The Astounding Travel Adventures of a Miraculous Fellow


Five Days to Machu Picchu: Day One — “Up With Coca!”
November 16, 2008, 1:06 pm
Filed under: Peru

As I wound down to the end of my four-month adventure, I saved what I hoped would be the best for last: a five-day trek through the Andes, around the 20,500 foot Salkantay mountain to the Lost City of the Incas: Machu Picchu.

Ready for the Death March

The Macchu Pichu Gang: Ready for the Death March

The night before our trek began, our group of sixteen intrepid adventurers, three guides, three cooks, and three horsemen (whom were sadly just men with horses, and not half-man half-horses as my imagination had led me to greatly anticipate) met in Cusco, Peru to discuss what we should expect.  The tourists in our group consisted of five men and eleven women (score!) all of whom had no idea just how difficult the coming hike was going to be: Cusco is located at about 10,000 feet, and at the peak of our trek we were going to climb up to over 15,000 feet.  For those of you who have never walked around at such heights, it is really, really exhausting.  I discovered this on my first day in Cusco, when I walked around to find a place to stay.  With my 45 pound bag strapped on my back, I could manage to stumble a valiant 34 feet before my lungs felt as though they were going to escape my body through my nostrils.  This was made even more embarrassing when the locals were effortlessly sprinting around the streets, and staring at the panting pile of collapsed gringo laying next to a giant bag on the sidewalk.

So it was slightly disconcerting as our guide, Paul, informed us that on Day One of our hike we were going to walk from around 10,000 feet up to 14,500 feet.  If I couldn’t make it 34 feet without collapsing on a flat street in Cusco, what would going uphill on a mountain for a whole day do to me?  There was only one logical answer: it would undoubtedly turn me into a pile of llama food.

 
Thus, there was only one thing that would help me through these difficult times; a tried-and-true remedy that was passed down from the Incas and highly promoted by Peruvian locals: coca leaves.  Now, some of you are probably thinking that it sounds strange to have to utilize illegal drugs to climb a mountain.  But, coca leaves are far from an illegal drug.  In reality, I wouldn’t use illegal drugs to enhance my walking techniques; I only reserve the use of illegal drugs for the most dire situations: incapacitating meddlesome police officers, making movies funnier, and staring at colorful objects.  In fact, coca leaves are a quite different from their elaborately-altered cousin, Colombian Marching powder.  The leaves are a natural product that are used for such diverse practices reduction of diarrhea, sore throats, appetite, and getting fat, lazy, lowland gringos over high altitude mountains.

Ahh...coca leaves.  Just seeing this picture gives me the shakes.

Ahh...coca leaves. Just seeing this picture gives me the shakes.

Thus, I searched around town for someone who sold this wonder product.  After being rebuffed multiple times, I started to feel like a fourteen year old kid trying to buy Zima from his elders at 7-Eleven.  But, as I wandered around a local market, I found the motherload: a nice old Peruvian woman who slanged me a couple dimes bags of the good stuff.  I didn’t even have to sell my body for them, just give her a few Soles.

What a country.

Therefore, at 6 AM the following morning, with my stash of coca leaves in tow, carrying my faithful hiking stick, donning my trusty hiking jeans, rancid hiking boots, hip Peruvian-style beanie, all the cold-weather clothing I had been lugging around the equator with me for the last three-and-a-half months, our group embarked on our adventure. 

 After deciding that we would simply drive the bus as far up the “road” (read: miserable, dusty, cliff-sided path) as possible, most of us lazy foreigners (myself happily included) strapped our things to the Horsemens’ beasts and started walking uphill.  Luckily for us, this first stage only lasted an hour until we stopped for lunch.  Hey, you can’t expect too much out of tourist on the first day, can you?  After gorging ourselves on the first of many delicious Peruvian meals, we groggily started heading back uphill. 

 However, as we looked up to where we were headed, it was clear the path above was heading waaaaaay up there.  Our first little pre-lunch jaunt was barely inclined compared to what we were about to undertake.  This is when I realized that eating so much food for lunch was an obvious failure in my decision-making processes.  Luckily for me, the donkeys had already broken the taboo on shitting on the trail, so if the food decided to make a reappearance during our steep hike, I could utilize the creed which I base my life upon: WWDD?  (What Would the Donkeys Do?) and just do my business right there on the trail without it being awkward.  And so, we began what would be the first of five grueling days of trekking.

 

The Horses and a Horseman

The Horses and a Horseman

Up and up and up we hiked.  Our 16-man strong group slowly snaked up the rock-covered trail as the Horsemen trotted far ahead of us, neighing and munching on grass along the way (man, I wish they were real Horsemen).  The technique for we weary hikers was clear: slowly lift the left foot and drag it in front of the right foot, then vice versa.  This technique was called “walking” and we were assured it would help propel us up the 5,000 feet we had to climb the first day.

 The first thousand feet or so really wasn’t that bad.  As we begun to master the skill of “walking,” we moved more and more adeptly ahead.  Our guides also understood that gringos are feeble creatures when it comes to altitude, and we made frequent stops to catch our breath, dry heave, and consider turning back to the comfort of centrally-heated rooms in Cusco and McDonald’s french fries.  Alas, we persevered. 

 The next 4,000 feet, however, wasn’t as kind as the first 1,000.  Our group became more and more spread out as we each struggled with our own adjustment to the altitude, all the while the donkeys and Horsemen taunted us from the peaks above. 

 This, is precisely the moment when I became one with coca leaves.

 Breaking out my stash, I stuffed my mouth full of these amazing treasures and, like a cow, chomped happily away.  Within ten minutes, I noticed a new burst of energy entering my body.  I felt alive and ready to follow in the hoof-steps of the Horsemen and trot up the hill.  These things were amazing.  My fatigue, while still present, wore off remarkably and I was headed up the mountain with reckless abandon.  I quickly became the group coca enabler and offered leaves around to the team, and we all marched on with renewed vigor, and mouths full of crusty green plants.

