Holiday Abroad, Part Cinco: Journey Through the Sacred Valley

– Continued from Part Cuatro-

Rain.  It poured all night and into the morning.  The window was open to let in fresh air.  The mountaintop outside was hidden in fog and clouds.  The street in front of the hotel had a decent flow of water heading down toward the river.  We’d made it four days in Peru without sustained rain; our streak was over.  It was December 26th, the day after Christmas.

IMG_3823On the way to breakfast, the rain had ceased, leaving a washed town beneath, the air thick and musty.  Santa Teresa was just waking up; the markets on the way to the restaurant were opened, but dark.  Inside, people sat and waited for patronage.  We ate breakfast in the same place we’d had dinner the night before, except we sat at a different table.  It was basically tradition now.  I ate more pan, had orange juice, and filled up enough to enjoy the morning.

This day we were starting off our activities with zip-lining.  In order to facilitate our adventure, we took a short walk over to a local bar down the street.  It was odd.  Inside was very dark; the walls smudged with dirt and in need of sanding and several coats of paint.  There was a bar to the right with a TV above blasting pop music videos (again).  A few people sat and stared mindlessly at it.  In the back of this area was a long couch of questionable cleanliness, behind which was an empty dance floor with another bar to the left of that.  This seemed like a strange place from which to go zip-lining.

There, another group of similar size joined us.  They appeared to be in our general age range and we got along pretty quickly.  When we were all ready, we were fitted for our harnesses and helmets.  We were instructed to leave our bags at the bar, so I took only the essentials with me: wallet and passport.  No camera this time, so the only photos I have are up here (points at head).

I had been under the impression the zip-line would take us farther down the path to Machu Picchu as an alternative means of transportation.  Clearly, this was incorrect; it was simply another activity for us to do on our already action packed trek.  We’d take a van from Santa Teresa, zip some lines, return to town, and then head out from there.  Simple enough.  The journey to the start involved another cliff road high above the river valley, going up from the road upon which we’d come into town from the hot springs.  I was hoping not to be nervous about this anymore, but the fact of the matter was the bumpy road was now soggy and possibly slick or prone to landslide.

Upon the radio played a little Bob Marley song, to which a few in the van had begun to sing along.  I have to say, it did help a little bit.

We arrived at the start of the course in almost no time.  We reached quite a formidable elevation on that road, so it was a relief to get out of the van and onto a surface without wheels.  At the first launch site, our zip-line instructors gave us a short safety briefing, which involved the few signals they’d give us, how to brake, and basic things not to do.  When I last did a zip-line course in California, we at least had a short, low wire to practice on; not so here.

Being a veteran of the zip-line and with the anxiety and fear having left my body since our latest van ride, I stepped right up near the front of the line and went for a ride.  To my left (east) was the Urubamba River; ahead and around a corner was town.  The wire ran parallel with the hillside we had just driven up.  I was exceptionally unafraid, yelling with joy as I flew down the wire.  There was a slight mist in the air that bombarded my face at top speed.

My best Google Earth re-creation.
My best Google Earth re-creation.

It was invigorating.  The next line took us back in the opposite direction, down to below the initial launch point.  From there, there was a short climb up, then the long one, a line all the way across the river valley to a landing platform built into the opposite hillside.  You could barely even see it.  I launched into that one, taking an opportunity to look around and cement the sight of the misty river valley from above in my mind.  Again, hundreds of feet in the air over a raging river, yet not even a shred of fear.  The way to the next launch point was a rather long climb up the hill to the platform, leading to another valley crossing.  I made sure to look both ways up and down the river at its midpoint.  From that height I could see the hot springs down below; in the other direction, Santa Teresa just peeking out from around the bend.

zipline_2The final zip took us down the river in the direction of the hot springs to a rope bridge.  From a distance, I could barely see it behind the jungle canopy that more or less surrounded it.  From up close, it was more apparent why it was so hard to see.  The bridge was composed of a series of wires forming the span with four white metal stabilizers evenly spaced throughout; the “surface” was regular wood beams, filling about 1/5th of the available space like a ladder.  In other words, 80% of the bridge surface was open air.  This is to say nothing of the fact that it was also wet and slippery.  I had a bad feeling about this.

