Exploring the Realities of Lima’s Shanty Towns

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Homes carefully constructed from scrap

For our final day in Lima (and our final day in Peru), we had something a little different planned.  We’d be turning our backs on the local site and the local food to get outside the city (a city we admittedly were not really enjoying) and seeing the other side of life in Lima.  Around noon, Edwin of Haku Tours picked us up and we drove out of the city to visit one of the shanty towns built on a nearby hillside.

We drove up gravel roads as the homes became more and more run down.  The tour started on a main street of sorts, lined with open storefronts that housed small markets.  We learned more about some of the fruit of the area and moved on to a small indoor meat market.  The cleanliness of the market was…suspect…but the people were making do with what they had, and I wasn’t going to be one to judge given the circumstances.

After the markets, we walked up steep stairs to see more of the homes jammed in across the hillside, learning that they were cobbled together with whatever scraps the people could find.  Despite living in such poor conditions, the people were incredibly friendly and hospitable—much more so than I could see myself being in those situations.  The children especially were happy to follow us on our tour and take pictures with us (which Edwin said we should e-mail to Haku Tours for them to print out and give back to the families, as this was one of the only opportunities for them to have pictures of themselves).

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Hanging out with a local family

We learned about the local life, saw into a shanty house and their “kitchen” and met a few more people.  And while it could have definitely started to feel like exploitation—these white people who are rich by any standard applied to the shanty towns, coming to look at their suffering and get a little dose of poverty porn—we were reassured by how much Haku Tours gives back to the community and helps with things like uniforms for the children to go to school. Edwin even gave a young girl a few pesos for a drawing she had made that she offered me, since both the drawing and I had beards.

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Being dominated in soccer by a bunch of children

Near the end of the tour, we came upon a soccer field near the top of the hill, and I was invited to join the children there to play.  I was wearing hiking boots at the time, but even without that excuse I’m sure the kids would have schooled me regardless.  They were also playing with a partially deflated ball that they had received from a tourist two years prior, but were happy to have that much.  Had I known, I certainly would’ve bought a new ball for them in Lima—a few dollars for me would’ve made them so happy.

While it may not seem like a “fun” or “exciting” thing to do with your time, seeing how the less fortunate live in other countries, or how developing countries are forgetting their people, can be a very important part of your trip.  Traveling isn’t all eating the best food and staying in hotels; traveling should be about learning and experiencing things, even if those things don’t make the loveliest Instagram pictures.

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Some of the local children excited about having their picture taken

I would definitely recommend Haku Tours for their knowledge of the area and involvement in the community, and I would also highly recommend bringing something for the people there.  A ball for the kids, some clothes you don’t wear anymore, anything to help out.  The tour will give back to the community, but you can have an impact as well.

Why You Should Visit Bogota on a Sunday

On our trip to Colombia in 2016, we had about 10 days to see everything we wanted to see.  We spent about three of those days in Bogota, and one of them absolutely had to be a Sunday.

Having been an instrumental part in starting Philly Free Streets, LeeAnne had become interested in other pedestrian events around the world, and none of them are quite like Bogota’s Ciclovia.  From 7am to 2pm every Sunday (and on holidays as well), Bogota shuts down 76 miles of streets for people to use car-free.  This program has been going on since 1974, with an estimated 1.7 million residents taking advantage every weekend, which totals about a quarter of Bogota’s population.

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Cycling on the highway. Probably the only flat stretch in the entire city.

We booked a bike tour through Bogota for the Sunday we were there in order to take advantage of Ciclovia.  Bogota Bike Tours, just two blocks from our hotel in the La Candelaria neighborhood, was an excellent choice.  Along with the normal bike tour things you see—a trip through a market to see the local fruit, some history lessons at the major sites, a stop at a coffee shop that roasts its own beans, a game of tejo—we were able to fully experience Ciclovia.

We rode through streets absolutely packed with people.  It made riding a little difficult at some points, but people on foot were cognizant of the bikers and let us through whenever we were noticed.  We stopped to take part in one of the mass exercise classes in the middle of the street (one of many—the event is packed with them), got snacks, and just enjoyed the car-free experience while we did the rest of our usual tour.

