Friday, 21 March 2014

Inca Jungle Trek, Peru ~ Day 1

Arriving in Cusco we had one main aim: to book onto an Inca Trail trek.

We hadn’t realised before our arrival how far in advance you need to book these treks. The trail is limited with regard to how many people can enter it each day, and these permits sell out fast. Luckily for us we were not there in peak season (no, not us – we had managed to be there for rainy season…) so we were able to get permits for 5 days later, which was no big deal to us as we had time and there was LOADS to do there. 

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Unfortunately, while tramping up and down the many many steps that were all the rage in Inca times during excursions to the Sacred Valley, I lost confidence in my previously-injured-hip’s ability to cope with the Inca Trail and nights sleeping on the floor. This was a costly decision, as the Inca Trail permit couldn’t be refunded and also I would miss out on a World-class experience, but I managed to cut my losses by transferring onto the Inca Jungle Trek. This trek has more activities, opportunities to take an easy way out if my hip troubles me, and also it involves sleeping in beds (I’m not being a princess here, pressure on a hip bursitis/tendonitis is genuinely really painful. Even my own lovely comfy bed made it hurt when it was at its worst).

Many many steps at Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

On the first morning of the trek I was not in the best of spirits. My other half had left at 5am to head off for the ‘real’ Inca Trail, and I hadn’t been able to sleep since. My cold leftover pizza for breakfast did nothing to improve my mood, and neither did the 45 minute wait for my pick up at the main square. When my pick up arrived it was just a guy who came to show me where the actual pick up was, and once at the minibus it became apparent that I was the only English speaker. Still not a recipe for an improved mood…

On the road to Abra de Málaga

We eventually left, but not before being shouted at by police for being parked on yellow lines and then enduring some kind of domestic between the driver and an angry lady who paid the police fine. Once on the road however, the scenery was stunning. Mountains all around, little flocks of sheep or goats being shepherded about, plenty of llamas and alpacas decorated in brightly dyed yarn tassles, and even occasional pigs with their cute little piglets.

Cute little piglets

We stopped on the way to get a hot drink of coca tea and to stock up with snacks for the journey. Sipping my tea outside in the gradually strengthening sunshine, I got chatting first to a Brazillian girl with excellent English and Spanish, and then to a Chilean guy with English somewhat better than my Spanish (after all, I’d only had 2 weeks of Spanish lessons), and who was really lovely. He was travelling for just a couple of weeks with a friend of his, but she didn’t really speak any English and my Spanish conversation was not quite good enough to chat too much at first.

Feeling better for a hot brew and some companionship, I was able to enjoy the scenery much more, and I was pleased to find that I understood most of the briefings given by the guide in Spanish. We were heading for Abra de Málaga (4,350 meters), a high pass on this road through the Andes towards the jungle, offering a few hours of non-stop downhill bike riding. Pretty incredible.

The bikes we had did not inspire confidence, nor did the safety gear, however I was glad that I had stubbornly refused to buy a plastic rain poncho and instead had my own waterproof jacket. Up here there was a cold mist instead of the sunshine we had enjoyed further down, and rain was pretty much guaranteed so the waterproofing was necessary, but I didn’t fancy the idea of a: having all that wind drag to contend with from what I can only describe as an oversized brightly coloured plastic bat costume, or b: looking like a complete twerp from wearing what I can only describe as an oversized brightly coloured plastic bat costume.

Once on the bikes, we had a few rules to follow such as not overtaking each other (which lasted about 5 minutes!) and not crossing onto the other side of the road (which lasted until the really tight hairpin bends where my lack of rear brakes meant sticking to a tight turn was kind of tricky). It was a real shame that the ride was all about the speed – the route was all on-road so not especially interesting from a riding point of view, but from a views point of view it was utterly spectacular. The cloud forest was just beautiful, and from our vantage point as we began you could look out over miles of steep valley, sometimes catching sight of vultures soaring along below you. I would have dearly loved to be able to stop and take it all in in my own time, but sadly that was not on the program and we were only allowed one stop for taking in the sights. 

The rest of the time it was all about getting down as quickly as possible, and when I did try to take in the views while on the move I came very close to falling into the steep concrete drainage ditch at the side of the road! That would not have been a great start to my trek to Machu Picchu, but it probably would have been the end, so I had to give up on admiring the scenery.

As we dropped lower a stream developed out of the waterfalls higher up and enlarged until it got to the point where it spilled over the road. Whizzing through this water got us thoroughly soaked – and again and again we passed through it as the switch-backs in the road cut back through its course. Soaked from the bottom upwards, torrential rain then began to soak us from above. Of course during this tropical downpour was the time my bike chose to get a puncture, and the poor driver of the minibus, who was following on behind the whole time as a safety vehicle, had to get out and sort out my tyre. I had lost all my speed in stopping like this, and we had reached the bottom of the downhill, so I had to pedal hard for the last section to reach everyone else, who were already stopped and waiting for the minibus which I had delayed. For this was the end of the cycle ride – well, cycle freewheel, and as we stopped so did the rain. The drop in altitude was significant enough for our location now to be pretty warm, and we gently steamed after our earlier drenching.

Even my camera steamed up!

The next phase was to go to Santa Maria and our lunch, followed by our accommodation for the night. (Some groups go on a short white water rafting trip at this point, but I hadn’t been told about this so wasn’t booked on it).   Santa Maria is a small town but with lots of tourists as they pass through on the Inca Jungle Trek. Accommodation is basic, but as the guides were allocating rooms for our group and another group that had also arrived, my Chilean friends from earlier grabbed me and we managed to get a 3 bed room to ourselves. With not much to do, a giant queue for the only shower, and another deluge falling from the sky, my new Chilean friends and I passed the time by helping out with each other’s language skills and asking lots of questions about life in each other’s countries. 

Trying to photograph the rain at our accommodation for the night - you can see it pouring off the roof

Chatting away like this, dinner time soon came around, and our confidence in Spanish / English was also growing. By the time bed time arrived, I was in a much better frame of mind than earlier :)

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