I volunteered to go first.  I wanted to set my own pace, do the bridge without having to worry about what or who was ahead of me and with a clear end goal in sight and mind.  I clipped my carabiners into the guide wires and stepped off onto the rungs, taking them one at a time.  The first few were easy.  The drop was short and the bridge was firm at the beginning.  As I got farther out, the land beneath disappeared, the stability of the bridge lessened, and my arms and legs began to quake involuntarily.

Trust the engineering, I thought.  Beyond the several inch thick strips of wood I was standing on, I was also strapped into this contraption with redundant clips.  It was going to be okay.  I stepped slowly and deliberately, securing a foothold before continuing.  One at a time.  Because of the gaps between rungs, I had no choice but to look down as I walked.  My focus was squarely on the bridge, blurring the jungle beneath.

I reached the first stabilizer rather quickly.  No one else had yet begun to cross the bridge.  The guide wires were connected directly to the structure’s metal and thus dead-ended.  My harness prevented me from passing.  In the middle of the stabilizer was a rung, but about a foot lower than the others.  Around it, a pretty sizable gap from the last regular rung to the next.  I turned around and yelled back to the guides for advice, but it was for reassurance; I already knew what I had to do.  The only option here was to disconnect one of my carabiners, straddle the gap in the center of the structure, and hook it to the start of the next guide wire.  After that then the other side: step forward onto the next segment of the bridge, disconnect the other carabiner and reattach to the other wire start.  An easy task in theory, my shaking hand couldn’t unhook the carabiner given both the wetness and the required simultaneous twist and push.  I made myself do it one-handed in order to not release my other hand from the other guide wire.

Eventually, I succeeded.  It felt like a few minutes, but it could not have been more than twenty seconds in real-time.  My legs were shaking and, therefore,  so was the bridge.  When I finally passed that checkpoint, the bridge continued on.  I survived, I thought, triggering a song to being playing in my head.

In the cool misty air, I began to sing it.  Out loud to no one.  I don’t think anyone could even hear me.  I made my steps in time with the rhythm.  If I die this instant, taken from a distance, they would probably list it down among other things ’round town.  It helped.  One by one, I conquered the rungs.  One by one, I passed the stabilizing checkpoints.  I reached trees and then land.  I took the bridge to the very end, even when it was only a few inches off the ground.  I immediately collapsed into a squat.  I waited for the rest to reach me.  They were maybe half of the way across at this point.  I’m glad I went first.  And like the Inka Trail, I’m glad I did it at all, but I’ll probably never do it again.  Once is enough for a lifetime.

When the others joined me on terra firma, we ditched our safety gear, walked down the hill to the riverbank and awaited our ride back to town.  It was starting to rain, dispelling my hopes for a dry afternoon.  We returned to the bar to grab our things, the people there still sitting around lazily watching the TV.  How sad, I thought.  These people seem to be utterly addicted to the pop culture crap that western society feeds them.  I wondered if they’d be better off as a culture without them.

IMG_3841Soon we, all twelve of us plus our guides, loaded onto another van out of town heading to our next destination: Hidroelectrica, a settlement built around an expansive hydroelectric power plant in the Urubamba valley.  The ride there was, you guessed it, a cliffside road, this one above a seemingly heavily industrialized area surrounded by barbed wire, chain link fencing, and security gates.  I tried to snap some photos of the ride through the van window, however it was raining still and the relative darkness of the cloudy daylight combined with the bumpiness of the road didn’t make it work.  Across the river was a series of large gates built right into the mountain.  It looked like a very important facility, almost military in its construction.

IMG_3857Deep in the river valley, both sides of the canyon were steep rock faces.  Up above the cliffs on one side stretched a high-voltage transmission line.  At one point, I spied a cascade of water pouring out of a circular hole in the mountain.  A spillway, I reasoned, though there was no indication of its origin.  We passed by several more entry gates for what I figured was the power plant.  It was hard to tell what was there, especially given that the limited signage in the area was all in Spanish.  As it turns out, the hydroelectric facility was actually a pumped storage plant, featuring a reservoir in the mountains and long, wide penstocks leading down the mountainside to the river (and presumably a turbine building).

