I am not going to do it justice. It's impossible to do so. But it must be done. Let those who journeyed with me, please forgive my failing memory. For the rest of you, no matter how great I make it sound, I promise it was greater.
And now, we go back. Jon and I celebrated 10 years of marriage last September and decided it was time for a big vacation to celebrate. Whenever Jon is involved, an epic vacation is always going to involve a big adventure. Always. And after many discussions, we decided to head to Macchu Picchu. We were going to fly to Cuzco, Peru and hike the Incan Trail. Or that was the original plan until we realized the Incan Trail was booked out about a year in advance... so the Nielsens were going to hike the 4 day Salkantay trail to Macchu Picchu. We were very excited.
In true Nielsen fashion, we then decided to see who would want to come with us! We scanned our brains for all of our friends who would 1) be in for a good adventure and 2) be available by schedule and financially to join us on this trip. Our first ask was John and Ashleigh Marsh. The very newly married couple. They were so newly married, we asked them at their wedding reception. Who agrees to go on an international vacation three months after their marriage when asked at their wedding reception? That would be John and Ashleigh and that would be why they were definitely invited. They just have adventure in their blood.
John Marsh and Jon Nielsen were mission companions back in their glorious Korean days. Ashleigh was forced to be my friend because of our husband's connection but I'm pretty sure she digs me, even if she didn't have to.
We got a lot of nos. Some 'wish we could but not this years' and some 'you guys are crazy' nos, which is to be expected. And that is when Jon knew it was time to call the Stouts. Don't get me wrong. We love the Stouts. They are some of our favorite people in the world. But we also know them very well. We knew exactly how this conversation was going to go. Adam was going to say 'heck ya, we're going with you!' And his beautiful wife Ashley, who prefers her vacations to be, you know, relaxing vacations, was going to to have to give up that peaceful dream for our crazy idea. Our prediction could not have been more accurate. My phone conversation with her the next day started with her saying, "I'm not very happy with you right now..."
So we had our crew. Two Ashley/eighs and two Jon/hns. We did not consider name confusion before extending invitations.
Our last step was figuring out what to do with our four children for a week. Here steps in Kylie and Stephen Marsh, who had also just gotten married. They agreed to not only handle our children for a week but handle their first few days of school at a new school.
With everything planned it was easy to leave. We took a plane to Miami, then to Lima, and then to Cuzco. As is always fabulous news, Jon and my bags did not make our last plane connection in Miami so they weren't there for us to pick up in Lima. They didn't arrive until the next day where we had to trust that they would actually get them on a plane to Cuzco and then somehow let us know that they were there. This included all of our hiking supplies as well so it was a little nerve wracking. I learned to select my travel clothes well after wearing them for 48 hours.
One more sad note before getting to the details of the trip. Jon and I are lazy bums and didn't even bother to bring a camera on the trip. I know, ridiculous. But hey, that's why you bring friends, right? And they definitely made up for our memory making lackings. Except, here is the sad part, after a week of scary epic picture taking, the Marsh's left their main camera at the top of Macchu Picchu, and we were never able to get it back. Sad story. So some parts of the trip are very well documented... others I will just have to relive through words!
We stayed in Cuzco when we weren't hiking and did a lot of exploring around the area. We stayed at the Golden Inca Hotel. It was not in downtown Cuzco but we could walk down there easily. The hotel was very nice, much nicer than I was expecting! That was actually my experience with most of Peru. I was expecting a lot more third world but it really wasn't. We had a good sized room and a nice bed with a TV. A delicious breakfast with a lot of fresh fruit and juices were served every morning on the top floor with this extra especially good rolls and avocado. Mmmmm.
Our first day, we met up with the Puku Puku travels our hiking guides. They were really on top of things and quite a bit cheaper than the other guys. We were really happy with the whole experience. He gave us the whole rundown on what we needed for the hike and our timing for leaving. He also introduced us to Rolando, our tour guide. There has never been a man more fitting as a Peruvian mountain tour guide than Rolando. He was half man, half mountain goat. But more about him later.
