I love cemeteries. I don’t know why – I’m not particularly spiritual or morbid or fascinated by death. But I just love cemeteries, especially when travelling. I love the insight into local culture and history that they can provide, and they’re often just beautiful, peaceful places to spend time.
I don’t know if you picked it up from our constant harping about it friends, but we totally friggin’ nailed the Inka Trail earlier this trip. Hiked the LIVING SHIT out of it. The Inka Trail was a bit of roadside trash and we were a Clean Up Australia crew, in that It was disposed of. It’s hard not to be cocky when you’re that good at hiking. SURE, it may seem to some like you’re just putting one foot in front of the other, but to us seasoned pros, statements like that smack of someone telling a brain surgeon that ‘you just cut open the noggin and have a dick around’.
It was my birthday on the weekend and it was MOMENTOUS. It’s been all about surprises and friends – two of my favourite things in life – and the fact that it has been a week-long extravaganza has been perfect for this self-centred egotist.
The Surprise Party
One of the things I find most charming about Sucre, as a dog lover, is the dogs. There are lots of “wild” dogs which roam the street but they are the furthest thing from wild you can imagine. The people of Sucre have such a lovely relationship with these dogs – everyone does a little bit to look after them. The dogs don’t have owners but in reality they are community dogs.
We haven’t really posted any updates on our travels in the last month because, to be honest, we’ve not actually been travelling! We’ve inadvertently found ourselves living in Sucre, Bolivia…
So we’re currently most of the way through a 5 week stay in Sucre, Bolivia, doing our level headed best to nut out Español. We’ve been wandering through South America for over two and a half months now, and my lack of Spanish is giving me a firm rogering. English speakers are, by and large, lazy fuckers. And we are because we can be. Between Europeans, North Americans, Kiwis and Aussies, the backpacker set is almost entirely made up of fluent English speakers. If you don’t have to bother, why would you?
Never heard of San Pedro Prison? You can’t be in La Paz more than a day without it coming up in conversation. It’s rare to find a gringo who’s not read Rusty Young’s famous book about it, Marching Powder. Never read Marching Powder? Do yourself a favour and pick it up. It’s one of my favourite nonfiction books. It’s the story of a British guy, Tommy, caught smuggling 4 kilograms of cocaine out of Bolivia and his experiences being thrown in San Pedro Prison in La Paz. The story is absolutely incredible and captures the imagination of everyone who reads it.
There’s a gentle little stretch of road weaving its way from La Paz to Coroico, Bolivia, negotiating a 3500m descent from snow-capped mountain ridges, over 61 kilometres, to the humid Bolivian rainforest. It’s called the North Yungas road, and up until 15 years ago it was the only thoroughfare between the two cities.
Let’s start with a short (and probably not entirely accurate) history lesson. The Incan Empire spanned present-day Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Argentina. Cusco was the capital and Machu Picchu was a town built up in the mountains to the North. Machu Picchu functioned as a religious centre as well as an agricultural one. Important note: pronunciation is critical. Machu ‘pick – chew’ is the correct way of saying it, meaning ‘old mountain’; if you say ‘pitch-oo’ you’re saying ‘old penis’. The Spanish rolled in and ruined shit for the Incas and Machu Picchu was lost to the jungle. Up until 1911 farmers still used that land and were aware that there were Incan ruins on the mountain. Then a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III rocked up and ‘rediscovered’ it. It’s now one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and visitors to the site are increasing in numbers every year.
Now, the Inca Trail… To relay messages across such a vast empire, the Incas built thousands of kilometres worth of trails all across the land. To this day there are still a lot of Inca trails (lower case ‘t’) but THE Inca Trail (capital ‘T’) was built as a pilgrimage route to Machu Picchu. There were other, easier ways to get to Machu Picchu but the Inca Trail climbs right up into the Andes where it’s possible to see Salcantay and other sacred mountains and then winds down into Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is so popular these days that the number of people allowed on the Trail per day is capped at 500, including porters, cooks and guides; and you have to book your place months in advance. Most companies tackle it the same way – three nights, four days, cooks to provide three meals per day and porters to carry the gear and set up the camp sites. We set off in earnest from KM 82, the start point of the Inca Trail (82 kilometres from Cusco), and it soon became apparent that there were those in our group that could zip up the trail like it was no big deal. And then there were those of us who just struggled. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that I was in the latter group, it did, however, surprise me that Fish was consistently the first person to reach the camp site and rarely even broke a sweat. Who knew the kid was good at hiking?
To be completely honest, I wasn’t loving being on an organised tour. I was finding the lack of independence smothering and I frequently realised that we could’ve visited many places by ourselves and often for less money. The Inca Trail really changed that though. I am so, so glad that we chose G Adventures – the guides were amazing, the food was some of the best we had in Peru, and they treat their porters really well. There’s strict regulations as to how much porters are allowed to carry and this turned out to mean that we could pack 2.5kg of stuff, not including the sleeping bags and mattresses we rented. I felt like such a dirty gringa when I’d move to the side of the path, huffing and puffing, to let a porter steam past with all 20kg of gear he was carrying to go and set up a tent for me and put all my belongings in it. It made me feel a lot better knowing that I’d chosen the company which pays their porters the most and purposely hires more so that more local people can have jobs and so that they can carry less.