 God bless you, coca leaves.

Mount Salkantay

Mount Salkantay

(On an interesting side note, after understanding the power of coca, I now plan on introducing these leaves to the American populace, thus increasing productivity, reviving the economy, and soon accepting my position as the next Secretary of Labor due to my visionary techniques.)

So, we continued on.  Now, it is interesting to note that not all of the group had embraced this hike-altering product, and our hikers were stretched out over vast expanses of mountain.  The coca-induced group hurried along, while the Puritan, non-coca group trudged slowly up the mountain.  Once we reached around 12,500 feet, we caught our first glimpse of Mount Salkantay.  This glacier-covered behemoth loomed in the distance, towering above us, taunting our coca-stained smiles with its ever-increasing altitude.
 

 After about 4 hours of hiking, we reached a vast, granite, glacier-carved canyon that stretched up to the base of Salkantay.  This was where we were informed that it was time to turn upward.  At this point, I had thought we were already going up, but I was sorely mistaken.  Now, looking about 60 degrees and a quarter mile up the mountain, we spotted the Horsemen hurrying along.  We had about 1,500 more feet to go, and it consisted of switchbacks that slowly wound up the steep mountainside.

More coca leaves, please.

 And up we went.  This part of the trek was, for lack of a better phrase, a bitch.  Our “walking” techniques, even with the aid of our good friend coca, slowed to a near-crawl.  But, we carried on.  For almost two more hours when we thought we had reached the top, the ridge we were dreaming of cruelly revealed another ridge far above.  As that son-of-a-bitch Salkantay grew larger and larger, taunting our every step, we inched along the trail, huffing and puffing, until we finally reached 14,500 feet and our camp site.  Even with our exhaustion, we could appreciate the beauty of this area, and the backdrop of the immense mountain.

 

Camping at 14,500

Camping at 14,500

While the remainder of our group plodded up the mountain, a select (retarded?) few of us decided to climb up the granite pile that the glacier had carved in the ground.  By the time we reached the top, we were again fatigued and worn, but got to enjoy a view of a hundred-foot vertical crevasse dug by the glacier, with the sunset-covered Salkantay in the background.  I’ve seen a lot of amazing things in my life — the Roman Coliseum, Colombian women in Medellin, a Marky Mark concert — but this was one of the tops.

 After we descended the granite hill, my jealousy peaked.  The remainder of our group was just arriving at the campsite, and they were riding donkeys up the trail.  It would have been funnier, but probably less appropriate if they were riding the Horsemen up, but nonetheless I was jealous.  By living in such close proximity to Tijuana, I’ve heard all about “donkey shows” and have thus always wanted to ride one.  Wait…that’s all that a “donkey show” is, right?

 Anywho, as nightfall descended on our 14,500 foot campsite, so did the cold.  Our beleaguered crew bundled up in our mess hall tent, zipped up the doors, and sat around drinking hot chocolate, hot coca tea (yes, we were now addicts), and hot coffee while we waited for dinner.

 That’s when the altitude sickness arrived, and ravaged our band of hardy adventurers.

 

Killer hat, bro.

Killer hat, bro.

Once we had a chance to sit down and relax, over half of our group caught the beatdown that comes with this extreme height: altitude headaches, altitude vomiting, and explosive altitude ass-vomiting were just some of the fun that came with our voluntary decision to climb to Macchu Pichu.  I was lucky enough to escape the wrath of this plague, but quickly succumbed to the near-zero cold.  So, donning my trusty hiking jeans and every other piece of clothing I brought with me, I went outside to stare at the billions of stars in the sky.  1.3 seconds later my lips froze together and I sprinted to my tent to burrow into my sleeping bag.

 Thus, with the sound of avalanches on Salkantay echoing in the background, the dreary rasp of my breath trying to escape my mouth, the booming drumbeat of my heart pounding in my chest, and the clickity-click of my frozen eyelids blinking, I fell into a deep sleep, satisfied that I had walked to the highest altitude on which I had ever stood, and happily knowing that I would most likely die that night and not have to walk on a mountain ever again.

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Five Days to Machu Picchu: Day Two — “Going Down on the Mountain”
November 16, 2008, 1:04 pm
Filed under: Peru

The Peak -- 15,253 feet
The Peak — 15,253 feet

After a much needed 10 hours of sleep, our group awoke in the freezing cold morning with stiff joints, frozen eyebrows, and coca-crusted teeth. And, in my own case, I woke up with a dangerously full bladder because I had no intention of walking outside to urinate the night before. This was due to a) the arctic cold weather that would inevitably freeze my nether regions; and b) our guide had told us about the Incan ghosts that haunt this area. While I am no real believer in fantastical tales of ghosts and goblins, I also didn’t want my icicled ding-dong to be exposed to a terrifying Incan warrior…it would probably hurt his ego. Oh snap.

Anywho, after climbing out of our frosted tents our other guide, James, greeted us with a hot cup of addiction-quenching coca tea. An hour later as the sun emerged over the mountains, the temperature climbed dramatically — from zero to about thirty five. Upon polishing off a wondrous breakfast of pancakes, oatmeal, and more coca tea, my coca-less shakes subsided and we were ready to continue our climb to the peak of our trek at over 15,000 feet. And, with the sun on our faces, a belly full of food, a night full of sleep, we were all ready to go.

So up we climbed steadily, and within about two hours of walking, we reached the Salkantay pass at 15,253 feet. The views were incredible: a hundred yards to our right was the base of the glaciers that covered the behemoth mountain; behind us was the glacier valley where we had camped; on the left was another giant glacial peak; and in front of us was an old Incan trail that descended deep down into the valley below. “Woo hoo,” I mistakenly thought, “downhill!”