IMG_3876We reached our intermediate destination as the rain began to break, another entry gate for the power plant and the terminus of a seemingly unused railroad line.  For the first time in the trip, I pulled out my poncho from my pack and donned it.  It felt ridiculous, like a giant plastic bag.  I didn’t know where to put my hands.  It covered me only down to my knees, but it kept my pack dry and had a hood.  It wasn’t yet raining, but it was good to be ready for its inevitable arrival.

Then we began another walk again, continuing through the Sacred Valley of the Incas.  I was still sore from the day before, both in my legs and my shoulders, so I tried to keep a slower pace.  As I slowly fell behind the guide and the others, I realized this wasn’t going to fly.  We turned off the rails onto a dark narrow trail through the woods.  I caught up when our guide stopped to chat with us.  He showed us some Inca ruins at a clearing in the middle of the jungle.  In the distance above, I spied the aforementioned penstocks for the hydroelectric plant.  There would be an even better view of them (and everything else) later.

IMG_3892We climbed up across three separate train tracks each hidden from each other by the jungle before we picked one to follow.  We were to follow these railroad tracks all the way to Machu Picchu, more or less.  Also, the tracks we were on were active, so be alert for trains.  Cool!  Also, that’s insane!  When we walked, I was constantly turning my head to check behind.  I imagined a train would be loud enough to not take us by surprise, but you never know.  The tracks led through thick foliage in both directions around winding turns.  I took numerous photos of the same thing over and over.  It was too easy to.

IMG_3915Then it began to rain, and rain it did.  It came down in sheets.  The thickest, most powerful rain I can remember being in the elements for.  I pulled up the hood of my poncho and shot photos out from below my face beneath the cover.  My feet dodged puddles as I walked.  The patter of the rain was rivaled only by the roar of the river to our left, a sound which only grew louder as we walked closer.  The rain, combined with the runoff from the night’s rain, had the river swelled and churning.  The canyon through which it snaked at this point caused a series of rapids, broken by giant boulders.  I stayed firmly planted to the railroad ballast.  No way was I going anywhere off of the path, even if there was tens of feet of land between me and the river’s edge.

At a bridge/tunnel/rock shed-type structure, I took brief shelter from the rain.  By this time, I was already far behind the rest of the group, but it was alright since our path was more or less obvious.  I took a second to brush the water off my poncho, clip it securely closed, and get my camera into a comfortable position in my hand.

IMG_3926The railroad went on and on through the canyon jungle.  The rain refused to let up.  Whenever it appeared to weaken for a moment, it would seem to ramp right back up just as fast.  Eventually, the railroad turned toward the river.  An iron train bridge, rusty but solid, loomed ahead.  On the right side, a pedestrian path.  Train bridges are scary — since trains only need rails, there’s usually no solid surface between railroad ties.  For a person walking on the rails, that means open air below and a drop to the raging river.  There was a sign there indicating walking on the rails was prohibited.  Good.  The pedestrian path was completely solid, luckily, though it was built of sheet metal with some curious bends and warps.  There was a railing on the river side.  I loosely gripped it as I crossed, ignoring the rusty rainwater dirtying my hands.  The river was maybe ten feet below, flowing swiftly underfoot.  I looked down to find my footing, ignoring the rushing brown water for long enough to get across.  Once on solid ground again, I turned back to take a photo, one of my favorites from the entire trek.  All things considered, it is a pretty neat bridge.

IMG_3952A few short steps later, and we turned off the tracks to our lunch setting.  Down some dirt steps, we entered a garden with banana trees, chickens, and a path made of tree stumps.  Ahead, a building with a tall metal awning and covered patio, an elevated dining area, and a bunch of hammocks tied to the supports beneath.  We all took a moment to shed our wet clothes.  Some of us had fared better than others.  The bottom of my pants were drenched, but everything else of mine was more or less dry.  Nevertheless, I doffed my poncho, coat, socks, and shoes and walked upstairs to the lovely dry eating area.  There was a pre-set table there waiting for us.  It was cozy, yet wide open to the elements.  The rain fell steadily outside, pouring from the gutters into buckets and basins.  The relatively soft floor felt good on my toes.  Out one of the windows, a smokehouse billowed.  It smelled delicious.

