Peru Trip with Amazonas Explorer 2006

Peru Trip Report — Alex Lindell
May 15 – 31, 2006

Alex at Sacsayhuaman
Alex at Sacsayhuaman

Inca Trail Trek, Rafting, Peru Mountain Biking, Lago Titicaca, & Tihuanaco

We booked this 16 day trip through Detour and their partner in Peru, Amazonas Explorer.  The service from both companies greatly exceeded our expectations as did the trip overall.  Peru and the Inca legacy is something everyone must see.

To accompany the report below, pictures are located at http://www.detourdestinations.com/photopost/showgallery.php?cat=500&ppuser=17.  I have also included links to photos throughout as well as to pertinent websites.

Day 1 – May 15 – Arrival in Lima
I arrived around 10pm to the Lima Airport on Monday night and the airport was a madhouse.  I was not able to pick my name out of the hundreds of signs, so I walked upstairs to the tour operator office.  I was quickly led to a van and on my way to the hotel in Miraflores.  I still have not figured out how my driver circumnavigated the gridlock at the airport, but it was an impressive display of driving.  Tip: do not drive in Peru – I highly doubt I would have survived one day driving.

I stayed the night at the Double Tree El Pardo in Miraflores.  I made my way to the bar to taste test the various Peruvian beers and Cusquena dark won out quite easily.  I had a great conversation with the bartender and learned that Peruvian politics is about the same as in the U.S.  Peru’s highly contested election between Ollanta and Garcia was just a couple weeks away (Garcia won on June 4).  The Peruvians say that the choice is like being forced to choose between cancer and AIDS.  And “forced” is the right word since voting is obligatory and failure to vote results in a pretty hefty fine.

Day 2 – May 16 – Cusco
I was picked up early in the morning in Miraflores for the rush hour drive back to the airport.  It was even more exciting than the prior evening’s ride.  To make an otherwise simple trip to Cusco more challenging, I left my ATM card in the machine and did not realize it till after I was through security.  Once through security, it is not possible to go back out.  The tour operator at the airport made sure the card was destroyed and it all worked out without a serious disaster.

Upon arrival in Cusco, I was greeted at the airport by the Amazonas tour guide, Alan.  Alan took me to the Hotel Mabey and filled me up with some cocoa tea.  Since I arrived a day early for the Inca Trail Trek, Alan turned out to be my personal guide around Cusco.  Cusco is at about 12,000 feet above sea level and Alan warned me not to drink alcohol on my first night.  In the same sentence he told me to meet him at the Plaza de Armas at 10pm if I wanted to go out that night.  Before going into the club, he warned me about the bicheras (a.k.a gringo hunters – I told him we call them gold diggers).  In hindsight I should have taken his advice, but instead I got drunk and fell easy prey to the hunters.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco
Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Day 3 – May 17 – Cusco
In Peru, cars have the right of way – crossing the street is no simple matter.  The cars will not slow down; in fact I am pretty sure a few sped up when they saw me.  Most often they will honk the horn, which means that it is rare for a second to pass without hearing a horn.  This kind of sucks at 7am while trying to sleep off a hangover.  The hotel had a limitless supply of cocoa tea and it eased the pain slightly.

The rest of the group arrived in Cusco about midday and I was introduced to a few of our trekking companions and our lead trekking guide, Willo.  Our trekking companions were a group of five Brits and they had me in stitches from the outset.  Our tour of Cusco lasted about half an hour because the Brits wanted to watch the Arsenal vs. Barcelona football (a.k.a soccer) match.  Arsenal put up one hell of an effort after losing a man in the first few minutes, but lost 2 to 1.

That evening, Willo provided the Inca Trail briefing and we were presented with our kit bags.  Amazonas provided everything but clothes, toiletries, and a sleeping bag.  The clothes and toiletries had to fit in the kit bag.  At first, the bag looked painfully small and I was a little worried.  I ended up having extra space even with the 500 page book I brought along and never opened.