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Some obstacles going down a hill on the highway. Either to slow people down or make it a super fun decent.

The most amazing part, to me, was how many streets were closed down.  The main highway that goes through Bogota—and leads to the airport—was closed! In Philadelphia, they skirt around the issue and close minimal streets and people still complain; I can’t imagine what would happen if the main highway leading to the airport was closed for seven hours every Sunday so people could ride their bikes and dance in the street.

While the bike tour was a great experience and definitely killed two birds with one stone, I would have loved to experience more of the Ciclovia on our own.  While I had fun on the bike channeling my inner Nairo Quintana (and failing miserably at the first hill I came to—my legs still burn thinking about it), walking through the streets with a mass of people will always be a great draw for me.  For any city usually packed with traffic, being able to experience it without cars is always a treat.  Seeing so many people out and about, exercising, hanging out, taking advantage of the outdoors, is always a wonderful thing.

If you are going to Bogota—and you absolutely should—be sure to schedule in a Sunday while you’re there.  Ciclovia demonstrates the best of “mass recreation events,” and is a model for the rest of the world.  Every city should strive to have open streets for its pedestrians, and hopefully we can shrug off our dependence on cars, if only for one day a week, in order to enjoy our cities that much more.

Street Food Tour with Cartagena Connections

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Appropriate street art during our tour

During our trip to Colombia, we spent a few days in Cartagena.  Overall, it was probably my least favorite stop–despite the beautiful old city and the great nighttime fun in the Getsemani neighborhood we were staying in, it was a bit of a beachy/touristy town.  The heat didn’t help, either; when we stopped to get sunscreen, and I was having trouble applying it because it was just mixing with sweat, that should’ve been a sign to stay in the air conditioning at the hotel.

So, in this heat, it probably wasn’t the best idea to taking a walking tour of the city, but my love of food won out and we signed up for Cartagena Connections’ walking street food tour. There was a mixup with our booking for whatever reason, and our guide Catalina had a hair appointment booked for that time, so we decided to wait at KGB, a communist Russia themed bar near the square we were supposed to meet, and had a few bottles of Poker beer to fight the heat and wait it out.

Because of the scheduling snafu, it seemed that for the tour we were being rushed through all the stops.  I don’t know if this was just Catalina’s style, but we still had a full and informative tour, stopping for many different foods we wouldn’t have normally stopped for, and learning more about local dishes aside from just arepas.

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Big, fluffy, white arepas

That said, however, the best thing was had was probably an arepa; a big, fluffy, white arepa unlike any we had tried in our time in Colombia.  Most of the arepas we’d had were dense, these were almost like fried mashed potatoes. We still talk about how good these were. Another revelation from the tour was a quick stop at a fruit vendor, where we got fresh slices of mango sprinkled with salt.  I try to tell everyone who will listen about this: salted mango was an eye-opener. Sweet and salty always makes a great combo, and this blew my mind.

We also stopped at various street vendors (as it was a street food tour), with one sticking out amongst the rest: a woman frying up various empanadas with a variety of sauces to try with them.  They were all delicious, and very appreciated–the cart was found in an area we probably would not have wandered into, and we probably would’ve walked right by the cart had we been on our own. We also stopped in a shop for a plate of chicarrones, which was also delicious and also in a place we never would have gone on our own.

Near the end, I could tell LeeAnne was getting full when I had to eat more and more of what we were being served, and combined with the heat, we were definitely slowing down.  We happened to be walking about a block or so from our hotel, so we decided to call it quits on the tour (we were the only two).

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Salted mango: life-changing, as far as fruit goes

Despite cutting it short, and despite the miscommunications at the beginning, I would definitely recommend the tour if you’re in Cartagena.  If you can stand the heat, you’ll learn more about the food, get to try a ton of stuff you wouldn’t have otherwise, and you’ll also get some insight into the history of the city.  It was a solid replacement for our Thanksgiving dinner, and that is not something I would say lightly.

Chez Wong: Lima’s Hidden Gem

Lima, as a whole, was pretty underwhelming.  We saw some nice sites, had some nice food, and probably spent most of the time stuck in traffic – the congestion there was worse than any other city I’ve been in.  I can’t imagine a situation in which I’d go back, and it was a largely forgettable end to a great trip through Peru save one thing: Chez Wong.

