Sunday, February 13, 2011

Inca Delphi University (7-10 February 2011, Days 60-63 of 127, Half-Way Mark)

It is with particular excitement that I present to you this special "Ai Caramba 2011" post, celebrating the half-way mark and the magic of Machu Picchu, easily the best ever single tourist site I have visited in all my travels!

Machi Picchu is the Incan equivalent of the combination of the ancient Greek city of Delphi combined with the modern day University (for the Greeks out there, you could say this was the equivalent of the Orthodox community of Mount Athos!) Why say you? Most indigenous Peruvians (including our Lares and Machu guides) agree with the most common anthropological theory that Machu Picchu was a "centre of enlightenment", ie, a place of learning, contemplation and religious worship. It was not just another Incan village (ie, not a "lost city" as is frequently captioned). Instead it was the modern equivalent of a "university" where, in the words of our indigenous guides, "priviledged" Incas lived. By priviledged we mean: scholars, priests, shamans, astrologers and oracles. It did have houses but these were more like "campas accommodation" for the elite, rather than village dwellings. Ordinary Incan folk did not live here. More on this fascinating place in the heavens in a moment.

The "spiritual" journey to Machu Picchu began in Lares with a 3-day, 29km trek to Yanahuara, followed by a 10km drive to Ollantaytambo, followed by a 43km train trip to Aguas Calientes after which I ran the last 11km to Machu Piccu!!! All together a 4-day, 93km journey!

The voyage to Machu Picchu began at 3:45am on Mon 7FEB with a night-time wake-up call in our hotel at Ollantaytambo.

Our private van started out out at 4:45am and took 4hrs to cover the muddy, cloud-covered, 100km ascent to the village of Lares (Pop 2,000. Elev 3,100m) where we would start our 3-day trek to the religious university in the sky!

Being a Monday, Lares was alive with "market-day" where all the local farmers bring their produce (including animals) for sale and even barter exchange.

We stocked up on fruits and bread-rolls to give to the local indigenous children that we would meet on the famous "Lares Track". These children often follow trekkers, expecting something from the strange-looking "gringos" (tourists), as is the custom.

By 9:30am we were on our way. All we carried were our day-packs with snacks and water (3-5kg), whilst a convoy of 4 horses, 1 cook and 3 helpers carried our specially provided duffle bags (7kg for each of us), food, cooking utensils, gas, tents and sleeping bags 60min ahead of us.

On the first day we walked a total of 5.5hrs across 9km from 3,100m to 3,750m where we spent the night.

The weather was good. Cloud with sunny periods (short sleeve and pants) to noon followed by mist and light rain to the end.

Terrain was simply spectacular. Eucalypts to start with followed by treeless tundra style valleys with green and red lichen on rocks and a roaring river (Rio Lares).

The snow line here is at 5,000m because this part of the Andes is still in the tropics! Along the way we passed several small indigenous communities (3-7 mud-brick houses with dried straw thatched roofs).

The best experience was meeting sherpa children minding Llamas, Sheep and even Goats. We took many pictures with the children and gave them fruit and bread to eat. The incredible thing is that every single soul up here from 3 to 70 wears thick mulit-coloured traditional clothing and hats and SANDALS on their feet even though it is wet and 10C. The reason for this dates back to the Incas who wore no shoes and adapted to the muddy conditions by forming multiple layers of skin on their feet to the extent that it is so tough that it is almost a "biological shoe"!

After a very brief bout of sprinkly rain we had lunch in the village of Huacahuasi (Pop 1,000. Elev 3,600m) in a special "dining room tent" with foldout table and chairs and even a multi-coloured Inca woven table cloth! The cook and helpers had arrived there 1hr earlier on horses, set up the tent and makeshift dining table and cooked! Very civilised. This happened again with dinner and our night camp.