Day 4 – May 18 – Inca Trail Day One
Willo and the minibus arrived early in the morning to pick us up and head for the trail, but first we were stopping in Ollantaytambo.  On the way, we picked up the rest of group in the Sacred Valley – four more Brits and a Canadian.  They had been mountain biking the previous day and stayed in a villa with a local family and their pets – a couple labs and a couple loudmouth parrots.  Amazonas set this up as well and it looked quite nice.

Ollantaytambo is an impressive site (I will call them “sites” as opposed to the prevalent use of the term “ruins” – Willo was adamant about this point because there is nothing ruined about these sites) carved into a hillside and shaped like a llama.  It seems that every hillside in Peru is terraced.  It was amazing to see the amount of work (an 8 foot high retaining wall to reclaim 3 feet of land from a steep hillside) to capture such a small plot of land.  At the very top of the site is what is left of a Sun Temple and my first glimpse of massive carved stones fit together so perfectly a razor blade could not pierce the seams.  At this point I realized that the prevalent theory (time, slaves, and copper tools) to explain how these stones were carved and then hauled to their resting spots was total rubbish.

We arrived at the Km 82 trailhead around 2pm and met our porters and chefs.  In total, there were 13 trekkers, 2 guides, and 20 porters.  The first day we hiked only a few relatively flat miles before camping across the river from Patallacta.  By the time we arrived, the porters had all the tents set up, including kitchen, dining, and toilet tents.  The porters lined up and applauded our arrival at camp.  We had a brief introduction ceremony, and then we were each provided with a large bowl of hot water and soap to wash up.  This was followed immediately by hot tea.  There always seemed to hot tea at anytime on the trek – I am not sure if this is because Amazonas is a British-run company or if it is because all the water is boiled and making tea is easier than cooling the water.  For dinner, there was more tea, soup, chicken pesto with rice and mashed potatoes, chocolate pudding, followed by more tea.  We did not stay awake long after dinner.  Had I known this would be my only evening with any luck related to the backgammon dice, I would have stayed awake later.

Day 5 – May 19 – Inca Trail Day Two
Oswaldo, our second guide, was tasked with waking everyone.  It was pretty early and fairly chilly, but they had hot tea in hand as well as more hot water for washing.  We packed our kit and sleeping bags before a nice hot breakfast.  After eating, we set out across the river for an up close view of Patallacta, a huge terraced hillside with an intricate irrigation system and another Sun Temple.  The first few miles of the trek were flat along the riverside and mostly dirt.  Then we hit the uphill and that was basically the end of the flat for the rest of the trek.  On this day, the trek was entirely uphill with lots of stairs.  The massive of wad of cocoa leaves in my mouth helped immensely.

Inca Trail in the Clouds
Inca Trail in the Clouds

We ate lunch about halfway up the climb and spent some time relaxing in the sun.  Lunch was much like dinner – three courses with soup, hot entrée, dessert, and more hot tea.  The rest of the day’s hike was basically stairs.  We crested the top of the hill at Llulluchapampa, where they had set up flat areas for camping and a restroom.  We hiked another half mile or so to a sweet campsite at the foot of Dead Woman’s Pass (Abra de Huarmihuanusca).  The campsite had a small stream running through it and an amazing view of the Andes.  I carried three bottles of Cusquena all the up the trail that day, but everyone was so beat after the hike that only the porters would drink it.

Day 6 – May 20 – Inca Trail Day Three
This was a big day of hiking with two significant passes so they started us early again.  The first pass was Dead Woman’s Pass – named because the mountain is shaped like a woman lying down, not because a woman actually died trying to cross it.  From there we hiked down stairs on much of an original Inca trail.  I thought the trail itself was very impressive as it was totally paved with huge stones weighing more than a ton.  In some spots the Incas had to build up the road 20 or 30 feet to make it wide enough for three people to walk abreast.  I understand that there are more than 10,000 miles of these Inca roads stretching from Bolivia to Ecuador.  In addition, the roads are high along the sides of the mountains rather than through the valleys.

