Tuesday, 19 June 2012

freezing mist - machu picchu pt. 1

17th - 20th May 2012

Machu Picchu, Peru

                     During the past seven months I have been fortunate enough to cast my eyes upon many enduring images from watching the sun set on the majestic white spires of the Taj Mahal in India to seeing that same sun rise behind the tulip towers of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Needless to say then, Asia yielded some fantastic treasures but my arrival in Peru on the 15th May 2012, signified that I was now going to receive South America's contribution to my expanding collection of world wonders. Reeling from a final sleep-deprived blowout in Bolivia, I left the exceptionally chaotic city of La Paz in an exceptionally chaotic way aboard an overnight bus headed towards Cusco, the historical capital of the Inca Empire, to embark upon my final expedition into an ancient past where I hoped to reach the Sacred Valley; a mystical gorge that holds the lost citadel of Machu Picchu, like a radiant pearl, at the core of its glittering shell. The La Paz crew mentioned in the previous post were regrettably disbanded as I made my move into Peru with Dixon and Rachel whereas Laura and James stuck around in Bolivia for a bit longer - I believe they went for a much needed "La Paz Detox" in the small town of Sorata - James's insights on both Sorata and his journey in general can be found here http://earthworm-jim.travellerspoint.com/., the Manor/Lilly gang will no doubt be amused by the coincidental name of his blog.... The bus journey to Cusco took around 10 hours which was pretty good going considering the distance we covered but it did mean that we arrived much earlier than scheduled, pulling into the bitterly cold bus station at around 3am where we then caught an incredibly overpriced taxi to the hostel that Rachel and Dixon had booked. Checking into the Bright Hostel I lucked out once again by managing to scrape a bed, despite not booking one for myself, before departing back into the warmth of sleep. Waking around noon, I left Rachel and Dixon at the hostel and went for a stroll down to the central Plaza de Armas in order to get an idea of the exciting new city I found myself in but also to find a reasonably priced tour operator who would help me reach my ultimate South American goal: Machu Picchu. Cusco is an extraordinarily beautiful city whose vibrant atmosphere and grand appearance hint at an illustrious heritage that stretches back through the centuries to when it was once considered 'the navel of the world' by its ancient inhabitants: the Incas. The city of Cusco or Qusqu in Quechua - a pre-Spanish native South American language - was the centre and therefore capital of the mighty Inca Empire; a Pre-Colonial tribe who rose to power in the early 13th century and expanded their kingdom exponentially to reign over the Andean shoulder of South America. Developing an empire that rivaled that of the Romans, the Incas declared themselves to be children of the Sun and conquered a vast territory until they were toppled in 1532 when the Spaniards ended their dominant reign by bringing a new Colonial era to Latin America. Here are a few photographs of Cusco:

Plaza de Armas
On the day before heading off into the jungle myself, Rachel and Dixon took a cheap but highly informative tour around the temple of Qorikancha which is widely regarded as the most important temple that was built during the reign of the Incas. Originally called Inti Kancha it acted as a temple to the Sun and in its heyday would have been covered in 700 sheets of solid Gold. The intricate stonework within the temple showed the immense skill of the Inca architects and would be a precursor for buildings I would come across at Machu Picchu.
Latin American version of the H O L L Y W O O D sign.
Location of Cusco in Peru. Bolivia is to the East.
            After making several inquiries at different tour operators - there seemed to be hundreds of them and they all relentlessly hounded me for their business (or their massages...) while I was walking through the cobbled streets - I discovered there were several different ways of reaching Machu Picchu. The most obvious and famous option is the actual "Inca Trail" but I soon learnt that this unfortunately would not be possible due to both the exorbitant price ($500+) and the fact that the Peruvian government only allow a certain amount of people on the trail everyday meaning it was fully booked up until October! The alternative trails I came across such as the Salkantay and Lares trails seemed to be for more serious trekkers and the prices were once again out of my tiny budget; a dwindling fund which had started faltering seriously and had never really recovered from the battering it took in Argentina. The only viable and affordable option left therefore was the Alternative Jungle Trail which lasted four days and for $180 offered another round of mountain biking, a dollop of trekking, a thermal bath, meals, accommodation and the all important permit to enter Machu Picchu at the break of dawn on the final day. It was also the same tour operator that Rachel and Dixon had booked with although they would only be doing three days which meant we would tackle the mountain biking together before splitting up. With the trip booked, I gathered my thoughts, packed a light bag containing a change of clothes and waited for Thursday when the final leg of my pilgrimage to the lost city would finally begin.