After leaving lunch at 2:30pm we arrived at an isolated river-side spot at "Sonvor Pass (Elev 3,750m)" at 4:30pm in the cloud layer (remember that this is over 12,000ft) to find all our individual stand-up sleeping tents, dining tent and even kitchen tent all set up with dinner under way. At 5pm we enjoyed a hot beverage with banana fritters and pop-corn. At this time it was sprinkling outside at approx 10C. Dinner started at 7pm under candle-light with semolina vegetable soup, chicken stew with vegies and hot local cocoa pudding! Of course my Chilean Cab Sav featured heavily which everyone enjoyed as the temp dropped to 5C with a light sprink outside. Getting to sleep was easy with -15C rated sleeping bags, the pitter-patter of rain on the tent and my red wine working its miracle! The miracle of the day 1 of 3 on the Lares Track to Machu Picchu!

Day 2 (Tue 8FEB) of the trek began with a 6am wake-up call and a piss from the tent door! Outside it was misty and "mysterious Abba"! What magic. All you could see was cloud and all you could hear was sound of a soothing running river. Suddenly massive peaks would appear then disappear all around you. What else could you expect from sleeping under and waking up to over 12,000ft!

Atfer a semolina porridge and mutli-coloured vegetable omelet we began our 7.5hr trek over 18km from Sonvor Pass (Elev 3,750m) back towards Yanahuara (Pop 7,000, Elev 2,700m) in the Sacred Valley. To acheive this we had to first ascend to the highest mountain pass at "Abra Aruraycocah" at 4,400m (14,432ft, or on the oxygen line). It was a spectacular feat, taking 2.5hrs and from there it was all down hill. What an incredible view from here. It is a thin ridge with two massive valleys on either side surrounded by clouds just above your head. What a marvel. How closer to the heavens can you expect to be than from here in the Andes!

Lunch was at Lake Yuraccocha (Elev 4,050m), a descent of 1hr from a forest of huge native "red woods" that the Incas, now locals used for firewood. Lunch was the highest I have ever had outside of an aeroplane!!! The terrain here was simply awsesome. Two huge lakes with fresh trout surrounded by towering Andean mountains licking 6,000,m!!!!

At each mountain pass there are rocks stacked up high in the shape of little pyramids for good luck. This is in the tradition of the Incas, who did the same and even buried gold, pottery and food (especially Coca leaves) in dedication to the Gods of the Mountains. This is the reason for trecking to Machu Picchu, in order to get a sense of what the Incas did and what their modern day successors do by walking these extreme heights and distances just to survive. All of the modern day indigenous peoples living in these extreme heights still edure the same, walking incredible distances and altitudes just to exchange foodstuffs (mainly potatoes, of which there are almost 3,000 varieties in Peru!).

Our second night campsite was in a very protected area close to our final point. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner featuring the popular Peruvian soup "Quina" which comprises thousands of tiny crescent moon shaped grains from the Quina Plant. We also had  grilled chicken and local beetroot. Peruvians always have soup to start their meals, no matter what the time of year - in many cases this is all they eat.

Our last day of the Lares trek saw us walk 2.5km over 1hr from our campsite at 3,000m down to the village of Yanahaura (Pop 7,000, Elev 2,700m) where we took a taxi to Ollantaytambo, only 10km away.

From here we boarded the "Peru Rail" train, complete with scenic glass ceiling panels but no aircon to Aguas Calientes (Pop 2,000. Elev 2,050m) which is only 11km by road from Machu Picchu.

Aguas Calintes is also known as "Machu Picchu Village" and is exclusively a town of hotels and buses to ferry gringos to the ruins, 20km away. It is also the only town I have seen with a train travelling down the main road!

What a trek! In all, we walked 29km in 14 hours from 3,100m to 4,400m and back down to 2,700m.