Our Homage to Salkantay

Our Homage to Salkantay

At this point our guide Paul told us about the dark past of the Salkantay pass. When the Spaniards arrived to this region five hundred years ago and pillaged Cusco and its surrounding towns, the Incans would capture some of their soldiers, tie them up naked, and leave them to die on the icy pass. I imagine it’s kind of how I felt the night before, only instead of being naked, I was wearing my traditional hiking jeans, and instead of being tied up I was cocooned in my sleeping bag. He then told us that Salkantay was regarded as the protector of the Incans, and we made a traditional sacrifice to the mountains; I don’t know where he came up with that 1400s-era Spanish conquistador, but it sure felt authentic when we sacrificed him to the Gods. Maybe that was just the coca-buzz playing tricks on my mind.

Actually, our homage to the mountain included each of our group grabbing a rock from the mountain, piling them up as a totem to the mountain, then offering up three coca leaves each to Salkantay. I was a little unnerved at giving up three cherished coca leaves, but I thought “it’s probably good for karma…and I don’t want to end up tied up like our little friend Francisco Pizarro over there.”

After our picture-taking session and ode to the mountain, we started off on our much-anticipated descent. While we had only gone uphill for one full day, downhill sounded like a marvelous change of pace. Now, I’m no physicist, but I have heard shadowy stories of an invisible force known as “gravity” that pulls things downward. While I generally don’t believe in this kind of wild-eyed conjecture, I must admit this theory of “gravity” piqued my interest: if this invisible force could assist me in hiking, especially since it was only Day Two out of Five, I would try to believe. The crazy thing that happened was, as we started heading downhill it felt much easier than uphill. My legs moved quickly, and if I stumbled, this “gravity” would continue to pull me downward. I was a believer. What’s next? Was someone was going to tell me that the Internet is actually made of “waves” that travel silently through the air to different “servers”, instead of just being a series of underground tubes that send messages by means of really fast hamsters with notes stuck to their backs? Yeah right. You had me at gravity, but I’m not buying that one.

 

Time to follow the Horseman downhill

Time to follow the Horseman downhill

While the gravity-assisted downhill started out as fun, within an hour I noticed a aching pain in my knees that was growing worse with every step. I tried rubbing coca leaves on them, then discharging coca spit on them, but none of my advanced medical training seemed to be working. As we continued on, I realized the sad truth about going downhill: it sucks worse than uphill. My knees were taking a beating like a Horseman’s rented mule, and we still had two and a half more days of downhill. Fudge

Although the knee-splitting pain was not that cool, one nice thing about downhill was that the weather became gradually warmer and warmer, until my hiking jeans were starting to soak through with sweat. After pulling up the pantlegs to do my best Huckleberry Finn imitation, I wandered on, waiting for my soon-to-be gelatinous kneecaps to be excreted out of my skin. Alas, they did their jobs, and we carried on over the rock- and donkey-shit-covered trail.

By the time we reached our lunchtime break spot, we had already hiked for a good six hours and were in need of a rest. We enjoyed yet another delicious meal, and were able to rest our wobbly legs and feet, as we watched some local farmers chase around an alpaca for half-an-hour, then try to beat it to a pulp. Alpacas are apparently not the brightest of animals, but it eventually got the hint, and ran up the hill to hang with its buddies. I was envious of its kneecaps’ ability to run around, and truly wanted to either catch it and ride it down the trail, or knock it around a bit in my furious kneecap-envy.

This is the shortest I've ever felt.

This is the shortest I've ever felt in my life.

So after lunch, on we trudged.

By the time we finally reached our day’s end camp, we had walked over 15 miles downhill. The only thing that kept me and my battered hiking mates going was the promise of a hot spring near our camp, and that the world’s best medication for sore everythings — beer — would be available.

As we arrived, everyone quickly changed out of their sweaty, dirty clothes, and into swimming gear to make the quick hike down to the hot springs. With beers in hand, we all started downhill on what our guide had described as a 15-minute hike. What we actually saw was a very steep, cliff-lined, dirt path that led down to the river. After assuring us that there was a hot spring at the bottom, I ignored my creaking knees and continued on. My only thought was “if we have to go down this steep hill now, we’re gonna have to go back up it in the dark; and I don’t remember seeing a reverse-gravity machine anywhere nearby.”

However, all nervousness abated when we reached the hot springs. It was a pool full of about 95-degree water which was like sitting in a big, hot, wet dream. Gross. As I eased my aching legs into the water, I thought I heard a sigh of relief coming from my feet and ankles…but maybe I just farted. I can’t be totally sure. Either way it was tremendous.

While our exhausted group relaxed in the hot water for well over an hour, gulping down semi-cold beers, we finally were comfortable and our spirits lifted greatly. I was planning on sleeping in the hot springs for the night, but we eventually had to leave. That’s when my beer-soaked brain and waterlogged knees remembered that we had to go back up that merciless hill in the pitch black. Hanging onto every last second of hot water time, we finally decided to head up.

 

machu-picchu-065

And it turned out to be just about as awful as I had imagined. 

The last four of us hiked up the hill with only two flashlights, stopping only twice to catch our breath. Although we had descended over 4,000 feet that day, we were still in really high altitude and my lungs had planned a mutiny on the rest of my body. Upon reaching our camp almost an hour later, I stumbled over to my tent and collapsed, completely exhausted. The beer and hot water were a long-lost, vague aftertaste and afterthought in my broken brain, and I fell immediately asleep.

I got up briefly to try eating dinner, but my zombie-like appearance terrified all of our fun-loving group who were putting away our guide’s rum-based tea drinks and downing glasses of coca-beer they had just invented by putting coca leaves in their beer bottles. However, it was painfully obvious that I was completely wiped out, as I was too tired to celebrate the marriage of my two favorite things on Earth — coca leaves and beer.