Chez Wong is run by chef Javier Wong, who is a Peruvian of Chinese descent. And I do mean it is run by him quite literally – he is in the kitchen, and there is one other person who serves as doorman, server, and does some light prep work.  Everything else is Wong, who breaks down a massive Pacific sole for the meal and prepares it a multitude of ways.

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First course: ceviche

I don’t even remember anymore how I had heard of Chez Wong in the first place, just that I had wanted to go there.  I made reservations well in advance, and via e-mail, because if you don’t make reservations, you won’t be let in. It doesn’t matter if there are tables available – if you don’t book in advance, don’t bother showing up. Which would be a whole different matter, as no one seemed to know where it was, and we finally had to get a helpful woman in a bank to look up directions, print them out, and then explain them to our cab driver.

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Second course: tiradito

Once we finally figured it out and were dropped off in what basically appeared to be an alley next to a very busy street, we located the correct door and gave our names.  We were scrutinized against what was on the list and I had a momentary panic that I had somehow bungled the reservation, but we were eventually seated at one of the 10 tables – about half of which ended up being filled.  After trying to explain in spanish with little success about LeeAnne’s orange allergy, we ordered a bottle of wine.

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Third course. O, the scent!

The first course came shortly thereafter and consisted of a beautifully fresh and bright ceviche of sole and octopus, all with a bowl of chili on the side.  Following this was another Peruvian classic, tiradito, which is a close cousin to ceviche – thinly sliced raw fish in citrus. Here, we had more sole, topped with crumbled pecans.  Both were excellent ways to start off the meal – light, flavorful, and incredibly delicious. (Note: these descriptions are mostly conjecture, as there is no menu at Chez Wong – just whatever the chef wants to cook.)

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Final course: more wok action

For the third course, Chef Wong went to the only cooking surface in the place – a huge burner – to stir fry more flounder.  I walked back to the bathroom – which you have to go through the kitchen to get to – and almost couldn’t take my eyes off of his cooking.  Not only do I love watching people cook, but he was so close to the massive flame that I didn’t know how his hand wasn’t a burnt husk of nothing.  His body must be completely heat-resistant at this point.

The third course was a quick stirfry of sole, mushrooms (I wasn’t sure which kind, but the texture reminded me of wood ear), and snow peas in a brown sauce – the ingredients of which can change day to day based on what food he has on hand.  I wish I could convey in words the smell coming off of this dish when it was set in front of me. In the picture, you can tell just a small portion of the glee I felt to get to eat this.

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Chef Wong, impervious to flame

Finally, we were treated to another dish from the wok, this one a spicier take on the sole, with larger chunks of fish, vegetables, and scallions.  Just as good as the other dishes, if not better (I like spice), it was a hell of a way to finish off the meal that would be the only plausible reason for me to return to Lima.

All in all, I can’t say enough about the food and the experience.  If you’re going to Lima, the restaurant should be a must-do on your list.  You get amazing food, plus the added bonus of feeling like a VIP finding a place that apparently cab drivers need help to get to, that has no website or social media presence, and that you have to be on a list to get in.  As many great restaurants as Lima has – and the list is significant – don’t let yourself miss this one.

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L to R: Myself, LeeAnne, Chef Wong, Pacific Sole

To make a reservation, e-mail chezwong7@hotmail.com.

Nasca: Is It Worth It?

line mapOur time in Peru started with adventure: a few days in Cusco and then the Inca Trail.  After that, we were able to spend a few wonderful (and relaxing) days in Arequipa. But after Arequipa our vacation got a bit whirlwind: we’d take an overnight bus to Ica, where we’d hop on a plane to see the Nasca Lines, then we’d get a private van transfer to Huacachina, where we’d spend around 24 hours, and then a trip to Paracas to see the Bolestas Islands followed by yet another overnight bus to Lima.

Being a baby when it comes to heights and water, I wasn’t looking forward to most of this part of the trip, but as always LeeAnne talked me into it (or, rather, planned it and I just went along).  We arrived in Ica early and made our van transport from the bus station to the small airport stop at a tiny cafe so we could grab breakfast and a coffee. After that, we made it to the airport, where we checked in, went through “security,” stashed our packs, and were weighed for the flight.

