Monday, April 11, 2016

Conquering an Ancient Wonder

Many people create bucket lists to help them organize things that they want to accomplish throughout their life time. My personal bucket list has had the same item occupying the #1 slot for a multitude of years: see Machu Picchu. This ancient wonderland has been on my mind since the early days of my existence (well at least I like to think that). When I lived in Washington D.C., I attended a day care that was run by a Peruvian woman. Outside of instilling my love for the Spanish language, she also talked a lot about her country and the many amazing things to see and do there. Hanging in the main playroom was a poster depicting Machu Picchu in all of its fame and glory. This early introduction, plus my continued interest in all things that have to do with the Spanish-speaking world, quickly placed this natural wonder at the top of my list.

When I received my Peace Corps acceptance letter over two years ago and found out that I would be serving in Colombia, I immediately put Peru on my list of places that I HAD to travel to. During one of the many professional development trainings that first year Peace Corps members are subjected to, the idea of traveling to Peru over Semana Santa (Holy Week) was floated around amongst a couple of the volunteers in my group. I jumped on that idea without hesitation and started planning the actualization of one of my greatest goals in life. Months turned into weeks, which turned into days. Finally, the day arrived. It was time to leave the heat-ridden coast of Colombia and head to the high-altitude of the Andes Mountains.

As Jessi and I headed to the airport in Cartagena for our long afternoon/night of traveling, we were unable to contain our excitement. Our first couple of flights were effortless. This even included my first time ever flying in first class! When we arrived in Lima, we knew that we would have to spend the night in the airport. However, as we tried to go to our gate, we were turned away and told that we would only be allowed through an hour and a half before our flight. This led to an extremely uncomfortable night of camping out in a back hallway with about 30 of our closest traveling companions as we slowly awaited for time to pass.

Finally it was time to board our plane to Cuzco. Flying over the Andes Mountains was nothing short of spectacular! When we landed in Cuzco, we zipped off to our hostel, where we slept pretty much the rest of the day away (waking only to go find food). Later that night, Caleb and Alex (one of the married couples in our group) finally made it. We all ventured out for dinner and then turned in for the night.

The next day, we continued our tour of Cuzco by checking out the San Pedro market, Plaza de las Armas, and some other sites around town. Caleb and I prepared for our five-day, four-night hike to Machu Picchu,while the girls settled in for a week of relaxation and food. The realization that I was finally going to achieve one of the biggest dreams of my life made it hard for me to sleep that night. So, at 4:30 am when our alarm sounded, I bounded out of bed, strapped on my bag, and prepared to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Fresh fruit at the market
Plaza de las Armas
Foosball in one of the plazas
Caleb and I were picked up from our hostel by our guide, Winston, and taken to the van that would deliver us to our first stop for breakfast. The van ride to this location was filled with beautiful views of the mountains. At breakfast, we finally met the other people that we would be completing the hike with. In our group, there were 10 people - 5 from Canada, a couple from Chile, and a Peruvian, plus Caleb and I. Over the course of the week, we all became super close, which made the hike even that much more enjoyable! Caleb and I were able to practice our Spanish with other speakers outside of the Colombian coast, which was fantastic for both of us.

After breakfast, we hopped back into the vans and proceeded to the starting point for the hike. We unloaded all of our stuff and sorted out what we would be carrying with us and what would be transported by the horses. Having the horses to help definitely was a major plus as it cut down on the amount of gear that we had to lug around. We spent the next 30 minutes traipsing uphill, and then were rewarded with flat land the rest of the morning until we arrived to our camping site for the first night.

Getting all packed up

The crew!

One of the many stunning views along the route
Following lunch (and a brief rain storm), we set out in search of a hidden lake a bit further up from our campsite. The hike up was tiring (and an omen for what lay ahead for us the next day), but the reward was well worth it! The lake was absolutely beautiful! The blueness of the water reminded me of my excursion to Capri, a tiny island off the coast of Italy. A few brave souls (myself excluded) decided to venture into the ice-cold waters for a bit of a refreshing swim. The hike down was less arduous and we were welcomed with dinner and an early bedtime, as we were looking at a departure time of about 6:00 am the following morning.

The next morning, we were awoken with a knock on our tent and a cup of tea to help energize us for the day ahead. As advertised, this was definitely the hardest and longest day of hiking that we had to complete. The first three hours took us further up into the mountains and surrounding glaciers to a height of 4600 meters (approx. 15,000 feet) and some pretty spectacular views. After getting some mandatory group pictures, we ventured in search of another hidden lagoon. This one was just as spectacular, if not more so, as the one we saw the day before. We participated in a traditional Incan ceremony, which culminated in the construction of a small tower of rocks and then started the long hike down to our second camp.