             At the strike of 7.00am on the Thursday, a brisk knock on the door of our hostel signified the beginning of my Machu Picchu adventure as we were led out of the small cobbled alleyway our hostel was hidden down, by the chirpy, animated and amiable Hugo who would be my guide for the following four days. After being ushered into a minibus that already contained a melting pot of no less than six different nationalities, we made an unaccountably long stop off to pick up the mountain bikes before heading West out of the city navigating our way over the undulations of the highland valley which flashed past the windows of our small van while everyone got to know each other a little bit better inside. By 9am we were bouncing along a dirt track through the Sacred Valley cruising past cloud-covered peaks, sun-baked fields and the important Inca archaeological site Ollantaytambo. Agricultural terraces made from cut stones formed a giant staircase up the side of the valley with each plateau hemmed in by rocky outcrops that directed the crowds towards the temples which rested on the higher levels. Trundling along past the ancient site we reached the modernity of tarmac once again and began the ascent up the valley towards Abra de Malaga which at 4100m was the starting point for our mountain biking descent towards Santa Maria. As we climbed the jagged-cliffs of the expansive valley, the rain started to lash down in waves that turned the road into a reflection of the dark ominous sky above. Once at the top we unloaded the bikes and huddled around Hugo for yet another excruciating How. To. Ride. A. Bike lesson which surpassed even the the Dangerous Road lecture I had received a week earlier. While the seemingly obvious "bike must be moving to change gear" point was being made, thick mist swooped in suddenly from nowhere and I could no longer see Hugo standing in front of me and so the lesson was mercifully wrapped up. I was glad I had packed my fleece and scarf although as we set off into the murky abyss, the lack of gloves would prove to be almost crippling. Shimmering curtains of rain slammed into the side of the mountain like gunfire, sending up their explosions into my already clouded vision which combined with the freezing mist made the first section of the descent a very miserable affair indeed. The only comforting thought was that I was constantly going downhill and that eventually the clouds would dissipate and the coldness would pass. In comparison to the professional 'Dangerous Road' bikes these dilapidated creatures we found ourselves riding were in a very sorry state of disrepair and my chain kept skipping while the brakes slipped on the rims of the wheels whenever I tried to slow down for a perilous corner. I later found out that the back wheel of someone else's bike had actually came off which must have been a trifle inconvenient as well as jolly dangerous! The World's Most Dangerous Road had, it seemed, been replaced by the World's Most Dangerous Bikes although I don't think a t-shirt was coming our way this time. The faster I rode, the harder the freezing rain slammed into my knuckles and by the time I reached the first checkpoint I felt physically sick as the lower altitude introduced warmth and a painful rush of blood back into my frozen hands. Not a great start to the Machu Picchu trail then but fortunately things did pick up as every descended metre brought not only warmth and dryness to the barren road but also some fantastic new scenery as the clouds gave way and the valley unfolded before us. The sun finally penetrated the damned clouds and brought the sacred valley to life and I really started to enjoy myself as I carved down the smooth tarmac road which traced a line across the valley and on into the distance. The coldness was happily soon a distant memory as we raced past hillside villages, cascading waterfalls, spectacular miradors (viewpoints) and rushing rivers all the way until we reached our first checkpoint at Santa Maria. In the small pueblo we spent the evening eating at a local restaurant devouring the delicious soup and milanesa de pollo on offer and recounting the madness of those suicidal bikes. Afterwards a few of us left the restaurant and spent an hour or so drinking beers while watching two local teams play a football match on a concrete pitch which rested floodlit in the darkness of the surrounding valley. Here is day one, the rest to follow.

Me, Rachel and Dixon.
Climbing the valley towards Alfamuyo where we began our descent on the mountain bikes.
The Machu Picchu biking crew. Hugo Bossman in the middle.
Stopping off at local villages for water and snacks.
Arriving at first base. The small village of Santa Maria.

Tucking into dinner after a long day on a saddle. Americans, Brits, Aussies, Germans, Chileans and Thais were all on board.

No comments:

Post a Comment