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Summer 2006 | Peru: Hiking the Clouds

Summer 2006 | Peru: Hiking the Clouds

A group of 14 gay men climbs from Peru’s Sacred Valley to the classic ruins of Machu Picchu, discovering astonishing sites, new leg muscles, and the wondrous properties of coca leaves along the way.

As the air gets thinner, my head is throbbing, my heart is pounding, and each step is a struggle. This is the second time I've hiked the Inca Trail, and I'm determined to slow down and enjoy more of the scenery. But as I approach Warmiwañusca, the highest point on the trail at nearly 13,800 feet, it's hard to concentrate on anything but finding the energy to keep moving forward. At every turn my mind plays games and I'm tricked into thinking I'm almost to the top. But the trail is relentless, and as I look out over the mountains, it's obvious why the Incas worshipped them. Their presence is powerful, pervasive. Ascending from the Sacred Valley, with its lush rolling green hills, the world transforms to a place of mountains and sky. And rising above all are the glorious snowcapped peaks, which seem to be watching us, their whiteness shining brilliantly in the clear blue Peruvian sky.

In early July, the middle of the dry season, there can still be rain--even snow--and at night the temperatures drop well below freezing, but summer offers the best chance for good weather. Though excited by the challenge, the 14 men in my group (mostly professionals in their 30s and 40s) are in varying states of readiness and fitness. There's Chelsea Boy Clay, 6 foot 2, handsome, lean, and muscular--this is the farthest he's been from a gym in a decade; Barry, an actor and hilarious comedian from Houston, who has only slight use of one arm; Greg from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, who has won the Yellowknife marathon and will run circles around us in the next few days; David, a construction guy from Washington, D.C., who was encouraged to hike by his mother, who was battling leukemia; and Greg J., a financial planner and singer from San Francisco, fulfilling a lifetime goal.

To get to the trail we take an hour-long flight from Lima to Cuzco in the Sacred Valley. At a little over 11,000 feet the air is noticeably thinner here. Any ride through the valley, with its pastures and tiny towns dotting the mountainside, should include a stop at Pisac, noted for its colorful market square offering alpaca sweaters, silver, jewelry, and other Andean specialties--the perfect place to stock up for last-minute hiking essentials. You can find walking sticks ($3 to 5), ponchos (disposable but easy to use; $1), water, sports drinks, extra socks, hats, gloves, etc. Surveying the sea of brilliant rainbow-hued fabrics, Barry (self-appointed entertainment director and pseudo-diva extraordinaire) declares, "These people are so into color!" He's right. Rainbow flags fly prominently over the streets. The rainbow is a symbol of unity for the Andean people, and though it is not a gay welcoming sign, it still feels like a friendly gesture.

For most hikers, the trek begins at kilometer 82 of the Cuzco-Machu Picchu railway. At the top of a hill there are a few open-air shops and a path leading down to the checkpoint. Admission to hike the trail requires a pass that must be obtained months in advance. In recent years there has been pressure on the Peruvian government to limit entry to the trail due to the stress that growing crowds have put on the environment. Only 500 people are allowed on the trail each day, and that includes the mandatory guides and porters who accompany visitors. Our group of 14 requires three guides, 23 porters, and two cooks.

The first steps are on a long, rickety suspension bridge made of rope that sways and groans beneath the weight of trekkers as they cross the Urubamba River. The trail follows the river, and for the first hour the sound of its rumble accompanies the initial climb. During late spring and early winter, white-water rafting is very popular on the upper portions of the river, but now, though running high, the river recedes from sight. Its fading splash is a reminder of the world we left behind. It takes four days to hike 28 miles and over four mountain passes, gaining and losing altitude at a dizzying pace. But the first day is relatively gentle. The dusty trail undulates through the trees toward the first pass. Along the way are small farmhouses with goats tied to fences, mud-covered children playing in the yards, and red flags signaling chichi (homemade corn liquor) for sale. After three kilometers a little village appears, hardly more than a gathering of a few ancient stone structures, where benches and a bit of shade greet weary hikers. Andean women, with their signature bowler-style hats, sell water, Gatorade, and candy. D.C. David shares an energy bar with a spotted pig that has wandered over to nudge his leg for a handout. In the quiet of shade the smell of sun baking the land mixes with the pig's hot breath. One by one senses are challenged to see, hear, smell, and feel this place. But it requires concentration and study, as the trail is constantly changing.

