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Tony Gavilanes / Lacy Sarco

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(episode 9)

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The Incan capitol, and a city with a proud reputation for party, we found both in glorious form...

The overnight bus led us into magnificent rocky mountain passes and green valleys where the local red soil made up the bricks for buildings speckling the landscape most naturally. Smoothed mortar storefronts gave signal of patriotic red and white, or just red, indicating the local yet internationally appreciated, "we have beer." We rolled into the Cusco valley in joyous anticipation for what was in store.. this was the basecamp for treks to the famous Machu Picchu ruins.

Loading off the bus, and we'd already been trained in Peruvian business tactics, we pulled out 3 Nuevo Soles (about 90 cents) into hand and started asking taxis if this would get us to our hostel. It takes really only a couple of times, and you're in. Our driver said he'd take us to the bottom of the hill, but even that was negotiable with some conversation and interest in local fare. First question: "What's a great place for typical Cusquenan food?" Second, "Where can we find local live musicians playing?" And by the end of it, he had shelved out a perfect list of hot spots complete with the tagline, "the bars don't close in Cusco," followed by a happy chuckle. We found ourselves at the front door of Loki Cusco, at the top of the hill.

After dropping our bags and hitting an ATM, we were off digging the local scene. In the San Pedro Market, across fom the train station, we headed past the pidgeon egg carts and skinned animal heads to the fabulous juice bars! Despite our cultural differences in appetizing display, one can not, and should not pass up a mango/milk smoothie. These juice bars line two full rows and have imaginable and unimaginable combinations of whole-fruit blended tropical taste tantilizing goodness... Two glasses for a little over a buck, by the way. I wish we could have stayed there all day and got drunk on the stuff, but instead we hit the hostel bar and green chicken curry that evening.

The morning came with revelation. Talking with the mass of travelers we were meeting, doing the transit in and out of Machu Picchu in a day was the wrong idea. First, you need to be there in the early morn to avoid crowds and get Wynapicchu passes, which is the peak that overlooks the ancient city (they only let 400 people up a day). And second, to do that, you need to start out at 4am climbing the steps. We looked into some options, and based on budget, found one 4-day trek that would be less expensive than staying in Cusco and doing the trains ourselves. The usual bargain ethics worked like a charm and we scored it for $160 each.

Inca Trek Day 1: Mountain Bike a Cliff
Now Lacy had warned me about her reluctance to get on a bike and let gravity pull her down cliffside switchbacks, but she obliged nonetheless. What made the situation extremely unsettling was being handed the release form to sign that was only copied in Spanish! That scared us to death..
Passing through Ollantaytambo, we ascended a fissure in the mountains with a series of criss-crossing roads, up until the mist drenched the windsheild. One unlucky Argentine was having a terrible time with it, and decided it necessary to roll her face out the window and let her stomach out all over the right side of the van. Being the compassionate observer I am, I preserved her gross display for all time in video. Quick to it, many passengers passed coca leaves for her to chew.
NOTE: Coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine, is a widely used dip, candy, and morning tea in the Peru and Bolivian highlands. It's jaw-numbing and energetic effects are also a combatant for altitude sickness.
So we reached our jumpoff point and unloaded the bikes. My gears were held on with electrical tape and many people's brakes didn't work properly, including Lacy's. But we set off down the road and everything was going fine until I pulled out the camera to start taking some shots. I pan around in front of me and then back to get Lacy, but she wasn't in the frame. In fact she never turned the bend... No one was behind me. No one. I got off to wait a few minutes, and then the Dutch couple, Frank and Antionette, made the turn. They tell me Lacy's been in an accident, that her bike went into the ditch.. but she's okay.. Half panicking, I begin to mount to ride up the road as she finally makes the turn in her canary yellow poncho. She says:
So I was just taking my merry time, not trying to rush, when suddenly I started to lose my balance. My bike started to wobble and I squeezed the brakes, but somehow that made me lose complete control and with me on top, the bike went staight for the cliff wall. I fell into the ditch. My head and whole right side of my body went straight into the rock wall, with some serious force. The first image I had was myself with a huge bloody gash on the top of my head. I immediately stood up and throwing off the helmet screamed, "am I bleeding.. am I bleeding!?" But the guide, Frank, and Antoinette responded resoundingly, "no..." I knew I was fine, but it didn't help my disdain for bicycles. Once Abigail, the guide, fetched the bike out of the ditch and determined the brakes were no good (most likely a pre-existing condition), she offered me her bike to keep going. The joy of never being on a bike again was trumped by how lame it would be if I didn't finish the ride. "Yeah, I'm fine, thanks," I said. And with her hilarious laughter as a background, I mounted the new bike and made my way, riding the brakes the whole time.
Although she never made it close to falling from the cliff, the muddy ditch did claim Lacy two more times before we were done. Poor mess. At the hostal in Santa Maria, we hosed off the jeans and shoes, and with the company of the crew (english speakers; although ironically, the two Dutch, two Sweeds named Ricard and Hanna, and us), headed off dinner with a few large beers.