So, I went back to my tent, defeatedly remembering that we still had two more hard days of hiking until we reached Machu Picchu.

I fell asleep trying to calculate how much a helicopter-taxi to California would cost.

 



Five Days to Machu Picchu: Day Three — “The Shithole and the Death Bugs”
November 16, 2008, 1:02 pm
Filed under: Peru

My exhaustion having subsided after a glorious ten hour sleep, I awoke fresh, unfrozen, and ready to take on another day of walking around trying to figure out where the fuck Machu Picchu was.  I mean, don’t they have maps in this country?  Why are we walking around for five days when we could just get online, Google map it, then hop in a taxi?  Talk about backwards…

Campsite #2.  No snow, thank the Lord.
Campsite #2. No snow, thank the Lord.

This morning we woke up in a beautiful valley in the midst of a bunch of forested mountains.  The day before we went from freezing cold glacial mountains to jungle-mountains and rivers, and it only cost me the peace of mind that comes from knowing you will never be able to utilize your knees for the rest of your life.  A small price to pay.

After yet another marvelous breakfast, I stretched, retired my hiking jeans, threw on a pair of shorts, and started walking.  Our guide Paul told us that today would be an “easy day” of hiking, where we could just hike the six hours straight without a lunch break so that we’d arrive in the early afternoon to our lovely campground called “La Playa — The Beach.”  This sounded like a tremendous suggestions, and our group wholeheartedly supported the idea of pushing through lunchtime to have a leisurely afternoon on a beachfront river where we could bathe for the first time, relax, read, and nap the day away.  However, as is the case many times in life, our imagination was flat-out, completely wrong; and Paul, although he was a very capable, responsible guide, was totally full of shit on this one.

With dreams of beach lounging and scrubbing off the the accumulated three day funk from our bodies, our crew hiked off with a youthful spring in our step.  Eschewing lunch turned out to be a wonderful idea and we quickly trekked along in record time.  After a simple day of slight up-and-down hiking through warm weather along a beautiful jungle river, we arrived at La Playa not long after noon. 

How quickly our dreams of the Wonder Campsite disintegrated.

We walked into a small town with four or five little stores that were clearly designed for the numerous hikers that passed through to Machu Picchu.  We turned into one of the small encampments of wooden houses, and were careful not to step on the chickens, roosters, or dogs charging around in the small open grass area.  Our tents were crammed together into a tiny area with the meal tent stuck in the middle, which made it nice if you wanted to fall out of one into another.  Paul must have confused the look of puzzlement on our faces with a look of satisfaction, and congratulated us on arriving at La Playa.

Now, on the previous three days, the process of human waste removal was either performed in nearby rocks, bushes, dark fields, or the makeshift tent latrine that had been erected by our porters.  While the tent latrine may sound kind of gross, it came with a cooler-like toilet that had an actual seat, and was thus not too bad. 

On this day however, things took a turn for the worse.  There, on the outskirts of the tents (read: 4 feet away), was a little shack.  In this shack was a hole.  Not just any hole, mind you, but a Shithole.

For those folks who have not had the pleasure of Third World excrement disposal, toilets are a real crap shoot.  Pun intended.  And, in the case of La Playa, the Shithole in the ground was a literal crap shoot, because there was no toilet seat to sit on.

So, as a tutorial for the uninitiated, I will outline the technique for utilizing this mechanism:

1. Open “bathroom” door, close it, come to the realization that there is a hole in the ground to shit in.
2. Stare at the Shithole, and psych yourself up to go for it.
3. With self-motivation achieved, stare a little more and try to figure out the dynamics of getting the shit from your butt into the Shithole.
4. Lower pants, bend over Shithole, then realize possible negative outcomes of this scenario.
5. Remove pants.
6. Bend over again, gradually getting closer and closer to Shithole, until you are relatively sure you will not just shit on the floor next to Shithole.
7. Shit on floor next to Shithole.
8. Curse.  (“Shit!” seems to be an appropriate response).
9. Now, with a little practice under your belt, clear the rest out, most of which lands in Shithole.
10. Size up the situation: can you get out of bathroom without kicking “the miss” into the Shithole?  If no one will see you: run.  If you cannot escape: close your eyes and kick it in.
11. Wipe, throw it in the Shithole, pour water down Shithole to clean it out.
12. Put pants back on.
13. Rub shit shoe on nearby grass.
14. Breathe.

Simple enough.

Luckily for me, I had to go bad enough that I did not have time to analyze the situation.  So, I followed steps 1-14 above, and left the bathroom a more worldly man, knowing that I made it out of the Shithole without shitting in my pants, on my shoes, and without the door blowing open as I’m awkwardly grabbing my ankles and bending my knees like a praying mantis with no pants on, cursing as my discharge misses its mark.

After that fun escapade, it was time for the beach.  As we found our swimming gear and got ready, we began to notice the abundance of small gnats that were swarming our campsite.  At first, they just seemed to be an irritant that flew in your face and landed on your skin.  Then, upon swatting one, the bloody mess and hole in my leg alerted me to the fact that these were no simple gnat.

They were Death Bugs.  And they were everywhere.

In the mad scrambled for bug spray that defined the next two minutes, our group managed to endure over 803,273,014 bites.  These little fuckers were voracious.  They bit at will, and when you killed one, 312 took its place.  So, we resisted the urge to climb into our tents, assume the fetal position, rock back and forth whimpering, and sleep until the following morning.  Instead we bathed in bug poison and hit the beach.  While trying to figure out where this infamous “beach” was, we were led by a local girl through someone’s backyard, where we were greeted by a little kid taking a dump.  Only he didn’t have a Shithole.  After the uncomfortable situation of walking past this little scamp in his backyard, it only got weirder when he picked up his waste product and moved it around to another spot.  Hmm…I just kicked it with my shoe when I missed.  I’m clearly not a local.