The company guy took us to a local restaurant so we could get a taste of some true Peruvian food.
I don't remember what I ordered, some kind of pork? I remember it was good. But nobody was taking pictures of my food after we saw what Jon and Adam had ordered.
Wait, is that a fried rodent, you ask? Yes, yes it is. The guinea pig is a Peruvian classic food. Not even kidding, you would see a cage of fluffy little guinea pigs and think you were at a pet store... and then you would see them in their smashed and fried form. Not to be culturally insensitive but - eew.
I did taste it. The meat was fine, but there was only a little bit of meat mixed in with about a million little bitty bones. I think I'll stick with my full sized pigs.
Other than the breaded house pets, most of the food we ate varied between very edible to very good. We had a lot of potatoes, corn and avocado. Overall, eating was mostly a pleasant experience.
That afternoon and the next day were spent in and around Cuzco exploring some of the ruins and other historical wonders.
Downtown Cuzco/Plaza de Armas (There is a crazy story of how the Invaders took down one of the most productive cultures of the world by trapping their army in this square and crashing through the crowd on 200 horses. In Jon's words, "it takes a lot of balls to scare 3000 men into trampling themselves.")
Many of the recent buildings had been rebuilt on top of some existing Incan masonry so we saw a lot of cool examples of stone foundations that had been cut and laid by hand.
These smooth stones or those with little lifting notches were hidden all over this city. Even before "invaders" built giant churches Cusco must have been an incredible site.
Cuzco is set in a valley in between a few of the many many mountains in Peru, and so we hiked up to this hill to find more than several small wonders.
Does it get more Peruvian than this lady?
This windy overlook was from the point of the Jaguar's head shaped sun palace of Sacsayhuaman. Hard to spell, but locals make it easy to remember in its English form, "SexyWoman."
The structures were laid out in jagged teeth shape with a grass field in the middle.
A top the same hill were both Moon and Sun temples, which apparently were filled with gold models of suns and cities at one time before "Invaders" ransomed the kingdom for gold. All that remained were a bunch of HUUUGEE stones that formed the citadel. We don't have many photos of the scale, but they were not the kind of stones a thousand Egyptian slaves could have relocated easily.
At some point, the airlines not only got our bags but got them to our hotel like the said they would. Talk about a miracle. It felt oh so very good to finally change clothes.
The next day we toured all of the ruins around Cuzco. Our driver drove us to each site and we would hike around for awhile and then he would drive us to the next place. These other sites rivaled Machu Pichu. We forced a lot in during those 12 hours.
Some Incan level farming,
and a toilet fit for an Incan princess.
Guy can't take a normal picture...
Well... neither can the rest of us
At one of the sites, we took the 'road less traveled' back to the car and ended up hiking through a long field/valley. It was beautiful and kind of made me want to sing some Sound of Music tunes on the way.
Shove coca leave tea, elevation sickness, a failed attempt to show up to church on time, street markets, chocolate tasting factory, a large Police Parade, fried chicken, museums, Peruvian cookies, incredibly vague traffic rules, Inca Cola, and a touch of Ping Pong into that first day and a half and we were pretty entertained.
And then suddenly we were packing our bags and getting ready to hike for four days. The hotel stored our extra stuff for us and the van picked us up bright and early that morning.
The pictures are a little lacking in sections so I hope I remember enough to share through words. We drove out to the beginning of the hike. Luckily we climbed some major elevation changes in the van, because these canyons were deep. We drove up two Zions to get to a decent starting elevation. After a catered breakfast in a mountain villa they dumped us at a third world looking horse stable. We loaded up with gear, ready to go. (They would have totally carried everything, but Jon and Adam wanted to practice with a bag)
Rolando was our guide for the trip. Rolando was a great guide, easy to understand and an amazing hiker. He was one with nature, and could have been a traditional Peruvian culture spokesperson. It got old listening to he and Adam talk about what kids today need. He also really enjoyed going off the beaten path on occasion which is perfect when hiking with a guy like Jon. He took the guys on a few side adventures which made the trip for him.