After a snack at the bottom of the hill, we headed up to Runcu Raccay and the second major pass.  From here we could see all the way back to Dead Woman’s Pass.  On the way down there is a site called Sayac Marca overlooking a smaller site named Conch Marca.  Sayac Marca requires an extra climb up about 200 steep stairs, but was my favorite spot.  It is rather small but has an amazing water works and an even more spectacular view.  Don’t skip this site.

At the bottom of the hill we stopped for lunch in a spot where most of the other tour companies were setting up for camp.  We continued to hike for a few more hours till we reached the top of a smaller pass and our campsite overlooking Phuyu Pata Marca.  This was when I realized how much better our campsites were than those of the other tour companies.  While the other tours were camping in a valley next to a toilet, we camped on a terraced hillside all by ourselves with breathtaking views in all directions.

Phuyu Pata Marca
Phuyu Pata Marca

The views at sunset and sunrise and of the giant Andean peaks from here can’t be described in words and I am not even sure the photos do it justice.

Day 7 – May 21 – Inca Trail Day Four
We woke very early to catch the sunrise and tea at the summit.  It is well worth waking up at the crack of dawn for this view.  After breakfast there was a big ceremony as this was our last chance to visit with the porters.  The ceremony began with a raffle of all the stuff we no longer needed after the trek – t-shirts, socks, liquor, cocoa leaves, jackets…  The porters then sang a song and danced.  Then the trekkers sang a song (The Hokie Pokie, because that’s what it’s all about) and danced.  Then we presented the chefs, louman, porters, and guides with their tips – $150 – $200 U.S. dollars total is about what we each put in and our guide helped us determine the split.

We then headed down the steep stairs to Phuyu Pata Marca complete with functional ceremonial baths – no one got in because the water was frigid.  We were rather unlucky because a landslide during the rainy season had wiped out the famed Sun Gate entrance to Machu Picchu and we forced to hike to the river and into Aguas Calientes and then take a bus to Machu Picchu.  They fixed the trail two days after we completed the trek.  I don’t know what I missed so I am not very disappointed.  So the rest of this description is a variation of the regular route.

In lieu of the regular hike, we veered off the main trail at Phuyu Pata Marca and hiked a less traveled trail to Intipata.  Intipata is a convex shaped site with huge terraces way up on the side of a steep mountain.  Further down the hill is a concave shaped site called Huinay Huanay (Forever Young).  You can see both sites in this picture.

We reached town about 3:30 in the afternoon and we split from the rest of the group.  Amazonas put the group up for the night in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, but we decided to pay the extra $900 dollars to stay the night at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.  It is a five star hotel located right next to the entrance of Machu Picchu.  Every book we read raved about this place and a few even said this is a must see before you die deal.  Lies, all lies!  The service was abysmal for even a three star hotel, they gave us food poisoning, and then they treating us like trash.  To top it off, the only view you get from the hotel is of the fat American in a towel talking on his cell phone.  There is no view of Machu Picchu and there is no special access to the site either.  It is a total waste of money and we would have had a much better time with the rest of the group at the hostel.  Then the hotel manager had the audacity to tell our tour operator that we did not have food poisoning, we were just drunk.  Well, I weigh 225 pounds and had five drinks in 4 hours.  It must be the first ever 104 degree fever induced by drinking – their doctor had to give us both shots in the ass to stop the nausea.  I hope someday to meet this hotel manager in a dark alley.  And this is the watered down version of my Sanctuary Lodge tirade.  The hotel ruined what was supposed to be the highlight of the trip and we only got to spend a couple hours at Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

Day 8 – May 22 – Machu Picchu
Since we spent the entire night rotating use of the bathroom, we only spent a few hours at Machu Picchu.  Get there first thing in the morning or stay till close.  On the trek, we had every site to ourselves, so it was a little anticlimactic to have to share Machu Picchu with a thousand other people.  The rest of group arrived at 6am and had a fabulous time.

