The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Peru)- part 3

Since we’ve covered the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, it’s time for the ‘ugly’. I’m sorry to say (or maybe not) that the city of Lima was a big disappointment and perhaps the dirtiest, nastiest and ugliest city we’ve ever been in. It is however the gateway to all things Peru and we had a day on the front-end of our trip that found us in a rather delightful setting and lovely tour, but things went downhill on our return visit.

The search for a decent place to stay in Lima was perhaps more grueling than the trek to Machu Picchu. After much reading and research it was apparent that the only place to stay was in the tourist district of Miraflores and I soon settled on a small boutique hotel called Casa Inca. It turned out to be charming and we were happy to spend our first night in what turned out to be a historic home. We were not only staying in the former home of the father of Peruvian archeology, Julio C. Tello, but we were sleeping in his room. Cool!

We opted to take a day-long walking tour of the historic district to fill our first full day in Lima. Our guide, Alberto and his driver picked us up in the morning and we began the arduous journey into the city center. While it was only 7 miles away, it took us about 40 minutes to reach our destination. I will defer to Frommer’s for their accurate description of getting around in Lima:

Navigating Lima is a complicated and time-consuming task, made difficult by the city’s sprawling character (many of the best hotels and restaurants are far from downtown, spread among three or more residential neighborhoods), heavy traffic and pollution, and a chaotic network of confusing and crowded colectivos and unregulated taxis.

Great.

Our guide was a native of Lima and certainly knew his stuff. Our tour included the Universidad Mayor de San Marcos, Plaza San Martin, Casa O´Higgins, Teatro Municipal, Teatro Segura, Plaza Mayor, Casa Osambela, Convento de Santo Domingo, old mail office of Lima, Casa de Aliaga, Convento de San Francisco and then on to Parque de la Muralla, Museo de la Inquisición, Convento de San Camilo and Chinatown.

Our walkabout the city was overshadowed by the fact that we were in one of the months where the average hours of daily sunshine was at it’s lowest. Heavy cloud-cover and pollution prevented us from seeing the sun while visiting and the damp, cooler temperatures added to the over all dull and dreary appearance of this dirty and seemingly blah city. Due to the lack of rainfall at this time of year there was an apparently thick layer of dirt and grime on every surface available and this in turn led us to not hold the city in high standards as a must-do destination. Likewise, the appearance of heavy security led us to begin rethinking our stay.

We left Lima a day and a half after we arrived for a week in the mountains and our Machu Picchu trek but had no idea what we would do on our return trip. Upon our second arrival, we checked into our hostel and started to scour the internet for other Lima-based opportunities. While the city did hold cultural and historical treasures and a rather unique coastline we felt like we had seen and done all there was to do of great significance in this city of 10 million and started to weigh our options of leaving the city again for greener, more tourist friendly destinations. After careful review we decided against spending the extra money and energy to try and escape the disaster that Lima had become for us and ended up changing our flight to leave the next day.

We left Lima 4 days earlier than expected with a mixed review of our trip to Peru. While the big city sent us literally running for home our experience in the mountains and Machu Picchu were a fantastic adventure and treasured ‘my bucket is half-full’ list item. As usual, we’ve come away with an education and will forever be changed by our endeavors because that’s why we travel. After all, the world is filled with the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and even the ‘ugly’ and we intend to see it all.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Peru)- part 2

“To visit Machu Picchu, you must prepare the soul, sharpen the senses. Forget for some minutes, the small and transcendental problems of our lives, of modern… man…”~ Napoleon Polo Casilla

With all the ‘good’ things the government is doing for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu and our tour provider on board with offering sustainable tourism, we headed for the main plaza in Cusco (11,152 ft/3,399 m) in an early-morning haze. This would be the first of 4 days with severely early rising times. We quickly began to realize that our trek would soon be about the numbers: elevation, time, dates, distance, elevation gain, elevation lost, and calories spent. With all of this in mind we were determined to enjoy the trip even though we had no idea what truly awaited us. We’re avid hikers and think nothing of camping but we would soon be raised to new heights in every department, figuratively and literally.

We met our 2 guides and 16 fellow trekkers (whom we would become very close with) and after a bleary-eyed 3 hour bus ride into the central portion of the Andes mountains arrived in the town of Ollantaytambo (9,160 ft/2,792 m). Being at a lower elevation than in Cusco, we welcomed the warmth that Ollantaytambo offered and quickly started shedding our layers to apply sunscreen to ready ourselves for the trail. We started from the 82km and paused for group photos along the historic entrance across the Urubama river. After a quick stamp of the passport and check that we indeed all had permits to trek, we were on our way.

