Saturday, May 30, 2009

Day Four Entry

Waking up on day four at Phuyupatamarka ( we found ourselves with an absolutely beautiful view of Salkantay, the second-highest mountain in Peru. One of our guides (Freddy) told us that typically it's too cloudy to see it, but it is truly a beauty to behold - make sure to check out the pictures.

I have to mention at this point that things were a little shaky politically back down in the towns and villages. David pulled us aside on the third night at Phuyupatamarka to tell us that several porters and guides were hearing news of a indigenous worker's strike set to begin the day we were returning to Cusco - and in fact, might prevent our return to town. The day before we arrived we just missed a farmer's strike, and there was a protest parade in the main plaza in Cusco the first day we got there (which we artfully avoided and stayed in the hotel). Peru has a lot of socioeconomic/ class warfare problems, which are certainly not helped by the fact that the current president Alan Garcia went into a self-imposed exile in the 1980's, waited until the statute of limitations expired for the crimes he committed, and returned recently to be re-elected to the presidency. The farmers, who were protesting over the improper use of rivers and other natural resources, are generally peaceful and simple people, but we err on the side of caution where mobs are concerned.

Anyways, the hike on day four was relatively easy. Starting at around 3200 m, we descended to the Intipata ruin site, and continued on to Winaywayna, which is essentially the last trail control point before Machupicchu. Winaywayna (the hiking stop) actually has some semblance of modernity, with electricicty, showers, and a bar. Winaywayna (the ruin site) also served as a checkpoint/ rest stop for Quechua messengers running throughout the empire. It also served as an agricultural production site that supported the priests and artisan classes living at Machupicchu.

Continuing from Winaywayna, the trail falls and rises a few more km's through sub-tropical rainforest until you reach the sharp, vertical climb to Intipunku, the Sun Gate and final Inca checkpoint. From here, you can see the amazing wonder that is Machupicchu. It should be noted that Intipunku also served an important astronomical purpose for the Incan calendar - during the winter solstice, the sun passes over Intipunku and through the middle window in the Temple of the Sun (in Machupicchu).

After about 45 minutes more of hiking and a few hundred meters descent, we arrived in Machupicchu! I know this seems a bit anticlimactic, but it's much better for everyone to view the picutres here than for us to write about it. It certainly is a breathtaking place and we have no words to do justice to this New World Wonder. We were lucky to have a private tour with David - who is a native Quechuan and has studied extensively the ancient culture and the entire Incan Sacred Valley - to offer significant insight into each individual structure at Machupicchu.

Here we have to revisit the conversation about the strike (please note that for the majority of the following events, we didn't take pictures because it could have really stirred things up). We had to cut out our next-day visit to Machupicchu short because the workers' strike was imminent. It essentially came down to the choice of 1) Being stuck in Aguas Calientes (the closest town to the archaeological site) for two extra days with more expensive lodging, fewer supplies, and much less safety, or 2) Leaving Aguas Calientes on the last train and hopefully getting back to Cusco and staying in the hotel. We opted for option 2 on the advice of David and Carlos. It became immediately clear that this was the best option after we arrived in Aguas Calientes - when we stepped off the bus we were greeted (literally) by Amazonian tribesmen who had apparently miscommunicated with the strike organizers and showed up a day early. These men, who were carrying spears and bows with their signs, were sitting on the train tracks stopping the trains from going out. This was strange, even for the locals, because Aguas Calientes is probably over 1000 miles from their home (there has been some suspicion that Hugo Chavez is behind their efforts, providing transportation and signs printed in english, despite the fact that most of the natives don't speak even Spanish as a first language, let alone read and write in another).

There was no violence, and many of the natives were friendly, so we calmly went about our business of eating our first restaurant meal in four days - Casey had lomo saltado (kind of like a beef and vegetable sautee), and Ashley ate a Peruvian-style hamburger (plain, of course), and both enjoyed a cold Fanta and a Cusquena. A table away our guides were eating, and we later found out that David had been in talks with the strike leader to see if he could get our group out of town - otherwise, we would need to hole up in the hotel and hope to stay out of the way. Aguas Calientes is a very small town - it literally has about a half-mile stretch of shops and hotels, all situated one way by the Urubamba river, and another by the railroad tracks. David was also negotiating to get us (himself included) train tickets out on the 9:10 PM train - no easy feat because the PeruRail tickets are usually booked up well in advance by hikers, and it was the last scheduled train for three days, thanks to the transportation workers also scheduled to strike. We finished dinner and strolled around town a bit, visited an internet cafe, and had some ice cream. Upon our return to the street, we found out that David and Carlos had gotten us onto the train, and David had talked the workers into leaving the tracks to let the train pass!