Day 1 is considered the training day – there’s a few ups and downs but nothing too hard-core. We stopped half way for a two-course lunch. Day 2 is the killer. I still don’t know how we managed. You go almost straight up a mountain, reaching 4215m above sea level at Dead Woman’s Pass, only to then ruin your knees descending the other side to the campsite. The saving grace is that the views are absolutely, indescribably spectacular. We started the day in the jungle – everything was covered in moss, even the trees. Then suddenly the trail popped out of the forest and we were in barren, scrubby, rocky mountain land. Walking up a steep hill is hard enough at sea-level, but altitude is an evil ninja and can affect you in all kinds of ways. Breathing is just so much harder – two steps and you’re out of breath with that burning back-of-the-throat feeling. You stop and you’ve got your breath back in about 30 seconds. Coca leaves are a godsend. Chewing a wad in the side of your mouth can abate the nausea and the headache that are common symptoms. Fish and I were both so lucky that we didn’t suffer the other common symptom of diarrhoea like some others did.
It’s so important to walk at your own pace on the Inca Trail and luckily for an extrovert like me there were a bunch of other lovely ladies who had the same snail pace (Lol and Kaysie can attest to the fact that I dawdle and was consistently the last to arrive anywhere on the Camino De Santiago). We kept each other going with words of encouragement and Disney sing-alongs and frequent stops to ‘look at that flower!’ (code for: I’m knackered and need a rest!). Despite it being such an epic effort, we all felt bloody proud of ourselves that evening and the endorphins were FLOWING.
The third day of the Inca Trail is renowned as the most beautiful and it lived up to all expectations. There are varying degrees of authenticity on the Trail – none of Day 1 is original Inca road; Day 2 is 50/50. Day 3 is all genuine, original, been-there-for-centuries Inca Trail. And it is just spectacular. You can truly get the sense of it being a pilgrimage. It was also a lot flatter than the previous day which made it far easier to enjoy. The other days it had felt like we were the only people on the path and I was so impressed with how the guides had worked it out so that was the case. Day 3 was a little different and there were lots of retirement-age Americans dotted along the way, “Bob! Wow! Geez! We haven’t seen this kind of vegetation before!” was a favourite overheard quote.
The views included more Incan ruins; lush green mountains; waterfalls; snow-capped mountains; the river Urabamba snaking its way through the valley far below. And in the afternoon when we started descending, Mount Machu Picchu became visible down below (you could only see the mountain, we just knew that Machu Picchu itself was just down and around the other side of it).
These three days of the Inca Trail were just unbelievable incredible and it was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I’d heard from various sources that Machu Picchu is a very spiritual place where you can’t help but feel moved. These two factors combined made the anticipation enormous for the last day, the day where we wake up stupid-early to arrive at the Sun Gate at dawn and descend into Machu Picchu. And there’s no other way of putting this: it was a great disappointment. Some groups wake up at 2am for the last day, which is absurd as there’s a checkpoint which doesn’t open until 5:30. Luckily we had a sensible guide who only got us up at 4am purely because the porters all had to barrel down the mountain to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu) to catch a 5am train. I was more than happy to do that for them considering all they’d done for us over the last three days. Aside from that, it would’ve been better to stay in bed til 10. We marched off in the dark to arrive as the last group at the checkpoint at 4:45am. We waited in the cold and dark with all the other gringos until we could show our passports and entry tickets and continue on. It was misty as shit and a little bit drizzly and we had to walk in a tight little line behind all the other tight little lines. The combination of early morning, misty drizzle and not being able to go your own pace made us grumpy and silent. Now, I’d read a book before doing the Trail called Turn Right At Machu Picchu by Mark Adams that is recommended by most websites for people travelling Peru. Because of this I knew that we’d never see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate (the entry to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail) – Machu Picchu is a tiny mountain surrounded by enormous mountains which block the sun. However, I expected to see something other than mist as thick as custard.
We stopped there to munch on some cheese and bread sandwiches and the best thing that happened was seeing our Swiss buddies, Tristan and Lenny, who’d been doing a different Trek, and our usual guide, Elmer, appear from the mist. We trundled down the mountain (it made me wish I was climbing Dead Woman’s Pass again – I’ll take difficulty breathing over painful knees any day), mostly catching up with Lenny and Tristan (and making fun of Tristan’s Arnold Schwarzenegger accent) and trying to hide our disappointment in the weather. The fog didn’t clear and the tourists increased in numbers the closer we got to the main site of Machu Picchu. The momentum was really lost when we had to exit the site, wait around for 20 minutes, and then re-enter through the main gates amongst the swarms of day-tripping tourists who’d not put in the hard yards we had and had showered within the last 4 days. Bastards. Not being able to see more than 10 metres in front we followed Alex (our main Inca Trail guide) around Machu Picchu learning about some temples and stuff. It was one of those historic sites where you have to follow arrows around a particular route and can’t explore yourself. I was really glad I’d read Turn Right At Machu Picchu as it gave me a really in depth historic overview and I understood a lot of the sites and their significance beyond what Alex had time to tell us about.