Having a large group, we had two guides. Casiano was our main guide and Wilbur was our ‘back up’ man who never left the side of the last hiker(s). His patience was infinite and brought comfort to those who weren’t as fast as the rest of the group. He consistently offered support and words of encouragement which were much appreciated when the going got tough. Our main guide, Casiano, is a native of Cusco and fluent in English, Spanish and Quechua. We were more than impressed that he had been guiding trekkers along the trail for 15 years and beyond stunned when asked how many times he’d done the trek replied, ‘I gave up counting after 500′. Whoa. This was truly the man with first-hand information and he was as personable as well as knowledgable. A wonderful combination.

The first day began with a leisurely stroll along the river and into the foot hills of the mountains. The gently rolling hills offered a gradual beginning to the trek and we quickly became immersed in the local flora/fauna as well as history that Casiano provided. Little did we know that ‘the bad’ was here. A mere two hours into the trek, rw2 was feeling the early effects of what would become food poisoning that would last for half of the trip.

Upon our first night in camp we quickly realized how wonderful our porters were. They raced ahead of us on the trail and set up lunch spots as well as camping for the night. Hot water, towels and soap awaited us when we came into camp as well as fresh juice before meals. Our tents and equipment were set up when we arrived and they all stopped whatever they were doing to applaud us as we came into camp after trekking. Really?! We often felt silly as we were merely carrying our water, sunscreen and cameras and they were hefting packs of nearly 45lbs(22kg)! These guys are truly super-human. A fact that didn’t go unnoticed.

Our second day was the most physically demanding day I’ve ever had and I refer to it as the marathon I will never run. The ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass would in and of itself be a monumental feat with an elevation gain of 2,970ft(905m) but after the ascent we descended from the pass, ascended another peak and then descended again into camp. At the end of the day we ascended 4,393ft(1338m) and descended 3,402ft(1036m). All of this at almost 14,000ft(4267m) had us huffing and puffing and really wondering why we were doing this. To quote a sick rw2 on day 2: ‘I’m really not having fun’.

Day three was deemed as ‘the easy day’ by Casiano and we truly enjoyed the later wake-up call and our well-earned sleep among the cloud forest. Our day included a half hour history lesson among the clouds at Phuyupatamarca followed by a descent of 3,281ft(1000m) by way of 2,000 stone stairs. Going downhill is worse than going uphill for me, but rw2 was enjoying this day better than the others as he was feeling much less sick. His long legs carried him down quickly and was finally feeling like he was enjoying the scenery, company and effort.

Day four had us up and packing at 3 a.m. (yes, I said *a.m.*) Ugh. My personal mantra is that if your hike description starts with: ‘start out at 3:30 am’ I usually find another hike but this was different. This was the day we hiked to Machu Picchu. During all this trekking we kept joking that after all we’d gone through that this had *better* be worth it… and it was. We arrived at the Sun Gate as the sun was peeking over the mountains onto the glory that is Machu Picchu. I was so struck by the scene and my efforts over the last 3 days that I actually cried. The sight was truly as magnificent as people say it is and I was, as I usually am when it comes to matters of the outdoors and nature, humbled.

I will not attempt to explain the mystery of Machu Picchu or the beauty of the site itself for I would never do it justice. I’m happy to say that while I greatly respect the trail it didn’t kick me in the *ss quite as badly as I thought it would and although I don’t think I’d do it again any time soon, it was truly an amazing adventure and I feel honored to have been a part of it. Was it hard? Yes. Was it uncomfortable? For sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Peru)- part 1

“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead, gigantic precipices of many-colored granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids; it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle.” ~ Hiram Bingham

With a trip to Peru on the horizon, we were thrilled and excited much like every other time we travel. Little did we know what awaited us on our first trip to South America. Having Machu Picchu on ‘My bucket is half-full’ list prompted our visit and the history and mystery of the site drew us in just like so many other visitors. Throngs of daily visitors take the Hiram Bingham Highway from Aguas Calientes up the side of Machu Picchu in a winding, 5 mile stretch but having such a love of the outdoors, the Wellners would have no part of it. Our adventure would start 26 miles and 4 days away on the Inca Trail.