At Wayllabamba, the first campsite, tents are up and dinner is cooking. Bright orange plastic bowls filled with water, pieces of soap, and tiny washcloths are set out, and a small makeshift city has been built.

"My first mountain facial," says Clay, scrubbing away the day's grime.

"It's like the Inca Hilton," says John, marveling at the abundance of our night's lodgings. Sleeping bags and pads are provided, and the smell of fresh popcorn, that happy-hour staple, fills the air.

Marathoner Greg, the first one up the trail, expresses a bit of guilt over the porters' hard work. "They carry everything from propane tanks to our makeshift outhouse. They hauled up an entire kitchen."

For the next few days the call "Porters left!" will echo along the trail as these hardy men run past us, their backs packed high with supplies, always smiling and seemingly glad to have the work. Guilt evaporates when the salty scent of hot chicken soup fills the dinner tent, followed by grilled alpaca, rich and slightly sweet in taste, served with gravy and rice. Barry discovers that D.C. David has never heard of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Stephen Sondheim. ("Are you sure you're gay?" Barry wonders aloud.) After dinner there are classes in gay culture, and laughter becomes a balm for aching muscles. Tired, cold, and elated, we retire to our tents by 8 p.m.

Day 2 is the most challenging--a climb to Warmiwañusca, more popularly known as "Dead Woman's Pass." It's a gain of over 3,000 feet, and the views are exquisite. Yesterday the mountains were giant towers; now they run like green rivers thousands of feet below. As the sun treks across the sky, shadows are cast from ridge to ridge. Like dunes in the desert, the light and perspective keeps changing the view. The valley disappears beneath the clouds, and the sky seems within arm's reach.

We arrive at the pass in the late morning, welcomed by cheers from Franklin, our Peruvian guide, a handsome, curly-haired 23-year-old. With a deep, sexy voice and English boarding school manners, he congratulates us and offers a sip of pisco to celebrate our victory. Pisco is Peru's national liquor, a hearty brandy that stings the tongue and has a slight hint of apples. We drink shots. The golden liquor drips down our chins.

Clay jokes, "A gay bar with altitude--not attitude."

It's nearly noon and a beautiful clear day. In the distance the next pass, Runkuraqay, is visible. The trail descends sharply before climbing back up above 13,000 feet. It snakes down the side of the mountain and gets lost in a thickness of green before reappearing above the tree line. The gain and loss of altitude is tiring. Coca leaves help. Like long, soft bay leaves, a bag of coca about the size of baseball costs $1. Our guide says it would take 20 garbage bags full of these leaves to make an ounce of cocaine. It's not a party drug here but a fairly mild and bitter stimulant that seems to help with altitude sickness. You roll a small amount into a ball and put it between your cheek and gum. It lasts about an hour before the effect is gone and the taste unpleasant. Never swallow! Still, the altitude takes its toll on some members of the group: headaches, stomach upsets, and exhaustion.

From this point on, the trail is set upon the actual stones placed on the mountainside by the Incas some 500 years ago. The original foot highway stretched from what is now Colombia in the north to central Chile in the south. This section is an endless series of steps, each of a different height and width. With no two steps alike, moving from rock to rock is a challenge. Walking sticks are essential, as are strong knees.

On the last night the favored camp is Phuyupatamarca, situated on a bluff overlooking the surrounding peaks: Salcantay at 6,271 meters (20,575 feet) and Wayanay at 5,464 meters (17,920 feet). This is the most spectacular of all the campsites, as it is set on a ledge teetering high above the valley. At sunset the shadows fall and the silhouettes of the mountains become more dramatic. The sky is tinged with orange and the mountains are pitched into blackness but their white peaks linger in the twilight. Tents are lined on the edge of a several-thousand-foot drop-off. Late-night outhouse runs require steady feet and strong flashlights.