We went to the train station, where the National Police had also been called out to escort tourists onto the train and to keep things safe (if necessary). We ended up waiting for the train until about midnight, when it finally pulled into the station. We're not sure exactly what happened between nine and midnight, but we think the rail workers needed some convincing to keep working, and to make sure that it would be safe for them to operate the train, and that there would be no more strikers sitting on the track. We arrived by train in Ollantaytambo around 2 AM, and got on a bus for the hour and a half ride to Cusco. Getting out of town and onto the highway was no problem, but once we neared Cusco the bus got a police escort to get down into the valley where the city is situated - the road down to Cusco is very narrow, cuts through several rundown neighborhoods, and is poorly marked.

At 4 AM we got back to the hotel, where we took much-needed showers and finally slept in a bed! We didn't wake up until 1:00 in the afternoon, and spent the rest of the day packing up and walking through town. We found out later that protests in the morning at the Plaza de Armas had shut the city down.

To finish this up, we'll say the following: Although these protests were not reported by any mainstream media (the Peruvian government has broad censorship powers), we were there to see it and are glad that we did. It prevented us from having a second day at Machupicchu, but it also gave us some exposure to things that happen in the world that we would have otherwise not been aware of. Plus, we really got to spend some extra time with David and have some really great conversations about his work and things that he's passionate about. Politics aside (and with hopes that Chavez is not behind this, as he certainly has a selfish agenda), there are some horrible working conditions and horrible treatment of natives in Peru, and we don't wish that on anyone.

Day Three Entry

Monday, May 25th

Day Three started out MUCH better than the previous day. We had the most amazing pancakes and dulce de leche that we've ever had. After a short but very strenuous climb out of the valley we camped in, we got to tour several Incan Ruin sites along the hike.

The first was called "Runkuraqay"(the image above). Because the Incans didn't have a written language, it is assumed that this (and the other spots we saw on Day 3) were used as 'rest stops' and control points for messengers running between Cusco (the Incan Capital) and the 'mini-capitals' (called "Tambos") like Machupicchu. These messengers would carry a series of knots and dyed llama wool to help communicate important warnings or messenges.

The Incan Rulers used the Tambos as a way to expand and build their empire. By building tambos and control stops in the valleys that sit in between rocky mountians, they were able to see the messengers and/or enemies coming well in advance and also have a place for Incan governers to reside and rule from.

Also, we noticed that all of the Incan Ruins were built with all the doors and windows in a slight, trapizoidal shape. In fact, we were told that all Incan doors and windows are built with an exact angle between 13-14 degrees. They believe that this was to help protect against damage from earthquakes; which, whether by coincidence or not, occur in Peru every 50 years. The Incans believed that nature should never be tampered with and built their structures and paths around natural elements (like giant stones or lakes) often, including them into their intended buildings.

The second half of day three took us through part of the sub-tropical rainforest here where we saw a lot of different plant and flower varieties. Also, the path (which was part of the original Incan stonepath) took us through several natural caves and tunnels. Its really amazing to think that this was the same path that was used over 500 years ago!

We arrived at our campsite just before sunset and were treated to the most spectacular views I've ever seen. Our site was located just on the edge of a mountain cliff (above the cloud lines) and it looked as if we were literally on the edge of the world! The clouds settled in over the nearby mountains and we could also see the back side of Machupicchu Mountain from here. At night, the stars were breathtaking. We felt like we could just reach up our hands and grab one, we were so close. We even saw about a dozen or so shooting stars.

Day Two

Sunday, May 24th

Day Two started after a night in our first campsite. Firstly, I have to tell you a funny story about what happened in the middle of the night. Typical Ashley...

Around 11Pm (or around 4 hours after going to sleep!) Ashley had to get up and go to the bathroom. It was very dark, very quiet and the bathroom (and by bathroom, we mean, hole in the ground with a shack built around it) was three terraces down from our tent. She couldn't find her glasses, and was in a hurry, so she just went out with a flashlight/headlamp and without good vision. Just as she was about to reach the bottom terrace where the Bathroom Shack was, she saw movement. She tried to shine light on whatever it was and saw two hind legs, a swishing tail, and two beady eyes reflecting the the flashlight beam. Not having her glasses on, she ran back to the tent to get Casey to escort her and protect her from what clearly was a Puma (the only really dangerous animal that lives in the Andes). With Casey by her side, they walked back down to find not a puma... but a small, miniature horse munching absentmindedly at some nearby grass! Apparently, our campsite butted up to a villager's farmland. Needless to say, the guides didn't let that one die.

