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Travel: The stairway to Heaven

CHARLIE OWEN
vail daily correspondent
Special to the DailyA view of historic Machu Picchu ruins from its highest point. In 1450 A.D. Machu Picchu was used by the Incan empire as a fully functioning mountain-top city and was never touched by the Spanish invasions that occurred during the 1500s. It was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
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Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about the writer’s trip to Peru this summer.

After four flights over two days, a 24-hour delay in our plans, a stop-over in Mexico City and a slew of lies from airline representatives telling us our bags would be waiting for us everywhere we went, my girlfriend and I finally made it to Cuzco, Peru.

True, so far the trip had been a nightmare. Hours spent in the brutal confines of various airports and more hours spent in the straight-jacket called an airplane seat had nearly sent us over the edge before our trip could really begin.

Our luggage was still nowhere to be found, but it felt like a fresh start. We checked into our hostel and headed out to explore Cuzco, otherwise known as the gateway to Machu Picchu.

Taking a cab in Cuzco is an adventure in itself. It costs only one American dollar to go anywhere in the city, but you may not live to get there. There are a billion taxis on the roads at any given moment, all fighting for your fare. They are shells of cars that look like they could barely survive taking a sharp corner without crumbling to dust. The drivers have no fear and will weave in and out of what one can only assume are lanes of traffic at speeds that would put a Nascar racer to shame.

Cuzco is a city literally piled on top of itself. Most of the streets are cobblestone and climb upward, and they are usually no wider than an alley. It’s a city teetering on the brink of poverty and wealth, caught between history and the unstoppable pull of forward progress.

Seeing grown men pick trash from the streets and packs of wild dogs isn’t uncommon. I saw a child defecate on a sidewalk in broad daylight and vendor carts selling tamales and fruit are far more common sights than McDonald’s golden arches. There were policemen holding AK-47s, llamas carrying baskets of potatoes down the same streets as cars, and you can expect to be accosted by beggars every few minutes or street vendors selling everything from homemade clothing to shoe shines.

The following morning our bags finally made it to Cuzco and were awaiting us at the airport, which was good news considering we were starting a five-day hike to Machu Picchu the next day.

Our hike began at 6 a.m. in a small village called Mollepata, where we were fed breakfast and divided up into three groups of twelve. We walked a road through the small town to a dirt trailhead and started climbing uphill. After an hour, I looked back to notice we had been swallowed up by a beautiful Peruvian landscape of mountains and trees. We climbed long, lung-busting stretches of uphill terrain in the mid-day heat for eight hours until we got to our camp at Soraypampa. We ate dinner, and when the sun went down, the most gorgeous night sky I’ve ever seen was revealed to us. It was as if you could reach out and pluck any star you wanted from the vast darkness.

Day two of the hike began at 5 a.m., and after an hour of more uphill hiking, I went to snap a picture of the landscape with the brand new digital camera I bought just before the trip when I realized it was not in the pocket where I put it. In a panic the tour guide and I ran back to the spot where I thought I had dropped it but it wasn’t there. It was gone, along with my wallet that I had packed in the camera case. I was on the verge of tears, and we hiked back uphill as fast as we could to meet the rest of the group. The hardest day of hiking and the bulk of uphill climbing still lay ahead, and I did my best to forget about my loss.

Around 11 a.m. that day, we summited the mountain pass at 4,400 meters, and the view was stunning. We were face to face with Salkantay Mountain, a snow-covered behemoth reaching from the valley floor to the sky, a reminder of just how wild the Andes mountains actually are. We hiked for 10 hours that day and ended up in a town called Qollpapampa for the night.

Day three of the hike was the shortest and easiest. Only six hours through the Amazon rain forest surrounded by lush, green vegetation on all sides. Thick clusters of trees with stalks for stumps and umbrella-like leaves at the canopy grew everywhere along with wildflowers and hanging tree vines. Eventually we made it to this tiny town called La Playa, where we had lunch then caught a shuttle to a train station, where we caught a ride to Augas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

Day four – and I was tired, covered in mosquito bites, blisters and sunburned. But that didn’t stop me from waking up for a 4 a.m. climb to Machu Picchu. It was an exhausting hike up stone steps carved into the mountain side by the Incans centuries ago with nothing but headlamps to light our way. We got to the gates at about 5:30 a.m. where I rung the sweat out of my shirt and tried to stay warm.

At 6 a.m. they opened the gates and let us in to Machu Picchu, the once great city of a once great empire preserved through history. The clouds hung low that morning over the ancient stone monuments. That’s when it hit me – we made it, we were here. This is what we had come to Peru for, and I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself for one of the few times in my life.

As we walked around the olden ruins we passed though the same structures where Incans once worshiped the sun, offered up human sacrifices, farmed for sustenance and just lived their lives. It’s hard to believe that yesterday’s empire can become today’s historic theme park.

Around 10 a.m., we climbed up Huayna Picchu’s stone steps. From a distance it looked like a mountain straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, and I expected to see King Kong beating his chest at the top. When we got to the peak we peered down in all directions at the magnificent valley below and on Machu Picchu. It felt as if I had literally climbed a stairway to heaven. Standing there at the top of the world, I could feel living history coursing through my veins like a lighting bolt through water, and it was worth every ounce of frustration that it took to get there.

Southern Comfort Hostel:

We stayed here the first two nights in Cuzco. The accommodations were clean, the people very nice and accommodating and it’s located in a very safe community.

Price per night: Beds range from $7 to $12 per night per person.

For more information visit: http://www.southerncomforthostel.com.

Casa Cartagena:

We stayed at this luxurious hotel in downtown Cuzco for a night after our hike up Machu Picchu. It’s a lot more pricey than a hostel but the privacy, super comfortable beds and awesome breakfast made it all worth it. Treat yourself and get a real good night’s sleep.

Price per night: $615 to $1,810 per night.

For more information visit: http://www.casacartagena.com.

Samay Wasi Youth Hostel:

With two locations in the San Blas neighborhood, this hostel is very accommodating and the view of the city it offers is amazing.

Price per night: $8 to $15 per person.

For more information visit: http://www.samaywasiperu.com.

Inca Point:

This guide service offers everything from tours of the Sacred Valley to treks of the Inca Trail and Salkantay Mountain trail. The price includes almost

everything from porters to meals.

For more information visit: http://www.incapoint.com.


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