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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Peru: Huayna Picchu

Our original Peru trip included one day at Machu Picchu according to the travel agent's itinerary, but David and I extended that to include a second day. For one thing, I didn't think we could do the entire site in one day, and I was right: We thought we'd seen everything on day one, but on the second day we discovered so many more amazing corners and structures.
And for another thing, we wanted to climb Huayna Picchu. That's the mountain above Machu Picchu, like you can see here:

Two groups of climbers are let up each day in shifts of 200 people each, and it fills up, so you have to buy your tickets in advance. We secured tickets months ahead of time, and after enjoying a beautiful sunny morning in the ruins, lined up to climb.

I might as well tell you now that there aren't a lot of pictures from this climb. The mountain is a little over 1,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu, and the climb is steep. In true Peruvian fashion, there's just one path, both up and down, and you're kind of on the edge of a narrow path, ready to fall to your doom, at all times. It wasn't exactly the kind of environment in which I felt comfortable shifting a heavy backpack around and fishing for a camera. So very few pics until we reached the summit!
Ruins on the way up
The climb is not at all technical, because it follows a path the Incas created, including (super slippery, steep, and narrow) stone stairs. I think there are actually something like 1,800 steps on this mountain, but don't quote me. A guide told me that, and as I said before, half of them were contradicting the other half. You do need to be kind of hands-and-feet at some places, and you should definitely come prepared - some sort of suitable boot or shoe, no purse or things to carry, only a small pack, absolutely sunscreen and a hat for the summit. Anyone is allowed up, but we saw many not-so-fit tourists turn back early on. In front of us was a family including two small children, and they were cheerfully waved in (I worried about the kids briefly, but then I saw their Swiss passports and assumed they'd be just fine). You should probably not do this climb if you're afraid of heights. There are way too many unprotected paths and stairs, the top would terrify you, and the way down would take a year off your life.
Think these terraces are steep enough?!
Our climb started relatively easily - a mild grade, really. We immediately began passing a lot of winded people, overcome by the strenuous hiking and the altitude. I was feeling great! I had our backpack on with our camera and water, and the hiking was fine except for the constant stop-and-go. We were the second group to ascend, so some hikers were still climbing down at first, and we had to scoot way over to let them pass. Luckily this was mostly early on, while we weren't too high. At this point, if I fell, I'd break two arms and a leg, but probably survive. Later I'd be condor food if I fell.
Close to the top
So. Up we went. Several times I turned and David was ashen-faced and out of breath, but he made it up (he did not acclimate to the altitude as well as I did). When you get to the ruins and terraces, you start up a very narrow staircase (which, like all the stone, was quite slippery thanks to earlier rains) that you kind of have to clamber up on hands and knees. Then you reach the ruins, do some more climbing, and end up at a beautiful look out! The views are simply astonishing as you look down on Machu Picchu.

That's as close to the edge as I'm getting.

Looking down at Machu Picchu. The zig-zag to the left of the ruins is the bus road. 

But you aren't quite at the summit yet. To get to the summit, you squeeze through some gaps in the rock (a passageway, cave-like) and clamber all the way to the tip of the mountain - which is heaps of huge jagged rock. With lots of people and not a lot of room to maneuver.
Up at the top sits a stoic guard, who does nothing but presumably blow his whistle if someone falls off. He climbs up and down every day!
Me at the tippy top of the mountain - with clouds at eye-level
After scrambling over rocks, dangerously near the edge (I mean, it was all near the edge, it's just heaps of rock at the top of a mountain), we took a break on a wide ledge to have some water and a granola bar. David was seriously beat at this point and said if he didn't eat something, his legs would give way on the way down. So we took a nice long break, since I didn't want to watch my husband fall to his death.

