Hiking to Machu Picchu Part III – Day 2 Summit and the Long Day 3

Apart from the 3 young guys, I think everyone is nervous as we start off on Day 2 – the alleged killer day of the hike. We leave camp around 6:30 am, stop at the trail checkpoint, are given the briefing on our mandatory stops for the day and then are let loose on the trail.

After the first day, the beginning of the hike is wonderful. The walking is uphill from the get-go, but not terribly steep, and it is great to walk at our own paces and enjoy the scenery. For many stretches I see and hear no one on the path. This lady is huffing up the trail with us. I ask her if she walks it everyday and she says yes because she sells water and beverages at the rest point. She is sweating bullets, which makes me feel better, but she still beats me to the rest spot and has her wares spread out by the time I arrive.

 

Water Vendor

Water Vendor

I hit the designated rest spot in under an hour and again arrive in the middle of the pack, which makes me feel good. Matt is pleased to report that he was the 4th in after the young guys.

The entire group arrives in good time, which makes our guides happy. We are set loose again with a designated meeting place for a snack before the steep summit to Dead Woman’s Path.

Then it is the big push to the summit. It is steep hiking and a light rain starts to fall. As I approach the top, I hear loud cheers, apparently for each person who makes it to the top. Encouraging. Unfortunately, the acoustics are deceiving and it takes me what seems to be an eternity to arrive. I am walking with some porters and one keeps assuring me that we are almost there. I stop to rest, not realizing that I am really am almost to the top, and when I arrive I anticipate the cheers and… nothing. I look around and realize that it is a specific group (the Frenchies) that are cheering for their hikers only. My friendly porter must have seen my disappointment because he claps for me and gives me a big smile, which cheers me up. I spot Katie from our group (she and I had been passing each other on and off the entire summit) and she tells me that Matt has just left. A driving rain begins and there is time for a quick selfie before starting the horrible descent. After all the hype, the hike between the snack break and the summit takes me only about an hour and a half.

Katie and I begin our descent together. We hoped we were on the 3,000 step “gringo killer,” but while it is a killer on our knees to navigate the slippery steps, it is not the infamous descent – that comes tomorrow. We sidestep a fair amount, which is slooow going. On the plus side, Katie is good company and we chat about politics and healthcare in our respective countries. We arrive at camp just before 1:00,which I find pretty amazing given the horror stories I heard about Day 2. Everyone arrives by 1:35 and we have lunch at 1:45 – 45 minutes before our guides thought we would all arrive.

We have the afternoon to relax, but instead I obsess over the uphill trail that we will take in the morning. They feed us well – we have a tea at 5:00 and dinner at 7:00 and then we turn in early.

The two worst parts of the trip for me are apparent at this campsite. First, the camp toilets:

Camp Toilet

Camp Toilet

I’ve used squatters before and anticipated them for the trail. What I did not anticipate was how much harder they are to use when you have been hiking all day! Do you squat only slightly, and risk peeing on your foot, or squat lower and risk your shaky legs giving out and landing you in the shit? Thankfully, I manage the trip without peeing on my foot or falling into the shit, but it is no picnic. I should mention that this picture was taken when the toilet was still relatively clean – by the next morning it was a cesspool of toilet paper in the corner and shit on the floor. The toilets got worse the further we went down the trail.

Second, sleeping on the ground. Our night 2 campsite was on sheer rock and I got about 3 hours of sleep because I was in so much pain. The night was extremely cold and then it started raining about 2 am. The rain wasn’t so bad – pleasant on the tent and I think all of us were listening to it hoping that rain at night would mean no rain during our hiking hours.

Day 3 we get up to an overcast day and hit the trail by 6:40. I am dragging and often make it last or close to last to our meeting points. On the other hand, Mark has a burst of energy and decides to keep pace with the young guys. The scenery is spectacular and while there is some rain, it isn’t terrible. We see many remains and walk through different types of ecosystems; I really enjoy the cloudforest with the dripping mosses and ferns.

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After lunch we hit the gringo killer steps and it is once again slow going. It is raining and we are cautioned to be extremely careful. We stop at Phuyupatamarca and then we descend into the cloudforest. Our guides tell us to detour to see the Intipata remains – in retrospect, I think they wanted to give the porters time to set up camp for us. We arrive to our campsite at Wiñay Wayna around 4:30 and go to the natural museum just down the trail. I regret this visit as it is full of mounted snakes, spiders and bugs! The curator assures me that only one of the snakes in poisonous and that most of the spiders are non-venomous. UGH. We have our afternoon tea and then play cards until dinner time. As usual, we turn in early. This campsite is pretty comfortable, but we wake from our slumber to a spectacular thunderstorm at 12:30. At one point a branch hits our tent and Matt and I jump a mile. Our tent holds firm and everything stays dry. Unfortunately, as our wakeup is 3:30 am, by the time the storm passes around 2:00, we never fall back asleep.

NEXT: The Payoff – Machu Picchu!

If you missed the first 2 posts of the journey, find them here http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/15/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-i-preparation/ and http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/17/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-ii-the-trek-begins/

Hiking to Machu Picchu Part II – The Trek Begins

5:20 am on Monday morning and Matt, Carl, Mark and I are cramming a few bites of breakfast into our mouths when Edwin and Jimmy, our guides for the trek, arrive at our hotel to pick us up. This is it – no turning back. We grab our backpacks and duffel bags provided to us by Peru Treks and get on the bus. I’m a bit nervous as the duffel bag weighs a precious pound – does that mean I only got to pack 4.5 pounds and not 5.5 pounds? I asked at the trek office on Saturday but didn’t get a clear response, so now I am anxious that I will be forced to leave some of my clothes on the trailhead or, more likely, get Matt to carry them.