Late that afternoon we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo and then a bus back to Cusco and the Hotel Mabey.  This hotel cost less than $100 per night and they treated us like royalty.  The owner made us chicken soup and delivered it to our room.  I highly recommend the Hotel Mabey.

The rest of the group went out to dinner, but we stayed in bed as the train ride didn’t help much with the Sanctuary Lodge Plague.

Day 9 – May 23 – Cusco Sites
When I woke, the sun was shining and the illness eradicated.  We decided to rent a taxi for the day and see the Inca sites in and around Cusco.  Edgar, our taxi driver, charged us about $25 for four hours or so.  We started at Sacsayhuaman (pronounced like Sexy Woman).  Cusco was the capitol of the Inca and Sacsayhuaman the fortress from where the Incas fought the Spanish conquistadors before retreating into the Andes.  When you see the Inca sites, it is difficult to imagine what they must have looked like during the reign of the Incas.  The sites were inlayed with gold and most of them were 6 to 10 feet higher than what can be seen today – the conquistadors pried out all the gold and took the smaller stones from the tops of the sites to build the churches.  Sacsayhuaman was built from some of the largest stones I saw on the entire trip.

After Sacsayhuaman we visited the smaller sites of Qenqo, Pukapukara, Tambomachay, and the White Christ.  What remains of Qenqo is a huge rock that has steps and hollows carved into it.  Pukapukara has an amazing view of Cusco.  Tambomachay is a ceremonial bath which is still operational.  The White Christ was a gift from the Palestinians in 1945 and stands high above Cusco with arms wide open.

Rafting the Urubamba
Rafting the Urubamba

Day 10 – May 24 – River Rafting
Ephram, our rafting guide, and Jaunito, our safety kayaker, picked us up bright and early for the drive to the put in on the Urubamba.  It took about two hours to get to the put in as Amazonas prefers to raft the upper part of the river before it passes civilization and raw sewage from the towns.  We passed through what looked like an entrance to a national park before reaching the put in.  Prior to casting off, Ephram explained the commands and safety precautions.  Jaunito is a sick kayaker and one of the best in Peru.  They were super fun and basically let us do whatever we wanted.  There were a few exciting rapids, but nothing especially frightening.  It was a magnificent day and we had the river to ourselves, except for one dog who was pretty upset we were on his river.  Our guides told us this part of the river is practically unrunable for commercial tours toward the end of the rainy season in March and April.  Amazonas offers a three day rafting trip on a different river that is supposed great fun as well.

At the take out, our driver was waiting with a picnic set up on the side of the river.  We spent an hour or so basking in the sun before returning to Cusco.

Mountain Biking Peru
Mountain Biking Peru

Day 11 – May 25 – Mountain Biking
Amazonas set up this mountain biking trip on a popular trail from up above Cusco into the Sacred Valley by the salt mines.  The first part of the ride is mostly dirt road with no significant challenges technically or physically.  We stopped for lunch above the circular terraces at Moray outside the town of Maras.  From here the trail was fabulous singletrack complete with banked turns, switchbacks, and technical obstacles.  Most of the ride was downhill with a couple short uphill sections, which would not ordinarily faze you, but at 12,000 feet are painful on the lungs.  At the end of the singletrack, we emerged above the salt mines.  They are quite a sight and the amount of work required to get the salt (and the price they charge) is staggering to comprehend.

Day 12 – May 26 – Cusco
This was our final day in Cusco and our only self imposed day of rest.  We had no activities planned and just spent the day lounging around Cusco.  We spent some time shopping and perfecting my ability to say “no gracias”, which I must have said about 100,000 times and never did eliminate the gringo accent.  We also were able to download our memory cards onto CDs at one of ten photo shops near the Plaza de Armas.

