Archive for January, 2009

Lake Titticaca and a Trek to Machupicchu

January 7, 2009

Dear Friends,

Life in Peru continues to be an adventure. For a dear friend’s visit in early December we decided to leave our nest in Taray and arranged two excursions in Peru, one to Lake Titticaca on the Bolivian boarder and the other, a four-day trek that ended near Machupicchu. We also arranged to leave our house in Taray in late December in order to do homestays in Cusco and Arequipa while studying Spanish. From photos taken on our travels in December, we’ve put together a few short QuickTime videos we hope you’ll enjoy. Perhaps they’ll water your seeds of adventure and curiosity for that corner of the world that calls to you.


Currently we are in Cusco, a city of about 300,000, more if you count tourists. The Cusco district of Peru spans from the city of Cusco to Machupicchu. Taray, where we spent our two months in Peru, falls in this region. Incan and pre-Incan ruins, and mountainside terraces used in farming are common in the region. The area has been farmed for centuries and has been called the Sacred Valley for its fertile soil at least since the time of the Incans in the 15th century. The language, traditions and spiritual practices of the Incans and the Andean people are very much alive in this place.

Our stay in Cusco came about by our wanting to improve our Spanish. Though we’ve gotten around with our limited skills, we decided it was time to knuckle down and learn the tenses and expand vocabulary. We have four hours of individual classes a day, two hours of grammar and the other comprised of  teacher/student field trips in and around Cusco. These trips definitely have taken us off the beaten tourist trail and we’re learning a lot about this area, it’s people and their customs that we would not have learned otherwise. Two weeks into our stay, Cusco has been a truly rich experience. At the end of this week, we’ll fly to Arequipa, Peru, again to study Spanish, live with a host family and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the “white city,” named for the white volcanic stone used in its buildings. In early February, we’ll head to Ecuador for a four-week volunteer experience on the Galapagos Islands. At this writing, we are also awaiting final word from the Peace Corps regarding our placement in Africa. We expect that once the holidays are really over, we’ll hear something definite as to which country we’ll be assigned and when we’ll be heading out . . . . Please keep us in your prayers.

Our good friend, Sue, visited us for two weeks in mid-December. For her visit we decided to stretch our wings. The first trip began in our backyard with a climb up, around and over the Pisac ruins. Pisac is about a half-hour walk or 5-minute mototaxi ride from the rented house in Taray. (A mototaxi is a three-wheeled motorcycle with a covered cab for passengers.) The ruins at Pisac is one of our favorite hikes. The energy of the Incas remains palpable still, over five hundred years after the Spanish conquest. The hike was also good preparation for the upcoming Salkantay trek. After two months in Peru, we’re still adjusting to the altitude. And from our trek in June we know the air gets pretty thin at 15,000 feet.

blogapic1. The video begins with photos from the small pueblo of Taray, moves to the market of Pisac, and into the ruins where a few vendors sell hand-made textiles. The video then moves to Cusco and the cathedral in the central square, Plaza de Armas, and to a view from our inn.

In Cusco we caught the tour bus that took us to the city of Puno for our visit to Lake Titicaca. Along the eight-hour bus ride, we made various stops. One included ruins of tall adobe walls that are some of the tallest remaining adobe architecture of the Incas. We also visited a lovely little church that boasts of being South America’s “Sistine Chapel.” Closer to Puno, a winding two-lane road took us past high mountains with glaciers, shining down from some 20,000 plus feet. We arrived in Puno in the late afternoon to rain and chilly temperatures and checked into our room. A surprise to us, it had a nice view of the lake over the tops of buildings in town. We’ve noticed that we’ve had good karma for window vistas in Peru, knock on wood.

The next morning we boarded a small boat that launched us into Lake Titicaca. Our group had about 14 friendly folks, several Europeans, a couple from Argentina, a young man from Montana and ourselves. Lake Titicaca began with a visit with the Eros people, who live on man-made isles of packed reeds anchored to the lake floor. We took a short ride in one of their reed boats and visited with a family in their small hut. After reboarding our boat, we had a scenic three-hour ride to beautiful Amanati Island. At the island’s port our host greeted the three of us. She’s in her traditional island dress, a woven skirt, black headscarf and white embroidered blouse. You’ll see her behind the scenes later on her kitchen stool peeling potatoes for dinner. With a wood burning stove and no running water, the kitchen photos exhibit the reality of her life. Still, the soft light from the fire in the stove created a welcoming ambiance in the kitchen, probably not unlike many kitchens in the rural areas of Peru. We enjoyed getting to know the family and especially enjoyed playing with the young boy and his sister. We’ve found that our camera and its LED screen are wonderful tools for connecting with children. While they love pictures of themselves, children are also interested in photos from other places.

