Back in Peru, I decided to find a tour that went to Manu National Park whilst killing time before doing the Inca Trail. I had some bolivianos (the Bolivian currency) left over, so first things first, I went to get my money changed at one of the many "cambio" booths in Cuzco. But as I went to pay for my lunch with one of my nice crisp 50 sole notes (about $16 AUD) the lady informed me that they couldn't accept it because it was a photocopy. A really bad photocopy; I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed earlier, it was so obvious once she pointed it out. It wasn't even the same size as a normal note. In short, a really bad forgery. Not one to take this lying down, I stormed back to the man at the cambio booth and informed him that I had received a photocopied note from him and I wanted a real 50 sole replacement. Of course he denied everything, but I knew it had come from him because the only other money I had was from an ATM. So I threatened to go to the police and to my surprise he offered to come with me. We found a policeman on the street, but he only spoke Spanish, so the he called the "Tourist police" who rocked up in a shiny car and told us to hop in. I don't normally get in cars with strangers, but they were wearing uniforms and the car was clearly an official one. After much toing and froing, the cambio guy offered me 40 soles. I laughed in his face, as to me this was clearly an admission of guilt and told him firmly that I wanted my full 50 soles. Eventually he caved and I got my money... my REAL money. Cambio guy 0 persistent gringo (me) 1! I love when the good guys win. And I still have the fake note as a souvenir.
So I booked a three day tour of the Peruvian jungle, as that was all the time I had, but of course it wasn't long enough. When the bus picked me up early the next morning, I realised I was in a tour group with six much older people. I had obviously booked with Granny Tours. But they were really friendly, if a little opposed to anything too strenuous. The bus trip to our lodge in the middle of the jungle was interesting, as the roads were awash with rain and the driver and guide had to get out on numerous occasions and dig us out of a bog with a pickaxe. It was like driving with Sam (:P). We then transferred to a boat where we were delivered to our jungle lodge complete with mosquito nets, cold showers and lazy hammocks. It was a cool little place and we all fell asleep to the sounds of frogs and crickets chirping through the mesh windows.
The next day we got up at 5am to go "bird watching". This apparently excited the geriatrics on our trip, as they eagerly wielded their binoculars and wide lens cameras. I, however, will not be taking up bird watching as a hobby any time soon. We sat across the bank of the river watching a part of dirt cliff where apparently the birds all hang out early in the morning. But we were out of luck this morning, as the birds obviously enjoyed sleeping in as much as me. We were so far away you could only see birds through their special bird watching telescope anyway. It failed to excite my interest. So after an interesting breakfast of hamburgers on the side of the river, we boated to our next destination where we went on a bit of a walk to see a huge old tree and I tried to get some good photos of butterflies and flowers, which there were plenty of.
We also went on a "gondola" ride in a river complete with wooden raft and saw some prehistoric birds and woolly monkeys as well as some other weird looking animals. We picked some bananas for dessert and got a crash course in jungle medicine before heading back to camp. The next day we already had to head back to Cuzco. I had one day to recover before starting the Inca Trail, which I had booked three months ago with a company called Llamapath. I had to attend an information session that night and got to meet the group I would be hiking with, a group of 11 of us. Five couples... and me. Ever had to be an 11th wheel? No, only kidding, it wasn't like that at all and everyone in my group turned out to be really lovely. In our group were Kerry and Bruce, a couple of lively Americans from Salt Lake City; Adam and Sarah who were honeymooning medical graduates from Manchester, England; Sindre and Jurenn from Norway; Grant and Anne from New York; and Anje and Camil, the youngest in our group and least experienced hiking-wise, from Poland.
So day one we left Cuzco while it was still dark (some of you must be wondering how I am coping with all these early mornings on the hikes... the answer is strong coffee!) for a bus to a restaurant for a buffet breakfast of pancakes, eggs, fruit and... strong coffee. Then we drove to the starting point for our hike and after stowing some of our heavier items with the amazing porter team, (affectionately nicknamed "The Red Army" due to their red uniforms and backpacks) we were off. The first day day of walking lulls us into a false sense of security, as the weather is nice and warm, the hills not too steep and the hummingbirds and butterflies guide our path. Lunch is provided by the porter team, who already have a tent set up for us to eat in and all the cutlery and crockery set out waiting for us. We also have warm bowls of water for washing hands and a cold glass of juice. The food is amazing and this is the standard of excellence we become accustomed to throughout the trek. Talk about luxurious hiking! We arrive to our first camping spot at about 4:30pm, where of course our tents are already all set up with foam mattress and all. We all have a celebratory beer as the night sky grows dark and the most stars I have ever seen emerge from the darkness, as well as Jupiter. That night I start to feel a bit ill, headache and a sick feeling in my stomach. I figure a good night's sleep is all I need and fall into bed.
