Monday, September 1, 2008

20 August 2008

Santa Maria ~

Today was the first day of our adventure to Machu Picchu. We awoke early and were picked up by a bus at around 9 am. The van was filled with other tourists who were going to trek an alternative Incan Trail with us (in the past few years it became illegal to hike any of the Incan trails without a guide. For this reason, you have to hire a guide and go with a group if you want to walk to Machu Picchu). The trail is sometimes called the gringo trail and properly so: our group contains 2 Brits, 4 Aussies, 3 Israelis, 2 Colombians (they aren’t gringos), and us.

For three hours, we winded through the Andean countryside, becoming acquainted with the other travelers, all of whom—minus the Colombians—are on year long travels around the world. The road was absolutely breathtaking. We winded around and up and down narrow mountain passes and watched as the biomes transformed more into a tropical forest, almost becoming the jungle. Ultimately, we stopped at 4300 meters and unpacked the van. We were all given a helmet and a mountain bike. The bikes appeared to be of poor quality. The bike I initially was given had no air in the tire. Next, they gave me a “very good” bike. After a 30 second safety demo from our guide, we started to bike on the main road down the mountain. Being at such a high elevation and on a paved road, we had little reasons to pedal. We just winded down into the valley. Occasionally, the road would be flooded from a small waterfall, and we’d plough through the water. Even thought it was almost always a steep decline, I would occasionally have the need to pedal. Practically each time I pedaled, my chain would fall off. I would work my bike to the side of the road, inches from a straight cliff, and try to get my chain fixed. Other people were having similar issues, but mine initially seemed worse. After losing my chain five times, I switched bikes with our guide. Unfortunately, he advised me to not change speeds with the new bike: something you don’t want to hear when biking in the mountains. Fortunately, my inability to shift gears was a relatively minor issue compared to my fellow bikers. People had pedals fall off, chains split in half, tires puncture, and inadequate breaks which caused people to flip over their handlebars.

After about an hour of riding, the road turned to gravel, and we started to experience hotter weather and more uphill terrain. We also would go through the occasional village where people dressed in traditional Peruvian garb, living their lives, chopping wood, farming, and hauling coca. I felt like I was imposing on this lifestyle; however, all the locals were very friendly and would always smile and give a greeting. The ride provided such good insights into rural Peruvian life. I felt like I was watching a documentary, but I was actually just biking through the occasional rural community.

We biked for about five hours. Despite being an amazing experience, I was thrilled to be done. My arms and ass were so sore from the treacherous road we had traversed all day. Additionally, I was in dire need of water. We all congregated at a hostel. I conversed with the two Colombians for a solid two hours. What a great education. After we ate dinner, I had my first coca tea. Coca is the plant which produces cocaine. The coca plant is part of the culture here and is everywhere (but not in the form of cocaine). I just had some hot water with a bunch of coca leaves. To me, it tasted like any other tea. It is impossible to get the effects of cocaine from just having the tea. If so, Peru would be a nation of coke heads considering everyone (including young children) are constantly chewing on coca leaves. It is more common that chewing gum is in the US.

Now I am sitting on a patio with parrots and stray dogs. The patio is lit with bright, fluorescent lights, and we are surrounded by a wall of darkness. Beyond the darkness lies the Andes, covered in a dense, semi-tropical forest. Tomorrow we will walk these forests.

Photo Credits:
1. Adam at the start of the bike ride. We ultimately would finish at the bottom of the valley.
2. Random shot of valley after descending two hours or so.
3. Group taking a break in one of the small villages.
4. Church in one of the small villages. I don't remember why I took the photo.
5. Me along the trail near a small village.

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