Meal Time on the Orient Express to Puno
Meal Time on the Orient Express to Puno

Day 13 – May 27 – Train to Puno
I was kind of dreading the ten hour train ride from Cusco to Puno, but this turned out to be one of the best days of the trip.  You must get the first-class ticket for the train and it is an experience you will not forget.  The other classes on the train you will also not forget, but not because it was a great experience.  The Altiplano, a massive high altitude plain stretching from Argentina to Ecuador, is the setting for this train ride.  The seating car has big armchairs and tables.  Behind the seating car are a bar and an observatory, which is partially open to the air.  There was one stop halfway where we took on lunch.  The views are spectacular and this is well worth a day of vacation.

Day 14 – May 28 – Lago Titicaca Boat Trip
Henry, our guide in Puno and local filmmaker, picked us up at the Hotel Qelqatani early in the morning to catch the fast boat around the lake.  By the docks, the entire surface of the lake was covered in a layer of green algae.  The boat had about twenty-five seats and an upper deck, which was quite chilly.  Our first stop was one of the floating reed islands of Uros – Khantati.  I think these islands are largely tourist attractions now, but nonetheless they are very interesting.  The people of Uros use the reeds for almost everything including, the actual island, homes, boats, beds, fuel, and food.  The people were very nice and the island was very well kept.  Some people on our boat took a ride in one of the reed boats to another island.

Isla Taquile, Lago Titicaca
Isla Taquile, Lago Titicaca

Our next stop was the Isla Taquile.  This is a real island that was settled prior to the Incas and then later conquered by the Incas.  It is rather small as we walked from one side to the other, stopping for lunch on the way.  The island is completely terraced from top to bottom with a small Inca site atop the tallest hill.  The views from the island are magnificent – crystal blue waters stretching to the base of massive snow capped mountains.

Tihuanaco Face
Tihuanaco Face

Day 15 – May 29 – Tihuanaco, Bolivia
Closely following the Inca Trail trek, this day was my favorite.  The site at Tihuanaco is much different than anything we saw on the trail or in Cusco.  The architecture is quite a bit different and the carvings/statues were non-existent at the other sites.  The artifacts at Tihuanaco are one of the Earth’s greatest mysteries rivaling Egypt and Easter Island.  What the conquistadors did to this site is unfathomable.  I can’t imagine coming up to this site and seeing the architecture and craftsmanship and then destroying it.  After prying all the gold from the outside of the statues, they cracked them open just to make sure there was no gold inside.

I saw things at Tihuanaco that would be challenging to recreate with modern technology and just can’t be explained.  Two pieces of pottery, just like all the other pottery found, dated to 1500 B.C. of a Chinese man and one of an African man – there is no doubt.  How did these people way up in the Andes have contact with Asians and Africans in 1500 B.C.?  The perfect crosses carved into granite – by perfect, I mean every angle is a perfect 90 degrees.  The perfectly straight etched line into a granite with perfectly evenly spaced “drill” holes of the exact same diameter.  Drill is in quotes, because the Tihuanaco had no drills.  The perfectly circular carvings into basalt rock – a volcanic rock and even harder than granite.  For this one, our guide had no explanation.

This brings me to another point; the Tihuanaco and Inca peoples had made perfectly round carvings, were able to transport massive stones great distances, were able to carve some of the world’s hardest rocks, and built paved roads spanning more than 10,000 miles.  Yet there is no evidence they invented or used the wheel.  Sound familiar – how about the Egyptians who built the pyramids?  How did these great civilizations fail to invent the wheel – it seems like it would have happened by accident.  My theory – they didn’t need the wheel, there was something better.

There is a square room with 175 carved faces protruding from the wall.  Each face is carved differently and most had traditional Tihuanaco type features.  However, there are a few exceptions, like the one that looks identical to a Roswell alien – except it is from 1500 B.C.

There is a piece of granite in which they have bored a hole that scientists say resembles the human ear canal.  This hole has some pretty awesome auditory phenomena.

