29 March 2011, flight KL743, Amsterdam – Lima
A new diary, a new trip to a new continent. I feel very very fortunate to be able to make this trip AND to make it together with one of my best friends. I’m in the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Lima and yes I am a little bit nervous. Am I fit enough? Will the altitude be bothering me? Will my left shoulder play up again and give me agony? Maybe I’m even going to find some answers to some ‘life questions’ as hiking for me sometimes is a bit like meditating, just enjoying nature, taking it all in, be as silent as possible and be totally blown away by the incredible nature and experiences that this world has to offer. I don’t really have a lot of life questions at the moment so maybe this time I’ll just enjoy the ride.
I’m going on a 12 day trip to hike the Inca trail and to visit the Amazon jungle in Peru. It is a trip organized by GAP adventures (www.gapadventures.com) for which my friend is Operations Manager for Southern Africa. The Inca Trail with Machu Picchu as finishing point has been one of my dreams and now this dream was becoming reality. Normally I wouldn’t be the person to go on an organized group trip but this offer was just too good to be true so I was very grateful to be on this plane to Lima.
30 March, Lima, Peru
I arrived around 6pm in Lim and a GAP representative was awaiting me in the Arrivals Hall. Immediately I noticed that this was a very well organized airport. Somehow I expected South America to be extremely unorganized. I guess something like when people come the first time to South Africa. They’re normally also amazed by the level of facilities (jeez, you have real toilets!). The trip to the hotel was about 45 minutes and I couldn’t see much of the city because it was dark and misty. 3 hours later my friend arrived from Cape Town. We shared a glass of wine and then off to bed to be able to explore Lima the next day.
We didn’t think Lima was a very beautiful city. We took a 3 hour city tour on one of those English busses, departing from Kennedy Park in the area called Miraflores (5 minute walk from our hotel www.castellanahotel.com). Yes, we did see some beautiful plazas and there was a visit to the cathedral but it was mostly just a HUGE city with way too much traffic. However, we were very interested in tasting the local dish called ‘Ceviche’ (= raw fish marinated in lime and herbs) and found a stunning place near the sea to enjoy lunch, Punta Sal. What could have been a stunning view was just mist so unfortunately we didn’t see the sea. The food was wonderful. We tried as many local dishes as possible and also had a go at Pisco Sour, the local drink which tastes very much like Tequila. Great stuff!
In the evening we had a briefing by a GAP representative at the hotel where we met part of the group. The next morning we had to catch a flight to Cuzco, the old Inca capital and now tourism centre of Peru. Yay, now the adventure would really start!
31 March 2011, Cuzco
We arrived in Cuzco which is an incredibly busy place. NOTHING like I had imagined. I thought it would be much smaller, picturesque and intimate and a lot less cars. I was a bit disappointed….
We met our guide who took us on a little walk around the city centre. Cuzco is situated at 3450 m so it’s very important to get used to the altitude slowly and one shouldn’t do too much on the day of arrival. Our guide did that very well, walking slowly, showing us Cuzco. What we didn’t like, was that he took us to a very European type of restaurant with Norah Jones music in the background. HELLO! We always like to try local things so in the evening we didn’t join the group anymore (there would be many days to come that we’d spend with the group). My friend has this eye for spotting incredible local eateries so we find this tiny little restaurant near the hotel that looked really cute and neat. It was like entering a family’s living room. In the back there was a mother helping her child with homework and the dad made the most delicious chicken soup for us while the son, who spoke a little bit of English, was serving us. Really lovely! And we couldn’t believe that the place was so empty but maybe we were a bit too early. So if you go to Cuzco, pls. do explore the local eateries that are not directly around the Plaza de Armas. Peruvian food is delicious and healthy. Did you know their staple food is Quinoa and that the potato originates from Peru?
BTW, it is GREAT to be in a Spanish speaking country again after so many years. I can practice my Spanish again and really take any opportunity to chat with the locals
In the afternoon I had a meeting with a South African who was currently setting up as a tour organizer in Peru. So expect trips to Peru by Extraordinary Travel in the future!
