The Astounding Travel Adventures of a Miraculous Fellow

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.



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.



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