Tuesday, 3 May 2011

melchor arteaga.

In spite of the popular belief that one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Seven_Wonders_of_the_World), Machu Picchu (or “Old Mountain” in Quechua), was discovered by US-born and Yale-educated archaeologist Hiran Bingham in 1911 (2011 thus representing the 100th anniversary since its discovery), locals hold the very firm opinion that it was actually Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer who discovered the “Lost City of the Incas” as far back as 1867, or c. 45 years earlier than what is attributed to Bingham. For the local Quechua (or, for that matter, Inca descendents) population, the generally-accepted notion to attribute the discovery of Machu Picchu (which is actually the name of the peak next to the “Citadel”, whose name is unknown) to Bingham is truly outrageous. During a conversation I had with the guide that took my awesome group (composed of Ross and El – “the lads” – from the UK; Monica – “the avocado fanatic” – from Canada; Jim – “the patriarch” – from the US; Simon – “the former DJ” – from the UK and Juliana – “the chicken massage girl” – from Brazil amongst many others) all the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu, I enquired about the origins of Machu Picchu and about how it had become known to the world and turned into a World Heritage Site. Having read some very elementary background information (mainly Lonely Planet and Wikipedia. Hehe) about Machu Picchu, I asked him about Hiran Bigham (“the person who discovered Machu Picchu”, as I put it...), on a random occasion while I was strolling at the head of the pack by his side around the 2nd day of our trek, and about whether there was any evidence of other expeditions, local or foreign, preceding his discovery. David, or Dave as he said we could call him with an Anglo-Saxon twist, was (to put it gently) outraged. He mentioned that the Bingham discovery theory was a product of Western ignorance and that it was in fact a local, the chap referenced in the title of the post, who had discovered the ancient city shortly after having purchased some land in the region. For a generally-moderate tour guide as Dave, this must have been the only time I saw him express a tiny bit of anger or “negative” emotion. He then commented on this general misconception a couple of days later when he was giving us a tour of Machu Picchu. To that end, and to enlighten the “ignorant” tourists, there is a commemorative sign at the entrance of the Machu Picchu complex (next to the one “officially” acknowledging Bingham as the discoverer of the site) referring to Melchor Arteaga and his crew – maybe not in textbooks, but what the locals perceive as true. So kudos to Wikipedia and “generally-accepted” sources of knowledge...

So after the Colombian interlude I shared with you last week, I returned to Peru for what would turn out to be the most fascinating of experiences – definitely the most amazing part of my trip thus far – a 4d/3n trek to Machu Picchu. After landing in Lima from Bogota (last Thursday, 28 April), I had to endure an “oh-so-common” 6-hour layover at Lima airport before catching my flight to Cusco. As I discussed in my last post, given the brevity of my stay in Peru and the few days I had until my next flight (this one over to Sao Paolo, Brazil), I decided to fly over to Cusco as opposed to busing it (1 hour vs. 24 hours with a marginal price differential). After a short and very smooth flight, in which I had the privilege of being assigned seat 1C (do not think I purchased a Business Class ticket as the plane is all coach!), I arrived in Cusco, at c. 3,500m above sea level. It was rather early (c. 7am) and decided to take a cab to my hostel (Loki Hostel - http://www.lokihostel.com/en/cusco), for which I paid 10 soles (or just over USD 3). Unfortunately, my room was not ready and had to chill by the bar (the only part of the hostel with wifi connectivity) for a while. Nonetheless, this gave me plenty of time to finalise my post on Colombia – which I am sure all of you enjoyed thoroughly! Following settling the bill for my planned 4d/3n hike to Machu Picchu and a refreshing shower, once my spot in the 15-person dorm was available, I had a nap as I had barely managed to catch any sleep at the Lima airport during the 6-hour layover. Once “fully” revitalised, I set out to explore Cusco. A beautiful city, former capital of the Inca (or Inka) Empire and which was designated Historical Capital of Peru in its 1993 Constitution (enacted under the mandate of the notorious Alberto Fujimori – currently in jail and whose daughter, Keiko, is running against Ollanta Humala in the second round of the 2011 Presidential elections due to be held in June). Absolutely stunning city, which is home to some of the most impressive mixes of pre-hispanic and colonial sites and landscapes. After 2 hours of going around the city, buying some essentials I would need on my trek (e.g. toilet paper, sun screen – the last bottle I had was “confiscated” at the Mexico City airport as I had left it in my small backpack, sandals – given that I lost my previous pair in Zipolite, etc.) and grabbing a bite, I finally returned to the hostel. Once there, I sat in on the briefing of the trek I had signed up for (and met Ross, Elliot, Monica and Jim) – not the actual Inca Trail (as this one has to be booked c. 6 months in advance) but a fair proxy – and hit the hostel bar where I met a few nice people, played pool and let the hours pass in good company with a few Cuzqueñas (or the locally-brewed beer).

