Saturday, June 29, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 9 – Inca Trail from Intipata to Machu Picchu

Last night we said goodbye to our porters and cook. They are a bunch of fine fellows and we will certainly miss their quiet, almost invisible services. We didn’t have much of a chance to meet them, as they are very deferential toward their “passengers”, but we all know how hard they worked and will remember them fondly even if we cannot remember their names.

Speaking of our porters, they used to wake us up around 5:30 am, with a hot infusion of coca leaves, so we could wake up slowly and be ready for a 6 am breakfast. Today wake up time was 3:30 am, but alas we had no morning tea (we figured the tip we provided was not sufficient and this was their way to express their displeasure). I was the first one up on that day, and hopefully soothed some ruffled feathers by giving my sleeping bag away to a porter who didn’t have one, and my jacket to another porter who had spent many cold moments looking after our stuff. (They looked after us like mother hens, taking no chances on we being badly surprised by a robbery, so there was always a guard over our tents and stuff.)

Breakfast was Spartan, but most importantly had no coffee (were we out of coffee, or was this another sign of displeasure this time from our Cook?). Now, some of us can switch to tea if needed, but Margarita turned into another being (the Exorcist comes to mind), and in a hoarse voice, totally unlike herself, croaked: WHAT? NO COFFEE? After that we all gave her a lot of space and tried to appease her by pushing with a stick a toast bread with marmalade in her direction.

So here we are, at 4:30 am, ready to go. We walked maybe a couple of hundred feet to the control point, and then sat until 5:30, waiting for the officials in the checkpoint to open shop. The Australians right away brought out the dice and immersed themselves into a game of Zonk, while most of us fell asleep on our seats, waiting thus for opening time. Today the idea is to walk 10 km from Intipata (3,250 m amsl) to Machu Picchu (2.400 m amsl), and to arrive in Machu Picchu at about 8 am.

It was an easy walk (well, there were a couple of spots where the trail was so steep that we had to crawl up like monkeys, holding on all five), and we had plenty of opportunities to look at the landscape and ponder: The famous peak you see in all the photos of Machu Picchu is a spire of granite, from the Vilcabamba batholith, but its most distinctive characteristic is a strong vertical foliation, which is actually pervasive in all the intrusive and metamorphic rocks we have crossed so far. It is very similar to what we see in Kings Canyon National Park, in California, and probably signifies the vertical stretching of the continental crust, as new plutons moved through a “crystal mush” which could be foliated but not induce a metamorphic event. The fact that you see the same foliation in the older metamorphic rocks suggest to me that the crust was overall hot enough to flow vertically as the plutons went past pre-existing rocks. The sedimentary sandstones and conglomerates of the Valley of Cusco, by the way, are a good example of the back-arc fold-and-thrust belt of the Andes. Too bad I could not get hold of a geologic map of the Sacred Valley.

We were half way down to Machu Picchu when Eder figured out that he had forgotten his aluminum walking stick at the checkpoint. Poor guy. He has been more than generous lending out his gear to us (though I still hold him responsible for encasing me in plastic and forcing me to carry a portable sauna with me for the best part of the night hike from Hell).

Once in Machu Picchu we took the obligatory photos from the Puerta del Sol (the Sun Gate), and then farther down to get the full view of the site and the small mountain that forms its backdrop. This mountain is called Huayna Picchu, and I will go back to it later in this narrative. Once we took the photo we went out of the site completely to visit the restrooms, have a drink, and have Tom meet Alma. It was a very touching reunion. Alma and Tom were celebrating Alma’s birthday, and 35 years of marriage, while we were on the trail, so Tom had arranged with two of Tita’s yoga friends to bring flowers to the hotel, to which the girls added a freshly baked birthday cake! Is that romantic or what?

Once rested we went back into Machu Picchu, for a quick guided tour of the site. It had to be quick, because Eder had to deliver us to the foot of Huayna Picchu, which Alma, Tita, Annie, Tom and I were going to climb, just so we could say we did. Let’s see, Machu Picchu is at 2.400 m amsl, and Huayna Picchu reaches only to 2,700 m amsl, so all we were going to do was 300 vertical meters (about 1,000 ft). Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. It was a grueling torture in our already strained knees and ankles, both climbing and going down. But the view from the top was magnificent and, as Annie put it, we are not likely to come anytime soon.

On the way down we visited a couple more temples in Machu Picchu, which is indeed a marvelous piece of engineering, before deciding that we had done our duty as hard core tourists and could now retire in honor. I will say, however, that with all its monumental architecture it is very impressive to me that the inhabitants never carved an image on the walls, left a stele, or placed a monument to the memory of its builder, the Inca Pachacute. Was this because they were forbidden to leave text or statuary art behind? Or did old Hiram Bingham did such a good job looting the site that nothing was left for future generations to enjoy? (Incidentally, word is that Yale University recently returned to the Peruvian people about half of the artifacts “collected” by Hiram Bingham, with the other half still being subject of negotiation.

So tired and almost without energy we joined the queue for the bus that was to bring us down to the town of Aguascalientes when I see, not ten people ahead of me, the profile of my good friend Raul Morales! Raul and I biked the Camino de Santiago a couple of years ago, and Raul and his wife Georgina joined us for the China tour last summer. What are the chances that we were to meet, in a remote corner of Peru, in a place where thousands of people were passing by? We could have been delayed by a few minutes and thus miss them completely, or I could have been facing the other way, or they could have taken an earlier bus, or … The fact is that we met, and for the half hour ride down to Aguascalientes we jabbered away happily, taking stock of our different families and common friends. The only other amazing encounter I have had was when Ramon Arrowsmith saw mw crossing the lobby of a hotel in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia about 10 years back. Again, it was a chance occurrence that could have failed if I had been a couple of minutes too early or too late. Keeping this in mind, how many of those encounters have I missed, just by a few minutes. Well, for all I know I may have almost met at least a dozen of friends in this way. Isn’t life stranger than fiction?

Aguascalientes is the perfect tourist trap, and we loved it. It is full of hotels, restaurants, and shops, and the night life is gay and vibrant. After taking long, long showers, and washing what was washable (Annie, the “I keep my things forever” kind of a person was so disgusted with the shirt she had been wearing for four days that she unceremoniously chucked it into el tacho de la basura), we gathered and went to look for dinner. I had asked and had been recommended El Indio Feliz, but before going there I asked on a couple of restaurants to see what they offered in the form of roasted guinea pig (Annie almost puked at the idea). But no, El Indio Feliz it was going to be, and an excellent choice it was too. The décor was more that of a Caribbean tavern, but the chef was a true master of international cuisine. We ordered the menu, with onion soup for Alma and Tom, an avocado and papaya salad for Tita and Annie, and quiche Lorraine for me as the first course. Then came chicken in ginger for Alma and Tom, pasta with all sorts of delicious trimmings for Annie and Tita, and a salmon trout with mango sauce for me that was to die for. Pie and ice cream for all of us, and we could fall in a satisfied moment of contemplation. Alma, Tom, and I have known each other for 30 years now, and we have had many an adventure together. To have Annie join this select group was indeed a delight, and we were all happy—even if exhausted—that we had tackled Machu Picchu together. Now to plan the trek of the Himalayas for next summer!

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