After the night's adventures, we woke up to hot tea served at our tent and were cooked a delicious filling breakfast of porridge, omelets and toast (I told you, the porters were awesome). Then we began our hike. To be honest, and fair, we were forewarned about how the second day's hike could be very difficult. We could have paid the porters about 50 soles (or less than $20) but decided to "rough it" and carry our own packs. Immediately, it was a choice we regretted.

Just as we left our comfy campsite, we began the long, difficult climb to the highest part of the Inca Trail: Dead Woman's Pass. At 4215 meters in altitude (13,829ft), we were dizzy, dehydrated, tired and breathless when we reached the summit. Literally, every step for the first half of the day was uphill and sometimes, a sharp vertical climb. It was a test of both mental and physical endurance. Just as we could see the top of the Pass, I didn't think we would be able to finish it. The last 15 meters were practically a vertical climb up a rock ladder.

Needless to say, when we did finally summit, inch by inch, sometimes literally crawling, we took a much needed and well earned break to enjoy the breathtaking view from the top. Local tradition is to carry a small pebble from the bottom of the Pass and place it on top of the piles when you summit. We did this and then, sat down for a long, long while.

What we didn't realize was that, after the break; we would begin an even more difficult and harder descent into the valley below, where our campsite was being set up. What took us nearly 5 hours to climb, would take us another 3 hours to descend. I never knew that climbing down stairs could wear out your knees and legs as much as it did!

By the time we reach the bottom (which should have been in time for lunch but we reached it around 4PM), Casey had a migraine from dehydration and I was so ill and tired that we both just retreated to our tent and relaxed. That night, we camped in the valley below Dead Woman's Pass at an altitude of around 3200m. The photo at the top is the view from our tent on the morning of Day 3. We got to see sunrise over the nearby mountains.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Camino Inca - Day One Travel Journal

Today we started the Inca Trail. After waking up at 5AM, and eating a quick breakfast of cheese, toast and coffee, we met David (our tour guide) and the NC State Group at the Hotel Garcilaso. We saw Carlos Schwalb again (the organizer for Casey's study abroad trip) and he say all was well with his family and the Study Abroad Program.

Leaving from the Hotel, we took about an hour and forty minute bus ride to Ollantaytambo to get a few supplies (Gatorade, bathroom breaks, and coca leaves). We also picked up a walking stick and some choclo, which is a large-kerneled maize varitey that is native to the Andes.

The Inca Trail (or at least the most popular part) Trailhead begins at a location known as "Kilometer 82", where we passed through a checkpoint and crossed the Urubabma River and were on our way. Because the Inca Trail is so popular, the Peruvian Government only allows a maximum of 500 people a day to begin. This number includes Trail Guides, Porters and Hikers so if you're thinking about going, you should expect to reserve your trail permit at least 3-4 months in advance during the busy season (May-September).

The first few km's were relativley easy and offer a great view of Mount Veronica. Mt. Veronica is so named for the first person to climb it (An Australian Lady, named Veronica). At over 6,000 meters, it's snow-capped year round.

Back in the valley, we bagan our short ascent for the day, followed by a few up and down climbs that followed the river.

Passing by two Incan Ruin Sites (used as agricultural centers to support the Royals/priests that lived in Machupicchu) and several small villages (where you can buy water, fruit and even Gatorade), we were able to see alot of the Peruvian Mountian wildlife. During the 11km hike on Day one, we saw more varieties of chickens and several types of short-legged horses (better to climb the mountians with). Most of the people here appear to be of native descent and live a subsistence life; but all are very friendly and happy.

Our last few Km's were over a sharp climb that lead us over a small mountian and down to the first campsite. The porters (mainly native people hired to carry supplies for the group) had already run ahead (literally) and set up the tents on the terraced hillside. They were also already preparing dinner when we arrived around 6:00PM.

We ate a delicious dinner of vegetable soup, a plate of rice, potato and stuffed pepper. Because of the altitude, it's easier to digest a vegetarian diet, so our meals consisted of mostly starches. Of course, the night was capped off by sevearal cups of tea.