Toward the end of our visit, a group of school children arrived for a field trip.  At some point they disturbed a bees’ nest.  We were swarmed by bees and chased with prejudice from the site.  Remember the bee scene from Tommy Boy?  That was me running, screaming, and flailing for about ten minutes.  I was stung only once but my pride and lungs may be forever scarred.  I am real glad no one got this incident on film.

Getting back into Peru, actually getting out of Bolivia, was an exciting experience.  Let’s just say – don’t take pictures of the Bolivian border.  The Bolivian border patrol only threw rocks at us, although their guns were even more accessible.

On the way back to Puno we stopped for the Festival in Potoyama.  It was the anniversary of the town and everyone was in the central square for a parade.  I realized quickly that the people of Potoyama had never (or at least rarely) seen a six foot tall bald gringo.  I attained almost instant celebrity, but was not allowed to exploit my new found status.

Day 16 – May 30 – Home Again
Well at least after 24 hours of hellish travel.

Trekking Packing List and Tips
In your day pack, you should carry your camera (and all accessories), sunglasses, water bottle or camelback, sunscreen, bug spray, pocketknife, blister stuff, baby wipes, sunhat, fleece or sweater, extra socks, and an extra t-shirt.  If you want a trekking pole, bring a proper pole with you – the bamboo things they sell at the trailhead are more of a hassle than an asset.  At the top of every pass you will be wet with sweat and the passes are windy and cold.  You should switch into your dry t-shirt and fleece.  Splay the wet t-shirt over the back of your pack so it will dry before the next pass.  Although, we had only perfect weather, you should have a raincoat and waterproof cover for your pack just in case.  I wore shorts the whole time, but you may want a pair of trekking pants as well if it is colder.

I suggest wearing light colors.  There were relatively few bugs on the trail, but they were attracted to dark colors like black and blue.

For the porter carried items you should bring a few extra t-shirts, towel (a backpacking towel is recommended as my traditional towel never actually dried after the first day), pants, down jacket, long underwear, good sleeping bag, warm hat, after-trek shoes (I had sandals and that was a mistake – I suggest lightweight slip-ons of some sort), plenty of hiking socks and underwear, baby wipes (absolutely critical), limited toiletries (Amazonas provided soap so really a toothbrush and toothpaste is all I needed – people with hair may want a brush), and cash ($200-250 was plenty).  We also had a backgammon set we brought along which was used often.  I brought a book and never opened it.  Even if you don’t smoke, most of the porters will appreciate cigarettes.

Get some dried cocoa leaves and chew them on the uphill days.  They seemed to work wonders.

Finally, get in good shape.  The first people to arrive at camp each night get the first choice of tent.  However, this is actually not a requirement, as the pace is quite slow.  The slow pace is a necessity to allow the porters time to get ahead of you and set up prior to your arrival.  For reference, we did the trail in three and half days and the record for a porter running the same trail (without a load) is three and three quarters hours.

Food & Water on the Trek
The food was the best backpacking food I have ever had.  Every meal was hot.  In addition, at the beginning of each day they provided us with a bag of snacks.  They catered to specific dietary requirements ranging from me (anti-veggie – no corn, eggs, or mushrooms) to the full on vegetarians.  Do not expect gourmet food as all the food is carried on someone’s back, but I am super picky and this was my primary concern.  I was pleasantly surprised with the quality.

Every morning and after every lunch, Amazonas provided drinking water for filing up water bottles.  I did not need the purification tablets.

Other Suggestions
I recommend planning your activities in advance of arrival, way in advance if you want to do the traditional Inca Trail.  There is no need to waste time while on vacation planning your activities.

Don’t drink, or even put to your lips, any water that is not out of a bottle.  If they say the ice is from purified water, drink it at your own risk – I am pretty sure I sold my soul to the devil while hugging my porcelain friend at Machu Picchu.

Learn at least a little Spanish, it will go a long way.  Be patient, do not expect U.S. type service in South America, because you will be disappointed.  Try to avoid doing any more damage to our reputation – George Bush and his “foreign policy” have taken care of that for at least the next three generations.