After tramping through a soccer field and clambering down a small cliff to arrive at the beach, we realized a few sad truths:

1. “La Playa” was nothing more than a rock-covered bank of river;
2. There were far more Death Bugs near the water;
3. The river was flowing from a melted glacier, and topped off at about 33 degrees.

Fuck.

Partaaaaay!

Partaaaaay!

So, our choice was simple: get in the Arctic water to escape the Death Bugs who were undoubtedly sharing their Dengue Fever with us, shriek like a three-year-old girl when your unmentionables went underwater, rapidly clean the filth off our bodies without getting hypothermia, try not to be swept away by the fast-flowing current, then get out only to be feasted upon by Death Bugs because we washed off the repellent.

I’m pretty sure I had more fun in the Shithole.

 

As our blood was drained by the Death Bugs on the walk back, we realized that it was only 1 PM, and we had the rest of the day here.  Thus, there was only one thing left to lessen the pain of “The World’s Worst Campsite”: drink copious amounts of beer.

And this we did.

All the way through the afternoon, we drank beer.  As we played cards and the nice lady who owned the house tried to build a “smoke fire” to keep the bugs out, we drank beer.  As we almost asphyxiated from the “smoke fire”, we drank beer.  As the sun descended, we drank beer.  Then, miraculously, as it became dark, we noticed that we must have drank enough beer, because the Death Bugs were gone.  To celebrate, we drank beer.  Throughout dinner and going back-and-forth with the English people about how much better American English is than English English, we drank beer.

Dance Partaaaaay in the Middle of Nowhere

Dance Partaaaaay in the Middle of Nowhere

Then, suddenly, without warning, a dance party erupted in the dirt streets of the town.  Then, suddenly, without warning, a handstand contest broke out in the dirt streets of the town.  This apparently was not a normal occurrence in town, and the locals all came out to watch the weird gringos clumsily gyrate about to music, then walk on their hands up and down the street.  Throughout it all, we drank beer.

This place wasn’t so bad after all.

Then, as our mood got better and better, someone noticed a shining gem in the darkness.  In this town’s defense, it did have one thing going for it that we had not seen in three days: electricity.  And, this strange glowing light coming from the neighbor’s bar was like a beacon calling us towards it.  As we opened the door to this small building, we understood: the Lord had put us through enough hardship, and He had placed a real, flushable, seated toilet there specifically for us.  Hallelujah!  Even those of us who had cleared ourselves out in the Shithole went into this beautiful contraption just to sit there for awhile, smiling and flushing.

That night we all slept like drunken babies.

And all was right with the world.



Five Days to Machu Picchu: Day Four — “Hangover Hill”
November 16, 2008, 1:01 pm
Filed under: Peru
Don't let the Thumbs Up fool you -- I felt about as bad as I looked in this picture.

Don't let the Thumbs Up fool you -- I felt about as good as I looked in this picture.

 

Waking up in La Playa aka “Shithole Bugville” was literally a rude awakening. Not because the magical toilet we found the night before was in a worse state than the Shithole, nor because of the idea of being consumed anew by the Death Bugs, but because the rooster decided to wake up at 3AM and start relentlessly screaming. And he didn’t stop until 6AM. To add to this noise, the Horsemen had done their final day of work and we tipped them before they headed back to their homes. I’m fairly sure they spent all their tip money on beer that night, and also hooked the rooster up with a couple of drinks, and together they all had a yelling party.

Thus, we woke up after a poor night of sleep with horrifically itchy bug bites all over our legs, arms, necks, feet, and souls. Even our hangovers had bug bites. And there were ample hangovers.

As Paul had warned us before, Day Four was going to the hardest of the hiking. But he also said our campsite at La Playa was nice, and it turned out to be the Fourteenth Level of Hell, so we were hesitant to trust him.

This time, however, he wasn’t lying.

Up...and up...and up...

Up...and up...and up...

At about 6:30 we were all packed up and trekking again. This was our day to hike a real Inca trail. It was an amazing collection of stone stairs that wrapped their way up, up, up the mountain. And, if it weren’t for the 79 beers we each consumed the night before, we probably really would have enjoyed it. But climbing uneven stone stairs up a mountain for hours with Cusquena beer-flavored sweat pouring from your ears generally isn’t my idea of an enjoyable time.

Alas, this was no time to complain (that time would come soon). So up we climbed.

Staking out my place at the end of the line, I silently walked up the mountain, searching for a suitable cliff to hurl myself off. After about four hours of looking at the ground, listening to the banter of the rest of the climbers through my panting gasps, I had sweated out most of the beer. I finally started to feel more optimistic, and thought “Hey, at least we’re not going downhill. Right, knees?”

It was right about this moment that we reached the peak, and started heading downhill.

Poop.

Incan temple at the top of the mountain

Incan temple at the top of the mountain

Again, I staked out my place at the end of the line, and silently walked down the hill. Between the creaking of my knees I noticed that I was not the only person who was just about completely cashed out from four days of hiking. Everyone’s delirium was expressed through different mediums: be it complaining, random freestyle jumping down the trail, singing of horrendous show tunes, or trying to find the steepest cliff to efficiently fling oneself off, the group as a whole was burned out.

Hiking is difficult. Especially for four long, high-altitude days. Don’t get me wrong, the trek was incredible; probably the highlight of my four months of South American travel. But, it was time to triumphantly return to civilization and its marvelous inventions: running water, electricity, and non-Shithole toilets that take your feces to magical, far-off, unseen lands at the flick of a handle.

We reached the top, now all we have to do is walk down to the river.

