From July 9-16th I went on a whirlwind tour of some of northern Chile's coolest cities with my friend Megan where we did everything from shiver in the cold at 14,000 ft to see some geysers to paragliding over the city of Iquique! Once I have a little more time I will for sure blog about that! Then I spent a few days bumming around Santiago, taking in my favorite sights for the last time, hanging out with friends and souvenir shopping for my loved ones. Then, July 20th, I headed off to Cusco, Peru to begin an adventure that I had been looking forward to since January: hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Since the trail itself gets up to over 13,500 ft. the tour company I booked with (SAS Travel, who are AMAZING) recommends that you arrive in Cusco a few days early to adjust to the altitude. I had been experiencing some pretty gnarly stomach problems the previous week in Santiago (which is at sea level) so needless to say I was not to pumped about what the altitude would do to me. It turns out Immodium is a miracle drug and my ability to sleep through legitimately anything (including a giant party at my hostel bar) served me well. Although I didn't really get to see any of the city, come Monday I was ready(ish) to hike.
Monday July 23: Day 1
After a 5 AM wake-up call, the SAS bus came to pick us up and drive us to the trail head, which is about three hours outside of Cusco. Our group was quite the crew: five other AU students who I had been studying with in Santiago all semester, a girl who had also been in Santiago but through the UC program, a recent UCSD graduate traveling through South America (shout out to all my California fam!), two British girls who were also backpacking, and then a mid-40s gay dentist from Chicago.
Since 2000 it has been illegal to hike the Inca Trail without a guide and after our group's crazy Patagonia adventures, I was excited to be accompanied by an expert. Not to mention part of the fee you pay to the tour company includes (DELICIOUS) food, which is always ready when you arrive at camp and then tents, also ready when you arrive at camp. The majority of us, myself included, hired an extra chasqui (the Quechua word for messenger, a more respectful term for the porters who literally run the trail) to carry sleeping bags, mats, and extra clothing. The chasquis were impressive, with HUGE calves and even bigger packs, hauling everything from propane tanks to our tents to CHAIRS for us to sit in during meals. It's a very humbling feeling to be struggling up a hill with a day pack and trekking poles and have a band of chasquis with huge packs pass you. It's also frankly, more than a little awkward, to be paying these people, who have been historically abused and discriminated against, to carry all of your stuff so you can successfully hike to their sacred ruins. From all outward appearances, SAS treats their chasquis well and abides by all of the regulations set out by the government. Our guide informed us that things are certainly better today than in the past, but there is still a really long way to go.
Saul, our head guide, was quite the character, in the best way possible. For starters, he was really, really good-looking and it great shape so our group of 20-something girls was pretty much enamored from the start. Also, he hikes the trail roughly three times a month and has run it as a marathon. Casual. Our other guide, Reynaldo, was a lot quieter than Saul but also super fun and usually hung out in the back so I got to know him pretty well. It was great to have two hilarious guides to keep us going when things got hard.
The first half of the first day was pretty flat and deceivingly easy and after a huge lunch, I struggled on the second half which was "Inca Flat" which I soon learned meant undulating but mostly uphill. But, I survived and arrived at camp to a treat I hadn't had in five months: POPCORN! Yay! Saul pointed out a bunch of the constellations once it got dark and then we all crawled into our tents for a much needed rest.
Best part of this day? When a three-year old girl on a hot pink tricycle wheeled past me as I climbed up.
Tuesday July 24: Day 2
After an early wake-up call, softened with coca tea delivered to my tent door, we headed out for our hardest day: up-hill all morning to summit Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point on the trail, down perilously steep Inca steps, then back up again, and then down more steps to finally reach our camp in the "cloud forest." I started off the day worried--I'm not the most athletic person and a semester of very little sleep and a little (okay a lot) of the Chilean carrete had put me in pretty rough shape. But for me, stuff like this is mostly in my head, as long as I am mentally prepared, I can do it. And I did, albeit slowly. Summiting Dead Woman's Pass was one of the best feelings I have ever had, but I have to say later that afternoon when I summited the last big hill of the day Reynaldo played Ke$ha's "TikTok" on his cell phone. One of the highlights for sure, especially because the AU kids had been trying to explain the term "biddy" to the rest of the group. Climbing to the top of a giant mountain with Ke$ha blaring is probably the only way a biddy can climb a mountain.
Wednesday July 25: Day 3
We slept in until 6:30 and headed out for what would be our shortest day, ending at 2 PM. This was mostly just more of those crazy Inca stairs, and even steeper. We were leaving the mountains and heading into the jungle, which was a totally different vista than the previous two days. My knees were killing me and Meredith's weren't doing so hot either, so we ended up taking it pretty slow and hanging out with Reynaldo, who taught us all about the birds, plants, and flowers we were seeing, which was great!