In the morning, anticipation and excitement fuels the final day's trek. One of the gems of the journey is Wiñay Wayna, an immense set of ruins nearly as complete and inspiring as Machu Picchu. Throughout the trek there are many ruins visible only to those who hike the trail, each with its own purpose and personality, along with Quechua names assigned by Hiram Bingham, who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911. The long tongue-twisting sounds reinforce their mystery: Willkarakay, Llactapata, and Sayacmarca. But Wiñay Wayna, which means "forever young," is the most beautiful. The upper temples are perfectly preserved, and the descending terraces drape the hillside in perfect symmetry. The site is deserted--no crowds of tourists or hikers to jar the view. It's easy to imagine the ghosts of Incas carrying corn up the hills and climbing to the temple to pray.

The last segment passes through a cloud forest reminiscent of a Grimm's fairy tale. Franklin, our guide, points out orchids lingering in the mist. There are over 400 varieties of orchids in this area, including thimble-size cups of vermilion and bugle bursts of orange. Giant bromeliads cling to walls, their long, striped spikes bending gracefully to receive sun and water. In the mist, beauty peeks from behind every leaf, but you must seek it. Pause and concentrate. Focus and wait. Patience is a lesson learned while hiking the trail.

As a final reminder of the trail's power, 78 steep stairs, nearly ladderlike, must be climbed to reach the Sun Gate, where the first view of Machu Picchu is revealed. It's the classic picture of the sprawling ruins, with the peak of Wayna Picchu in the background. But no picture can capture the feeling of standing at the gate after living in the Incas' world for four days. The remains of the city lie below, with its vast stretch of buildings, temples, terraces, and walls. The totality of it is overwhelming--each stone carried from miles away, placed carefully, skillfully, forming an archeological wonder. Perfectly positioned in alignment with the stars and the moon, set on a landscape hidden from time, this city is a tribute to man's determination and ingenuity.

For those who walk the trail, a new respect and understanding of Machu Picchu is earned: Weary legs now have an inkling of the energy it took to build the temple; the relative isolation of Machu Picchu disappears after walking along the highway connecting temple to temple. The moment is shared by the group. There are hugs. There are tears. And a collective sigh of relief.

INCA TRAIL ESSENTIALS

Begin all international phone numbers with 011 if calling from the United States.

GETTING THERE
To Lima: AeroMexico offers flights from the most American cities. American Airlines, Avianca, Copa, and LAN Peru also offer direct flights. Lima to Cuzco: Flights leave from several times a daily, morning and afternoon only, on LAN Peru. TACA also offers limited service. There is no direct bus or train service. To the Trail From Cuzco: Bus or train service is available; in order to hike the trail you must contract with a tour operator. They will arrange for your transportation to and from Cuzco. There are two main entrances to the classic hike: kilometer markers 82 (for those taking the bus) and kilometer 88 (for those taking the train).

TOUR OPERATORS (all prices per person, double occupancy)
Alyson Adventures offers a 10-day tour of Peru for gay men (June 29-July 8, 800-825-9766, $2,995) that includes a four-day Inca Trail trek. The trip includes all hotel and camping accommodations, most meals, round-trip airfare from Lima to Cuzco, drivers, all hotel service fees, as well as a trail assistant guide and cook (excludes tips for main guide and porters). Zoom Vacations offers an eight-day tour of Cuzco and Machu Picchu (November 18-25, 866-966-6822, from $3,599) that includes luxury rail service from Machu Picchu to Cuzco on the Orient Express, concierge services, luxury accommodations, and optional excursions such as white-water rafting, horseback riding, and visits to private pre-Columbian art collections. OutWest Global Adventures offers a 11-day tour (May 27-June 7, 800-743-0458, $2,885), which includes a one-day hike for men to Machu Picchu and two days there. Most meals, nightly hotel accommodations, ground transfers throughout trip, rafting and Amazon excursions, sightseeing with guides, and domestic airfare within Peru. Call of the Wild offers a nine-day adventure tour for women along the Inca trail (September 9-20, 888-378-1978, $2,795) that includes the traditional four-day trail trek. Beginning in Lima the tour continues with five nights in the Sacred Valley before hiking to Machu Picchu for a one-day visit, then one day each in Cuzco and Lima. Includes hotel and camping accommodations, breakfast daily and most other meals, porterage and guide services (excluding tips). Hanns Ebensten Travel (July 11-19, 866-294-8174, $3,685) offers an nine-day tour of Cuzco and the Andes, including two nights at the Sanctuary Lodge with hiking and sightseeing. Trip includes nightly hotel accommodations, almost all meals (including wine at some dinners), guides, as well as all transportation, tour-related fees, and tips. RSVP Vacations offers an nine-day stay in Peru (October 7-15, 800-328-7787, $2,199) that includes visit to Machu Picchu, with nightly deluxe hotel accommodations, most meals, white-water rafting, and touring.