Our first day was a very easy hike through a valley between some mountains. There was no trail at first; rather, Rolando hiked straight at things preferring to walk on "ground without footprints." He led us to a small irrigation aqueduct, which we hiked along for the rest of the time. The water trickled softly, the weather was beautiful, and our pace was easy. We were all feeling pretty confident about our hiking ability at this point. We were the only people in our party but there were several other companies doing the same itinerary at the same time. FYI for anyone planning a similar trip, each company had basically the same gear, we all got the same food and we all stayed at the same camp sites so it doesn't do you much good to pay more money. Just go with whoever will give you the best deal.
Those aren't clouds in the upper left corner, but a giant snow covered cliff that always felt like it was about to cave in on us. This perspective doesn't do the eeriness of being close to huge snow covered cliffs justice.
For each day, we would hike a section until we reached a stopping camp. There would be a snack and refreshments waiting for us, usually a selection of herbal teas. Then they would feed us and we would either keep moving on the next leg or set up camp for the night. The food was very good. Some was more unusual than others but there was a lot of fresh produce and always plenty to eat. I was very impressed overall with our hiking food and even more grateful that someone was making it for me.
We only had one leg our first day so we were at our camp site by early afternoon. We had lunch and some acclimatized with a little rest in our tents. Do not underestimate elevation headaches in this place. There was a big hillside at the camp and the guides were leading hikers up the side to a lake that was 'just over the top'. Head straight up towards the scariest looking part of the mountain and you will find it. Jon, Ashleigh M, and I headed up first. It. Was. Steep! And with the extra elevation, it was not an easy hike. Jon kept stopping, and I am certain it was not just for us. Though slow going, we made it to the top. There was nothing too spectacular about the hillside but the lake was breathtakingly beautiful. We lost most of the photos showing the glacial lake facing the cliffs, but Ashley S later took this photo showing the island in the lake from the adjacent ridge. To put this in scale, from water to the edge of white on the upper right corner is approximately only 10% of the elevation of the cliffs it faced.
The lake was freezing cold, which was obvious from the snow capped mountains on either side of it. Literally, glacial cold, it was hardly refreshing to put your feet in it after that hike. But Jon is Jon. The sun hadn't set and the snowman shaped lake curved around as it got close to the mountain. And on the far side, it got pretty close to a small boulder/island in the middle of the lake. So yes, he hiked around, stripped out of three layers, dove in, and swam to the island. I got to be the one on the shoreline listening to Australians and German hikers around me say, "Wow is that guy crazy?" Yes, but in a very lovable way.
The Stouts and John M. were on their way up as we came down. They were with Rolando who took them even higher to the ridge, which sounds crazy, but Ashley S. brought home the only surviving photo of a the crystal pure lake, so it was worth her effort. John and Adam raved about the Peruvian Skunk they saw during the ridge hike. Although I tuned most of it out, I think the main difference was lack of a stripe and lives in Peru. Not mad I missed it.
We slept in our tents that night under a large tarp structure. Jon snuck out to star gaze in the sub freezing wind. The sky cleared and the stars alone were bright enough to walk around in the dark. later the full moon came up and lit up the giant snow cliffs all around us. Beautiful, but misleadingly cozy. Hardly even felt like camping it was so easy. It was just a tad too easy. There was no foreshadowing to prepare us in any way for our hike up Salkantay the next day!
Note that we woke up warm enough that Ashley S. had on a T-shirt at the outset.
Our first leg that morning was straight up the mountain. It was steep. It was long. And it was COLD! I imagined a lot of scenarios about this hike but I didn't really picture being that cold. I thought some of the hikers in their big puffy Columbia jackets were crazy. I was wrong, and way under-dressed.