When someone says ‘I’m hiking the Inca Trail’, they don’t mean that there is only one trail, rather, El Camino Inca is a system of trails that unite at Machu Picchu. There are places where the trail has obviously been reconstructed but there are many miles that feature the original stone paving. Cool. Many liken the trail to the ancient roads of Egypt and Rome, but the trail is often wider than these ancient structures, a point that Peruvians are more than happy to point out.

After an exhaustive search of trekking companies we were satisfied with the services and consistently good reviews of Llama Path. Sustainable tourism is the new buzz word in the tourism industry with good cause. The increasing level of people who travel to sites off the beaten path run the risk of destroying these sites before they can be properly experienced and explored. The Peruvian government took control of Machu Picchu and its surrounding area in 2000 and have made significant improvements as well as regulations to protect the trail, the site and those who utilize it as recreation or as their home. Yes, there are many people who still actually live in these mountains and have been for centuries. Imagine that.

In its on-going efforts to sustain the terrain, history and tradition of the trail and Machu Picchu, the government has imposed several new restrictions since their acquisition of the lands and services. Only 500 people are allowed on the trail each day. This number includes trekkers, guides and porters and compared to all the people who want to experience the trail, we felt very lucky to be a part of the system having booked 6 months earlier to secure our spot. The government has also implemented regrowth projects, trail maintenance as well as wildlife preservation and conservation to enhance the local eco system. On the human front, the treatment of porters is of great concern as many companies in the past have treated them poorly. Companies are now required to offer a livable wage, proper clothing, quality food and adequate accommodations while on the trail and porters’ packs are weighed upon entering the trail as to deter over-loading of any individual. Fines and penalties are strictly enforced so the tour companies are happy to oblige with the emerging regulations. With all these facts in place, we felt confident that we had made the right choice of tour company and were ready to tackle the behemoth before us. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu…

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That’s About the Size of it.

Remember that nauseating Disney song, ‘It’s a Small World, After All’? Anybody who’s visited ‘the mouse’ and been stuck on the Small World ride due to technical difficulties or stood in line to sail in those charming little boats has heard it about 3,000 times. Well, is it true? Is it a small world? Or is it a big world? A really, really big world.It's a Small World

On a recent post to my Facebook page, A World of Good, I shared a video of the earth as shot from the ISS or International Space Station at night. It was a fascinating montage of video shot exclusively from the ISS and set to music- you can see it below. As the earth spun below you could make out the huge landmasses and oceans that blanket the earth floating by while lighting, sunrise, sunset and the aurora borealis added to the visually stunning video.

I started to wonder how these two ideas could be in existence: It’s a small world. It’s a big world. Oh I supposed the quick and easy answer is that one’s a figure of speech and the other is a statement about physical size, but are the two mutually exclusive? Can the world be only small or only big?

On a trip to Japan in 2007 we stayed in a hostel in Kyoto where the girl who checked us in was born in Japan but had spent many years in Chicago. While getting information from a park ranger in Mammouth Cave National Park, Kentucky, we realized that the people standing next to us lived about 3 blocks from my childhood home. Watching a Bears/Packers game in rural Wisconsin I found out that the guy sitting next to me not only had heard of and been to my hometown, but knew my father. Devine intervention? *shrugs*. Coincidence? Maybe. Mind-blowing? Definitely!

For sure, those examples can make the case for it being a small world, but what about it being a big world? The distances from Chicago to Wisconsin, Kentucky and Japan all vary, some greatly, but how great do those distances need to be before the globe strikes us as ‘big’. Even though these experiences seem to shrink our globe, the fact still remains that there are billions of people whom I will never meet or even come close to meeting. But likewise, there are people who live across town from me whom I will never meet as well.

Our technology has advance to the point that this morning, from our vacation home in rural Wisconsin, I: talked to my mother-in-law in Chicago, visited a website in the Bahamas, texted my daughter in Illinois and Skyped with a coworker in California. Likewise, for those we don’t care to associate with, we can distance ourselves in proximity and communication.

My conclusion is that no. The two are not mutually exclusive and the world can not be only small or only big. It seems an oxymoron but in truth the world is both. And to be quite honest, I’m thrilled at the notion that even though there may be thousands of miles between us all we can lessen them through word, thought and image to bring us together.

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