It was.  This lunch was by far the best meal I’d had on this trip.  It began with an appetizer of homemade guacamole (again, I didn’t have any, but it was apparently to-die-for), fresh homemade pan, and potato soup.  The main course was the most perfectly cooked chicken breast.  It was so juicy and flavorful.  It wasn’t a lot of food, but it seemed to be the perfect portion.  I was incredibly satisfied.

IMG_3975During lunch, the rain finally began to slow.  At one point, I wandered over to the nearest window.  In the mountains above, I made out a few stone structures.  What is that, I asked our guide.  That’s Machu Picchu city, he answered.  I thought I misheard him.  With my lack of maps, I didn’t realize we would be walking most of a circle around Machu Picchu.  The sight of it from below made me restless to finally get up there and see it.

We debated taking a moment to rest in the hammocks, however we preferred to keep moving and get the walking over with.  Three days in and we were all getting a little impatient, I think.  Our final destination for the day was still a long way off.  I put on my wet clothing (the worst) and this time equipped my umbrella as well.  I didn’t mind carrying it, especially since it allowed me to lower my hood and take photos with my other hand.

IMG_3989Onward we went, down the railroad tracks once again.  Our guide mentioned that we would probably see one or two trains on the walk.  In the couple hours we’d been walking on or adjacent to the tracks, none had come.  That didn’t last long after lunch.  Upon approach to a curve in the tracks, I heard a horn ahead.  Shortly, lights peeked around as well, and a slow, lumbering blue locomotive rolled forward.  It stopped at a fork in the rail to throw a switch.  The train had four passenger carriages, full of folks waving as they passed.  Around us on the tracks, a ton of people had seemed to suddenly appear.  The path that had once been isolated and lonely was now a bustling thoroughfare.  Hikers to and from Machu Picchu; tour groups, both familiar and not.  Many carrying umbrellas; many decked out in ponchos.

IMG_4029The rain had stopped almost entirely.  The railroad curved along the left bank of the river.  The mountains of the valley rose on both sides.  The view across the river was particularly stunning; the kind of thing you may have seen in photos.  Indeed, Machu Picchu rests atop those mountains, though around the bends it becomes hidden again.

IMG_4044Another train horn echoed in the valley.  I shuffled off the tracks to a decent shooting point.  Thinking quickly, I grabbed a S./10 coin from my change pocket, placed it securely on the rail, and went back to where I was standing.  The rails began to glow, reflecting the still hidden headlights.  So soon after the first one, another PeruRail train rolled on by.  The ground shook.  The rail worker standing on the front of the locomotive didn’t see the glint of my dull gold coin on the rail.  It was crushed, flattened by most of the train.  I retrieved it after it passed, found resting on the rocks next to the rail.  My third successful coin flattening since 2011, and the first using a non-quarter.

IMG_4063The walk along the rails didn’t feature a ton of varying scenery by this point, however there were a few interesting things to note.  There were water features coming off the mountains on our left side, streams trickling beneath the railroad through channels or creeks.  Most of the time, these were small and benign, however there was one that was raging almost as fast as the river.  It almost splashed onto the tracks it was so strong.  I took care walking on the slippery railroad ties, doing my best to ignore what was going on around.

I also took a break to remove my poncho.  It was trapping in moisture and sweat as the heat began to come out.  I was having quite a bit of trouble moving my arms because of shoulder pain.  Two straight days of carrying my pack was taking its toll.  Holding up the umbrella, a good idea at the time, was becoming painful, as was lifting the camera with my other arm to shoot photos.

IMG_4113Another train came later, a single locomotive blasting up the valley.  A few minutes after that, it passed again, coming from the other direction.  The one to two trains we’d expected had become four.  Neat.  We passed several buildings, around which other tour groups were stopped, including the folks we’d zip-lined with.  At one point, we happened upon what seemed like a small rail depot, with a docked train up on a hill siding and a boarding platform with another one sitting there empty.  Soon after that, a fork in the road.  One prong led down to the right, closer to the river.  At its end, a bridge across the river — the entrance to Machu Picchu.