When we got near the top, Rolando took one of his detours. This one was pretty significant though and I was pretty sure I wasn't up for the challenge. Both Jon and John headed up the side of the hill with Rolando to go see a glacier.
This stupid photo from a boulder barely hanging on to the edge 400 feet over the "Scariest looking Melting Glacial swamp" faces away from the mountain and was the only thing to scare Rolando and Jon. It doesn't look like much, but Jon later said he had never taken a scarier photo. What a dumb.
These photos were "safely" on the edge and show the Salkantay in most of its majesty. Yes, the summit exceeded the frame into the clouds.
We met up at the summit of the mountain.
Yes, that's me in the back wrapped in a thermal blanket trying to not freeze to death. The Salkantay mountain was such a gorgeous, snowy, ominous backdrop to this hike. It was worth every freezing cold second.
And from there we got to go down. I love going down after a big up. It is such a great reward. We left the summit in clouds and decended across incan steps, and minor ruins stopping only to munch Oranges, don our rain gear, and eat lunch out of the rain. Jon got so wet, he couldn't control his shivering once he wasn't moving.
The 3rd leg of this hike meandered into the beautiful cloud forest. We crossed bridges over beautiful falls and we picked tiny wild strawberries as we walked. And it warmed up really quickly. We were dropping layers like flies.
Speaking of flies, some layers stayed on because of the sand fleas. Those little beasts seemed impervious to anything other than pants. We all got a few bites a piece, but less modest European hikers looked like they were covered in chicken pox. The bites didn't feel like anything at first, but days later you would be itching like a crazy person. They lasted much longer than mosquito bites.
That second day of hiking was strenuous and pretty exhausting but our group did such a great job. Ashley S., who originally unfriended me for inviting her husband on this crazy adventure, out hiked me frequently.
That night, our tents were set up outside in tropical camping area with a rain patio facing the setting sun and deep green canyons. After meals and snacks there was usually some downtime. So we started playing cards. We taught Rolando a few games which was always entertaining. Our games became a small United Nations as more hikers came around asking to join in. Lamp oil ran out and we were sent to bed. It rained hard that night and the unlucky enjoyed "waterfalls through the walls of the tent." But we kept enough stuff dry to start the next day comfortable.
Our hike the next morning was a beautiful meandering walk through the hillside, with a few ups and down. We picked Passion Fruit from the vines along the trail, got water from local farm/trail stops, and crossed the path of a Jaguar. Well at least the path of its very clearly shaped footprints in the mood for several hunderd yards. It was a warm day and we were looking for a cool down when we got to our lunch spot.
So we stripped off our shoes and let our feet take a soak in the cold river nearby. Which would have been a fine enough adventure for a normal crowd. So Jon kept going further.
The water was moving really fast and the rocks were slippery, not to mention the water temperature was icicle status. But that didn't stop this from happening.
And then once Jon decided it was awesome, he talked us all into joining him.
He was right. It was gloriously refreshing and way too much fun. Almost worth being wet for a good chunk of the afternoon.
After that, there was an option of taking a train after the first leg of the hike into Aguas Calientes or finishing the hike all the way in. Adam and Ashley had been planning on taking the train the whole time (Ashley's early stipulation on joining us). They waffled about the decision, but decided to go for it. So after the first leg, we dropped them off at the station and then headed off without them.
Sadly, I wish I would have talked them out of it because that last leg was my favorite part of the whole hike. The scenery became a lot more jungle. We were walking between tall skinny trees that were filled with birds and jungly animal noises. We followed the train tracks for most of the way there. The scenery was so beautiful and so different from everything else we had hiked so far. As we approached, the guide pointed out the first signs of Machu Pichu that its English rediscoverer would have seen.