We reached the top, now all we had to do was walk down to the river.

And, after four long hours of uphill hiking followed by four long hours of downhill hiking (shouldn’t we have just gone around the mountain?), we arrived at our final lunch site and were awarded with a three hour wait while for our train to depart.

Eventually, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, got to clean the four days of hiking funk from our bodies, drink cold beer, warm boxed wine, and sleep indoors.

The long hike was over, and the next day, we would finally go to Machu Picchu to try to discover what the fuck the Incans were thinking building a tourist site at such a difficult-to-reach location.



Five Days to Machu Picchu: Day Five — “Machu Picchu”
November 16, 2008, 1:00 pm
Filed under: Peru
 
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

Finally, on Day Five of our Salkantay trek, we reached the Incan City of Machu Picchu.

There were many obstacles: the Shithole, the Death Bugs, the freezing temperatures, the long days of hiking, the broken knees, the bruised ego, and the altitude sickness.

But it was all worth it, because Machu Picchu is incredible.

machu-picchu-104Located in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, Machu Picchu is a mountaintop stone-walled city surrounded by misty green mountains, huge tiered grass agricultural platforms, hundreds of ancient stone temples and homes, and is full of llamas walking around nervously crapping all over the place, and is overrun by the strangest creatures of all — French tourists.

After our early wake up at 4:30AM to catch the bus up the mountain to beat the crowds, we hustled across the grounds of Machu Picchu to get tickets to climb Huayna Picchu, the nearby mountain that looms 1,000 feet over Machu Picchu. Then, as we all shook off our early morning-dreariness and hike-induced exhaustion, we were enthralled by our guide’s stimulating, hour-long discourse on how much of a putz Hiram Bingham (the “founder” of Machu Picchu) was. It’s not really that Bingham was a genuine “putz”, but our guide Paul is very proud of his Incan heritage, and was quite strongly opinionated in his views of Bingham’s “discovery”, and also about how much the Spanish suck.

Llamas.  The Guardians of Machu Picchu.

Llamas. The Guardians of Machu Picchu.

In the early 1900s, Hiram Bingham was the first person to locate the Lost City of Machu Picchu and share its existence with the world after it was abandoned by the Incans for hundreds of years. However, there was actually a family living there when he arrived (a “Lost Family” maybe?), so it is a disputed “discovery”. It was especially disputed by our guide Paul, who enraptured us for a rather long period of time about the faults of that scoundrel Hiram Bingham:

1. He didn’t really discover Machu Picchu — someone was already living there;
2. He stole artifacts from the site;
3. He was a bitch;
4. He single-handedly caused World War I and II;
5. He sunk the Titanic;
6. He hates babies and puppies;
7. He would like to slap Ghandi.

Ok, now just to clarify, I stopped listening about 10 minutes into his diatribe, so he might not have actually said numbers 3-7 above. But it was clearly implied.

The steep cliff-sided stairs to Huayna Picchu

The steep cliff-sided stairs to Huayna Picchu

After we had heard about how shitty the ancient Spanish were to the Incans (which, in all honesty, was pretty shitty), we finally started our tour of the city. Paul really knew his facts about the way the buildings were built, the construction materials, the uses of each temple, and the astronomical allineation of the site. However, his anti-Spanish, anti-Bingham, anti-anything-that’s-not-pro-Incan attitude shined through on a few occasions, the most memorable being when he was asked if the Incans were short because the doorways were very small. He answered, “They were very spiritual.” Now, no matter how many times I have tried to convince people of my massive stature through the measurement of my enormous spirituality, I’ve still never dated a girl taller than 5′ 9″. Sorry Paul, but that line has been tried and tested, and has miserably failed.

So, after a while of hearing increasingly humorous pro-Incan facts, our group finally split up to wander around the city, and to climb Huayna Picchu. The guards of Machu Picchu only allow 400 people per day to climb this behemoth of a mountain, and we had heard that the views were unbelievable. Thus, despite four days of hiking for over 40 miles up down mountains, we tortured ourselves one more time.

The View of Machu Picchu from Hayna Picchu

The View of Machu Picchu from Hayna Picchu

Up we went again. The Incans had built a massive stone staircase up this steep mountainside to reach the ceremonial sites that they built on top of Huayna Picchu. If you ask me, I think the Incans probably chewed one too many coca leaves and lost their minds, then decided to build things on top of really steep mountains for no apparent reason other than to punish future tourists. But that’s just my opinion; Paul would probably describe their crazy altitude-fascination as being fueled by their “love of clouds”.

After about an hour of grueling uneven stair-climbing, we finally reached the top. The view was amazing. Machu Picchu was a tiny spot on the mountain in front of us, and you could see an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains from Huayna Picchu’s peak. After about an hour of chilling on the mountain, we took it all in, then slowly descended the dangerously steep stairs in the most efficient manner possible — on our asses.

Alas, Machu Picchu lived up to its hype. It is without a doubt, one of the most amazing places I have ever seen in my life. And, the brutal five-day journey through the mountains was an awesome experience that made finally reaching Machu Picchu that much more worthwhile. All in all, the entire journey ranks up there as one of the best adventures I’ve ever had.

Now, I just need to kick this nasty coca leaf habit I picked up…

machu-picchu-120

The Machu Picchu Hiking Gang



Save Yourselves.
November 12, 2008, 11:46 pm
Filed under: Argentina
 
The Southern Right Whale
The Southern Right Whale

The time is nigh.  They are coming.

After returning from Tierra del Fuego, I decided the next day to hop right back on a bus for 21 hours and make my way to Puerto Madryn, in Patagonia.  This place is a wildlife Mecca, full of whales, elephant seals, guanacos (the cousin of the llama), killer whales, and the most terrifying creature of all — one that is succeeding in its quest to take over the planet. 
 