The next morning, I was due to wake up at 6.30am for a 7am sharp gun start. A few too many Cuzqueñas, a beer pong tournament in which I was victorious (alongside my loyal and brilliant teammate Avia, from Israel) and an outing to Mama Africa, the local club, I missed the early wake-up call. Good start to the trek... I nevertheless got on a bus at 9am and managed to catch up with the group at close to when they were about c. 50% of their way into the first day. In the afternoon and after arriving to Santa Maria, a tiny little town where our hostel rested on top of a gas station, the “dream team” composed of Ross, Elliot, Simon and myself defeated a local team of “aficionados” in what will forever be remembered as an epic battle. Final score: 6-4. We will forever be remembered in that quite little town. In the evening, we had a light dinner consisting of soup, as a starter, and chicken milanese, lettuce, tomato, rice and French fries, as a main (this would turn out to become a general mealtime pattern during the entire duration of our trek). Post dinner, nothing major... A few of us stayed up a little while longer to watch the end of “The Departed” (i.e. a Scoresese masterpiece) on the giant flat screen the hostel seemed to have mysteriously pulled out of nowhere. We all were in bed by c. 10pm as we had a 5am wake-up the next morning.

After some delicious “huevos revueltos” (scrambled eggs) for breakfast and a very rigorous 30-minute stretching routine led by Jim, we started to follow Dave, our guide – as I mentioned earlier --, on what would be an exhausting day marked by a c. 10-hour, nearly non-stop hike across the Andes. During this “recorrido” we witnessed some of the most breathtaking landscapes of the valley leading into (still some 30 or 40-odd km away though) Machu Picchu. We had to cross various streams, poorly maintained bridges and had to climb killer Inca staircases through the “jungle”. Our guide was nevertheless extremely diligent and was very much on top of all of us as well very attentive and insightful with his comments and remarks. The day culminated, after c. 10 hours of walking, in Santa Teresa – where we enjoyed a great dinner (I, personally, went for grilled alpaca. Truly delicious!) and where the most adventurous, including myself, partayed for a couple of hours to the beats of a local “discoteca”. We even managed to squeeze in a some football passes inside the bar we went to, just not to lose the tradition and in case any scouting agents were in the vicinity of Santa Teresa. What was definitely most surprising about this town was that the whole population seemed to be entirely devoted to tourism. Every day, numerous groups pass by (and crash in) the village, therefore making it a prime location for all tourist-related services and activities to flourish (e.g. restaurants, hostels, etc.). One of these, zip-lining in the nearby valley, would be what the first part of our next day would consist of.

The next morning, those who opted for zip-lining got a 8am “treat” wake-up call (vs the standard 6am one for those who would be trekking for the first part of the day until our lunch checkpoint). To be honest with you, I was not very familiar with zip-lining (not like some of the guys in group. For example, Monica had done it on a number of occasions) but was attracted by the sounds of it. Didn’t really know what I was in for... A total of 6 rides on the wire across the valley and above the river later (only held up by a harness) and at a whopping 70-100 meters above the ground, I would find out. Unfortunately, for precaution, I did not take my camera with me but here is a link which should provide a brief glimpse of what I went through (http://www.canopyperu.com/). Scary stuff at first... but once the adrenaline gets pumping, one of the most fun and exciting outdoor activities I have ever taken part in. Surely a great way to start off the day fresh! Who knows... maybe next up I will go sky-diving or something. Hold your horses though, one thing at a time though! J Following the intense and exhausting zip-lining, we enjoyed a short bus ride to Hidroelectrica, where we were due to have lunch, and which is the final checkpoint before Machu Picchu where private vehicles are allowed. We had to register at the checkpoint and enjoyed a decent enough lunch made up, of course, of the basic ingredients (as stated above: chicken, tomate, lettuce, French fries and rice). Next up, a 3-hour hike to Aguas Calientes (or the village just at the bottom of Macchu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains and where all visitors are due to depart when visiting the Citadel) along the railway line. During this fairly flat and steady bit, I managed to stay close to our guide most of the way and got tonnes of insights from him. One which particularly struck me was that he mentioned that in order to become an officially accredited guide in Peru (and specifically for Machu Picchu), one had to study a “tourism” undergraduate at university for at least 4 years! In addition, foreign language requirements were quite strong – at the very least, every guide needed to be fluent in English. Dave sure was... That afternoon, and before our 7pm dinner, a few of us decided to go to the widely-publicised hot springs (or what the town is called after). Much to our disappointment and after a c. 10 minute walk uphill we had ahead of us a few pools; a couple cold, another couple hot – but not really the “natural” hot springs we had anticipated. We nevertheless went in and had a relaxing time. Dinner was enjoyable enough and immediately after we finished eating Dave went through logistics for the following morning – the morning in which we would finally be reaching the long-awaited Machu Picchu. Two options on the menu for us... i) take the 5:30am bus to the top or ii) depart at 4:45am and trek all the way up (in a straight line and via an Inca staircase). The dilemma at hand was that of those getting to the main gate, only the first 400 can get a stamp on their ticket that will grant them access to Huayna Picchu (which is the mountain opposite from the Citadel and which outstands for its once-in-a-lifetime views). The first 200 of these fortunate individuals can chose which turn to climb Huayna Picchu at (7am or 10am). Our guide had advised us to aim for 10am as the visibility tended to be better then, and thus the view of the ruins would be better and more “photogenic”. In addition, he was due to give us a guided tour of the ruins between 6 and 8 am. Disadvantage with taking the bus... if there are too many people climbing, it may be tough to squeeze into that initial group of 200 people. So what did your narrator decide? Obviously to take the stairs up... more genuine to the whole Inca Trail experience.