The next morning I feel alright and I feel even better after drinking the coca tea that is delivered to my tent door early in the morning by a porter. I feel a little tired, but ready to take on the most difficult second day, where we climb from 3300m altitude to 4200m, then down again. We walk uphill through beautiful jungle, interrupted only by a herd of alpacas coming through. Suddenly the uphill becomes much steeper, until the last killer flight of uneven granite steps, which make your thighs and calves ache just to look at them. We arrive to the peak, appropriately named "Dead woman's pass" (not because that's how you feel when you get there, of course, but because there is a rock shaped like a woman's nipple at the top) to a standing ovation from our Red Army. Adam passes around a bottle of rum for a celebratory swig and it warms the cockles of the heart, as it is pretty cold and foggy at 4200 metres. We all get our "Japanese moment" photos (as our guide calls these Kodak moments) and then begin our descent... a very steep descent. I'm feeling alright until about halfway down when I start to feel a little nauseous. We stop for lunch and when I lay down and it is a struggle to get back up again. I eat some lunch, then immediately throw it up again. I sit and drink some tea and then I vomit again (sorry about the ew factor, but I just want to illustrate that I felt more than a little sick at this stage). When it comes time to hike again, I am certainly not feeling up to it. I have no food in my belly, no energy and I am spewing up everything.
At this stage, the collective kindness of my group almost brings me to tears. Sarah walks with me even though I am lagging way behind the group, Adam lends me his walking stick and Anne even takes my backpack for me, as she doesn't have one. I can't remember ever feeling so ill in my whole trip and top of it all I am being forced to hike uphill when all I want to do is curl up in bed - it seems like an impossible task. I feel as weak as a 100 year old lady so that each step looks like a mountain and I am stopping every 5-10 minutes to take a breather. I try to eat an apple only to throw it up 5 minutes later. I don't think things could get much worse until it starts to drizzle down. Finally, I'm nearly at the top of the second pass, so I muster my last atom of energy, even though I feel like a ten tonne deadweight powered by a little AAA battery that is almost dead. But somehow I make it and our guide finally decides I need an antibiotic and it helps me to continue the rest of the way, which thankfully is downhill. My legs are like jelly and I walk mindlessly. The rest of the group visit an Inca site which is at the top of an extremely steep flight of stairs, but I decide to give it a miss and continue to the campsite alone. Thank God for the porters, they have the camp set up and as soon as I tell them "Estoy infirma", they provide me with some warm water and I crawl into my sleeping bag and get some much needed rest. I wake a few times to loud thunderstorms and torrential rain, but mostly I sleep right through dinner and everything. I wake up at 2am feeling ravenously hungry, so I eat a mandarin, stumble around the dark campsite for a few minutes trying to find the toilet then almost get into someone else's tent. But I didn't throw up the mandarin, so I figured I was feeling better. Then I went back to bed and slept right through to the morning.
The next day was an easy day, our guides, Raul and Edwin assured us. I was feeling better, still not much of an appetite but I could hold food down, so that was good. I don't remember much about the third day, I guess we were all pretty tired, but after 5 hours we made it to the next campsite. The boys played a game of high altitude soccer and I took a hot shower for 5 soles - I don't mind saying, it was the best 5 soles I ever spent. Even our guide commented that I looked like a new woman. We also went to see a huge Inca site called Winay Huayna (Forever Young) which was a great warm up for the main attraction the next day. That night we farewelled the porters and tipped them generously, as they did such an amazing job of looking after us and smiling the whole time.
The final morning we got up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am, but I drank my chamomile tea and made a concerted effort not to talk to anyone, especially Raul who was being overly chirpy. The sun came up as we walked through the checkpoint and this time our group was one of about ten others walking in a steady line. We walked at a cracking pace, eager to get there, but the serenity of the journey was sort of wrecked for me by the amount of people. One more flight of almost vertical steps and we made it to the "Sun Gate" to see our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, the lost Inca city. The weather was perfect and clear with just a wispy mist hovering at the tops of the green covered craggy mountains. The granite stone ruins stretched out beneath the sheer mountain which rose up out of the ground like a tombstone. All the hikers took their dorky victory photos and we got the group shots you see in all the tourist brochures. They allow 500 people on the Inca trail per day, and an additional 1500 to the Machu Picchu site itself. So you could imagine, there were a lot of people there and it was really weird after being isolated in the mountains for so long. Raul gives us a 2 hour tour of the ruins, but it is so hot and everyone is fading.
So we are left to our own devices for a while and we watch some llamas stealing an apple straight from a lady's mouth and then we have a "National Geographic" moment as Bruce calls it as we watch a tiny bee carrying a huge tarantula up a vertical cliff face. I wander around for a while until the heat wears me out and then catch a bus down to the little town of Aguas Callientes to meet the others for lunch. Afterwards we hop on the train for a slooooow two hour ride through the middle of the mountains back to Ollantaytambo, where we started. From there we hop on a Llamapath bus back to Cuzco.
That night I had an amazing sleep, before flying to Santiago, my final destination. There isn't much to be said about Santiago; it's a nice enough city, but there isn't a whole lot to do and I find myself just chilling out and relaxing with the guys in my hostel, counting down until my flight home.
So, there you have it, my final blog entry. Thanks for reading and keeping up with my adventures. I had a blast, but it's good to be home and to be able to tell you all my stories in person.
Tam biet, sayonara, selamat tinggal, hou doe, au revoir, ciao, elveda, aufwiedersehen, adios, farewell!
(see how many languages you can recognise...)