Earlier in the day our group took a hike to the temple for mother earth seated at the mountain’s highest point. The weather became colder with the setting sun, but the body heat from hiking uphill helped us find a comfortable balance. The views of sky, mountain and lake were simply unreal. We think the photos offer a good feel for what we experienced.

In the morning, we had breakfast, visited a third island and began the three-hour ride back to Puno. There we shared dinner and conversation with the young man from Montana and the couple from Switzerland. The group ordered cuy (guinea pig), a traditional Peruvian dish, pizza and traditional soups. The next morning we set out on the long return bus trip back to Cusco.

blogbpic2. After returning to Taray and resting for a couple of days, we were off on a 4-day, 3-night trek that would end near Machupicchu. The trek serpentines near the foot of Salkantay Mountain, a glacier covered mountain that reaches 20,500 feet. We had contacted Daniel, our guide on our Lares trek in June, who recommended and arranged the trip. He coordinated the personnel, rented gear like tents and cooking equipment and, with the cook, purchased food necessary to make a safe and reasonably comfortable journey. Still, we slept on 1.5” Thermarest mattresses in a nylon tent. Temperatures on the first night were in the mid-30s with a constant cold drizzle. Though we had the comfort of not lugging backpacks (impossible in this altitude), we still felt the connection with the earth and her elements that being in the backcountry has brought on backpacking treks in the U.S.

On the first two days of the trek, we saw only a few people and those were local folks. The climb to the 15,000 ft pass near Salkantay offered amazing views. Glacier mountains contrasted beautifully with the verdant valleys and stone constructions. The horse grazing in the field seemed to be an expression of the freedom, strength and grace of this place. The mountain valleys also seemed to be hard places to live – the isolation, the cold in the summer season, the lack of farmland that was so common in the Sacred Valley. Yet it felt like an old place and one still unspoiled. Notice the moss on the stone fence and the clear running creeks that will flow into the narrow and forceful river shown in the subsequent video. Near the pass, the snow, black boulders, and thick mist cast their own magic spells.

In one segment we relaxed on a slate of rock while the cook and his assistant prepared a snack and hot tea. The novelty of snow wasn’t lost on the cooks as they used their artistic knack and good  humor in building hombres de heilo (snowmen) and later in decorating pancakes. We had an incredible team: Daniel and his girlfriend, Maryellen, a guide in training; the cook and his assistant; and a horseman and his five-member team.  The combination of horses and mules carried equipment and supplies. The fifth horse was a backup. Treks wouldn’t be possible for tourists without the support of local people. On our end, we provided work for these men at a good rate.

blogcpic3. On the other side of the pass we entered into a cloud forest that brought a more temperate climate and rich foliage. On the descent we encountered amazing rivers, waterfalls and a host of flowering plants, orchids, and vibrant bromeliads. The scenery was in bold contrast to what we had experienced the two days before, both extraordinary. And it offered its own challenges. Where the initial leg brought a steady ascent of about 6,000 feet, the two-day descent on an often wet and rocky trail required focused mental effort and potentially more impact on our knees and ankles. For Sue, the extra horse provided a welcome break from time to time.

The bridges were unreal. A few bridges were no more than two tree trunks joined by rough-cut planks. We’d seen bridges near Pisac that we simply couldn’t attempt and instead used our poles to hopscotch through on creek stones. The force of the streams and rivers in the cloud forest were simply too strong for this. Careful, one wrong step and . . . .

