, so I kept walking.  Probably they didn’t want to stand around with everyone and were just around the bend.  But I kept walking, walking, walking…surely they are still ahead of me.  Suddenly Cathy appeared walking toward me, a little bit kerfuffled because Anonymous wasn’t anywhere to be found. 

Within a few minutes we heard Anon calling and we were reunited.  He had unintentionally turned onto Ambassador Whitehouse Trail, making a mile detour for himself.  But he said the view was great!

One more mile and we reached Signal Knob parking area, significant because here marked Cathy’s completion of her 17-mile “missing link”.  She’s completed half of the Appalachian Trail!  And a trail angel had left a cooler of icy Gatorade. 

At 3:30 p.m. we reached our stopping point for the day, Manassas Gap Shelter.  Given our early start and with one eye on my watch and one eye on the trail map all day, I suspected that we would arrive very early and have a decision to make.  While 16 miles is a respectable distance for a backpacker, stopping at 3:30 p.m. with 5 hours of daylight to kill was not optimal.  So far the hiking had been moderate and my feet/legs/back felt pretty good.  We decided to push on another 5.5 miles to the next shelter.  Knowing that my personal distance record (with just a daypack) was 20 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains, this was a challenge to set a new personal best.

Still, Manassas Gap Shelter was a good enough place to take a break, put down the backpacks, use the privy and sit down for a few minutes.  But who is that walking up to the shelter?  Some familiar faces!  Brandon, from our Glacier NP trip, and his girlfriend Kris, a fellow Berg Wanderer, were visiting family in the area and squeezing in a dayhike on the AT.  Five minutes later and we would have missed each other. 

Another random stone wall












Service- berry

Throughout the day we encoun- tered northbound thru-hikers with regularity.  Near Manassas Gap (VA 55) we met a young man hiking with his favorite female companion, said she does very well when they take good rest breaks (don’t we all?)

Cathy and Anonymous following the white blazes under I-66


The last three miles of the day wound in and out of the woods, through open pastures, over railroad tracks, on footbridges and boardwalks over Goose Creek and up one more big climb (then down, of course, and a little bit more uphill) to Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. 

The shelter’s reputation precedes it, boasting a big front deck with Adirondack chairs, a separate covered pavilion with a fire ring, two levels of bunks, and a solar shower.  All true.  By 6:30 p.m. when we rolled in the shelter was nearly filled, room for Cathy and Anonymous to squeeze in, while I preferred to pitch my tent in a quiet spot.  The spring was a bit of a walk up the hill (aren’t I spoiled?) but otherwise it was a welcome respite at the end of my new longest day on the (any) trail.

Supper and a cuppa tea.  Ahhhhh.

"Congratulations. I knew the record would stand until it was broken."  ~Yogi Berra