After all the formalities were out of the way, we took a seat in the airport while a documentary about the lines played over and over on the airport televisions.  The story of the lines, at first, is fascinating: the Nasca people, it is believed, made these huge drawings in the area by removing the top layer of red soil and revealing a white layer beneath it.  The area that the lines cover – 450 square kilometers – is massive. The drawings themselves are huge.

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The are in which the lines are drawn is also fortuitous: with almost no wind and being in one of the driest deserts on earth, they have been preserved almost completely naturally since they were drawn.  How lucky is that? But when you dig further into the mystery of why they are there, you come up with a resounding shrug of the shoulders and a “dunno.” While this may make the mystery even more enticing for some, I had a similar reaction: a shrug of the shoulders.

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After sitting in the airport a while, it was finally our turn to take the flight.  We shared the small  plane with three other sight-seers, a pilot, and a co-pilot. The crew did a great job, once we were in the air, of making sure we saw all the highlights – the monkey, the condor, the spider, the hummingbird, etc.  We flew around, tipping the plane to either side so both seats could get a good view, and then headed back to the airport. The flight was about 30 minutes, and being such a small plane with no cabin pressure, LeeAnne’s altitude sickness started to creep up while we were in flight.  If that is a problem for you, beware.

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If you look closely, you can see the condor

After all was said and done, the lines were interesting, but nothing to jump up and down about.  If it hadn’t been a reasonable stop on the way from one point to another, I wouldn’t have been sad to miss them.  They are another box I can check off on my travels, but really haven’t been anything more than that. And for $100 per person, I would say your money was best spent elsewhere.  Unless you really want to see some lines drawn in the sand.

On Colombia, and Traveling Without Fear

Above: Fernando Botero’s “Birds of Peace” – there is another one exactly like it next to it. This one was used in a bombing in 1995 that killed 29, whose names are listed below it. They are both on display to represent the changes Medellin has undergone.

When my then-wife LeeAnne decided our next vacation would be to Colombia, a variety of friends and family gave us the same response: “Why?” Whether they had been hearing about the drug cartels and violence for the last 50 years or had just been watching too much Narcos, everyone seemed to believe we would be landing in a war zone.  I admit, as a seasoned traveler, I even let the nervousness get the best of me and had to have to good people of r/travel on Reddit cool me down.

The entire time, I should’ve just remembered my favorite travel quote: “No place is as savage as you think it is.”  I really wish I remembered who said this, because they deserve infinite credit.  Nowhere is ever as bad as you hear or think it is; and besides, isn’t traveling about getting out of your comfort zone a bit? Experience new things that may make you feel nervous or uncomfortable?  It brings to mind another favorite travel quote, this one from Anthony Bourdain:

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

And the marks that Colombia left were all beautiful.  The people were some of the nicest we’ve encountered in our travels, and most seemed genuinely happy to have outsiders experience their country which had been getting such a bad rep for so long.  Even Medellin—ground zero for the drug cartels and once known as the most dangerous city in the world—was a vibrant and lively city that was intensely walkable.

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A kitty cat mural on the mean streets of Bogota.

Bogota was no different.  The few warnings I had received revolved around the La Candelaria neighborhood (where we happened to be staying, unbeknownst to the people warning us) and being careful at night, but despite walking all over the city and specifically that area at all hours of the day and night, I never once got the creeping nervousness you sometimes get when your body feels you may have entered a dangerous situation.

It really all comes down to situational awareness.  Keep your eyes open to your surroundings, especially at night.  Don’t walk away from an ATM counting your money.  Don’t flash your iPhone all over the place to take pictures.  Keep any valuables—wallet or passport—in some kind of zippered or fastened pocket.  It doesn’t make it impossible for someone to rob you, but it makes it more difficult for pick-pockets.

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Night in a small square in Cartagena: breakdancing in the street.  Super dangerous people.

Over our 10 days in Colombia, only once (in Cartegena) was I propositioned to buy cocaine.  One time.  In Colombia.  And even in that heavily-touristed city, the type of city where petty crimes usually thrive, I didn’t feel ill-at-ease.

