One Step Beyond

Ideas above my station in Arequipa – paired with a white hoodie, poncho took on a more sinister vibe

THIS blog normally looks backwards, but feel the need to break from that pattern.

Not that nothing has happened over the last few days, but what is coming up has been looming large since well before the start of this South American adventure.

Right back to when, against all my assertions to the contrary, the decision was made to tackle the trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

No, was not going to do it. Was definitely taking the train. No amount of asking or prodding would change my mind. 

Right up until, with only the last few daily permits for the Classic route remaining, some asking and prodding changed my mind.

Nazca Lines

So tomorrow morning, far too early, we head off on what promises to be one of the most challenging, memorable, exhausting, exhilarating and possibly painful experiences of the whole trip.

The first three days will take us up and down a route hewn into the Andes – the up is occupying most of our minds, although the down sections come with a fearsome reputation as gringo killers – before the final morning to reach Machu Picchu early on the fourth day.

Not all of us. Some are heading off on the alternative Lares route while some put discretion (and a fair amount of common sense) above valour and opted for the train. My current roommates Becky and Robby have done it before and are heading off on their own jungle adventure.

What lies ahead seems to have concentrated the minds and sent us scurrying around Cusco to stock up on supplies (via a rather lovely bagel cafe), warm gear for the cold nights (in my case, hiring a better sleeping bag) and knock-off North Face clothing.

Thankfully, we will not have to carry all of our new purchases – hiring a porter to carry a duffel bag up to 7kg full of sleeping bags, warm clothing for the evenings and assorted other gear may prove to be the best $40 spent on the whole trip.

That leaves us to carry our own day bags – camera, rain gear and essentials such as toilet paper, water and snacks – while the porters break down camp, catch up and run ahead, cook lunch, run past us again and have camp ready and the evening meal on the go.

Puerto Inka. Bush camp on a beach where we stole a fire. Twice

The tip we are sorting out at this evening’s briefing may not be enough.

Just hope they do not have to carry me over some of the bigger climbs, the longest, highest and most notorious of which comes on (and occupies most of) the second morning – Dead Woman’s Pass at around 4,200m.

Writing that again has me wondering about the wisdom of doing this, a common occurrence over the past few months.

Twenty four hours ago was all for pulling out – however frowned upon relinquishing one of the precious permits is – as a complete lack of sleep at an even higher bush camp and a slightly dodgy stomach had me confined to bed (and the bathroom) while the others explored the delights of Cusco.

Thankfully, was in a much better state this morning. Certainly a much better state than some who kept exploring until late into the night.

But clothes sorted, camera charging, backpack packed and stuff awaiting the arrival of the duffel bag at the briefing, there is no going back .

Have never been one for trekking. Did a couple in the distant past but preparations were confined to walks to and up Robinswood Hill – not exactly an Andean peak – and along the notoriously flat Gloucester and Sharpness Canal to at least break in my boots and get used to the mileage and a chunk of time on the move.

Arequipa – restaurant with a view. And a poncho

Shorter bursts on the treadmill with a rising incline added some extra preparation while a trek around a volcanic lake in Otavalo at the start of the trip suggested some of that effort may have paid off.

But there is little preparation for the altitude and sheer length of the inclines we are just going to have to take one step and one laboured breath at a time.

We have not been without a fair amount of acclimatisation over the past few days.

When you left us, we were still heading largely down the coast and nursing the pet bug which laid a few of the group low for several days and earned us a bonus upgrade to rooms at our stop near Nazca.

The upgrade came at a price for the healthy, a night cleaning pretty much everything on the truck – especially the kitchen – to see off any lurking germs and we seem to have shrugged off any lingering affects.

Condor at Colca Canyon – easier to photograph on the ground

Opted out of the big ticket item at this stop – a flight over the Nazca Lines – opting for a brief view from a tower, but did get tours of the Cahuaci Pyramids and Chauchilla cemeteries (complete with complete mummies) brought to life by the enthusiastic Janssen.

An overnight stop on the beach at Puerto Inka ended our time at sea level and we began our climb inland at Arequipa.

Don’t think we can blame the altitude (2,800m) for a sudden Jesus complex at our restaurant overlooking the main square, but when they give a bearded bloke the sole white poncho among coloured fellow diners, it can go to his head. 

Poncho returned, it was out to sample the nightlife of Arequipa which ended far too late for one of us while others were heading out far too early for an overnight trek in Colca Canyon.

Our Reality Tour provided a very different taste of the city, taking in a cemetery, day care centre for  children of single mothers, a stone quarry and market. Very interesting it was, but cannot help a feeling of unease when other people’s misfortune is used to lure in tourists.

Colca Canyon

The burger joint which kept luring members of the group back was far more acceptable.

A group of us were back in the minibus the next day as altitude came to the fore on a less strenuous trip to the canon.

Whisked out of Arequipa, we were taken up to 4,900m – it was all a bit quiet on the bus at that point – and through some spectacular scenery, any number of llamas, alpacas and vicunas, our first taste of coca tea and a dip in hot springs.

Our stop for the night saw us ignore advice to eat small meals in the evening and avoid alcohol at altitude but very pleasant it was too, good food served up by a very forthright French woman.

We were up early to be on the lip of Colca Canyon – a mile down and the second deepest on the earth – to watch condors taking flight on the thermals before winding our way through spectacular scenery to our meeting point with the truck and the rest of the reunited group.

What became known as Tomato Soup Bush Camp. At around 4,500m

At least that was the plan, while we were waiting and watching a llama spit at a group of tourists when they were not so keen to share their lunch with him, the truck was undergoing a few mechanical problems.

Patched up and back on the road, the delay put the night’s planned bush camp out of reach and forced us to find a new location – turning up a path and climbing to find a bit of flattish land well in excess of 4,000m.

It made for a difficult night – not least for cook group – in the wind as several of us struggled at the height and sparked my less than pristine arrival in Cusco.

But hey, there’s nothing major coming up at altitude is there?

Cusco
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