The hike led us through a few train tunnels on the side of the hill. At one point, we waited for a train to go through and then started through a tunnel. We were only about 1/3 of the way through when we heard the whistle of another train behind us. This was not a wide tunnel by any means. Rolando's eyes got very wide as he yelled, "Let's go!" So the five of us took off running through this tunnel to outrun a train. We made it out with time to spare... but if we had kept walking we would have been in some trouble. It was an amazing Indiana Jones moment.
We walked all the way into Aguas Calientes. We got to check into our hotel for the night, shower, use the internet to check in on our families, and eat at a restaurant. It all felt very luxurious. Aguas Calientas is a town that basically caters to the Machu Pichu hikers. Most people take a train into the city and then take a bus to Machu Pichu and then take the train out. But we had a good time walking around the city.
At one point, Jon bought a full pineapple. He really wanted to eat it, but didn't really have a way to cut it open. So he attempted to do so with his mouth. It was a very bad idea. A shopkeeper took pity on him and cut it open for him but not before he tore up his mouth pretty good.
The next morning, we caught the bus up the hill to see the ruins. We got there first thing in the morning and the clouds were still clearing as we got up there. Rolando wanted to do a little more explaining than I wanted to listen to that morning, but we made it through and got to climb around and explore.
This day was the actual day of Jon and my 10th anniversary. Pretty cool way to celebrate.
Look at me, I'm in an Incan doorway!
But seriously guys, this stone that they cut out is taller than me and wider than me laying sideways. And they cut it and moved it.
Here is a part of the Incan trail which we did not go on. I really shouldn't have an opinion on it because I haven't been on it. But the Salkantay trail was so amazing and the Incan trail sounds really...crowded... hard to believe we didn't end up with the better choice.
So here's the deal. Machu Picchu is cool. Ridiculously cool. But if I had taken a train into the city, taken a bus up to the ruins and climbed around for the day and then gone home, I am not sure I would have been all that impressed by this trip. The ruins are amazing, but the added sense of the 'middle of nowhereness' that the hike gave me made it so much cooler. This amazingly advanced resort city was built in the middle of some jungly mountains near no other civilization! The perspective and the adventure of the added hike made this trip for me. I can't imagine it otherwise.
We skipped the bus and hiked down a million sets of stairs back to Aguas Calientas. Jon skipped the stairs and took a jog down the bus road. And with the added pack and not wanting to kill myself falling down a huge flight of stairs, I just couldn't go as fast as the Stouts. The Marshs spent a little more time on top of the mountain so it was just me for a good chunk of the hike down. I had a wonderful time reflecting on the week, enjoying the silence, marveling over how fast Ashley's skinny legs could fly down those steps, and making my way down a mountain.
We caught the train all the way back to Cuzco that evening and the adventure was just about over.
We had one more day left in Cuzco before we hit the road so we decided to hit up every museum/ruin/tourist site we had missed before we headed out on the hike. We also did some shopping and plenty of eating through the city. One shopping highlight was getting a demonstration on how they weave llama fur. We paid a small fortune for our handmade treasures, but they are definitely treasures.
We also went to a cultural show where they performed a lot of traditional Peruvian dances. While waiting in line, we joked that thanks to Adams many shades of camo, he could disappear behind any shrubbery.
Near the end of the show, they invited the audience members up to dance on stage. A very long song with a very empty stage followed. So, never afraid to be a party starter, Jon and I and the Stouts hit the stage and foolishly danced our own version of a Peruvian partner dance to the crowd's delight. Who doesn't like to see Americans making fools of themselves? On the way offstage, a young girl came on stage but didn't seem to know what to do. So Jon offered his hand and danced with the girl. He twirled her and even brought her in for a dip. The crowd went wild. It was adorable. Somewhere there is a video of this, but I don't think I will ever forget the sound of a sold out theatre for a foreign cultural event cheering on my mostly monolithic husband of 10 years.
Overall this was one of the most memorable trips I have ever taken. It was such a fun adventure. I can't wait to take my kids someday!