Upon arrival in the early morning, I was amazed to see giant Southern Right Whales frolicking in the bay within one hundred yards of the beach.  These behemoths come to Puerto Madryn every year to give birth to their calves in the safety of the harbor, out of the way of the killer whales.  They are an impressive sight. 
 
I was then told by the staff at my hostel that a nearby beach (12 miles away) was one of the best places to see these monsters up close and personal.  So, envisioning a mellow 45 minute ride on a paved road to the beach, I rented a mountain bike and headed off.  The first 3 miles were just as I imagined.  In fact, it was such a traquil ride that I took out my iPod to enjoy the delightful sounds of the Jonas Brothers as I cruised along the beach.  This ended quickly as I noticed the sign that said “Punta Doradillo, 9 miles” as it swerved off to a deep gravel and dirt road.img_3544
 
“No problem, I have a mountain bike, and since this is no mountain, it worries me not” I falsely declared to lil’ Skippy and Stevie Jonas.  But, hitting the gravel, my bike skidded around and sunk into the road.  The gravel was deep, and made pedaling through wet concrete seem like an easy chore.  “Fudge,” I declared.  Only I didn’t say fudge…in reality, I’m pretty sure I said “Fuck.”  Or maybe “Fuck me sideways.”
 
Despite this brutal hindrance, I arrived at the beach one leg-melting hour later, to see at the very least four forty-foot whales swimming with their calves no further than 50 feet from shore.  Many people in this town described these gentle giants as “magnificent.”  This word is not apt.  The only word that can describe the glory of these amazing creatures is, of course, “bitchin’.”  So, after peacefully watching these bitchin’ beasts play around in the sea so incredibly close to me, there were numerous times I had to stop myself from flinging rocks at them due to their proximity.  It’s not that I don’t like these bitchin’ things, I just have an obsessive-compulsive urge to hurl rocks at most nearby things.  This is the reason I no longer get mail, pizza, or Chinese food delivered to my house anymore.  Oh yeah, and the churchgoers across the street have undoubtedly petitioned the Lord to strike me down on multiple Sundays…
 
What you looking at, bitch?!

What you looking at, bitch?!

Anywho, the next morning I took a tour to out to nearby Peninsula Valdes to view the wildlife up close and personal.

 
This would be my first realization that mankind’s reign over the Earth was coming to a close.
 
The first stop we made was for a boat tour to see the Southern Right Whale from the water.  Our captain was a talented gent, and we saw at least five whales from up close.  These monsters were even more bitchin’ from up close, and were much larger than our tour boat.  However, on our way back in, we saw a mother and calf leaping from the water (in the most bitchinest fashion, I might add) in what appeared to be a path of hasty escape.  At the time, we all thought they were fleeing from our boat; but as we would later find out, this was not the case…
 
They are everywhere.

They are everywhere.

Hopping back into our tour van we crossed the peninsula and spotted many guanacos, who seemed a little uneasy, even for guanacos (and I’m sure I don’t have to regale you all with how uneasy a Patagonian Guanaco can be in early-October).  Our next stop was to see the giant elephant seals and their baby calves, and maybe some killer whales.  The adult male seals are truly u-g-l-y without an alibi, but they live, quite possibly, the greatest life on Earth: these beasts sleep 23 hours a day, can grow up to three tons, and have harems of up to 50 female seals.  Lucky bastards.  However, what I was really hoping to see was the lovable babies of these creatures with their big innocent black eyes and soft fuzzy skin, as they adorably lounge near the seashore…then get viciously mashed to a bloody pulp by an oncoming killer whale.  Alas, there were no Killer Whales to be seen.  There weren’t even any of their less-dangerous cousins, the Harmful Whale, or their non-dangerous relatives, the Unhazardous Whale, around.  Boooooring.  So I hurled a couple of rocks at the elephant seals, and went on my way. 

 

This would be precisely the moment that my innocence would end.

 

 
As I made it to the top of the cliff, I noticed a strange creature standing on the top, just watching me.  It was about knee-high, black and white, and resembled a flightless bird.  People call it a “penguin.”  Now, the terrain of Patagonia in October is warm, dry, and nearly desert-like.  I thought, “it’s too damn hot for a penguin to just be walking around.” 
 
As I carefully walked over to take its picture, I saw another penguin nearby.  Then another.  Then another.  They were everywhere.  There were hundreds of them on top of the cliff, and down on the beach below.  While many people think these creatures are cute, I found them oddly unnerving.  Their calm demeanor and lack of fear of humans underscored my concerns.  I quickly took a picture of the most menacing of these animals, and rapidly hurried to the safety of the van, and the hostel.
 
The next morning I took a tour to Puerto Tombo, which seemed to be a popular destination.  Only if I knew what had been transpiring there, I could have warned you all sooner.  Alas, I am afraid it might be too late.
 
Notice the holes.  That's where they store the bodies.

Notice the holes. That's where they keep the bodies.

This was seconds before the penguin slaughtered the guanacos.

This was seconds before the penguin slaughtered these poor guanacos.

As I entered the park, I noticed a herd of nervous guanacos glancing about.  When I looked down, I saw the root of their fears: more (I can only assume) bloodthirsty penguins.  This time, they were literally everywhere.  Our guide told us there were over 600,000 at Punto Tombo, and that more were coming from Antarctica.  They had no doubt grown tired of that cold, lifeless continent, and were beginning to overtake the rest of South America, and most likely the world.

 
I am afraid to say that humans best weapon has proven ineffectual against this dangerous foe — not even good old reliable Global Warming can save us now. 
 
I only hope this warning has reached you in time.  Flee for the deserts, arm yourselves to the teeth, and trust no one.
 
The penguins are coming.  And they are taking over.


