Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mission Report - Peru

Another Secret Squirrel mission, this time back over the equator into the Southern Hemisphere and my first foray as an agent deep in South America. The mission brief looked interesting. Pose as an Economist for an international organisation in the capital of Peru for a few days, and then undertake some serious high-altitude training, where I would travel through the Sacred Valley, scale a mountain summit, run downhill in the jungle, climb 1,600 steps before dawn, all in an attempt to secure the most revered gift of all. However, this was not before inadvertently falling in love with a man named Gastón, drinking cider at the highest Irish pub in the world and being involved in a 5 day Spanish language immersion group. Surely the makings of the best mission yet.

After being chased down by the impending sunset on the flight to Peru, and having been awake for 24 hours, my heart sunk lower and lower in my chest with each passing turn of the luggage carousel when my moron backpack failed to appear. I should’ve known that my 45 minute transfer in Amsterdam would be cutting it fine...too fine in the end.

“Si-ko-ha, Taliya Si-ko-ha” I hear and then see a short very tanned man with a moustache calling out my name. Knowing that the “J” in my surname is a “H” to Spanish speakers, I race over “Oui, ah, si, si?” and he hands me a piece of paper and walks off. A few others with similar looking papers are standing around. A ‘Baggage Irregularity Report’ it reads, or so someone translates. There are at least 15 of us. We all queue to lodge our ‘report’.

After an inefficient Peruvian eternity, I finally reach the counter. I give all my details and ask insistently when my baggage would arrive. “On the next flight tomorrow evening” the taller very tanned man says. “So, I can come and pick it up from the airport” I ask. He looks perplexed and wonders why I would want to do such a thing. “We can deliver it to your hotel” he responds. “But I can come and pick it up?” I ask again. “Si” he says. Having observed the Peruvian airport ground crew, I did not have any confidence that my bag would be delivered to my hotel promptly and I was in desperate need of my disguise to pose as the alleged Economist the following days.

Prior to my departure, I was given the details of a Peruvian contact. The following day I decided to arrange a rendez-vous with him. A 45 minute walk, which is apparently long by Peruivian standards, I found the meeting place. A restaurant called La Mar, considered to be the best cervicheria in all of Lima. Cerviche is a traditional dish of Peru (and other Latin American countries) which consists of raw fish which is marinated (cured) in lime and lemon juice with chilli peppers, onion and salt. It is there that I come to know Gastón and instantly fell in love.

Degustation of cerviche
Gastón Acurio is an internationally renowned and celebrated Peruvian chef. He is an ambassador of Peruvian cuisine (now in my Top 5 favourites) and applies it at the gourmet level. The degustation of five different types of cerviche quite clearly displayed his outstanding talent. All of which I loved. Whilst I didn’t meet Gastón personally, his restaurants and food repeatedly, and perhaps strangely, kept making an appearance during my mission.

Later that evening I was back in a private car heading to the airport. The driver considered himself to be a bit of a Casanova, indicating that he was a salsa teacher, percussionist and singer. “Do you like Mexican music?” he asks. “I like all music” I smile. He then whips out a CD and it begins to play, and just that split second behind the beat the driver starts his best rendition of some famous Mexican artist. He looks over to me, smiles, nods his head approvingly “eh? eh?”  I smile meekly back at him and then turn to look out the window hoping my bag would be on the incoming plane. I spot a sign which says ‘Tsunami Evacuation Route’ and it’s a hell of a climb up a road carved into a side of cliff, hmm, not so good if you really have to hurry. A couple of minutes more of his dulcet tones, the CD starts to skip, he seems dejected and takes the CD out. Then to punish me I sure, he winds down the window all the way and the cold air of the Pacific Ocean is rushing in. I try to suggest that it’s a bit chilly and he points to his jacket, ‘ah no thanks, I think I’d rather freeze’ I’m thinking to myself.

Back at the airport, I try and make my way back into baggage claim, which requires unorthodox security in reverse. I’m standing at the same carousel in anticipation of my backpack. ‘Pease, please, please.....oh thank Christ!’ I’ve never been so overjoyed about seeing a backpack. As it turns out, that relationship would slowly change over the course of the next week.