As we wind through Cusco, we stop to pick up our fellow trekkers. Each time I size them up: do they look older, fitter, fun? In the end, we have a great group, even if the 4 of us are the oldest on the hike and 20+ years older than many of the others. The only two other Americans on the hike, Dusty and Jenny, are from WI and UW grads, so there is an instant bond with them. The fact that Dusty is a doctor gives me a sense of security and even though he jokes that he can prescribe drugs and refer to specialists, I am confident that he could perform CPR or splint a broken leg in a pinch! Happily, we never have to call on his skills. There are 5 Australians: Erin and Mark, a couple in their 30s; Katie and Tim, friends who have just finished University and are traveling for a few months; and Ian, who has been traveling for 2 years and celebrates his 25th birthday on the trail. Two other youngsters are Kirk from New Zealand and Crazy Henry from Manchester, England. Crazy Henry is so named because he smokes and drinks like a fiend yet can effortlessly scamper up mountains. I am convinced he could have hiked the entire trail in a day with no problem. Diego, who is probably about my age, is from Colombia but lives in the US and speaks perfect English, and is the nicest uncle as he brought his teenage niece, Isabella, on the hike. Isabella also speaks great English and is a sweetheart. After a stop at a designated shop/restaurant in Ollantaytambo, we reach Km 82 and chaos ensues. Our duffel bags are dumped out for us to jam our sleeping bags and mats into them and then have them weighed, we are mobbed by local folks trying to sell us all kinds of things, the sun is hot…overwhelming. After years of the trail being a free-for-all, the government now limits the number of trekkers to 500 starting per day. This number includes all of the porters and guides, so about 200-220 tourists can start the trail each day. We are not trekking during peak season, and I later estimate that about 110 other tourists began the trek with us, but it seems like at least half of them are dropped off at Km 82 at the same time we are. Good news – my duffel bag makes the weigh in, so I am good to go.

The Gang

The Gang

Day 1 is known as the easy day of hike and while it isn’t terribly hard, it is still hiking in the Andes with plenty of ups and downs.We begin hiking at about 10:45. The views are great and we pass some Incan ruins, which we are instructed to call remains as they were not destroyed by man but rather left to the elements. It is cloudy at times, but it never rains. We walk loosely as a group and stop frequently, which actually makes it harder because I never get into a rhythm and the frequent, long breaks make me stiffen up each time. But I understand that the guides are seeing how we do with the altitude and also assessing our hiking abilities for the coming days. We pass farms and houses; it is much like the hikes Matt and I do in the countryside around Cajamarca. At the rest stops there are ladies selling snacks, beverages and coca leaves. Coca leaves are common in Peru and trekkers are advised to chew them to combat altitude sickness and get an energy boost while hiking. I think they taste terrible, and the alkaline substance (made of ash or lye) you add to activate the chemicals in the leaves is awful, but I do chew them during some of the more challenging parts of the hike. I don’t know whether they actually help or have a placebo effect, but the guides and porters swear by them. Having frequent bottled water available is great as I can carry 1 – 1 1/2 liters at a time instead of filling up my camelback to 2 1/2 liters. We stop for lunch at a site with many of the other groups and the porters set up a tent, have buckets of water for us to wash our hands and camp chairs for us to sit on. Our lunch starts with a hot soup (a staple for all lunches and dinners) and is followed by a lot of starches, vegetables and some fried fish. Very civilized.

After lunch, we walk for about an hour and have another break and then finally we make the final push to our camp at 10,137 feet. We climb up past several farms until we reach our barnyard site. I arrive in the middle of the pack at around 4:30. We sleep on animal dung that night, which at the time it seems unpleasant, but when we sleep on rock the second night, the poop site seems nice by comparison! We relax at camp, have dinner and then turn in around 8:00; sunset is around 5:30, so it is already pitch black. Matt and I both sleep well – the only night on the hike that we do. Due to our group’s hiking skills (in fact, the porter with my and Matt’s bags arrives a good 30-40 minutes after I do) we get an extra half hour to sleep in on Tuesday – our wake up call is at 5:30 when the porters shake our tents and bring us coca tea. It is a cloudy morning and we have the dreaded challenging day ahead of us. By 6:30 we are packed up and on the trail.

Day 2 is different than Day 1 – we are allowed to walk at our own pace with a few meeting points along the way, including a morning snack before the big push to the summit. For the first time, I learn the proper way to hike mountains – go slowly and try to keep your breathing and heart rate stable as opposed to climbing in a burst of energy and then resting to recover. This makes perfect sense, and Carl, who has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, climbed in this manner the prior day. We are also cautioned to give way to the porters and always keep to the mountain side to avoid being whacked by the porter’s pack and pushed off the mountainside. The porters are amazing – I’m not sure any are taller than I am (5’3″) and they carry huge loads, as Mark can attest. We step aside often for the porters and then try to watch to see how they manage with broken down tennis shoes or sandals. Humbling, to say the least. I also try to see where they walk as they often pick out the best part on the trail – the lowest steps, less slippery spots etc. Each trek company outfits their porters in a specific color; ours wear yellow.

Next Up: The Summit and the Longest Day

If you missed my prior post Hiking to Machu Picchu Part I – Preparation, read it here http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/15/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-i-preparation/

Hiking to Machu Picchu Part I – Preparation

Machu Picchu is the most famous Incan site and the mainstay of Peruvian tourism. Built around 1450, it was abandoned in the mid-1500s and was never discovered by the conquering Spanish. Theories abound as to the purpose of Machu Picchu, with the current, most popular one being that the Inca emperor Pachacutec wanted to build his own magnificent capital city instead of ruling from Cusco, the traditional capital of the Incas. Machu Picchu is situated in the Sacred Valley 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Cusco. As one of the 7 New Wonders of the World, it was on our must-see list.