I don’t know if this post is more about traveling smart or about going to Colombia, but I will say you need to do both—be aware of your surroundings as you travel, and definitely go to Colombia.  See the cities, learn the history and what the people have been through, and watch Narcos if you haven’t just to see how drastically things have improved. Just don’t expect much from the food—its boringness is inversely proportional to the vibrancy of the cities and especially the people.

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One of the vibrant streets of Guatape.
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A street in the walled portion of Cartagena, where the most dangerous thing was the heat.

All photos courtesy LeeAnne Mullins.

The Inca Trail

To quote Jim Gaffigan, “I’m what you would call ‘indoorsy'”—but when my then-wife LeeAnne suggested we take a vacation to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I agreed instantly.  I’ve always had a thing for seeing historical sites, and Machu Picchu is right up there among the best of them.  The fact that we would have to hike for four days to get there just added to the allure of the place.

As the Inca Trail is well protected, there are a limited number of passes issued to hike the trail each day, and you must go with a registered guide.  We picked Intrepid Travel based on a friend’s recommendation, and they were great.  From our tour guide Elias to the unbelievable porters, the trip was made much better with them in it.

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We began with a day and a half in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude.  At the time, we were both smokers and had had almost no experience at altitude (we did all of our practice hikes outside Philadelphia), so the day and half was not enough.  But we made it work with plenty of altitude medication and coca tea.

The night before our trip, our guide dropped off the bags we were to give the porters with extra clothes, snacks, or whatever else we wanted during the hike as long as the bags were under 6 kg. We could also carry our own backpacks with whatever we wanted to have on us.  He went over the route and what we could expect from day to day, and then we were left to pack up.  The hotel we stayed at would be stashing most of our stuff while we were away, so we’d be bringing minimal gear with us.  From Intrepid, we were able to rent sleeping bags, a sleeping mat, and hiking poles.  Everything else, we had.

And then, just like that, it was time to embark.  The hotel let us in the breakfast room early so we could get some food before we left, and that’s when it hit me: diarrhea.  That’s right: I had felt fine the past few days, and then just as I was about to embark on a long trek where I’d be outside in the middle of nowhere for four days, I get hit with a bad case of the tummy struggles.  I went from excited anticipation to absolute dread.  Was it the nerves? The aji de gallina I’d had the night before? The alpaca burger? All the coca tea I’d been pounding? Who knows.  Who cares.  This was about to suck.

11134144_10153145221022209_2780531494105828084_nWe took a two-hour van ride with our guide to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we stopped for a more substantial breakfast, a few trips to the bathroom, and to meet up with the rest of our group.  There were eight of us total, and we’d be joining a group that was on a longer Intrepid trip.  They were nice enough people, but we didn’t end up spending much time with them outside of our camps each night.

We drove up to the trail entrance, had our passports stamped, and were underway. The first day was hot and arid, mostly uphill.  I made the mistake of trying to keep up with the more fit non-smokers on the trip and ended up getting winded pretty quickly, and the altitude (even though we were nowhere near as high as we would eventually go) was getting the best of me. It wasn’t long before I fell behind.  Luckily, LeeAnne was there to keep me going, because I almost immediately wanted to give up.  I absolutely hate the feeling that I am holding someone back, and I didn’t want to feel like that with a group of strangers the entire time.

We stopped to see some ruins, and then we stopped for lunch.  I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I ate what I could in order to have as much energy as possible, and then took a quick nap in an adjacent field.  One of our follow hikers gave me some coca leaves to chew on. They weren’t as good as the tea, but they definitely helped.  Now, the coca leaf is indeed the raw material for cocaine, but the amount in a leaf is miniscule.  The leaf itself is a mild stimulant that combats thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue, but is nothing like cocaine.  Although I did become pretty addicted to coca candy while I was in Peru.

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Day two started with a great breakfast and I was feeling much better, but our guide sent us out with one of our companions a bit early so I could get a head start.  It wasn’t long before the rest of the group caught up with us, though, because we kept going higher and LeeAnne started developing some altitude sickness.  We were slowed immensely by this, and now it was she that needed the convincing not to turn back.  She stuck it out, though, despite having to stop every few meters on our climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which tops out at 4,215m/13,829ft above sea level, the highest I’d ever been outside of an airplane.