The following days involved some demanding financial regulation discussion and I worked my little secret squirrel tail off. Although I was pleasantly rewarded at the end of it all with another extraordinary meal of Gastón’s, this time at his signature restaurant of Astrid y Gastón. It is a French and Peruvian fusion that he operates with his wife who he had met in Paris whilst studying at Le Cordon Bleu. It is there where I had cuy, Peruvian for guinea-pig. Which surprisingly tasted like....pork, and was scrumptious. No, I’m making any apologies.

Back in the private car the next morning, thankfully without the singing driver, I was yet again heading to the airport.  This time, it was to fly to Cusco, my base for the next couple of days at 3,800 metres (11,100 feet) above sea level before beginning a 5 day, 80km hike. The minute you land in Cusco, you know that you are at high-altitude. On exiting the plane I could see that many people were feeling the effects of the altitude immediately, like shortness of breath and dizziness. I felt fine so forged ahead passing those who were walking gingerly.
Flying over the Andes into Cusco

Arriving at my mildly dodgy hotel I’m offered coca tea. A herbal tea made from the leaves of the coca plant which is meant to help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. I tell the Manager that I feel fine as I appreciatively take the offering. “Maybe later” she is suggesting, indicating that I might have a ‘turn’. Hmm, so best to drink the tea now then.

As soon as I unload my gear, finish my tea I’m off to check out Cusco. It’s as I’m walking that I found myself having to open my mouth to try and get more air, even though I wasn’t puffed out. A little further along I find myself feeling a little light-headed, sort of like being tipsy but without the affects of alcohol - interesting. I stop at a store to take a momentary break, and then continue to the main square. It’s there I stumble across a Peruvian marching parade and take the opportunity to sit on the steps of the Cathedral to watch it and adjust to the altitude. It felt strange that the walk had elevated my heart rate, despite the lack of any real physical exertion that I’m normally used to. I spot a woman leading the march of a bunch of uniformed men whilst she has a pistol strapped to hip as she clutched her handbag – cool.

The latest must-have accessories - pistol and handbag

It is advisable not to drink alcohol at high-altitude, so I was reading after the waiter had insisted that I have the ‘big’ beer with my lunch, all 660mls of it as it stood on my table. Cusqueña is a rather tasty Peruvian beer, so much so, I did the wanky tourist thing of buying the t-shirt later. Upon leaving the restaurant I was no longer sure whether it was the altitude or the beer, or both that was providing a ‘floaty’ feeling. That later gave way to a dull ache in the lower back of my head, which subsequently was the extent of the altitude sickness I experienced for the entire mission.
View at lunch of the main square in Cusco
'Big' beer


An 8:00am departure the next morning, I was waiting by the road side for a bus to pick me up and take me through the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Which unsurprisingly is a valley in the Andes of Peru containing Inca ruins from their vast empire. First stop of the day was Písac and unfortunately the rain came tumbling down and being on the side of a mountain meant it was rather windy and chilly, but a good opportunity to test out the water resistance of my new jacket that would have to protect me on my hike. It was later at the local market in Písac town that I mercifully bought a pair of alpaca gloves that would be of great use during my hike.

Inca site at Pisac

Inca site at Ollantaytambo
The impressive site of Ollantaytambo followed, where the sun finally appeared so that I could marvel at how the Incas hauled and built a wall of six 52 tonne slabs of rock. The Incas were truly amazing engineers. My final stop of the long day was in Chinchero, known for its traditional Peruvian weaving techniques. It also gave me an opportunity to add yet another picture to my collection of me wearing the national headdress of the country I’m visiting.

Back in Cusco, I couldn’t go back to the progressively Dodgeville Hotel to pack my backpack for the hike until I had a drink at Paddy’s Bar. The highest 100% owned Irish pub in the world at 11,100 feet. It was there that I met two operatives from the United States. Both agents, one from L.A. and one from New York, were posing as barmen that had won a competition hosted by a Pisco company. They had to create the most innovative version of the drink Pisco Sour.

Pisco is a strong, clear grape brandy coming from the Pisco region in Peru. Pisco Sour is a cocktail containing pisco, lime juice, egg whites, some sugar syrup and bitters. Unfortunately for me Pisco Sour isn’t to my liking, although that was of course until L.A. Barman and N.Y. Barman happen mention Gastón. These were indeed the operatives I was meant to meet.

LA and NY

I come to learn that Gastón had yet another restaurant called Chi Cha in Cusco. “You must come with us” the barmen were insisting. It was getting late, and I was being picked up at 4:45am the next morning to begin my hike. However, the lure of Gastón was too strong. It was there that I determined that I much preferred Coca Sour, which is made from the leaves of the coca plant and a dash of pisco. Surely that would assist with my altitude induced headache?