Tierra del Fuego
November 6, 2008, 1:13 pm
Filed under: Argentina
Brrr...

Brrr...

Tierra del Fuego — “Land of Fire,” my ass.  This place is, for lack of a better description, fucking freezing.  Literally.  There’s snow, frost, ice, and face-chapping coldness everywhere.

After spending the last three months in weather varying from “sweltering” to “terrifically sweat-inducing” in Northern South America, I decided to hop on a plane with my brother and his wife, from Buenos Aires to the bottom tip of the continent — Ushuaia, Argentina.  

 
Ushuaia, Argentina -- The End of the World

Ushuaia, Argentina -- The End of the World

As we landed in Ushuaia, the snow was apparent, but it really didn’t seem to be that cold.  That is, it didn’t seem cold until we walked outside and my butt cheeks froze together.  This made my general reaction to cold (or fright, or nervousness, or basically any slightly startling situation) — that reaction of course being pooping my pants — pretty difficult.  Once we checked into our hotel, we decided to take a cab into the nearby mountains to see a glacier.  After taking a chair lift to the base of the glacier, we noticed many signs stating “do not climb the glacier without an experienced guide.”  This seemed to be pretty solid advice that, considering our lack of hiking gear, we would absolutely heed.

 
Or so we thought.
 
Thus, donning my hiking jeans, kind-of-waterproof jacket, Kleenex-thickness gloves, and snazzy new “Ushuaia” tourist hat, we began a self-guided tour to view the bottom of the glacier.  While this would generally be a fairly unstrenuous hike, the wind was whipping, the snow was whirling, and it was about as cold as you would expect for the southernmost city on Earth. 
 
Oh, so the Glacier is just right up that snowy hill?

Oh, so the Glacier is just right up that snowy hill?

So, since none of us had seen any up-close-and-personal glaciers before, we continued hiking in two and three foot snow drifts for half an hour, and our spirits remained high.  We then encountered a sign stating “Glacier” with an arrow pointing left, we figured that we should follow this sign and ascend the snow-covered mountain to see this natural phenomenon.  Up we went.

 
This is when it started getting tiring.  Mainly because I have now learned the difficult life that is led by an ice cube, an otter pop, or a mouthwatering Dairy Queen Blizzard with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup pieces.  In other words, it started getting really, really fucking cold.  But, we continued upward.
 
As the Arctic winds continued freezing our faces, we continued climbing to see this glacier that the sign so clearly stated was to the left.  The higher and higher we got, the less and less we saw other than pure white snow.  But, as we had permanent brain freeze, we kept going up.  “It must be just above this next crest,” I kept muttering while contemplating warming my frozen thighs with my own urine.  
 
Finally, after about two hours of straight uphill climbing, we started to piece together the painful truth: there’s no clear view of the glacier, there’s no one else climbing anywhere near as high as us, and it’s so cold that I can’t even come up with any clever curse words to describe my current hatred of Mother Nature.  Normally, I’d shriek something clever like “Bitch tickler, it’s cold!” or “Fuck waffle!” in order to explain my current feelings towards the weather.  Alas, the cold stopped this, and I could only cleverly decry “Ffffffffffttttt.”
 
Oops, I accidentally just climbed a glacier.

Oops, I accidentally just climbed a glacier.

However, it was at this point that we realized we had missed the subtle innuendo of the sign with the arrow pointing left: we had already climbed halfway up the glacier.  And as far as my frozen brain could remember, neither my brother, his wife, nor myself were glacier climbing guides.  

 
Poop. 
 
Oh well, at least I had my glacier hiking jeans on.
 
So, at this realization, we decided to stop going upward or we’d end up like Sylvester Stallone in that one movie where he’s climbing mountains: nope, not “buff and short” (although I already have one of those covered…and it sadly ain’t the former), but we’d be trapped in a constant struggle between man and mountain, between love and honor, between not really speaking English and being a kinda buff midget.  And, we also realized there was a decent chance we were going to plummet into a hidden ice crevasse, thus ruining my best pair of hiking jeans, and maybe breaking my legs and dying.  But the hiking jeans were really all I could really focus on.
 
Thus, we decided to descend in the fastest way possible: on our asses.  This was interesting.  I volunteered as the guinea pig for this expedition.  I thought it would be fun to slide down a snow-covered glacier.  I was right…until I started picking up speed and surpassed 75mph and careened into the rock formation 100 feet down the hill. 
 
After we had all reached the bottom of the glacier alive, we marched back home with frozen toes and fingers, and declared our contempt for glaciers and Argentine warning signs.
 
Tierra del Fuego National Park
Tierra del Fuego National Park

The rest of our trip went far smoother than the glacier expedition.  We hiked in the Tierra del Fuego National Park amongst giant glacial mountains, ice-cold bays and ocean inlets, and all the way to Chile, where we illegally immigrated, then spat upon this fine country as most proud Argentines would do.  We also took a boat trip through the Beagle channel where long ago Darwin infuriated the Lord by denying the fact that all animals and man (even Mormons) were not created, but rather evolved from earlier species.  Yeah, right.  How do you explain George Bush then, Mr. Darwin?  On this boat trip we were able to see a colony of Lobos del Mar (“Sea Wolves”), which disappiontingly only turned out to be sea lions, not actual web-footed wolves that terrorized the Arctic seas.

 
All in all, Tierra del Fuego was an amazing trip to the End of the World, which lessened my sympathy for glaciers and their feet freezing ways.  Global Warming, do your worst.  I mean, even if the glaciers melt, we’ll always have ice-machines in our hotels to make up for them.  I mean, it’s like someone saying animals in the wild are more spectacular than those in a zoo. 
 
I’ve seen them both.  Same diff.  So give up your pro-glacier stance, liberals, it’s just a big ass ice cube.
Lago Escondido

Lago Escondido