Little lower and the clouds lifted

Little lower and the clouds lifted

Our initial decision was how to get there. The most accessible way to see Machu Picchu is to take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and then take the 20 minute ride on the tourist bus to the site. Once there, it is easy to spend a day wandering around the city. The more adventuresome can climb Hauyna Picchu, 1,180 feet above Machu Picchu and a one-hour climb, to get a spectacular view of the entire site and see additional ruins, ascend Machu Picchu Mountain or hike up to the sun gate. So even if one takes the “easy” way to Machu Picchu, there is still plenty of hiking to do on the site itself. But Matt was having none of “easy” and was set on hiking the Inca Trail. Once our friend Carl and his brother Mark decided to join Matt on the trek, I couldn’t wimp out. We chose the most popular 4-day, 3-night hike and after reviewing Trip Advisor and the like selected Peru Treks as our trek company. For $599 a person, Peru Treks outfitted us with tents, sleeping bags and mats, purchased our permits, secured our campsites and provided us with meals and guides for the trek, in addition to a crew of porters who carried all of the gear. Our cost included $60 for the service of a personal porter who in addition to carrying our sleeping mat and bag could carry another 5.5 pounds of personal items for us. Peru Treks sends you back to Cusco via an 1 1/2 hour train ride followed by a 2 hour bus ride. This sounded horrible to me so we opted to book the Peru Rail Vistadome train ourselves and take a 3 1/2 hour train ride and 20 minute cab ride instead. It was the right call as the train was far more comfortable than the bus, and the cost difference was only $45.

Train along the river

4 days later, we would be on that train!

With the planning details out of the way, training and packing became my next concerns. Everything I read indicated that while the hiking is difficult, the hardest part for most people is the altitude. We were taking the orange route, which begins at Kilometer 82.

Trek map

Trek map

Here is a breakdown of the hike:

Day 1: 7.5 miles (12 km), begin at 8,528 feet (2,600 m) and ascend to 10,137 feet (3,100) for a 1,609-foot (500 m) elevation gain. Touted as the “easy” day of the hike, it wasn’t exactly easy, but not terribly difficult compared to the next two days.

Day 2: 7.5 miles (12 km), begin at 10,137 (3,100 m) and ascend to 13,776 feet (4,215 m) for an elevation gain of 3,639 feet (1,115 m) before a steep descent back to 11,480 feet (3,500 m). This second day is the reputed killer day of the hike. When I was in Lima 2 weeks before the hike, I ran into some folks who had recently completed the hike and they told me horror stories of hiking 11 hours and tears all around. I am happy to report that our group hiked it about 6-7 hours (including snack and lunch breaks) and there were no tears that I am aware of.

Day 3:  9.3 miles (15 km), begin at 11,480 feet (3,500 m), hike up to 12,916 feet (3,950 m) for an elevation gain of 1,436 feet (450 m) before the descent of 3,000 stone steps that is referred to as the “gringo killer” and then additional up and down hiking until the end at 8,829 feet (2,700 m). I found this day to be the hardest. Possibly because I was tired from lack of sleep the prior night and the hard hiking the prior day, but just as likely the fact that when we camped the second night we had a view of the climb that we would immediately begin on Day 3. I think seeing the ascent (and the top of the photo is not the top of the pass, there were about 3 more false passes before one arrived at the pass) demoralized me. But no tears or 11 hour days!

Night 2 Campsite - note the trail up the mountain

Night 2 Campsite – note the demoralizing trail up the mountain

Day 4: The end is in sight! 3.1 miles (5 km), this is where the trail really feels like a cattle call. We were up around 3:00 in order to break camp early and then rush 15 minutes to stand in line at 4:30 am waiting for the trail to open at 5:30. Once open, it was a mad dash to the sun gate to see the view of Machu Picchu, and then a trek down the mountain to the site.

Matt and I live at around 8,800 feet above sea level, so that gave us a good start on training for the hike. I continued with my walks 4-days a week and Matt with his daily walks to work, and then Matt and I would hike on the weekends. Usually Matt kindly carries my water and jacket for me as I despise carrying a backpack (and it is one of the things that I was advised against doing after my spinal fusion surgery so I routinely invoke the prohibition when I don’t want to carry anything but then chose to think that it refers to heavy backpacks and not a few pounds when I wanted to do this hike), but I even started carrying my own pack to get me accustomed to it. Our last joint training hike was our second trek to Cumbe Mayo, which is also on the Inca trail, is about 7 1/2 miles and is fairly steep with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, so I was feeling as prepared as possible for the hiking part of the trek.

Then there was packing. For some inexplicable reason, after years of traveling for work and pleasure, I am the world’s worst packer. And this time I was limited to 5.5 POUNDS!!! I read blogs on what to pack and a friend’s friend who had done the hike gave me some good advice. After much paring down, I was hoping that this would be 5.5 pounds:

Not 6 Pounds

Not 5.5 Pounds

It wasn’t. Further paring down and I ended up with :

  • 1 pair hiking pants
  • 1 super lightweight, insect repellent zip up jacket
  • 3 pairs of hiking socks
  • Fleece pants, long sleeved cotton top and 1 pair of short sport socks to sleep in
  • 1 sports bra
  • 5 pair of underwear
  • 3 short sleeve workout shirts
  • Hat/gloves
  • Necessary mini-toiletries (no fancy soaps or lotions, here!)
Actual 5.5 pounds

Actual 5.5 pounds

This left me carrying:
  • Lightweight (.8 pound) tennis shoes, tied to my pack until Carl pointed out that they were unlikely to weigh our bag on killer Day 2 and I put them in my porter bag instead, along with the notebook/pen, flashlight, scarf and extra wet wipes for the rest of the hike
  • Poncho
  • Rain Jacket
  • Scarf
  • Lightweight fleece
  • Sunglasses
  • Glasses
  • Insect repellent, sunscreen, first aid supplies, contacts, hand sanitizer
  • Head lamp and mini flashlight
  • iPhone
  • Wet wipes, toilet paper, Kleenex
  • Notebook and pen
  • Bandana
  • WATER. And water is HEAVY!! 2 liters weighs 4.4 pounds. It always felt so good when I was hiking with only a half liter or so of water left.
So when all was said and done, I carried about 10 pounds. In the end, I packed darn good – with the exception of one pair of underwear, the flashlight and the notepad/pen, I used everything I brought. Matt only had an extra pair of socks and underwear, so he packed well too.
Oh, and these stowaways made it into my pack too!
Next Up: The Trek Begins!

One Year Ex-Pat Anniversary

One year ago today Matt and I and 17 suitcases/boxes arrived in Peru for our new life of international living.