Mission accomplished! At precisely 6:50am on Thursday 10 February 2011, I jogged up the steps to the ticket gate at Machu Picchu (Elev 2,380m) after leaving Aguas Calientes (Elev 2,050m) at 5:40am, 11km away, with a 5min forced ticket inspection at the Rio Urumbamba bridge guard house at the 3km mark. That's a 65min run with 8km all uphill, ascending 330m without stopping. This is without doubt my hardest but best run to date. I have no idea how I managed it, since it was raining and my calves were sore from the 3 day Lares Trek ended the day before. It must have been the adrenaline when I woke up at 4:30am and ran into the dark at 5am, rain and all. My successfull run however was not without its dramas. I had to run back to the hotel at the 3km mark to get my ticket and restart my run after running 6km - refer to MACHU RUN DRAMA below for details.

Running into Machu Picchu in the rain and fog at first light and then watching the fog lift like a curtain to reveal the "classic" picture of the ruins surrounded by massive, steep, cone-shaped mountains bathed in cloud, is a surreal, even "mystical" experience. What makes Machu Picchu so special is the good condition of the ruins and their location in a place that seems completely isolated and unaccessible. Your first thought is: 'how the heck did these Inca's build this place and live up here all alone???".

Despite the setback of my run, I got to the ticket gate at 6:50am and was elated, since I was confident I would get one of the 400 free admissions (handed out from 7am according to our guide) to climb Wayna Picchu at 11am.

This was not the case.

Admissions actually started at 6am and the last one had been handed out at 6:40am. I had missed out by 10min. My joy turned to anger! Our guide had stuffed up again! But in true Golfin style, I was not going to accept defeat, so I walked to the entrance gate to Wayna Picchu (Elev 2,634m) and pleaded my case to go up.

The guard said YES!!!

What a roller coaster ride this day was turning out to be. With a sudden surge of joy and a second shot of adrenalin, I made it up the hundreds of steep steps to the top of this famous hill in 30min. I spent only 10min at the top since Machu Picchu was obscured by fog. Every now and then it would reveal the grand site below. The top was rough, marked out by several huge bolders and to get there you needed to also crawl through two narrow "tunnels" in the rock and climb a ladder. Descent was 20min. The total time of 50min (254m up and down) was 5min short of our guide's recollection of 45min run by one of her past clients. The site allowance is 90min. If it wasn't for the rain (slippery steps), I wreckon I could have beaten it but it was a nevertheless a satisfying challenge eaten up.

I then returned to the entrance gate at 9:30am to meet my fellow travellers for our 2.5hr guided tour of the Machu Picchu site.

This site is so isolated that the Spanish did not discover it. This is why it survived in such good condition to now. American historian, Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911 whilst looking for the lost city of Vilcabamba (refer HINTS & TIPS below for more details). The 100yr anniversary of this discovery is to be celebrated in June of this year.

Machu Picchu was built over 100yrs, starting in 1542, from granite sourced from the mountain it is built on - so no draggging of blocks uphill! It comprises: 4 main temples, royal palace for the visiting Inca King, royal tomb (no bones found), ceremonial baths, agricultural terraces, gardens and residences for the elite. The pity of it all was that the Inca's abandoned it, shortly after they finished building it since their empire had collapsed under the Spanish conquest and they did not want them to find it! Sad plan, but the Incas succeeded in preserving the place.

Our tour finished at noon and we spent the remainder of our time (until 1:30pm) at this magical site taking photos, since the fog actually lifted and the light sprinkling stopped to reveal, more fully, the classic picture seen all over the world.

Suffice to say, I was glad to bus it back down to Aguas Calientes, soaking wet, cold and exhausted from the day's dramas and victories! After a 45min clean-up and celebratory beer at the hotel, we caught the 2hr, 3:30pm train back to Ollantaytambo where our private van whisked us back to Cuzco leaving at 5:30pm and arriving at 7:30pm. Our guide shouted us to a bottle of red to celebrate the days events.That night I continued the celebration with a bottle of Chilean Chardonnay, 3 ham/cheese/tomato rolls and a DVD. I slept like a dead man but a very happy one!!!