We reached camp, ate lunch and then retreated to our tents to legitimately collapse. Jesse and I struggled to even take off our hiking pants, making ourselves laugh so hard that we got even more sore. At 5, Saul convinced us to walk 5 additional minutes (flat, he swore!) to the last Inca site we would see before Machu Picchu, Winaywayna, which means "forever young" in Quechua. I was reluctant to leave my tent, but ultimately so, so happy I did. Winaywayna was discovered relatively recently and historians and anthropologists alike are unsure of its purpose, but it is absolutely breathtaking. There are very few people around, a small waterfall, llamas wandering the ruins, and just a sense of absolute peace.
After that it was time for tea, dinner, and a final goodbye to our chaskis, who would be heading directly down to Aguas Calientes in the morning instead of to Machu Picchu. We gave them tips and hugs, conveying our gratitude and respect. I'm really not sure there is anything I could ever do to communicate how impressed I am by the work these men do, but I thought this goodbye ceremony was a nice touch.
Thursday July 26: Day 4
A 3:30 AM wake-up call roused the camp as we prepared to head to the last check-point and wait in line until the last part of the trail to Machu Picchu opened. We ate quickly, walked five minutes, and sat in the dark waiting with all of the other hikers to start the last leg. It was mostly "Inca Flat" all the way to the Sun Gate where you catch the first glimpse of Machu Picchu, except for one section of "stairs" which required climbing on all fours to get to the top.
At the top of the Sun Gate, you get to see the lost Inca city far in the distance, and from there it's mostly downhill and the pain and soreness really melts away. Because there it is: what you've been working for. We stopped about halfway down for a break and to watch the sun come up, and that's where my emotions came. If you know me, you know I love me a good cry. I didn't full out burst into tears, but my eyes weren't dry either. Standing with Jesse and Mark, two of the people I feel closest to but who I've only known since February, it was just totally surreal. The six of us AU kids had signed up for this crazy trek without knowing one another, and here we were, a semester gone by. So many feelingsssss.
We continued on, and the closer we got to the site the more magnificent it became. The sun was rising and I had done what I'd came to do. No better feeling. As we got closer and rounded the final bend Reynaldo made me stare at the ground and follow his feet, not looking up so that I wouldn't see the full splendor of Machu Picchu until it was in full view. When he told me to look up, I gasped audibly. It's incredible. Those are the only words I have.
Anyway, we continued down to put our bags and poles in storage before our tour of the city. It was easy to get disillusioned by the number of tourists who could barely even climb the stairs to get to the site and refused to make room for us smelly hikers to go down the stairs. It was all I could do not to be like "Excuse me m'am! Can you please move your giant fanny pack so I can hold the rail while I walk down because oh you, I'VE JUST BEEN WALKING FOR FOUR DAYS ESTA BIEN" But Saul had warned us about this. A lot of times Inca Trail hikers get very negative when they arrive at Machu Picchu because of the crowds of crazy tourists. After spending four days pretty much isolated from the touristy crazyness that is Cusco, it's a shock to be back in what at times seems to be a sea of obsese Americans wearing brand new hiking boots from REI.
Even so, after our tour and some history, Jesse, Teresa and I sought out a quiet shady spot where we shared some chocolate, gossip, and just some quiet time until it was time to head back to Aguas Calientes and say good-bye to Machu Picchu.
I'm back in Santiago now, snuggled in the guest bed, staring at the insane amount of clothing/shoes/just things I have accumulated, trying to figure out how to fit them into my suitcases/wondering how many memories you really can fit in a suitcase (lolz I'm so deep). The new gringa (Katie!) is here and she's really great and fun and also a little nervous. I'm finding myself jealous of her: she gets a whole semester of Claudia and Santiago and learning how to speak Chilean and being a silly gringa and travel and laughs.
I also told myself I wasn't going to cry until Wednesday when I left and maybe when I saw my parents, which, again, if you know me, is like, completely useless because I'm really good at crying. This morning I skyped my parents to give them all the juicy Machu Picchu deets and then we talked about how I would probably just email them Tuesday to confirm details and then I would see them Thursday. And when my mom said "See you Thursday!" I freaked out, legit hysterical tears. Completely out of the blue. I basically had to hang up Skype because I was crying so hard/laughing so hard at myself from crying that I was a mess. Great self-control Megan, awesome. Also I sort of feel bad for my parents, I really do want to see them! I swear!
Anyway, I'm not sure if I'll blog again before I leave because I have 2829543 things to do, so I figure I'll do a little closing here. Last summer when I was leaving Mexico, my friend Bridget was leaving South Africa around the same time, and I remember she used this quote in her last blog post:
I think this is such a good way to sum up my semester. How lucky am I? Instead of sitting in a classroom I hiked to some of the highest heights in crazy temperatures, stayed out until 8 AM and still made it to my internship, made new friends from all over the world, found a second family in this amazing Chilean woman who taught me about life and resilience (la vida es asi, po), jumped off of cliffs, ate fried empanadas and licked the grease off of my fingers, spoke a language that I just can't get enough of, and I think/hope discovered a little more of who I am.
La siguiente aventura? Senior year baby!