Inca Trek Day 2: Hike an Inca Trail
The nice thing was that by the time we'd put on our ponchos and grocery bags over our socks, the rain gave up and the sun started burning off the clouds. When crossing the river, our guides told us that we were leaving new Santa Maria into old Santa Maria, a ghost village which was once both their homes. The great landslides of El Nino 1999 claimed this and many other villages. We reached a point where Jorge, our guide, had us paint our faces with the red plant "achote." It was very important to Inca fashion, and even now, my family's kitchens still hold it. But then the trail turned upward. Up, up the mountainside to one of the 40 actual Inca trails. Aside fom dying on the way up, it was phenominal. Jorge told me all archeologists needed to do was clean the vegitation to make the path usable again after 500 years. The stonework-terraced path along the mountainside was absolutely breathtaking, especially if you looked down. A view we will certainly not forget.
Along the path we saw an array of flora and fauna, including the highly potent hallucinogen, "Floripolio," or "Angel's Trumpet." Effects wear off in 12 hours, and we still had an afternoon of hiking left, otherwise we might have gone real deep into the jungle. However, there were wonderful rewards for the day's 7 hours of hiking. In fact it was Valentine's Day, and we ended up at hot springs cut into the rock wall itself. One of the better parts was that all the pools had river rocks as floors, and shelves carved into the cliffs to sit on. Lacy and I found the hottest pool, also the smallest, right next to the waterfall. And after a natural shower there, we went into Santa Teresa for a night at the disco. The crew (Dutch, Sweeds, and us) sat with beer, amazed as the rest of our group danced their asses off. Even Jorge, the guide, was out til 4am, much to everyone's disappointment the next day when we waited for him an hour and a half to get on the trail again.

Inca Trek Day 3: Last Push, or so we thought...
The third day was wrought with fear conquoring for Lacy yet again. This time, rickety suspension bridges. There were three in all. And up the river we walked. Sand, stone, mud, bamboo, and solid rock. 6 hours that day, and everyone was feeling it. We saw the cutest little white furry caterpillar, but Jorge warned us not to touch it for fear of becoming paralyzed within a few minutes. But we made it to the railroad tracks, and stopping for lunch, we saw the local train pass by, moving the indigenous people and goods to the markets in Cusco and Aguas Calientes. And down the tracks we went. What was very cool about this part of the trek was the fact that the stretch of tracks bordered the river that circles Machu Picchu and Wynapicchu mountains. "Somewhere up there," we thought, "we will be tomorrow." And it was a daunting view. Straight cliffs that soared a million miles above us. But the crew drudged ahead, taking no break, passing many others on the tracks, until we finally made it to Aguas Calientes. This was the town at the feet of Machu Picchu's stairs. So we celebrated with beer and waited for the rest of our group. We had been making conversation about food the whole way; sushi, mexican, etc. and we were damned hungry, but we were broke. Beer sufficed. And early to bed. We needed to be on our way by 4:30am.

Inca Trek Day 4: 24 hours of Madness

We woke at 4:00am. We were on the trail by 4:30. The mist was so thick and the sun wasn't out, so thinking about those Inca climbing the same stairs in sandals 500 years ago pretty much blew our minds. Water break.. Solid granite steps.. Breathe.. Did they carry all these rock steps up here...? Breathe.. How much further do we have to go?... Water.. 75%... Oh my God... Breathe.... But we made it just after the busloads of bastards reached the entrance lines at the top of the hill. Oh there are no switchbacks on foot, just rocks that form a path of stairs all the way... But the mysterious morning mist in the mountains made for Tolkien-like hallicinations in the altitude. The city itself is remarkably well-preserved.. and huge! Our guide was great, and told us the inhabitants must have got word the Spaniards were coming, burned the city, and covered their tracks. That's why the walls are all still in tact. No conquistador ever saw it. The ancient cities were kicked down, but not this one. It grew over with weeds until about 1910 when a Yale bastard finally found it and shipped all it's treasures back to the states. Our guide also said the government of Peru is still in a custody battle over those artifacts. There were just so many sad stories there. As a disgusting final mark of irony, the Queen of Spain, who was too fat and sassy to climb, had a helicoptor lift her to the ruins.. They had to bury a huge rock throne in the center of Machu Picchu's common grounds so her lazy ass could land there. But boy it was magnificent! Looking up along all the buildings there's still an unfinished section that bears the natural state of the mountainside. Large, uncarved boulders; and some half-carved and drug toward placement. The Incas were famed for their stonework, and all religious buildings were made of interlocking, and earthquake-proof, smooth bricks. The nobility had nearly smoothed bricks, and common houses were mortared. They were also highly spiritual and philosophical thinkers, as we saw their sundials, temples, and a unique room with two water-holding, circular stones, which were thought to be used to view the stars and sun.
After our tour, Ricard, Frank, Antoinette, and I got to our date with Wynapicchu, while Lacy and Hanna took opportunity to visit the guardian house and take some great photos. Ricard and I ended up finding some burst of energy, and leapt the carved stairs like animals, making the summit in a clean thirty minutes. Sweating profusely. The view was unspeakably wonderful, because the sun had again burned off the morning clouds. On our way down, we saw a cameraman filming and gave him a show, hurdling the teraces as we descended.

Then we all met up again to head back; Ricard, Hanna, Frank, Antoinette, Lacy and I. Thank God we had train tickets out of there. A few more steps and we all might have collapsed. But Abigail, one of our guides, had made us promise to come out to the clubs with her that night. But all of us had a hinkering for some bomb mexican food in town. I told em, "I swear I'll eat two meals." That I did. Thanks to a hot shower and a margarita or two. By the time we were expected at the club, Abagail came with Toska to find us, and found us shibby. We decided it couldn't hurt to have some Cusco fun. Hell, we'd conquored Machu Picchu yesterday.. or was it that morning?.. Felt like it had been a week. We all headed out for the happy hours off of Plaza de Armas and danced, danced, danced! By the time people started thinning out, we screamed for McDonalds.. It was closed. "Burgers!" we screamed to Abigail, and she knew the spot. Amidst Ricard throwing the street children, and the bar promoter's papparazi-like actions, we made it to a spot where the burgers came with fries.. inside. And to everyone's amazement, at 3:30am, I had two of those too. We all made plans to meet up the next day, which must have taken the better part of two hours, but exchanged emails, calling it good, and parted for bed. By the time we were snug in ours, it was 4am again. Damn, how did it happen? Only in Cusco.

POSTED: February 25, 2009