 

While our new life has had its challenges, what has surprised us is how easy it has been to make the adjustment. We have both improved our Spanish and can navigate the basics in Peru with relative ease (sometimes even on the phone!), we have grown accustomed to livestock in the road and stray dogs everywhere, our opinion of acceptable cleanliness has been necessarily modified, and we have learned to live without some of our favorite foods and luxuries. While we miss our family and friends, with the internet and wifi phone it has been so easy to keep in touch that almost seems as though we aren’t missing out on anything. A far cry from when I lived in Italy 25 years ago and my only method of communication with anyone stateside apart from my parents (whom I was allowed to call for about 10 minutes every 2-3 weeks) was writing letters.

It has been wonderful to immerse ourselves in local culture by hiking in the mountains near our house, traveling within Peru, enjoying the food (with the possible exception of cuy) and celebrating local customs and traditions. We have made good friends – both Peruvians and other expats. Spending almost a month in Buenos Aries and taking a wine trip to Chile and Argentina were both spectacular. In short, we have made the most of this past year.

So Cheers! to our 1st Anniversary of our new ex-pat life. We wish for many more great international years to come.

World Travelers

World Travelers

Gorgeous Gocta Falls

The third day of our weekend road trip (see http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping/ and http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/02/kuelap-the-city-in-the-clouds/) was hands down my favorite – we didn’t set foot in the van. Instead we embarked on a fantastic hike from our lodge to the Gocta Falls. We were warned that the hike was challenging and took 2  1/2 hours each way. It was challenging, but with Kevin’s coaching we managed to do it in closer to 4 hours including about a 1/2 hour at the base of the falls. In order to support the local economy, we hired a guide although he unfortunately didn’t tell us much of interest. It was interesting, however, to first walk through farm fields, then woods and finally arrive at the falls. It was absolutely beautiful and I realized how much I miss water. Living in the mountains is great, but the river that runs through Baños is not impressive, so to hear the sound of rushing water and to catch glimpses of it through the trees was magical. We didn’t see wildlife with the exception of hordes of beautiful butterflies. I have never seen so many different types of butterflies in their natural environment. Unfortunately we couldn’t capture their beauty on film, but this tag-a-long hitched a 45 minute ride on my pants leg.

Hitchhiker

Hitchhiker

I had to walk funny to avoid smooshing him and he flitted away at the base of the falls.

I brought our swimsuits because I was determined to take a dip when I arrived at the base of the falls. I chickened out. The frigid water, strong winds and jagged rocks were my somewhat valid excuse. The roar of the falls and their power was incredible.

The hike back to the lodge has a very long uphill stretch and we huffed and puffed our way through it. Once at the lodge I relaxed in the icy cold pool to make up for my wimpiness at the Falls. It was cold – Matt didn’t make it all the way in – but I loved it. We had a wonderful afternoon of cocktails and lunch by the pool and games on the terrace.

Reward

Reward

 

The next day we left the lodge at 7 am to head back to Cajamarca. We stopped for gas at the local gas station – someone’s house! The proprietress hauled out gas in 5 gallon pails and filled up the tank with a funnel.

Our drive home was not uneventful. Shortly after filling up the tank, we were on the “decent” road running alongside the river. We pulled over to the edge of the steep embankment on the river side to let a large truck pass on the mountain side when WHACK! We were hit?! My mind tried to process how that could be true given our precarious position on the embankment, but when I looked out my window, sure enough, there was a car. Thankfully, the car was stuck, all four wheels spinning and off the ground, on a large rock. Had the rock not stopped the car, it would have plummeted into the river. Unbelievable how reckless and stupid the driver was and how lucky. Thankfully, the rest of our drive was without incident. We kept our stops to a minimum, and arrived after the road construction in Celendín was done for the day, so we shaved 2 hours off our time and arrived home in 10 hours.

I am thrilled that we made the trip, particularly that it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kuelap for me because of the horrible road. Now if they build that tram that is being considered it could be another story, but a tram across the valley may be as terrifying as the road.

Kuelap – The City in the Clouds

The closed eyes, earbuds and raft-envisioning (http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping) aren’t working. We are about 2 hours into the ride to Kuelap from Gocta Falls, a ride that we thought would last only two hours, and Kuelap is nowhere in sight. Well, actually it is, but we aren’t looking in the right place as we don’t know yet that we will wind up, down and around the same canyon for an hour and half before we get there.

I seriously consider whether I want to get out of the van and wait for them to come back for me. But then I realize that I will be left on the road that is causing my panic and will likely get run off a cliff by a passing truck. When we arrived at the Gocta Lodge the prior night, I thought the worst roads of the trip were behind us, until we returned to Cajamarca that is, and the first hour and a half of the drive to Kuelap retraced a less-terrifying part of the prior day’s trip. Then we hit the turn off for Kuelap and started down the narrow dirt road that is considered one of the most dangerous in Peru.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, here is video proof.

About 45 minutes into the dirt-road portion of our drive, we stop in the tiny hamlet of Choctamal for some liquid courage. I am not the only traveler fearing the roads, just the most vocal. The proprietresses could not be nicer and the 3 year old is a sweetie. The ladies laugh at me when I confide that I am petrified of the road and reassure me the road is fine. But we are all disappointed when they tell us we have 45 minutes to go.

I am more relaxed after a few shots from a $2 bottle of rum. And then we hit a rock road block. Just a pile of medium sized rocks in a line across the road right before a curve. Fearing thieves, a few of the guys get out of the van to remove the rocks while the rest of us keep watch. We round the curve and confront a large mound of rocks blocking the road. Now more concerned, the men get out and Miguel asks two passing kids what is going on. The kids say it is a prank by some other kids and help remove the rocks. We give them some coins for their efforts as we had passed them on the road and don’t think they did it. We pass a few more small towns and the reward is in sight: Kuelap.