BTW: Nadja and I are also on a mission while we’re here. We’d like to find out why Machu Picchu / Peru currently is the world’s centre of spiritual energy.
1 April 2011, Ollantaytambo, Peru
I just saw the most unbelievable thing in a flash: a guy sitting at the back of a motorbike, talking on his cell phone while having a Bible in his hand and making a cross. And all this at an incredible speed! WoW! It’s always a pity that these moments are gone before you know it and there’s no time to point it out to my friend. We are in the cutest village ever! Now this is how I had imagined Cuzco but we’re in Ollantaytambo. I call it a dollhouse village. Colorful houses, even more colorful people. Not much traffic. People are super chilled and friendly everywhere so far. Another assumption I made before I came here: oh dear, South America, it’s going to be a mission being blond! But no, nobody hassles me and everybody is just super friendly and in general interested.
Today was a beautiful day anyway. We started visiting a weaving project that is supported by Planeterra, the foundation by GAP adventures to ensure sustainable tourism and give back to the local communities. I went a bit overboard buying Alpaca socks and an Alpaca Poncho. But at least I know for sure that I won’t be cold on the trail. Alpaca wool is the wool from the local Alpacas, looks like a mix of camels, goats and cows. Oh, before I forget, yesterday I tasted Alpaca meat which was also fantastic, very tender.
The ladies of the weaving projects (the wives of the porters who we will meet tomorrow) showed us how they used nothing but local plants and herbs to make the most beautiful colors.
After the project we visited the first Inca ruins of this trip, the ruins of Pisac and we also visited Pisac market. Nadja and I we both loved Pisac and have started already dreaming about coming back here and then do our own thing without a group. Ollantaytambo is also base of an important Inca ruin. We walked up, very slowly, 250 steps. The Inca Trail is about 10.000 steps so this was a good exercise. And now we’re sitting in lovely Ollantaytambo, drinking coffee, while writing in our diaries. Tomorrow is the big day: Day 1 of the Inca Trail.
2 April, 2011
What a beautiful day it was!! I don’t really have the right words to describe it but I got totally emotional this morning when I was overlooking the Andes. I have to say that GAP really is a fantastic company, everything is superbly organized, it is quite unbelievable.
Ok, let’s start with the beginning and give you some practical tips as well for in case you’d like to do this trail yourself.
When hiking the Inca Trail with GAP adventures, which is one of the biggest operators in this area, you will be well taken care of and know for sure that they also take good care of their staff like porters and guides. The porters are not allowed to carry more than 25 kg (we saw other porters really struggling with much much more which is horrible). We had a group of 16 hikers and had a total of 21 porters, 1 chef, 1 assistant-chef, 1 guide and 1 assistant-guide so there are a LOT of people looking after you. Each hiker is allowed 5 kg of luggage (which includes your sleeping bag). If you’d like to take more (which you really don’t need) you will have to carry it in your day pack. At the beginning of the trail, so this morning, all duffle bags (provided by GAP) are weighted and if you have too much it will be taken out. On the trail there’s a maximum of 500 people (yes, that’s a LOT) allowed per day of which are about 200 hikers and 300 staff. That’s why you would always have to book via an operator who will get you the permit (Nadja and I already decided: we want to come and hike the lesser known trails like the Lares trek, where there are less people and no permits required). To be honest we were a bit blown away by the amount of people. Anyway, today was the first day and it was fantastic. For lunch the porters had set up tents and we sat at REAL tables to have our lunch! Wow! BUT, even more incredible was that they were welcoming us with applause when we arrived at the lunch spot. We also were all given a bowl of lukewarm water and soap to refresh ourselves. WoW! This was 5 star camping to me! After lunch, which was a 3 course affair, we still had a couple of hours to hike so off we went again. Sometimes I struggle a bit with the altitude but we have embraced drinking Coca tea and chewing the Coca leaves. Just like the locals. What works for them, works for us so we refrained from buying expensive pills. Important is to really stop when you’re out of breath and when you’re feeling your heart pounding in your throat and relax until your breathing is normal again before you start walking again.