At some points, our guide had to make LeeAnne smell rubbing alcohol to keep her wits about her, and it took us way longer to get to the pass than everyone else.  It was also a complete climate change from day one, being freezing cold and windy at the top of the pass.  Having not prepared as well as I should have, our guide lent me his gloves.

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After a brief rest, we went down the other side of the pass to where we were supposed to stop for lunch.  Recognizing that we were struggling—as well as a few others in the group that had some problem—Elias made the decision to camp there for the rest of the night.  This did, however, mean that the porters who had gone on ahead to set up camp for dinner would have to break down the camp and come all the way back.

It should be noted that these porters are nearly superhuman.  They wear sandals for the entire trip and carry 50 kg of gear on their backs and practically run the trail in order to get to the next stop, set up camp, and cook the next meal.  And the meals were not your typical camping food—they were miles above what any reasonable person would expect on a trip like this.  Watching them get through the trail was awe-inspiring, and if you do it be sure to bring enough cash to tip them well.  They are amazing.

Day three, our guide had LeeAnne and I get up even earlier.  This time, we set out with a porter to accompany us and woke up while it was still dark and while everyone else was still asleep to get a 2-3 hour head start.  It was slow going, and we were able to meet pretty much everyone else on the trail with us because we had to stop so frequently and all the groups passed us, making sure we were okay.  Right before our lunch stop (which was supposed to be our dinner stop and camp the night before), the rest of our group caught up with us. Right after we stopped atop the high pass for the day for some yoga.

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Just kidding, we only watched other people do yoga. After lunch, Elias and a porter accompanied us once again as the rest of the group went on ahead. We were slow as cold molasses, but we made it through to camp eventually—tummy struggles, altitude sickness, and all.  Luckily, even though we were there right on the edge of rainy season, it didn’t rain at all.  The combination of being wet and miserable with being on slippery rocks next to some pretty heady cliffs (I’m afraid of heights) would have made the trek that much more nerve-wracking. We heard later from some folks who had experienced rain on the trip that it made everything excruciatingly worse.

On night three, we had one last group dinner and tipped out our porters, who would be leaving the next morning in order to get a train back to the city. That morning, we woke up early—probably around 3am—in order to get in line to get into the actual national park that includes all of the sites.  We climbed along cliffs, up higher, finally coming to the “gringo killer” stairs that lead up to the Sun Gate, which are so steep they basically need to be climbed like a ladder.

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It should be said that, with all the struggles we were having, I was pretty nonplussed by the idea of seeing Machu Picchu at this point.  I stopped caring and figured it would be anticlimactic at best.  At the Sun Gate, which looks down upon Machu Picchu, the clouds were still in and we could see nothing.  We stopped for a brief snack, and at one point the sun came out and the clouds parted and we could see it, and I was immediately enthralled.  The whole thing was so incredibly impressive, it was almost breathtaking.  Once I saw it, all the hard work and the talking myself out of leaving and the diarrhea and everything else suddenly became worth every minute.

We took the walk from the Sun Gate down to Machu Picchu, where we got some touristy pictures and proceeded down to tour the city.  I immediately hated all the people who had taken trains and buses to get there—the ones in jeans, wearing perfume or cologne, the ones who had clearly bathed in the last three days—they didn’t deserve this! They didn’t suffer for it! Jerks.

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Though I don’t have much hard going to compare this to—running a marathon probably comes the closest—hiking the Inca Trail was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  With everything we had to deal with on top of the altitude, it was a struggle to say the least.  But the struggle paid off with one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  If only to prove that I could do it a little quicker.

After leaving Machu Picchu, we grabbed lunch in Aguas Calientes, the town below, and then hopped a train back to Ollantaytambo where a van drove us back to Cusco.  Back at our hotel, it was immediate showers, followed by devouring two massive Peruvian pizzas and a long, hard sleep.  By morning, of course, my tummy struggles had ended—but not my love of coca tea.

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All photos taken by LeeAnne.