We ended our 22-mile hike at a hot springs near St. Teresa, a half-hour train ride from Aquas Calientes, the base town for Machupicchu. At the hot springs, the shower, though cold, felt almost as good as the late evening soak in the steaming pool. We camped at the springs, and that evening and early morning ambled about lightheaded and still a little dazed by what we had seen and felt on the Salkantay Trek.

blogdpic4. After the welcomed break in the comfort of the hot springs, the next morning we caught the train for the short ride to the colorful town of Aguas Callientes, where we then picked up a bus for the final leg of our journey up to Machupicchu. Today, we would discover that the combination of energies from the surrounding mountains, when joined by the clouds and rain, enhanced the already powerful energy of Machupicchu. Even before stepping off the bus, we each sensed that we were headed for a unique and exciting experience.

The cool rain and heavy clouds stayed with us for most of the day as we explored this sacred city, climbing up and down hundreds of its ancient stone steps. We learned from our guide, Daniel, how the Incas had used some of the structures as calendars to mark the seasons, others indicated the four cardinal directions. We visited buildings that housed the priests and, others, where ceremonies and rituals had been performed. The popular spots included the Temple of the Sun and the Chamber of the Princess that adjoined it. The area of the condor is one of Jordan’s favorite. The Condor’s beak and wringed collar is frame in rope on the stone floor. The following photo shows the stone wall behind its head, where its wings emerge, outstretched. We also visited the Temple of the Moon, the Royal Tomb and a host of other structures in this ancient complex. In one of the photos you will see the effects of earthquakes on one of the walls. This is one of the few places where this ancient architecture has been damaged by earthquakes. As we explored these and other ruins in the Sacred Valley, we’ve heard repeatedly how the Incan walls remained solid while many of the newer structures surrounding them had fallen. Some of the buildings in the heart of the city of Cusco are built over these ancient walls and are still so tightly arranged that a needle can’t be inserted between them.  The photos certainly don’t do justice to the place or the experience, but we hope they will provide at least a taste of this amazing place.

In the early afternoon, Sue and John decided to attempt the climb up Waynapicchu, a taller sister mountain across a narrow valley from Machupicchu. It’s the tall mountain in the background in some of the first photos of the ruins. Jordan followed her own good judgment and opted for a dryer seat under the shelter of an outdoor café and the comfort of hot tea. This is John’s description of the climb and descent of Waynapicchu:

“When Sue and I started up the trail even before the first steep climb, I was feeling tired and doubted that I would make it to the top. A short while later, I felt a burst of energy. It was as if I were 30 years old again and nothing could stop me. I have often experienced such energy shifts before, especially while backpacking in the states, but never to this degree. At the top, I felt an amazing connection with the clouds, the mountains and the earth around and under me. It was as if the clouds were an extension of my breath, the earth an extension of my body. Similar to some of my experiences with the shaman in the jungle in October, there was the experience of all self-reference falling away, leaving only the experience of non-dual reality. Gotta love it when that happens! Then it was time for us to make our way down. The rain had picked up and a chill was settling into my body as we negotiated the often-slippery stone staircases in our race with the worsening weather and the closing time of this area of the complex. It was a nice trip down without incident and I felt a rush of gratitude as we passed the entrance gate for this amazing experience and a safe return to somewhat level ground.”

Sue and John were half-frozen when they reunited with Jordan some two hours after parting at the foot of Waynapicchu. We three headed to the bus for our ride down the mountain to Aguas Callientes. We had a good lunch, which came with two exquisitely carved carrots. We then jumped back on the economical “backpacker train” for our two-hour ride to the town of Ollantaytambo, not far from Pisac. In the train, we met young folks from British Columbia, Lima and Europe and shared snacks and conversation about our lives and our journeys. The next morning we returned to Cusco, as Sue would fly back to the U.S. the next day. We stayed at the charming inn pictured in the first clip and that day enjoyed the sights and sounds of this colonial city. We discovered an interesting restaurant that Sue claimed was more like Asheville than Asheville. Truly a compliment as this progressive North Carolina city has been a favorite vacation spot for all of us for many years.

Time relaxing mixed with climbs and explorations of the ruins of Pisac, the trip to Lake Titicaca, the Salkantay trek and Machupicchu were all rich times for the three of us. Before we knew it, Sue’s was awaiting check-in at the Cusco airport and our two short weeks together were over. Jordan and I returned to the task of getting packed and moved from our little house in the quiet valley to the city life of Cusco and another three-week Spanish emersion experience.

Life is truly an adventure! Stay well!
Jordan and John