Kuelap is amazing – it is exactly the place I would have loved to play in as a child. Within the terraced site are 420 circular, 1 square and 4 rectangular buildings. Houses, trees, paths, the view, the mystery…for me, a big part Kuelap’s charm is its unanswerable questions. Why was it built? While originally considered a fortress, due to its mountaintop location, walled perimeter (60 feet high in parts) and three, narrow entrances, it is now generally considered to be a residential complex, but no one knows why the walls exist. How did they make it? Getting those huge rocks to the top of a mountain was no easy feat. Who made it and when? It is believed to be constructed in several phases, beginning in the 6th century and ending several hundred years later, by the Chachapoyas, the Cloud People, but no one is really sure from where the Chachapoyas originated. Instead of pondering these questions too much, we just wander about and enjoy the experience.

If you want to learn more about where Kuelap is situated, read this description from the visitor center. Or just skip to the pictures.

Kuelap summary

Kuelap summary

 

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The ride back seems less terrifying, but as I want to be off the dirt road before dark, we don’t stop to visit our friends in Choctamal although they wave to us as we pass. We also encounter two more rock road blocks and as we arrive at the second one, two young guys on a motorcycle ride up behind us. They converse the entire time our party removes the rocks and we are not sure whether they intended to rob us and decide we outnumber them or the fact that we didn’t leave our van unattended and two of us are staring at them while the others move the rocks deters them. Regardless of whether they were the culprits, the experience increases our desire to get back to the Lodge to relax. We enjoy a nice dinner and then sit outside and star gaze. I see 5 shooting stars and, of course, use all my wishes for a safe journey back to Cajamarca!

Next: The Fantastic Hike to Gocta Falls

Roadtripping

My eyes are screwed shut, my earbuds are playing happy tunes and I am trying to pretend that the jolting motion of the van is the cottage raft swaying gently on the waves. Welcome to a Peruvian Road trip.

Loading the Van

Loading the Van

We are trying to make the most of our time in Peru and decided to take advantage of the 4-day Corpus Christi holiday with a trip to Kuelap and Gocta Falls. Kuelap is an ancient stone complex, the largest in South America, that pre-dates Machu Picchu and is perched 3,000 meters above sea level on ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. Peru is attempting to make Kuelap the next Machu Picchu of tourist destinations and as we live relatively close to it, we decided it was worth the trip. Near Kuelap is Gocta Falls, which by some accounts is the 3rd highest waterfall in the world (apparently there is some controversy over how to measure the heights of waterfalls). So together with fellow Americans Mistina, Teresa, Kevin and Kristen, our Spanish friend Miguel and our Peruvian driver Adderly, we set off early on Thursday morning for the anticipated 10 hour drive through the Andes Mountains.

Those of you who know me know that I DESPISE car rides. I barely tolerate the 5-hour drive to Northern Wisconsin from Milwaukee and have sent Matt off with his friend Pete on road trip adventures. Peruvian roads are notoriously dangerous and before we arrived here, every week Matt would read some story of a bus or van plummeting off a cliff. It quickly became evident why.

The first hour of the trip was pretty good, the views were gorgeous and I was beginning to be lulled into thinking my life wasn’t in danger. Then we hit road construction and were told we had to return to Cajamarca and take the long way, which would add 4 hours onto our trip. Miguel sprung into action, collected our ID cards and somehow managed to convince the road crew to let us through because we were American tourists. Shockingly, we didn’t even have to grease any palms to make that happen. But we did get stuck behind machinery and had a very slow drive to Celendín.

Three hours into our trip, we took a short, necessary break.

Potty Break

Potty Break

After Celendín the roads narrowed and lost all pretense of handling two-way traffic. Thankfully Adderly is young and has his whole life ahead of him so he was a very cautious driver. It also helped that he had excellent reflexes and apparently a strong thumb as he had to toot the horn on every curve to make sure we didn’t get run off the road.

In addition to the traffic there were also animal impediments.

The roads got worse and worse and every time I opened my eyes it appeared we were plummeting off a cliff. We finally took a late lunch break in Leymebamba. It apparently has a wonderful museum, but we still had 3 hours to go until we arrived at Gocta Lodge so we had to pass on the museum.

The roads between Leymebamba and Gocta Falls were actually not terrible and toward the end we were on a decent one along the river. And by decent I mean that it was paved, slightly wider and had signs warning us of falling rocks.

Twelve hours after leaving our house, we arrived at Gocta Lodge in the dark (sunset in Peru is around 6:30) and after settling in we broke open the wine and snacks for a well-deserved happy hour. The next morning, we awoke to these beautiful views.

Little did we know that our relaxation would be short lived as we had the most harrowing drive of all ahead of us!

Next up: Kuelap.

Wining Part II – Colchagua Valley, Chile

We left Mendoza and flew to Santiago, Chile, where we had an afternoon and evening before being picked up by our guide, Pablo, and driven to the Colchagua Valley for more wine tasting. We saw very little of Santiago, but it felt like any other large city in a Western country. So similar that I had flashbacks when we stopped at the Starbucks in the morning to get a muffin before hitting the road and I saw all the businessmen (yes, only men) in suits having meetings or on their laptops. I don’t miss that life!

We did have time in Santiago for two very nice meals. The first was lunch at Bar Liguria. We got a bit confused walking there and I finally stopped and asked a friendly-looking woman where it was. She was so friendly that she walked us there. She wanted to practice her English, and I happily obliged. Who said city dwellers are unfriendly? We sat outside at the restaurant and had a lovely meal, despite some issues trying to translate the menu. Food terms are so regional that our Peruvian knowledge was no help beyond the basics. Beth and Chris have this amazing app that translates text before your eyes that we were using until we were informed the restaurant has a no cell phone policy. Oops! I explained we were just translating the menu and the waitress sent over a waiter who spoke some English, so we could put the phone away. After walking around a bit and then relaxing for a few hours at our hotel, we had dinner at Aquí Está Coco, a renowned seafood restaurant. The decor and ambience were great – in particular the restroom sinks made out of tree trunks – and the food was good. As it was a Tuesday night, the place lacked energy and the vibe seemed a bit focused on clearing the joint so the staff could go home. But we had a good meal nonetheless.