Having a break on the way down. Behind us is the Swiss family! I started calling them the Swiss Family Robinson.
Oh yeah, I thought. I have to go back down. Descending was much easier physically, but man - don't look down! Slippery stones steps are bad enough without seeing buses the size of ants crawling far below, just a few inches error away. But we made it. It took us an hour and a half, break included. German speed!
"I climbed up to here."


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Peru Trip: Machu Picchu

I barely have words to describe Machu Picchu. When we entered the gates, we were suddenly looking down on an enormous stone city, terrace after terrace of white granite cutting into the sheer face of the mountain. It was breathtaking.
The beauty can almost be overwhelming. You are surrounded by the Andes mountains in all their glorious splendor, one of God's masterpieces, then right in the middle of it is a feat of human engineering - a city of stone, created entirely through manual labor, covering the side of a mountain. My awe increased as we toured - the agricultural and astronomical knowledge of the Incas was equal to their architectural skills.

We began with a guided tour of the main sites in Machu Picchu, and while our guide did a good job, I don't know how accurate it was. We overheard many other tour guides while we wandered the ruins, and not one of their stories matched! I guess it's hard to know who's correct when a culture doesn't leave a written language.




 Our tour was about two hours, then we were on our own. There are no bathrooms in the ruins, so we exited to make a bathroom stop before spending the entire rest of the day exploring. There is so much freedom at the site: you can climb all over the stone buildings and terraces, inch your way along narrow paths on the edge of sharp drops, explore the wooded areas nearby. Only a few areas are roped off for excavation or repair (Interestingly, excavation has only just begun on the site: before it was just maintained and kept clear for visitors, but no real archeological work has been done since it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900's).

This kind of thing would NEVER fly in the USA. For one thing, the ruins aren't protected at all. And for another thing, the visitors aren't protected at all, either! Machu Picchu is not the safest place in the world, and there isn't the slightest nod to safety at all. If you want to enjoy the trip and visit every nook and cranny, go when you're young and fit and don't have family. Kids couldn't make the whole thing (they'd get tired and you might not want to spend all day saving them from certain death off a cliff) and the older people we saw - oh, man. They were almost all struggling and miserable. And they couldn't see some of the best parts because the climb would be too difficult. You COULD do Machu Picchu in retirement, but unless you were in decent shape, you wouldn't be able to do everything.





We fit in almost the entire site on that first day, including the easy climb to the sun gate (incredible views) -
I got sick of my shoes and did half the day barefoot


and the petrifying walk to the Inca bridge. I would only stop for pictures where there was a slight ledge because the thousand-foot drop to the river (a silver ribbon below us) was just about a foot away along the path.
Not even going one inch closer to the edge
Looking down at the Urubamba from the path to the Inca Bridge. David took this. I would NEVER put my head that close to the edge. 
Obviously no chance of falling off this path to your death. The Inca Bridge is the gap you see in the stone path, right above the branches in the foreground. The idea was that there was this huge, tall gap in the stone with a wooden bridge laid over it - then when invaders came, the Inca could just remove the wooden bridge to prevent access to their path into Machu Picchu.

We didn't leave until the park was closing. We kept seeing new things! And when we left, we decided to descend the foot path, which sort of cuts across the bus route, to get back to Aguas Calientes. The walk down wasn't bad, but it decided for us whether or not to attempt to walk up the next day: no way. It would trash our legs. And even descending wasn't completely easy; it's a long journey because even after you reach the bottom of the mountain, you have to walk along the river back to Aguas Calientes, and the whole trip took over an hour. Meanwhile, I was still sick - but I was refusing to let stomach pain and some fever get in the way of the experience of a lifetime.
Exhausted, sweaty, and a little sick, on the footbridge over the Urubamba on the way back to Aguas Calientes
Back at Aguas Calientes, we had pizza cozied up to a wood-burning stove and planned the next day's activity: climbing Huayna Picchu!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Come-back race: Oktoberfest 5k

In the words of my favorite garbage can, outside Audubon park:
This graffiti showed up sometime after Katrina, and has been cracking me up ever since. What better way to proclaim your return to fame and prowess than graffiti on a city trash can?

