The 12-passenger van pulled over about 6 inches below where the snow stopped and the guides started unloading the bicycles from the top. We all spilled out of the van, shivering and huddling together, staring down the long road twisting down around the mountain- supposedly leading to a warm, humid Jungle.
Man, when they said this bike ride began in the snow they weren’t kidding! We donned our reflective vests and clambered up onto bikes, hoping that they were just as honest about the bike ride leading to lush tropical Jungle.
About 30 minutes later my fingers still felt like little cocktail sausages that had been left in the back of the freezer for a decade or so, permanently frozen around the handlebars of my mountain bike. Apparently it had rained more the night before than it usually does in the dry season, causing various rivers in the road that we cycled through, uselessly trying to lift our legs. As a result my soaked pants were starting to become stiff as they froze to my legs.
I was ready for the Jungle!
We pulled up to a construction zone, where our guide let us know that the paved portion of our journey was now at an end, we had reached the unpaved section of our ride. As he explained this the soft misty drizzle started to form actual raindrops which splashed off our helmets and into our eyes as we continued down the dirt road.
I looked down, as there was too much rain to see in front of me, and wondered how long it would take for the dirt road to turn into a mud road.
About 9 minutes as it turns out. Tom, Kyle, Shea and I stopped for a pow-wow.
“What do you think” Tom asked, glancing from me to the 6 foot wide river we were about to ride through.
“I don’t know if the rest of this trek is going to be fun if I get covered in mud” I admitted. After all, I only had one pair of pants for the next 4 days.
“The road is pretty much all mud now” Tom pointed out. “We either stop now, or go all the way.”
We all agreed and shamelessly flagged down the dry warm van that had been following a little ways behind us.
From the comfort of our sanctuary we watched all the other cyclists (including Nick, Pla and Dave) who were in it to win it quickly get drenched in mud, both front and back.
The guide eventually convinced the entire group to pull over, there was no way the bikes were going to make it any farther. As a reward for their fortitude and strong wills the rest of the cyclists were hosed down like dogs who had rolled in the mud before they were allowed back into the van, ready to ride the rest of the way to our Jungle lodge.
“I don’t know why it’s like this” Bernie, our guide commented when we were on our way. “It’s usually sunny and warm and jungly here this time of year, I mean last week it was beautiful”
We would soon learn that this was going to be a running theme of the next couple of days.
The next morning we woke up to the sound of rain pounding down relentlessly on the tin roofs under which we slept. Nevertheless we were bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to cover our backpacks in plastic bags and continue our journey to Machu Picchu. Today was to be the first day that we actually trekked, as the day before was devoted to biking.
We crossed the bridge leading outside of town that now spanned a swollen and torrential river, with a swollen and waterlogged corpse caught in the reeds on one side.
Hmmm. Maybe not the most auspicious beginning to our adventure, but not everything can always be sweet green grass and rainbows, right?
I reminded myself of this as we fought our way through the mud and washed out roads up-hill.
All of a sudden a tall gringo limping next to a shorter Peruvian guide emerged out of the rain, coming toward us. As the duo came closer we saw that his pant leg had been pushed up, revealing a large, thick bandage wrapped around his leg with blood trickling out the bottom of it, like the rain trickling down the backs of our necks.
“Watch out for the rocks sliding down the cliff” he advised nodding his head toward the sheer cliff face next to us and continuing back down the path.
“Where are you going?” one member of our group called after him.
“To get stitches”
Not a very auspicious beginning at all. Over the next couple of hours we considered going back to call a van a few times. We all agreed that it would be a better idea to just push onwards and upwards, watching out for rockslides, and occasionally running across problem areas. It’s much harder to hit a moving target after all, right?
We were all pretty grateful when it was time to turn off the road (which had been blocked in places by mudslides, impromptu lakes and falling rocks) and head up the mountain on an original Inca trail.
The term Inca trail is most often used to refer to an organized trek to Machu Picchu, but it is quite literally a stone-paved road built by the Incas leading to the unassailable citadel of Machu Picchu located in the depths of the jungle. They aren’t the easiest trails as they Incans tended to build the shortest, and not the easiest routes, preferring to go up and over mountains rather than around them.
It’s pretty amazing to walk them knowing that 500 years ago Incan messengers or Chaskis, would run them pell-mell in 8km stretches if they were flat roads, and in 3 km stretches if they were up and down mountains, to hand off their package to the next Chaski in line; relay style.
In fact they could bring fish from Lima to Cusco within 20 hours. Talk about efficient; it takes over 20 hours to get to Cusco from Lima by bus now!
Part of the way up the Incan trail we stopped off at The Monkey House. which turned out to be someone’s house who has a monkey and some other various pets. We all enjoyed the small break where we got to sit down and share some snacks with friends-both new and old.
It truly was an amazing day, and the rain just added to the adventure by cutting off the safe paths so we had to cross raging rivers and rocky paths Indiana Jones style and get in touch with our super tough inner selves.
Even with the rain, and the crazy wasps (see Kyle’s eye) it was impossible to ignore the absolute loveliness that the Incan empire called home.
That said we were more than ready to stop for a hot lunch, and even keener for the hot shower that was rumored to await us that evening.
Alas, once we arrived at the lodge and all the girls on the trek had gotten out of their soggy togs we discovered that the entire water systems (including sinks and toilets) had been taken out by the unseasonable and furious rains.
Unfortunately none of the guides thought to tell us this, perhaps thinking it was better that we discovered it on our own when we tried to get in the shower or flush a toilet.
Or maybe they just wanted to see us come out in nothing but our towels to discover why the showers weren’t working.
“Lollipop, lollipop, oh lolly lolly lolly lollipop POP! Buh duh duh duh”
I just couldn’t get the song out of my head!! Our third day of the trek involved a whole lot of walking along train tracks in the middle of no-where.
I knew that this would be the case on the last full day of trekking, due to the fact that Machu Picchu, and the town of Aguas Calientes that is the gateway to Machu Picchu, is only accessible by train.
However the train tracks surrounded by foliage combined with the corpse of the first day, and the total “coming of age” that had been occurring between the 7 of us gave me the distinct feeling that I had left the Jungle trail and entered the set of “Stand by Me”.
I was on the look-out for leeches; that’s for sure!
Success! We arrived in Aguas Calientes and were rewarded with our first shower of the trek. We turned in early, in preparation to get up dark and early at 3:30am thus ensuring that we would be seven of the first 400 people into Machu Picchu- thereby guaranteeing us the opportunity to climb Huayna Picchu to see panoramic views of the whole area!
Thank you to Dave Shean and Pla Her for kindly donating some of their pictures to this blog post