Arriving at the camp site, all the tents were pitched and the duffle bags were already put inside. Wow! After dinner time we were all introduced to the entire team and we introduced ourselves to the team as well. The group is quite mixed with people from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and of course us from South Africa (Germany & Holland originally).
3 April, 2011, day 2 of Inca Trail
Today was definitely the toughest day. We had to climb for about 4 hours to 4250 m and that after a night of almost no sleep. We do suggest you rent the extra comfortable mattress….We didn’t. We thought we would rough it.. Since you go to bed very early, your rhythm gets very confused. At 11h30pm we thought it was 5am. OH NO!! Still so many hours to go…We were woken up by the staff at 5h30 and they brought us a cup of tea in our tent. Another WoW!! Around 7am we started hiking and like I said it was tough BUT it did seem as if we had more energy than yesterday so we didn’t struggle too much and the weather was good hiking weather, bit cloudy, not too hot. Again starting off with Coca tea in the morning and chewing the leaves helps a lot. Apparently the oxygen gets better or faster absorbed by taking Coca. Yes, those are the same leaves of which they make cocaine and you’re not allowed to take any in your luggage although they look like bay leaves… We didn’t try..
4 April 2011
I didn’t write anything on this day… Just some pictures for you. It rained most of the day. We walked through a beautiful cloud forest. Hiking was mostly downhill today
5 April 2011, Machu Picchu
We arrived! After walking, almost running for about 1.5 hour this morning we arrived at the sun gate and saw……NOTHING!!! OH NO!! It was misty and Machu Picchu had disappeared in the mist. But then it slowly started to clear up and we started to see this unbelievably beautiful place, built by the Incas. 1 picture says more than a 1000 words so here we go:
From the Sun Gate it’s still about an hour walk until you get to the entrance of Machu Picchu. This is where you have to mingle with the visitors that arrived by train or bus, smell nicely and wear high heels. Hiking the Inca Trail is a MUCH better way tho..
On the 24th of July 2011, it’s 100 years ago that an 11-year old boy led the American historian Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu and the rest of the world became aware of its existence. Machu Picchu, which means Old Mountain, is now the most famous and popular tourist site of Peru and perhaps even of South America. The trail is closed for maintenance each year in the month of February. Closures may also take place due to inclement weather or other conditions.
What did I think of the trail?
Like I said in the beginning, a dream came true by doing this trail. The traditional Inca Trail is the iconic trail that everybody has heard of and you just HAVE to do it I guess, if you’re a hiker. BUT, I was really looking forward to enjoy quiet time in nature and that is something you musn’t expect on the Inca Trail because there are simply too many people and lots of them make a lot of noise. If I go back, I would choose to do some other hikes in the area and stay a couple of nights in a little guesthouse in Ollantaytambo or Pisac. Those villages were a lot more authentic than busy Cuzco and would offer me an experience that fit my needs more.
Like I said the services of Gap Adventures were incredible. It makes sense to select your operator carefully and choose one that supports sustainable tourism and that looks after the environment. Don’t expect anything from the facilities at the camp site. They’re basic and very dirty. This is something that I find hard to understand because it’s such a big tourist attraction. On the last day, there’s the possibility for a hot shower but the other days there are mostly no showers. Toilets are French style toilets: hang above it and then make sure you don’t get flooded when you flush it….Not my thing… So you mustn’t be too worried about those things for a couple of days if you’d like to experience the Inca Trail.
About the level of fitness. I’m quite a keen hiker in South Africa. I’ve hiked Fish River, Whale Trail, Otter Trail, Drakensberg, Wild Coast and many hikes around Cape Town. So far I still think Otter was the most hectic hike and the Inca Trail is definitely easier, especially because the weather is colder and you don’t need to worry about carrying all your stuff.
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