Saturday night I ran a 5k!
The deal with this race was just too good to pass up: for $20, you got race entry, free entry into Oktoberfest, two beer tags for fancy Oktoberfest beer, and an awesome technical singlet.

I love me some sleeveless.

David and I signed up for the race awhile ago, and I was pretty sure I'd be fine. It's only three miles, after all. But I was still nervous when we arrived. I had no idea what pace to run, but I guessed that I could probably hold 7min miles, and planned to do just that.

Saturday was unseasonably warm, and we showed up to a race on the exposed levee, baking under the sun. Normally, this straight and flat out-and-back would be a great PR 5k (although you have to get up on the levee, so there are actually flatter 5k courses in the city!). This night, though, it was a little too hot. I warmed up for two slow miles in the grass on the batture, and my hip felt great. What didn't feel great was my stomach. My pain and cramping has continued since returning from Peru, and it has been especially annoying while running. Plus a 5pm race start meant I'd eaten lunch just a few hours before. I ended up making a quick bathroom stop instead of strides - I would have felt silly doing strides given my planned pace anyway!
About to cross Williams Blvd and run up onto the levee - photo credit NOTC
The race started into the sun and into a headwind, which was great, because that meant opposite conditions on the way back! Even though I wanted to pace evenly, I sprinted out of the start. Very quickly the race funnels onto a 2-abreast pathway up the side of the levee, and I didn't want to get trapped. Once I got on top of the levee, I slowed back down and kept my Garmin showing average pace. Mile one: 6:57. Nice. I felt okay, just hot and sweaty. I was kind of drenched just after warming up.
Half-way through mile two we turned around, and got out of the strong sun. Just in time, because I was starting to tire. At the turn-around, I noted that none of the usual "fast girls" were out, probably because there had been another 5k that morning. I was third, but fourth was close behind me. Mile two: 7:01.
At the start of mile three, the girl behind me passed me and I let her go; I was tired, my stomach hurt a lot, and for some reason I was fixated on my average pace. I continued at a consistent pace, but my stomach was cramping badly. Suddenly the finish line was ahead, I mildly (very mildly) picked it up, and finished in 21:31. Mile 3: 7:00.
My hip felt okay, my stomach demanded immediate attention, and my face felt burned. Sure enough, the levee sun was strong enough that my skin and scalp - just recovered from burning in Peru! - burned again, even though I had sunblock on.

I was okay with this race. I needed to know my baseline, and I guess my baseline is 6:58's for three miles. It's not as fast as I used to be, but then, I think I can improve on that. Maybe not back to my former paces, but I can get a little better. A 21:31 wasn't even good enough for my age group, even at a small NOTC race; it's disappointing to not do well, but it's thrilling to not be in pain!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Peru Trip: Train ride and Aguas Calientes

After our Sacred Valley tour, we caught the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. There are two rails that run this track, Peru Rail and Inca Rail. But of course, there's only one track. So when trains are coming opposite directions, a man jumps out of your train, lays track, and your train pulls over to a side track to allow the other train to pass. Totally safe. Not like hundreds of people could fly off the side of a mountain because a worker was 5 seconds late switching track.
Peru does not believe in wasting space with two lanes of anything, be it train tracks, mountain roads, or cobbled town streets.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes at evening, after a beautiful train ride, and checked in our hotel, El Presidente. Our room had an balcony over the Urubamba River. You could hear the rapids echoing through the mountains and hear birds day and night. We noticed that the climate was a lot more tropical than Cuzco: Cuzco is high and dry, almost desert, but Aguas Calientes (although still at 9,000 feet) felt closer to the rain forest.
Scale is hard to portray, but the rocks in the river below were as big as cars or buses. 
We walked around tiny Aguas Calientes before dinner. The town surrounds the rail, and everyone (dogs and babies included) just walks all over the rails all the time, scampering out of the way of trains. We ate dinner at Indio Feliz, which was highly recommended. The prices were about double those in Cuzco, no doubt because of the remoteness. So. My dinner was Ok, and we tried Pisco sours for the first time (I had one again later, at another restaurant, and it was much better than the drink at Indio Feliz; more plain and simple and less like a bachelorette party drink).
Girl drinks full of E. Coli
But I woke up in the middle of the night with stomach cramps. I didn't eat anything you aren't supposed to (salad, fruit, ice, etc), but something I ate was contaminated. I wasn't violently ill or anything, just my stomach hurt, and it stayed that way...until now. Seriously. My stomach never got better, and it's been cramping every morning since that day!