Mmm - Coca Sour

Having sampled Gastón’s amazing food yet again, I bid L.A. and NY good night. With only 3 hours sleep, I was then to embark on 8 hours of hiking the following day.
I wasn’t able to hike the Inca Trail as all the permits for the month of September were sold out some months ago. As such, I decided to do the more challenging and longer Salkantay hike.

Day 1: Cusco – Mollepata – Soraypampa

Spot on at 5:45am, the bus arrives to pick me and my beloved backpack up. After a series of other pick-ups we take a three hour journey to Mollepata (2,800m). Thankfully I had taken a travel sickness tablet for the windy trip through the mountains and I was able to catch some sleep before arriving at Mollepata.

Over breakfast in Mollepata I get to meet the gang that I would be hiking with. Of the 13 people, 6 are Spanish, 2 Brazilians (Portuguese being not too far off Spanish), 2 Italians (likewise, they comprehend Spanish clearly), 1 American (studying Spanish), 1 Irish (who understands Spanish) and me. The next five days I would be catapulted head-first in a Spanish language immersion class whether I liked it or not as most announcements by my tour guide were in Spanish, with a brief translation later in English.

Before setting off I made the best purchase of my life. A $1.50 wooden walking stick – if it weren’t for this stick, the entire trek would’ve been substantially less enjoyable. We began for Cruzpata (3,100m), the starting point of our trek. We hike along an ‘Inca flat’ trail, which means not flat at all, but many level variations which aren’t overly steep. The sun is shining and I figure it would a great opportunity to work on my tan. Along the way we see little farms and lots of eucalypt trees and I feel like I’m back in the Australian bush.

View at lunch
At lunch it was already noticeable that I had gotten some sunburn. “It’s ok, it will go brown” I’m assuring everyone. As we continue to Soraypampa (3,900m) our base camp before the assent to the summit the next day, it is getting progressively colder and everyone is donning jumpers and jackets, except for Ms Taliya. I figure the cool air might help with taking some of the heat out of the sunburn – wrong. Instead by the time I was near camp, I was frozen and my legs were shaking so much that I almost couldn’t cross the bridge made of sparing planks to reach the campsite.

Despite the impressive site of the majestic Apu Salkantay (6,271m) right by our camp, as soon as I got in, I started to throw on as many clothes as I could. Two pairs of leggings, singlet, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, jumper, jacket, beanie (Peruvian of course) and gloves. I was still shaking. Sitting next to Cameron, a young American guy backpacking his way through South America, and who I would eventually hike a great deal of the trek with, I told him I was concerned I’d given myself a slight case of hyperthermia. This shall be the only time I will utter such words, but “instant coffee never tasted so good” hallelujah, and it helped me to warm up.

Base camp

Day 2: Soraypampa – Chaullay

We begin our summit climb at 6:30am. We would be ascending from 3,900m to approximately 4,700m over 6km. The strategy for the climb that Cameron and I decided to employ was slow and steady. Whilst our slow, was rather slow, it was a hell of lot faster than some others. As soon as we felt like we were working too hard, we took a 30 second break to get our breath back.

Leaving base camp, begining the ascent

It is the strangest feeling to be moving so slowing (with about 6kg on my back and no longer so appreciative of my backpack), yet my heart was elevated similar to that as if I was going for a long run. Make no mistake, this was a steep climb for 3 hours, so much so that a number of people decided to go on horses and mules instead. Following a series of switchbacks, the weather progressively got worse. First it started to drizzle, then it was sleeting, then finally it was snowing with the temperature dropping to 3 degrees by the time the path led to the side of the mountain and we came to the summit and the high pass at just over 4,650m. In Cusco at an elevation of 3,800m the air is 30% less (dense) than at sea level, which means you have 30% less air to breath as you normally would. At the summit, that dropped to just over 40%, which explains why a slow climb up a steep mountain was tough going.

I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary conquering Mt Everest (8,848m), or perhaps that should be Tenzing Norgay, as Cameron and I reached the summit. However, given that no one else from our group was there, there was no verification of who reached the summit first. It shall remain a mystery.

At the summit, happy and snowing
The stats!