ACCOMMODATIONS
Cuzco:Hotel Monasterio (Calle Palacios 136, 800-237-1236, $435-$1,150), an Orient-Express property, is a sumptuously restored 16th-century monastery with a beautiful courtyard. Oxygen-supplemented rooms on request. Libertador Palacio del Inka (Plazoleta Santo Domingo 259, 800-457-4000, $162-350) is another top choice--modern and comfortable, it still retains some colonial charm despite its cavernous lobby. Picoaga Hotel (Santa Teresa Street 344, 51-84-252330, $120-170) is a good alternative, with its central location off the main square and friendly staff. With two restaurants and a modern wing with 72 rooms, it still feels somewhat intimate. Royal Inka I (Plaza Regocijo 299, 866-554-6028, $60-120) and its sister hotel, the Royal Inka II (Santa Teresa Street 335, 866-554-6028, $60-120), are centrally located, each in 19th-century buildings. Bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations offer a surprising variety of amenities, including Jacuzzis, restaurants, and bars. Sacred Valley:Sol y Luna Hotel (Fundo Huincho district, one kilometer west of Urubamba, 51-84-201620, $120-220) is a charming garden property with individual bungalows conveniently located near the town of Urubamba and the beginning of the trail. Amenities include a swimming pool and spa. It's a good choice as a jumping-off point to explore the surrounding area. Sonesta Posada del Inca (Plaza Manco II, Yucay 123, town of Yucay, 800-766-3782, $77-106) is a small colonial village clustered around a central courtyard. Comfortable rooms and inexpensive restaurant make this a good overnight stay before hitting the trail. Vendors assemble in the morning to sell scarves, gloves, and walking sticks for those last-minute needs. Near the Urubamba train station. Machu Picchu:The Orient-Express Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (Monumento Arqueologico de Machu Picchu, 800-237-1236, $715-$1,045) has the distinction of being the only hotel at the actual site of the ruins. Watch the sunset over the ruins or enjoy a nighttime visit from this rather modest of luxury hotels. All other accommodations are down the hill (a 20- to 30-minute bus ride) in the town of Aguas Calientes. There are a number of inexpensive hostels with a few amenities available in town as well. Aguas Calientes:Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Lodge (next to the train station, 800-442-5042, $374-559) is set on acres of beautiful cloud forest and is home to the world's largest collection of native orchids observable in their natural habitat (372 species), as well as a very large concentration of birds (162 species), wild hummingbirds (16 species), butterflies (111 species), and ferns (over 100 species). Eighty-three guest houses are nestled in one- or two-story cottages reached by attractive stone pathways.

RESTAURANTS/BARS
Cuzco:Fallen Angel (Plazoleta Nazarenas 221, 51-84-258184) is an upscale, gay-friendly restaurant and bar. The owner, Andres, speaks five languages and welcomes all visitors to his intimate and stylish establishment. Be sure to check out the portraits of hell and purgatory as you enter. This is good place to have a drink or just hang out. Andres also owns the Macondo Cuesta (San Blas 571, 51-84-229415) features good food and generous portions including, seafood, local vegetarian dishes, and pasta. Inka Grill (Porta de Panes 115, Plaza de Armas, 51-84-262991) is another good choice for upscale dining. Try the fresh trout or Andean soup with quinoa (a native herb) and chicken for a taste of local cuisine. For a real taste of Cuzco, try the regional specialty, cuy (roasted guinea pig); rich and slightly sweet, it is considered a delicacy. Another good choice is one of the many pizzerias in town. Cuzco is known for them, and you can find them on nearly every corner, filled with locals drinking Inca Kola or beer and watching football. Chez Maggy (multiple locations around "Gringo Alley," 51-84-234861) is a popular choice with its wood-burning oven and small, crowded, but friendly eating area.

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