Nevertheless, we were up early to take the buses up to Machu Picchu. A bus ticket is $10 one-way per person - by far the most overpriced part of the trip - and there is an option to walk, but we already had the tickets and needed to be at the gates early, so we took the bus.
Oh. My. Gosh. The buses leave every 5 minutes from the top and bottom of the route and start the steep trail of switchbacks on the mountain. It is not wide enough for two buses. So every five minutes your bus nearly slams head-on into another bus, and both buses screech to a halt. Whichever bus is less likely to a) pitch itself and its passengers off the edge of the no-guard-rail cliff or b) slide dangerously down the steep mountain path, backs up to a widened area (usually a corner) so the other bus can pass. This pass usually entails pulling both buses' mirrors in and allowing part of one bus to dangle just a little over an edge.
The line to get in - it's only busy in the morning. 
We finally reached the top of the road, and escaped out of the Death Bus. Then we waited to meet our guide and start one of the most incredible days of my entire life!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Running / exercise in Peru

Short story: Didn't happen.
Long story: I did go running once. Our second day in Cuzco, I went running in our neighborhood, up and down the narrow, steep, cobblestone streets. It was definitely difficult, mostly because I was trying to avoid slipping and falling to my death or being mowed down by a 2011 Hyundai (an oddly common car in Cuzco). I had to get an early start on our Sacred Valley tour, so the run was only 30 minutes; that was enough, though, given the steep streets and the altitude. Going from 32 feet below sea level to 12000 above certainly challenges your lungs. At the top of some of the steeper hills, I could really feel the blood hammering in my head as my heart tried to deliver was little oxygen I'd taken in to my body.

Here's a little video of the streets outside our hotel, where I was running. And yeah, I flip the camera half-way through. Sorry about that. I've actually never used the video on my phone before.

video

I planned to run again, but - didn't happen. It never really does on vacation. You can only pack a small bag to bring to Aguas Calientes (our next stop), and running clothes wouldn't fit. That's fine, because Machu Picchu was actually a pretty exercise-heavy visit, if you count tromping up and down steep mountainsides and stone stairways for two days. Then I wanted to run again in Cuzco or in Lima, but (spoiler) I got sick while in Aguas Calientes and couldn't.
So I packed shoes, bra, socks, shorts, etc all for one thirty minute run. I think in the future I'll just embrace vacation for what it is and forget all that nonsense; I'm just historically terrible at getting runs in on vacation!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Peru day three: Sacred Valley tour

We had nearly a full day of a private guided tour of the sacred valley on our third day in Peru. We were picked up early by our guide, an archeologist, professional climber, and local employee of National Geographic. He spoke four languages and was obviously ten times smarter than we were (combined). I have no idea why brilliant people like this consent to drive around in a bumpy van with tourists for probably little pay, but again - the dollar goes very far in Peru. We had both a driver and a guide to ourselves for the whole day and for not a lot of money, but hopefully both made a good bit off of us!

Our tour began in Chinchero, a small Inca town with ruins in the Andes. Much of the town retains the ancient streets, structures, and even cultures - of all the places we visited, Chinchero had the most original markets, farming, economics, and dress. The women, tall hats on their heads and babies in shawls on their backs, drove cows on the side of the road; families worked together making chicha (advertised by a stick projecting out of the doorway, red plastic bags tied to the end); I heard far more words in Quechua than in Spanish.