Despite the 5 hour rocky decent in the cold and rain, I was on a post-summit high and I could see why people would try and conquer the various peaks of the world. I was also reminding myself of the countless training rides I’ve done in the rain with my triathlon buddy Kathryn and that I chose to do this – it was fun!

After 21km, in just over 9 hours we arrived in Chaullay (2,800m), and I was hankering for that damn instant coffee.

Day 3: Chaullay – Sahuayaco

A more leisurely start at 7:30am, the trail led us to the eastern slope of the Andes into a sub-tropical valley, whether the temperatures were decidedly warmer. I had come to learn that thanks to my cycling/running legs, which despite sometimes giving me grief when purchasing skinny legged jeans, I am a much climber than I am at descending.

Sub-tropical Andes

However, the day before I had seen a native Andean virtually running and side-stepping his way down the mountain. So I figured I’d give it a go.

Getting ahead of my group a little, I began with a slow jog, trying to strategically place my walking stick as I was hoping over rocks. Then, the slow jog became a canter and I felt like I was in a video game dodging obstructions as they appeared. As it turns out, this technique is indeed highly effective as I had to wait almost an hour before my group caught up. Consequently though, I was dubbed Super Señorita by my tour guide.


However, I did manage to stop along the way and admire the variety of orchids, taste the delicious wild strawberries and watch the hummingbirds. The changes of the microclimates were simply fascinating.

Yummy wild strawberries

We arrive at our campsite in Santa Teresa at 1,550m and the only time I would be below the height of Australia’s tallest mountain, which is Mount Koziosko (2,228m) during the whole trek. A treat that afternoon was to visit some nearby hot springs to relax our aching muscles. Oh how good it was too.
Our campsite also had a whole host of other tour groups, and the bon fire in the evening coupled with dancing and the reasonably priced bush bar on site meant a few people had sore heads the next day. Not me though, I had decided to abstain from any alcohol during the entire trek and also became a vegetarian for the duration.

Day 4: Santa Teresa – Aguas Calientes

After a short ride bus ride, we arrive at the edge of the Machu Picchu national reserve. This would be a relatively easy day’s hiking, walking along the train tracks for 4 hours.

We then arrived in Aguas Calientes which is ‘Machu Pichhu’ town where we had some free time to explore. Aguas Calientes is like a ski resort town, with lots of restaurants and overpriced souvenirs, not to mention weird looking and not-that-great tasking cappuccinos. This was until I found a cafe that was serving awesome macchiato. I parked myself there for a while using their free wifi, reconnecting with humanity and having real coffee yet again.

Not far from Aguas Calientas, at the base of Machu Picchu

Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu

It was almost cruel to have slept in the comfort of a bed only to rise at 4am. However, it was this day that I had waited so many years for. Ever since I was a young girl and I had seen a documentary on Machu Picchu I wanted to visit it. I knew it was something that I was going to do before I kicked the bucket. So here I was achieving a life-long ambition.

Whilst the proceeding 4 days of hiking wasn’t the hardest thing I had ever done, it was most certainly challenging. Now, all I had left to complete were 1,600 stone steps and I would be there.

Inca steps before dawn

Getting to the base of the stairs I realised that we were slightly behind schedule to make the 6am gate opening. Like a demon possessed, I began climbing the stairs. I’m not sure what came over me, but I forged ahead leaving the group behind. It turns out that my 50 minute effort is actually considered a good time.

With a few “pardons, excusez-moi” (it helps to pretend to not know English and be French instead sometimes), I passed the people waiting on the steps in front of the main gate.

On Friday 16 September in the 100th anniversary year of its re-discovery, Taliya Cikoja of Australia was the very first person into Machu Picchu. With my ticket scanned, I’m walk in and hear “Super Señorita you are the first person in Machu Picchu, how about that!” It was Javier my tour guide and we exchange high-fives. I beam a huge smile at him. He then instructs me to take the next right and then up the stairs to a building he pointed out.

What I hadn’t realised is that he had given me the most spectacular gift of all - an opportunity to get to the first vantage point to view the magnificent Machu Picchu without any other tourist spoiling the sight.

First view of Machu Picchu

It’s difficult to describe how amazing Machu Picchu is. Similar to how I felt at Petra in Jordan earlier this year, it just leaves you in wonderment. However, there is something intangibly magically about Machu Picchu, as I spent the next 7 hours wondering around, relaxing and enjoying it.

Can't look at it enough - iPhone image
Last view of Machu Picchu before leaving

This was without a doubt my best mission yet!

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