The view of the stars here is amazing. No picture or words could ever describe the sight of the stars on the first night. Without the presence of light pollution that we see so frequently near the cities, we were able to see constellations and even the Milky Way! Also, we could see the Southern Cross. Everything here is magnified: Taller, Steeper, Bigger, Sharper.

(LINK WORKS NOW) Pictures are posted: Here!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Safely Off El Camino Inca

Just a short post to let everyone know that we made it safely and successfully through the Inca Trail! We're currently at an internet café in Aguas Calientes, which is the closest town to Machu Picchu, where we finished the trail. The only word to describe the hike is "AMAZING." This has truly been a life-changing journey, and we can't wait to share the pictures with everyone. We kept a travel journal along the way, and we will post details and pictures as soon as we can, which will probably be this weekend since all camera batteries are dead and internet connections are not as fast as in the U.S.

We will be riding the train back to Cusco tonight to reclaim the belongings we left at the hotel (and to shower!) and will then start preparing for the trip home. We'll probably be spending an extra day in Cusco, as it looks like the flight times have changed - not to worry though, we'll be safe and we have travel insurance. This means that no, Moms, you do not need to call the Embassy. We'll call everyone when our plans are confirmed and when we are boarding planes. Or maybe we'll just stay and live here!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pasamos el tiempo en Cusco

Hi everyone-just a quick update from Cusco before we head out on the Inca Trail tomorrow(leaving at 6 AM for the trailhead at Ollyantaytambo!

Last night, on the advice of our guide David Tejada, we went to see a theatrical production at the Cusco Cultural Center. The show was a music and dance production of ancient Incan ceremonies, folklore, and history. The costumes featured some extremely scary masks and very colorful garb, and the dancers were accompanied by some great live music. One of the musicians might actually be the oldest Incan man alive, but played a mean fiddle. Note: Susie, you would have loved this show!

We ate dinner at a random restaurant, which was chosen because there were only Peruvians dining there, so you know it was the real thing. They eat a lot of grains, including quinoa, rice, and oddly enough huge portions of pasta with vegetables. In total, we spent about 50 Soles (about $18) for more food than we should have eaten and two Cusqueña beers.

Even crossing to a different continent over 3000 miles away, we learned that we cannot escape dogs barking to wake us up. Although the strays aren't in our room, it sounded like an entire pack migrated to the sidewalk outside of our window. We'd also like to thank the construction workers restoring some ancient stonework for their efforts in getting us up on time (These were the only people in the city working that early, as the rest of Cusco doesn't really start moving until about 10 AM.

We spent today at the artisanal market finding some souveniers for us and everyone else that sent a request, but you'll have to wait until we get home to find out what you're getting. Ashley's favorite find was the type of giant shawl used to haul things on your back, including but not limted to: corn, coca leaves, human babies, hay, and alpaca calves. After shopping we ate lunch and then found a great ice cream shop, which was actually our #2 choice. We were disappointed that the #1 shop in all of Cusco is out of business (as relayed to us by a kind elderly shopkeeper), but the ice cream was more than plentiful and included papaya at the bottom. To Casey's delight, our Latin American adventures continue to include lots of delicious fruit.

We are adjusting to the altitude, feeling more like our old selves instead of needing to take a breather after climbing one flight of stairs. At over 11000 feet, the headaches and general malaise were worse than expected, but are lessening just in time for the hike. The coca leaves help, as do the steroids provided by our doctors.

The weather today started extremely cold, turning to extremely warm, and then back to very cold tonight, with a little bit of rain and clouds mixed in throughout. Once we're on the trail, it's expected to be much colder (25-30 F) at night, so we're glad to have good sleeping bags and new alpaca toboggans.

That's all for now, we're going to eat our delicious bakery treats for dessert (we Collins know a good Pastelería regardless of the country) and pack up for the hike tomorrow. We'll write in a few days if we can find a cafe in Aguas Calientes (the nearest town to Machu Picchu) and post pictures as soon as we can! We love you all, leave comments if you can (that includes you Joe Rankin)!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Estamos Aqui

Dear family and friends,
We made it here, to Cusco safely. Actually, the trip so far has been amazing. Our flight from RDU to Atlanta was kicked off by the captian saying that to make up for the fact that we were running behind, he was going to <> no, not kidding.

The flight from Atlanta to Lima was very smooth and we were delighted to find that each seat had its own personal entertainment center so we could choose movies. Then we spent the night, literally, in the Lima Airport for 5 hours, where we alternated sleeping and guarding the bags. When we get to a better internet cafe, we´ll update the picture gallery.