The hike down, which included a stop for lunch, was long and a bit treacherous. We ended up descending close to 1500 meters over the course of 5 hours, which is quite an accomplishment. A brief rain shower greeted us just as we were heading out from lunch. I also managed to wipe out on a small waterfall and will probably carry that scar with me for a while now. Battle wounds just make the experience even that more memorable! Upon arrival to our second campsite, we were all pretty exhausted. We claimed out tents, played some cards, enjoyed each others company at dinnertime, and then turned in for the night, knowing that the toughest part of the journey was behind us.

The third day consisted of covering another 13 km on foot before being picked up by a van and driven to our third campsite. The hike itself was very easy, as it was completed along flat ground that wound through the mountains. We did encounter one little blip along the way. Apparently, a couple of days before, a part of the road had been taken out by a landslide. Parts of the trail that we hiked along have been eroding away for centuries. Finally, part of it just gave way. We were able to cross safely, but the supply trucks and vans had to find alternate routes to reach the next destination. We arrived to our campsite in time for lunch and a friendly game of soccer. That afternoon we were given the opportunity to give our weary limbs a much deserved break with a trip to some hot springs. The warm water soothed our aching muscles and served as the first "shower/bath" for most of us since the start of the hike. That night, we enjoyed the company of other hiking groups with card games, dancing, and conversation.

The fourth day started off with a high-flying zip-lining trip! While I have had my fair share of zip-lining experiences throughout my travels, this one provided me with a few firsts. I completed a zip-line that was over one kilometer long, "flew" upside-down, and completed the adventure Superman style! That's right folks, face first,flying above the trees. It was pretty sweet! This was a great way to start off the day and saved us about 10 km of walking that day. We met up with the rest of our "family" at Hidroelectrica, our lunch spot.

From there, we continued hiking through the afternoon to our final destination for the night, Aguas Calientes (or as Caleb liked to call it "Machu Picchu City, formerly known as Aguas Calientes"). Here, we were rewarded with a night's stay in a hotel, with a real bed and hot showers. It was a prize well earned! We chowed down on some pizza, figured out our return trip back to Cuzco the next day, received instructions for entering Machu Picchu in the morning, and capped things off with a group dinner and some World Cup qualifying soccer matches. Once again we were subjected to an early nightcap, as a sunrise hike awaited us the next morning.

At 4 am the morning of the fifth, and final day, we arose and made our way to the base of the mountain that would lead us to the vaunted Machu Picchu. The 40-minute hike started out in pitch blackness and ended up with us surrounded by misty clouds. We were some of the first people into the park. Although we were initially greeted with a blanket of clouds that hid the ruins from us, a small wait resulted in a great revealing of the landmark we had all set out to conquer.

Luckily for Caleb and I, we were in no great rush, as our train back to Cuzco didn't leave until almost 8 pm that night. So we were able to stay at the ruins well into the afternoon. This afforded us the opportunity to see the clouds really clear off and provide us with some just spectacular views. The site itself was larger than anything that I could've ever imagined. We received a tour from Winston and then were allowed to do some exploring on our own. Caleb and I made our way to an old Inca bridge and to the Sun Door, which was an additional kilometer hike above the ruins. As the clouds continued to roll in and out of the valley, we were treated to beautiful landscapes and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Got my llama picture!! Another dream accomplished!

As we headed back down the same path the we had trudge up not even 8 hours prior, the state of awe and appreciation that I was in was incredible. Knowing that I had finally checking the leading objective off of my bucket list left me with a sense of accomplishment and pride. It also set me to thinking what my new #1 bucket list item would be (I'm thinking visit South Africa). We made it back to Aguas Calientes, treated ourselves to two large pizzas, collected our belongings from the hotel, and headed to the train station. The subsequent train and bus ride put us back in Cuzco around 11:00 pm, exhausted, but definitely satisfied.

The following day, which was Saturday, was filled with rest and recuperation. Jessi and Alex had booked their trip to Machu Picchu for this day, so Caleb and I took advantage of this and laid around the hostel and exerted as little energy as possible. We met up with the girls when they came back from their trip, had dinner, and ended up going out with a few of the people from our hiking group. Sunday was filled with finally trying guinea pig (a delicacy in this part of the world) and some last minute shopping. We returned to the hostel and packed our bags, sad to see our trip come to an end.

Guinea pig, all ready for consumption!

The journey back to Colombia was very uneventful. We were greeted by the same old humidity and heat as we disembarked from the plane in Cartagena. The cool, mountain temperatures were now a thing of the past. Since coming back from this trip, I've had some difficulties getting back into the swing of things. I keep dreaming of my next trip and being able to check off more items from my bucket list. I only have about 7 months left in country before my service is up. I intend on taking full advantage of my remaining time here by spending as much time as possible with my community members and working on strengthening friendship bonds. While I am glad to be back on the coast, the memories of finally making it to Machu Picchu will endure forever...