NEXT BLOG: to cover Cuzco Inca Ruins, Lake Titicaca (highest lake in the world) and the entry into Bolivia, due 16FEB.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Full marks to our Lares Trek guide Armando and his crew of 4 who carried our gear on horseback, cooked our meals and set up our tents. 2) Poonan has made the final cut for the grand prize of best signature shot with her award winning Machu Picchu "Kiss Photo" and "Sacred Speedos" photos in this Post. Many thanks and congratulations. I also thank Poonan and Jess for "collaborating" to prevent the "Sacred Speedos" photo from being deleted after a female Peruvian guide shouted at Poonan for photographing me in my speedos. The guide called one of many guards to grab my cammera. Whilst I was dressing and playing dumb, Poonan slipped my camera to Jess and pretended she had photographed me with her camera. Poonan then proceeded to pretend that she had deleted the photo by showing her camera to the guard! Both accomplaces but well done girls!

MACHU RUN DRAMA: I started my run to Machu Picchu at 5am so I could get to the ticket gate before 7am in order to get one of 400 free daily admissions to climb "Wayna (or Huanan) Picchu" which is the tall mountain behind the ruins that you see in all the photos. This plan however came under threat when I got to the Rio Urubamba bridge inspection post at the 3km mark in the darkness and rain of 5:15am. The guard asked for my general admission ticket - a small detail that our guide omitted. I tried to make a ran for it but got stopped. So off I ran BACK to the hotel driven by sheer anger, woke up the guide, screamed at her, woke everyone else up in the process and then proceeded on a second departure at 5:40am which formed the official start time of my run. Why did I not take all my stuff as instinct had originally told me? Even on holiday you must double-check the info you are given and take a conservative approach with backups were possible. Anyway, my initial disappointment turned to joy when I reached the gates in far less time than I expected.

HINTS & TIPS: 1) Peru forbids the carriage of any alcohol in overnight buses so I would pour my red wine into 1L empty drinking yogurt bottles - it worked a treat! 2) The Intrepid Trip Notes (and our guide) on Machu Picchu are incorrect. In order to see Wayna (Huanan) Picchu you must get a free admission stamp on your general admission ticket on arrival at the main gate. This is available from 5:20am (not 7am). Only 400 free tickets are issued and these go fast (all gone by 6:30-6:45am, even in bad weather). First bus is 5am (not 6:30am). If you elect to walk (or run as in my case) you must take your general admission ticket with you to show at the booth in front of the Rio Urumbamba bridge (this was not mentioned and I had to run back to get it!!!). The bridge is open at 5am (not 6am). This lack of info almost cost me Wayna, an opportunity most of us only get once in our lives! 3) Read all about Bingham's discovery of Machu Picchu at 4) An alternative to drugs for altitude sickness is Coca leaves that all indigenous chew on in their dried state. These little leaves are packed with antioxidants, multi-vitamins and even have protein. Most indegenous adults that we encountered on the Lares Track would ask us for some. You must start chewing on these at least 2 days before ascending past 2,700m so they can take effect. Taste is not the best but bareable.


  1. Go JG...breaking all the Sth American rules...exposing yourself in your budgie smugglers and smuggling red wine in yoghurt bottles. Just be careful you don't find yourself in a dirty, crowded Latino Gaol cell !

  2. Absolutely brilliant, John - we're loving reading your posts and seeing all your amazing photos - it's the next best thing to being there... Loved the 'Sacred Speedos' shot (especially after reading about all the trouble you had to go through to get it..) Go John!! Love Jennie, Paul and the gang.

  3. Fantastic John. Machu Picchu is incredible and you've captured it so well, including you're illegal speedo shot - lucky there was no strip searching!!

    Your trip there and back definitely beats any FitnessFirst Boot Camp! What a marathon.

    One question, did the Red Wine have any hint of acidophilus? :-)

  4. why are there orange???

  5. what a bunch of werdios