So the next morning, after having woken up at 3:30am a group of c. 100 people congregated before the gate that leads to the Inca staircase at c. 4:45am. The reason for that is that access to the road/staircase leading to Machu Picchu is closed until that time to ensure no one climbs up in the middle of the night – so as to not disturb the tourist housed in the Machu Picchu, lodged atop of the mountain and right by the main entrance, and who have paid north of USD 600/night to stay there. So... we were pretty much facing a race to get to the top. Not only did we have to “beat” the buses, but we also had to come in a decent position out of all those people walking. Ross, Elliot, Jim and I started at about the 20th position, right behind our guide, Dave. The latter had anticipated it would take us c. 1 hour to climb up to the top, which would give us a c. 15 minute margin ahead of the bus. We nevertheless began to step up the pace and take over the first few groups ahead of us. To put the ascent into context, imagine climbing up the steepest staircase in the rain and in the dark for nearly 1 hour. One of the most challenging experiences I have ever had to face. In addition, I (unlike most others) was not carrying a flash light, which meant I had to always remain relatively close to someone in front of me who did. I let mighty Ross serve that purpose. I know I slowed him down slightly but he was brilliant at “escorting” me up. There came a point, after about 20 minutes where I thought I was never going to make it. My heart was pumping at its fastest rate ever; my head was sweating more incessantly than ever before... but I kept going. Going, going, going, until after c. 35 minutes we saw the light. We finally made it to the front gate of Machu Picchu. Our group (Dave, our guide, Elliot, Ross and I) got to the top in 4th place (I was technically 7th to make it to the top), only preceded by a group of 3 Japanese tourist who were staying at the hotel. A litre of water later, we got our 10am stamp for Huayna Picchu onto our tickets. What a team effort... What a moment when we got to the top. It was such a remarkable achievement that we had people talking later during the day. According to “unofficial” transcripts, we broke the tourist record for the fastest ascent to the gate of Machu Picchu (or maybe it was just Dave trying to lift out morale! Most likely the latter. hehe). After that epic achievement, we went around Machu Picchu with Dave for about 2 hours. Fascinating guided tour between 6 and 8am. Afterwards, time to ourselves to explore the Citadel before climbing up to Huayna Picchu. This would be as challenging, from a physical standpoint, as the initial climb to the Citadel but due to the much calmer pace (as we had no rush to get up) it was more manageable. Great pics from the top of the mountain (some of which are below). Truly sensational... One feels on top of the world when looking down on the “Lost City of the Incas”, particularly after all the effort to climb up to the top. Dangerous and narrow little staircase to the top made the ascent and final destination all the more rewarding! After the customary photo shoot from Huayna Picchu, our group went down to the ruins and wandered about for a few more hours. Overall, I must admit that the sights I witnessed and the views my retinas were exposed to were truly breathtaking. Probably the most incredible views I had ever been exposed to. Impossible to describe, particularly the fact of finding yourself on top of the mountain, in a lost sacred Inca city after a 4d/3n trek. All the effort and sacrifice was definitely worthwhile... what an adventure! Only time will tell if any of my following destinations will be able to surpass Machu Picchu. At about 3pm we decided to make our way down to Aguas Calientes, again via the staircase. We had lunch and essentially relaxed as much as we could in advance of our c. 9pm train back to Cusco. Got back to the hostel at c. 2am. Difficult for me to get any rest as I had to catch a flight back to Lima at 6:30am. And here I am, in Lima, exhausted after a truly unique and sensational adventure that took our “dream team” to the summit of ancient Inca civilisation. Special thanks to Ross, Elliot, Monica, Jim, Simon, Juliana and the rest of the gang for making this experience so fulfilling!

And now what? Waiting to board a LAN Peru plane to Sao Paolo. Brasil... the land of samba awaits. Talk to you soon. Check out the cool pics in the meantime! ;)

Yours truly,