Our tour guide, David Tejada, met us at the Cusco airport and took us to the hotel. We cannot say enough nice things about David and his hospitality. How often do you get to come to a different continent and be welcomed as if you were returning home to old friends? Tonight we´re going to an Incan music show in the town square. We have been eyeballing several great souveniors for everyone and of course for us!!

Ashley is having a hard time deciding which to adopt more of: The stray dogs (of which there are plenty) or tiny, precious Peruvian children. Seriously, they are the cutest kids on the planet. Sorry, Melameds.

Brian Potter: Dwayne has already had several fun adventures with pictures to prove it. Including but not limited to: SLeeping in the airport and Drinking Cusqueña beer. Also, he may or may not be taking a ride on a tiny alpaca toy.

The altitude is killing us, but we{re hoping a good nights sleep will help tomorrow. Plan B is to take a few of the meds that we brought to help combat it.

Tomorrow, we are going on a short tour of the city here and the nearby Incan ruins. HOpefully we can find a better internet cafe with a more functional keyboard.

Miss you all and we{ll update more tomorrow if we can. We start the hike on Saturday and will out of touch until Wednesday.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Busy Bees

The past few weeks have been really busy for us. Here are just a few things we've been up to-
Evan (Casey's brother) graduated from Appalachian State University last Saturday. This means, aside from seeing Evan and Leah receive their diplomas, we also got spend a little time in Boone.
Thanks to a generous invitation from the Browns (Casey's cousins) we spent the night at their mountain top home with the following for our wake-up view. We missed western NC more than anything when we saw this.
We proudly watched Evan graduate and then headed on down to McAdenville for a last visit at stately Rankin Manor before the Peru trip. We checked out the mega-garden down there, where Master Gardener Paw-Paw (Ashley's step-granddad) has more vegetables growing then the entire extended family could eat: corn, squash, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, onions, herbs, and more. He's also got a few varieties of chickens in a henhouse - where he found and killed two blacksnakes eating eggs.

The rest of the week was pretty boring, as Casey was in Columbia, SC for meetings until Friday - this meant that I (Ashley) had to spend the last triathlon training sessions alone.

But boy, did those last minute trainings pay off. We did it! In under two hours, we completed my first/Casey's third triathalon. After getting kicked in the face and swallowing half the pool's water, being passed by all but about 10 people on the bike course, and (suprisingly) breezing through the run portion... we crossed the finish line. Together. I have to say, we'll be back doing more after Peru. Matching Tri Suits are optional:
Today, (Sunday) we cooked brunch (baked French toast--thanks Ann for the idea, berries and whipped cream and cherry cream cheese muffins) for our dear friends Eva and Jay (and the triplets). They don't make outings very often with the trips (understandably, with three kids; it takes A LOT of planning) so we were very flattered that they stopped in at our house on their way to the beach for Memorial Day. We weren't able to make it to Jay's suprise birthday party last night, so this was a good Plan B to celebrate with them before we left. While Casey had fun entertaining Sarah as we ate, we all took shifts holding all the babies. Being around the trips makes us want to start planning for our own babies someday and also serves as the best form of birth control ever. (Just kidding, they're really cute and snuggly) Besides, who wouldn't want to have babies with a guy that uses his finger as a pacifier.

After they left for their family vacation, we started packing for ours. We finally get to start loading up our backpacks for our trip to Peru. Packing for a trip in which we'll be away from most modern conviences poses a lot of challenges. There's a fine line between taking too many clothes, taking the perfect amount, and not taking enough that really, its just unsanitary. We called in Head Safety Officer Arnold to inspect the bags and to offer the proper ergonomic analysis for "real-world" scenarios - you know, in case we get attacked by llamas.
Be sure to check our picture page (click here) for more pictures of the past week and also, check back to our blog on Thursday or Friday. We'll try to blog and update when we get to Cusco and before we start the hike. In a place that barely has a hospital, you can rest assured, there will be more internet cafes then New York City. Not kidding.

Nos vemos en Peru, nuestra familia.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Updates are coming, we promise!!

As if you couldn't tell already... We're BUSY!!

Between App State Graduation, Mother's Day, business trips and triathlon and Peru Trip anxiety attacks... we haven't had time to post much on here.

But rest assured dear friends, we've got pictures lined up and words ready to write.

Updates coming this weekend before we leave for our "adventure vacation" next Wednesday. Get ready... it's sure to be a LOOOOOONNNGG entry.