After this we all climbed back up (uuugggghhhhh) to the Guard House where all of the famous pictures of Machu Picchu are taken. Suddenly, the fog cleared. And it was more than I ever could have hoped for. A lot of famous landmarks look better in postcards and famous pictures (Sphinx, I’m looking at you…) but honestly, nothing can compare to looking out over Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background, surrounded by the Andes, with the valley far, far below. Unfortunately, I am my father’s daughter and the hoards and hoards of tourists really detracted. They apparently cap the number of visitors to 2500 per day, but it felt like they were all swarming the view point exactly at the same time I was there. I had to get out of there before I ended up in a Peruvian prison for murder.
All in all, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. But it’s definitely true that it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Title Time: This blog’s title was inspired by The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”
So, I thought I’d write an introductory post that was a little more informative and a little less irritating than Fish’s.
Fish and I met through mutual friends when we were all living in London (despite growing up in towns 20 minutes from each other and never knowing each other existed) and got together last year when we’d both returned to Adelaide. The thing about travelling is that the more you do the more you want to do and we were both feeling the need to do another long-term stint abroad. And South America was top of the list for both of us. So we decided that we’d kick around Adelaide until the end of March for a few reasons – there were some very important weddings we needed to be around for; the best time to be in Adelaide is Fringe time so we didn’t want to miss out on that; and the need to get some savings behind us to sustain this idea.
We are now both officially unemployed and damn it feels GOOD! We both finished work on Friday; we had an epic houseparty that was a combined housewarming/our farewell last night; and we fly out to Los Angeles tomorrow. If you can read this, here’s our itinerary in calendar form, but I’ll give you a brief run-down anyway:
We fly into LA and hang out with my uncle Mark and his partner Stacy who live in Venice Beach. Thursday we head down to Newport beach to our friends Mary and Kosta (it was their wedding I went to in Greece last year and met a bunch of their awesome friends. We’re all catching up for dinner on the Thursday night and I’m super excited to see them all!). We’re spending the weekend with Mary and Kosta in Vegas. We fly straight to San Francisco from Vegas and spend the week there. When Kaysie and Lol (my life partners and travel buddies when I was in the UK – you’ll hear them referenced frequently) and I walked the Camino De Santiago in May 2012 we met a fabulous American couple, Danny and Alisha, who have since moved to Berkeley (right next to San Fran) and had a baby. I’m really looking forward to catching up with them and giving Baby Ollie some Peter Combe CDs and Mem Fox books (we spent a lot of time on the Camino teaching Danny and Alisha Mr Clickety Cane so the Peter Combe seed has already been planted…). Then we fly back down to Orange County and reconnect with Mary and Kosta and spend Easter weekend with Mary’s family at Lake Havasu on the Colorado River. There’s whispers of possible water sports so Fish is pretty excited.
The next weekend is Coachella music festival – one of the main draw cards to go to the States before hitting South America (other than the fabulous friends and family, obvs). Anyone who’s been misguided enough to ask me about Coachella will have endured my rant about how bullshit the line up this year; but I’m still certain that we’re going to have an absolutely CRACKING time. I’m sure (and I hope) in a few weeks time I’ll be writing a post about how silly I was thinking that the line up was crap and that it was the best weekend of my life.
After Coachella Fish and I fly to Austin, Texas, to kick around for a few days. Mary and Kosta meet us there at the end of the week and the four of us start our roadtrip through Austin – New Orleans – Memphis – Nashville. I’m really looking forward to this. Man, do I love a roadtrip!
We leave Mary and Kosta (already dreading that bit) in Nashville and fly up to New York to spend a few days there before we fly down to Cartagena, Colombia on the first of May to kick off the South America leg of the trip (and try to stem the rate at which we’re haemorrhaging money).The only plan we have after that is that we have to get to Lima, Peru, by the 27th of May because we’ve got a 3 week tour booked. So many possibilities!
So there you have it! That’s the plan for our responsibility-avoiding; real-life-dodging; grown-up-world-rejecting long term travel of the Americas. I’m going to miss everyone at home and I’ll not be around for some significant weddings and, most disappointingly, the birth of the first children of some of my dearest friends. I hope we can keep this blog up-to-date to keep you all informed of our adventures, but I do realise that in doing that I’m less likely to write individual emails to people. I am thinking of you all though! You’re still very special to me 😀 Equally, one of the hardest things about leaving to go travelling is everyone thinking that you’re too busy or disinterested in what’s going on at home and therefore not writing. That’s not true! I’d love to hear any update at all from you – even if it’s just to tell me that you just had a really great Farmers Union Iced Coffee and some Fruchocs.
Ok, I’m done! Let this ‘brief introduction’ warn you about future posts from me – I rant and I digress; feel free to skim read!
PS, I’m going to try to title each blog with song lyrics – this one was Walk Right In by The Rooftop Sisters (or Dr Hook, depending on whether you’re a Forrest Gump soundtrack person or were legit around in the 70s)