The ruins of Chinchero contain neatly-fitted stone in terraces and are situated in a lovely, if rather austere, landscape. At over 12500 feet, and dry, Chinchero isn't very lush and green (of course, it was still early Spring there!).
Chinchero is the only set of ruins I saw with multiple entire agricultural terraces made of fine cellular polygonal masonry (smaller multi-sided stones cut to fit exactly. The Inca also used coursed masonry [perfectly fitted rectangular stone] which could be encased - not aligned - or sedimentary - laid out in rows. Cyclopean polygonal masonry, like in Saqsaywaman, is made of huge stones).

See how the terrace stones fit each other perfectly?

Next, our driver hurtled our little Mercades van around death-defying curves and ledges (and one rockslide) to take us to Moray, my favorite ruins of the Sacred Valley. Because OMG. 

These spectacular terraces, believe it or not, were a clever system of microclimates used for agricultural experimentation and development. Wind and sun create a difference of almost 30 degrees F between the top and bottom terrace! The Inca were an agriculture-based society, and are known for domesticating and developing corn, various beans, orchids, and potatoes.
For scale, notice the people in these pictures:
And here we are, having walked the perimeter with slight shortness of breath! Moray is high! 
Next up were the salt pools of Maras. This just about blew my mind. The salt pools are ancient pools used to catch drainage off the mountains. Water trickles from the rocks into the pools; it's evaporated by the brilliant sun (very high elevation - between proximity to the sun, the clear air, and reflection off the white salts, we burned in under 5 minutes even with spf 85!). Salt remains, is collected, and sold. 
But where does the saline content come from?
The water leaks out from subterranean streams that formed during collisions between plates during the seismic activity that formed the Andes mountains. The Pacific ocean plates and South America crashed together - land buckled - and mountains formed. Small fissures allowed siphoning of Pacific water, and ocean water comes out of the tops of the Andes mountains. Amazing. 
Walking the edges of the salt pools (That's me trying to keep my balance; our guide is in blue jeans on the right).

A local worker collecting salt. Whoever wants to collect salt, can - they just have to join a co-op style community
These collection pools pre-date the Inca empire. 

After walking through the salt pools, we descended through the valley and town. It was a beautiful trek, but the homes and farms were very poor. Nevertheless, the kids and babies ran out to wave at us and shout, "Hola, Ingles!" Too adorable. 
The valley below
We met up with our van after the walk, and had to wake our driver, Sebastian, up. He spoke to our guide and they both laughed. Our guide explained that Sebastian hadn't expected us so soon; he'd told our guide, "German speed!" They do plenty of tours with German tourists, since our guide spoke German, and all the German tourists walk and climb quickly. Apparently David and I do, too - and for the rest of the trip, all pace was measured by "German Speed"!

Our final stop was Ollantaytambo, a fascinating archeological site. It was apparently an Inca ceremonial center, and contains a few points of incredible interest:
- A large unfinished area that shows stones in the process of moving and carving. We still aren't sure how the Inca carved their stone.
- A pink granite quarry over 5k away and across the Urabamba river. Complex roads, ramps, and bridges allowed transport of gigantic stone blocks to the building site.
- Sunken terraces to allow farming of plants not suited for the cold and altitude of Ollantaytambo; the bottom area is 30 or 40 degrees F warmer than the top! 
- Ventilated mountain storehouses for produce
- The face of pre-Inca god/messenger Wiracochan carved into the face of the hill opposite the temples. Interestingly, this figure is bearded, and the Andean people do not grow facial hair. 
See the face in the center? It is in profile. 

The Inca trail starts in Ollantaytambo, and so does the train: next, we board the train and head to Aguas Calientes for our two days at Machu Picchu.