IMG_4135In front of us and to the left, our destination.  It was almost in sight.  I grew excited to finally stop and rest.  We meandered along the river, the surroundings growing ever more urban.  At the edge of civilization, a garbage dump, then a bus depot.  As the road curved more to the right, we happened upon resorts, hotels, restaurants, a riverside park, and a paved road climbing toward a bustling town.

We’d made it to Aguas Calientes.  Hot waters.  I wanted hot water.  That and a nap.  Sensing a theme here?  Aguas Calientes is a tourist town.  There’s really no other way to describe it.  There’s absolutely nothing around this village for miles, except for Machu Picchu of course.  The town has basically no roads and is served only by vans to and from Machu Picchu and the railroad.  Yet, there were people wandering around everywhere.  How many were locals, I could not tell.  The sheer number of hotels implied that they might be in the minority.  Restaurants were also in abundance, many providing basically every generic food you can imagine, to my annoyance.  It almost felt like our authentic Peruvian experience was over; this place was catering to the foreigner, rather than maintaining the culture of its own country.  Indeed, just as in Cusco, the vendors there were quite aggressive in their attempt to land patrons.  And again, I shrugged them off completely, replying in quiet German.

IMG_4178For all of this, however, the setting was quite beautiful.  The remote town sits on the gentle slope of the canyonside on the very edge of the river.  What appeared to be the main road was basically train tracks, with businesses on either side; one of those sides right up against the river.  Perpendicular to that, the rest of town was split in two by a creek, across which several distinct pedestrian bridges crossed.  It was lively and colorful.  Green everywhere.  The sound of the river was ever-present.

We were led to our hotel, where we checked in.  How was the room, you might ask?  Well, let’s just say that the hotels had slowly gotten worse and worse as the trek went on.  It was on the first floor, right near the lobby.  It was also extremely small; basically bed-sized with two feet of space on each side.  Two of the walls had large windows opening up to the lobby and the hallway (inside!?), though they were covered by curtains.  Thin curtains.  The attached bathroom was small and featured a large opening above the shower to the hallway.  No covering, just an open rectangle into the hallway.  Fun.

We debated switching to a better room because this was ridiculous, however I justified staying in that we would be there for barely any time anyway.  The internet at this hotel was a bit sketchy, but I managed to get on long enough to Duolingo for the day.  I also changed all of my clothes and set out the wet ones on a chair to dry.  I felt better, except the pain in my shoulders had continued to grow.  After laying down on the bed for a minute, I found it nearly impossible to get up.  I needed another massage.

IMG_4190For the rest of the afternoon, we passed the time between a marketplace in the center of town and a cafe up the road.  I had another absolutely delicious strawberry smoothie.  Fresa had quickly become my indulgent food of the trip.  As darkness slowly fell, I acquired a bus ticket for the descent of Machu Picchu.  I still don’t know why I needed to show a passport to get one, but it was what it was.

IMG_4199Before dinner, we relaxed at the side of the creek.  There were cute cats and puppies on the street.  Dinner was right around the corner from the hotel, just in front of our perch on the creek wall.  We sat down at a table by the front window.  Behind us, a group of four at another table.  Three blonde girls and a Peruvian guide.  You probably won’t believe me, but, yes, it was the German girls again.  Small world.  For the first time in the trek, we were allowed to order off menu. We also got a free round of Pisco sours to celebrate our achievement.  It definitely helped take the edge off of the lingering pain in my body.  My main dish was dieta de pollo.  Chicken soup.  My throat had begun to hurt a little bit — everyone in our group had been sick at some point; I stayed healthy pretty long, considering everything — and this helped make me feel better.  Unfortunately, soup isn’t medicine and things would only get worse from there, but we’re not there yet!

At the end of dinner, we received our last briefing for the trek, a nice wrap-up of our adventure and a glimpse into the wonders of the future.  After, we went back to the hotel.  I took a hot shower, dressed in warm, soft clothing, and found a comfortable position to relax.  The lights in the lobby through the window were on and there was a commotion outside.  I did my best to put it out of mind and found the strength to fall asleep.  It helps that I was completely spent.  Only one more day to go.

– Continued in Part Seis –

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