Pablo, the owner of Grado Sur Expediciones, picked us up on Wednesday morning and we headed to the countryside. Pablo was great – fun, interesting, and spoke perfect English, an added bonus. His company handles more active tours, such as mountain biking and kayaking, and our ride reflected it.

No need for the kayak/bike rack on this trip! But we were comfortable and it was good for the mountain roads (and our luggage). Pablo said that some of the nicer hotels give him the stink eye when he pulls up to collect guests, so we met him in the service drive at The W.

The fall colors in the Colchagua Valley were at their peak and grapes were still being harvested, so the valley was stunning. First stop was lunch at Viu Manent. Wow – the setting, the food, the wine, the service – everything was absolutely perfect.  We each ordered a different glass of wine and passed them around to have our own tasting. We didn’t tour the winery, but if I were ever in the area again I would definitely do the tour (complete with horse-drawn carriage) and have another meal there. Part of the attraction of the meal was that we were not limited to a set menu, as on our Mendoza tours, so we could have exactly what we wanted and each dish was a winner.

Second stop was the Laura Hartwig winery. Our tour was very nice, but we, and Beth in particular, were turned off by the winery’s label –  a prim picture of the now 83-year-old Laura back in the 50s. Very old-fashioned and it made us feel we were drinking wine with a aura of disapproval hanging over us. Really, check out her picture on the website and tell me if you think they could use a better marketing campaign! http://www.laurahartwig.cl/default.asp?id=52&ids=65. It was cool to see the barrels being filled and because our guide was so nice we bought a bottle of wine for us to drink with dinner that night.

Our final stop was Museo Colchagua, our only museum of the trip. It was quite interesting, with exhibits ranging from fossils to pre-Colombian artifacts to steam engines to the Chilean mine rescue in 2010, complete with the drill bits they used to drill the escape passage and the capsule that freed the miners. Had we not imbibed generous amounts of wine, we likely would have appreciated it a bit more. We decided on a simple meal that evening and bought cold cuts, cheese and a frozen pizza to have for dinner at our quaint inn, Posada Colchagua. The proprietess was very sweet and opened up her kitchen for us and offered us  bottle of wine. We were so over-wined, that we had to decline.

Day two started with a 2 hour drive through the mountains, instead of the 20 minute direct route to Viña Santa Cruz. For the record, I voted against it as I despise car rides, but I must admit that the views were impressive despite the fog. Even more impressive was the view from Viña Santa Cruz overlooking its vineyards.

Our guide described Viña Santa Cruz as a tourism winery and that was certainly true. We took a gondola to the top of the estate where there were three mini museums, each devoted to a different indigenous Chilean culture: Mapuche, Aymara and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). It was very interesting and Pablo was an informative guide. His descriptions made all of us want to visit Easter Island.

After we descended our tour began and that is when it became apparent that wine is not the focus at Viña Santa Cruz. Our guide was impersonal and pedantic: he would ask us a question and stare at us until someone would venture a response. Usually he would tell us we were wrong with a curt “No!” I felt like I was in junior high and hadn’t studied for a quiz. Despite the $30 per person cost of the tour, we were only allowed to taste the cheapest wines they make. Pablo knew something was up when we left without buying a single bottle of wine.

We had lunch in Lolol, Pablo’s hometown, at a lovely local restaurant. We walked down the main street in the town and saw where the homes were destroyed from the earthquake in 2010. Much devastation and the rebuilding process is slow due to a lack of funds.

Lolol

Lolol

After lunch we went to Mont Gras for a tasting instead of a full tour. Our host Marcelo was animated and very generous with the pours, which included all the different price points of the wines. It definitely made up for our bad experience at Viña Santa Cruz and we bought wine to prove it!

We headed into Santa Cruz where Beth and I walked around the market, yep, just like everywhere else, while the guys had a drink. Afterwards we headed to dinner at the lovely Vino Bello. Good wines, Italian food and service made for a great last dinner together.

Our last day together started with some excitement – an earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter Scale shortly after we arose. Matt and I had never experienced an earthquake before so we were a bit freaked out, particularly after visiting Lolol the prior day. To me it felt like a truck hit the building and then 4 waves came through that rocked me simultaneously up and down and back and forth. Very odd sensation. We found out later that an earthquake that small isn’t considered anything by those who live in the area and Chris, who lived in California as a kid, didn’t even notice it!

We went to the swanky Lapostolle Clos Apalta winery for our only tour of the day. The owner is the great-granddaughter of the creator of Grand Marnier and it was impressive to see what old money and a good distribution system can do for a winery! The winery is organic and biodynamic, the latter of which I don’t totally understand but it includes elements of mysticism, moon cycles and the like. The winery is intended to look like a nest perched in the mountains and it uses gravity (something we also saw in wineries in Spain) as the force to create its wines, with the wines moving down 6 stories during the process instead of being machine moved. The winery was impressive, as it should be given the US $10 million price tag. It was an excellent final tour for our trip.

But just because our tours were over didn’t mean our wine shopping was! We stopped at the Montes winery for our version of a tasting (ordering wines and sharing) and a snack. It was another lovely winery; the staff was friendly and the wines were good.

It was also interesting to see the fields being harvested. I made the mistake of saying “oh, those poor workers,” when I meant poor because they were engaged in back-breaking work while we were drinking, but I was mocked endlessly. Pablo’s brothers’ business is supplying the harvesters for the vineyards. We suggested they should also provide a wine shipping service as this was not available in the area as it had been in Mendoza.

Our final winery stop was Las Niñas, a winery owned by 3 generations of women, for the express purpose of buying their “high heel” wine per Pablo’s suggestion. Unfortunately, we learned that they had relabeled the wine because they felt it was too feminine and not doing well in the market. Clearly they were not shipping to the US where novelty labels fly off the shelves, particularly if the wine is good! Our final stop before the airport was a quaint restaurant where we had the best empanadas ever and sopapillas (fried dough) with honey for dessert.

We had just enough time to get Beth and Chris to the airport for their flight. Then Matt and I collapsed for the night – no dinner and no wine – before we returned to Peru the next morning. All in all, an amazing trip. Most importantly, all 5 1/2 bottles made it safely home! photo 2

So Much Wine and So Little Time – Mendoza, Argentina

Our friends Beth and Chris were our first South American guests. We couldn’t persuade them to come to Peru so we met in Argentina and Chile for a wine adventure. All adventures need some mishaps and ours started with a pretty big one: as Beth and Chris sat on the tarmac in San Antonio, TX, for their flight to Dallas, they received a text that their flight from Dallas to Santiago was canceled and they would be flying out the next day. We were all disappointed to be losing an entire day of vacation together, so we started off strong when they finally arrived in Mendoza.

First stop after our lovely inn, Villa Mansa, was the tiny tasting room at the Carmelo Patti winery per the recommendation of our driver, Marcelo. Carmelo was holding court, surrounded by other tasters, but warmly welcome us despite our limited Spanish. The wines were delightful and we each bought a bottle of the 2004 Gran Assemblage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Who said Mendoza is just about Malbec? A perfect first stop now that our trip was up and running!

Marcelo and Barbara at Villa Mansa attempted to get us last minute lunch reservations at Zuccardi, a popular winery owned by the cousin of a woman Beth and Chris met on the plane, but were unsuccessful. After calling other wineries, they finally got us a reservation at Vistandes. When we pulled up, we were pleased with the choice as it had the beautiful views its name suggests and the outdoor patio was lovely. Unfortunately, our initial server was terrible, the food was awful, and about 10 minutes into the meal I fell ill (no, not due to wine consumption!). We rushed back to Villa Mansa where I was indisposed the rest of the day and evening. While Matt and friends offered to stay on site, there wasn’t much that could be done for me, so they headed to Mendoza for dinner that night.

The next day I was vastly improved when we were picked up at 9:00 by Ampora Wine Tours to start our day of wining in the Uco Valley. Our guide, Sabrina, was very knowledgable and friendly and the other 4 tourers  – a Canadian, Brit, Swiss and Brazilian – were all pleasant company (no wine snobs, thank goodness). We learned that tasting wine early in the morning is best because your palate is at its freshest, so that became our excuse for drinking by 10 am each morning. First stop was the organic Bodega Domaine Bousquet.

We pulled ourselves away from the beautiful grounds and went to Bodega Gimenez Riili. This was our favorite stop of the day. Not only were the wines excellent, but the charming owner, Eduardo, gave our tour, complete with tank and barrel tastings. Our final tasting was on the beautiful patio and complete with cheeses, quince, bodega-made chocolate and fresh empanadas brought out by Eduardo’s wife. We could have sat there all afternoon in utter bliss and our only disappointment was that we couldn’t buy the chocolate to go with our wine.

Our final stop was lunch at Bodega O. Fournier. We were late, so we caught the very end of the tour, which was fine as we had already heard the wine making spiel twice that day. The medieval barrel room was over the top and Matt spent the rest of the day humming the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme. Lunch was in a beautiful restaurant, with average food (I stand by my prior statement that Argentine beef is not impressive www.http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/02/14/bread-glorious-bread/) and nice wines, but the experience had a definite assembly line feel as we saw other tables from other tour companies throughout the room and the meal wasn’t as amazing as the setting. Except for the dessert, which was incredible and included a spun caramel confection, or as we preferred to call it, bird’s nest. Matt had to restrain himself from picking off the plates of our fellow diners who didn’t eat theirs. In addition, our wine glasses were readily refilled so that was a plus!

Beth and Chris were accumulating wine to ship at a brisk pace, so we headed to Mendoza after our tour to drop off their loot at Ampora. We wandered about the vendor stalls at Plaza Independencia, which felt very similar to wandering around any outdoor market in any country. Some things are apparently universal. We continued to walk around aimlessly, found another similar but smaller market, and ended up eating at Anna Bistró, where the other three had eaten the prior night because nothing else in the neighborhood was open so early  (it was only 7:30). It was very cute, with a nice patio, attentive service from a cute waiter and decent food. My cosmopolitan was terrible (we were all off wine by that point) but as I didn’t need more alcohol, I didn’t mind not drinking it.

Our next day was much like the prior one – Ampora tours picked us up at 9:00 and we were wine tasting by 10 am. Jorge was our guide and the four of us were the only guests, which made for a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere.  We visited the Luján de Cuyo region and started at Bodega Lagarde, which is right on a busy street in Luján de Cuyo with its vineyards behind it. They offer a pure Cabernet Franc, the first we had tasted on our tours, which both Matt and Chris loved. They also produce sparkling wines, which is a bit unique in the area, so we saw the racks where they hand turn the bottles during riddling – the process of getting the sediment to consolidate in the neck of the bottle for removal prior to final corking.

One thing that amazed us on all of the tours is the manual labor involved in producing the wines – the grapes are harvested by hand, sorted by women (always women, we were informed repeatedly, due to their nimble fingers and attention to detail) at a long table, and, at some wineries, the stems and leaves removed by hand as well. Then, add on the time it takes to make good wine – several months in the casks and time in the bottle as well, and it is amazing that one can buy a decent bottle of wine for $10-$15!

Our next stop was Pulenta Estate, and apart from my notes that indicate we really loved these wines, the only other thing I remember is that the owner is a car aficionado and imports Porsches to Argentina. The winery had an area with some very cool engines and pictures of various cars. Maybe when we drink this bottle some additional memories will return!

Pulenta Cabernet Franc

Pulenta Gran Cabernet Franc

After Pulenta we went to Bodega Caelum, a small, family business owned by a woman and run by her son and daughter. The family had produced grapes for other wineries for 10 years prior to opening their own winery in 2009. The son, Hernán, conducted our tour and his pride in his family’s business was evident and endearing. The family took a lot of time in deciding the name and label and settled on Caelum, a small constellation in the southern hemisphere that depicts a sculptor’s chisel. The tour had a personal feel and Hernán even showed us how to hand-label a bottle and mentioned that on occasion he and his sister pitch in to do so if they need to get a shipment out. The wines were good, including a Malbec dessert wine that we hadn’t seen at the other wineries. The family also grows amazing pistachios, which we eagerly bought (although we ended up leaving a half of a bag behind in Mendoza as we knew they would be confiscated when we returned to Chile).

Caelum

Caelum

Our final stop of the tour was a gourmet lunch with wine pairings at Osadia de Crear at the Dominio del Plata winery. The meal was excellent, even the ribeye was decent, and we agreed it was our best meal in Mendoza, and that wasn’t because it was about 3:00 and we were in desperate need of food! The experience felt more personal than that at Bodega O. Fournier and the food was definitely better.

Osadia de Crear Menu

Osadia de Crear Menu

After the tour we returned to Ampora so Beth and Chris could ship their two cases of wine back to the US. Matt and I were jealous – due to the difficulty we have had in getting packages delivered to Cajamarca, we limited ourselves to the wine that I could pack in our suitcases (I have become a master at this practice due to the booze runs we make in Lima), which ultimately were 5 1/2 bottles – the half being the malbec dessert wine that Caelum cleverly advertises will fit in your shoe and it did in Matt’s size 12! The irony is that upon their return to the US, Beth and Chris determined that they can buy most of the wines they shipped in the US for only slightly more expensive prices while Matt and I cannot find any of the wines in Cajamarca.

Mendoza was just the start of our tour – next up, the Colchagua Valley, Chile.

Money, Money, Money – Navigating the Blue Market

The pesos are sticking to my boobs as Matt and I race-walk the mile back to our apartment in the 100 degree heat after our first “blue market” transaction. We exchanged $700, which translated to 7700 pesos. 77 bills to stuff in our pockets, Matt’s shoe and my bra. While walking around with a few hundred dollars in the US would not put us in a tizzy, Americans are constantly warned of the perils of carrying large sums of money in South American countries. The cost-benefit analysis promotes the robbing of tourists in countries where an average monthly wage likely is far lower than the few hundred dollars a tourist has in his pocket. Adding to our, okay, really just my, paranoia is the fact that we have left a “cave,” an illegal-but-condoned private money changer, and anyone hanging around clearly knows that we each have a wad of cash somewhere on our person.

IMG_1212

So what led me, generally a stickler for the rules, to illegal trading?  Economics, pure and simple. On the day we arrived in Argentina, the official exchange rate was 6.7 pesos per dollar. At our local cave, to which we were directed by our landlady, we got 11 pesos per dollar, which allowed our dollars to stretch an additional 64 percent. All guide books, websites, Argentines and just about anyone who had ever been to Argentina told us to exchange our money on the so-called blue market, and when we arrived to Buenos Aires, the blue market rate was published in the newspaper and stated on the television newscasters’ money reports alongside the official rate. So we were initially confused – was the blue market the same as the black market? After all, the second time we walked out of our local cave, there were about 10 police officers in front of the place and not one of them gave us a second look. And our cave had no front business – the door said Consultancy and it was a small lobby with two teller windows. We would hand over our dollars, they would get passed off to someone in a back room and a wad of pesos would come our way. The only added consulting service was when the cashier taught us how to spot counterfeit pesos, which just added to my paranoia about getting ripped off as a tourist.

And then there were the caves on Florida street, the bustling shopping district that had about 10 people on every corner shouting “exchange,” “dollars,” “buy dollars” and the like. We were intimidated by Florida street as we weren’t sure how to avoid getting ripped off or counterfeit bills (honestly, when you are getting that many bills are you going to sit in some back room and look at each one?) so we stuck with our local “consultancy” and grew more relaxed about the walk back to the apartment with our cash.

The blue market exists because Argentines distrust the stability of the peso and prefer the relative stability of good ol’ greenbacks. Stashing dollars under the mattress is no joke. Although most Argentines use a house safe, we literally stuffed our dollars and pesos under our mattress.  In 2011, in an attempt to curb this behavior, the government essentially forbade Argentines to own dollars except for travel abroad. Even then, the individual had to apply to obtain US dollars for a trip and such requests were not always granted, or were granted in a stingy fashion. One Argentine told us that people began booking cheap US flights they never intended to use just to obtain some dollars. Going across the river to Colonia, Uruguay, where dollars can be withdrawn from an ATM is also popular. Foreigners can not withdraw dollars from an Argentine bank or ATM, and charging purchases makes no sense as you will get the official exchange rate. So we arrived in Argentina with our entire vacation budget in cash and hit the blue market.

About a week after we arrive the peso plummeted, falling 17% in two days, raising the official exchange rate to 8. The government first decried the blue market, admonished newspapers and television stations for publishing the blue rates, and cracked down on the caves with a series of raids. The government then announced that the restrictions on owning dollars would be loosened and a plan would be announced in a few days. Unsure whether the changes would render the blue market obsolete, we quickly exchanged a few hundred dollars and got an abysmal 9.9 pesos to dollar rate. The following week the government announced that the loosened restrictions would allow Argentines to buy a certain amount of dollars per year based on income, but those dollars must saved in a bank account for a year or be subject to a hefty penalty for early withdrawal.  Our “consultancy” had a padlock on the door but Matt and I needed to exchange a few more dollars.  We headed to Florida Street and the mood was subdued – no one hawking their rates or shouting “cambio,” but quiet people hanging around with calculators in hand.  We asked our Peruvian friend to come with us and she was amazing in action: approaching various exchangers before negotiating an fantastic 12.2 rate for us. We followed the woman down a side street and into an actual travel agency where we were buzzed in and the door locked behind us.  Matt and I would have freaked out on our own in that situation, but we felt fine with our friend, particularly after she discerned that  the owner was Peruvian and chatted him up.  He was tickled that we lived in Peru, so we dispensed with checking the cash for counterfeits and hoped we weren’t ripped off (we weren’t).

We are headed back to Argentina in May for a wine trip to Mendoza, so I checked to see whether the blue market remains alive and well.  It is.  As of today, the official rate is 7.88 and the blue rate is 11.25.  Apparently, Argentines still want their dollars.