Inca Traillog

I spent October 11-14, 2013, hiking the Inca Trail. Here is the story of my experience.

DAY 1: Kilometer 82 (9,200′) to Wayllabamba (9,700′)

Piled into a bus for a bumpy one-lane-dirt-road ride to our beginning place, Kilometer 82. Our bus driver, who on the day prior had proved himself worthy of lots of bonus points for fast/dangerous video-game driving, would nose right up to any buses heading the opposite direction and have a stare-off to determine who had to back up to let the other pass. Our driver won all three times. Once at the trailhead the porters carefully weighed our bags — amazingly, no drama with anyone trying to bring extra stuff.

We set off.

Our party of 14 hikers plus 20 porters, two cooks, and two guides (our assistant guide was named Jesus, which was an endless fount of jokes: “Everyone please follow Jesus”, “Jesus spoke to me”, “Thank you Jesus!”) walked and walked and walked, through any number of small rustic settlements where they charged 30 cents to use the toilet, and wanted to sell us water and Gatorade.

There were lots of horses and burros along the trail hauling supplies to other settlements further up. We also passed by numerous tiny Inca bars (marked, not with a sign, but with a red plastic bag, for some reason) where the porters could get wasted on fermented corn beer called chicha. We were forbidden from sampling this stuff.

First night’s campsite was in someone’s backyard. She sold us massive beers for $3.00. The porters had arrived early, set up our tents and laid out bowls of warm water for us to wash our faces and hands in. So swanky! Dinner was excellent too — soup and rice and veggies prepared by our hike-along chef. He gave us different types of soup for every meal on the trek and it was awesome. Peruvians know their soups… even a hundred miles from nowhere with only the ingredients they can carry on their backs.

DAY 2: Wayllabamba (9,700′) to Pacaymayo (11,800′)

Wakeup call at 5am, breakfast at 5:30am, hike at 6:15am. This was billed as the toughest hiking day; six hours of mostly uphill climbing, with a 3,000′ elevation gain to a grim place named Dead Woman’s Pass. Eek. It was hot, dry and dusty — basically a desert situation with cacti and everything. I remembered to put on sunscreen, luckily.

We stopped for lunch in a small green valley with llamas, alpacas, and old ladies selling snacks and drinks. This was the last place along the trail that civilization touched, at least until Machu Picchu, so I bought spare headlamp batteries and some beer.

Once we got to the top of the pass a couple hours later I was quite tired. At almost 12,000′ it’s difficult to catch one’s breath so I had to stop to rest far more often than usual. The view from the pass was astounding though. Standing in the saddle between two mountains we could see the desert where we’d come from and a much greener, lusher area ahead.

It was a steep hike downhill to our second campsite, which I took slow for fear of injuring a knee. Still I walked into camp at about 2:30pm, so there was plenty of time to relax before dinner, which involved more soup of course, and some fish and hot chocolate.

DAY 3: Pacaymayo (11,800′) to Winaywayna (8,700′)

Another early wake-up call and we were on the trail by 6:15am again. I was most nervous about this day’s hiking since it was nearly all downhill — and 11 hours on the trail! — and I had heard about the crazy Inca staircases we were to descend. Steep stone steps very unevenly spaced. Scary. Not to mention the fact that it began to rain very hard shortly after we got on the trail. And rained, and rained. In fact I remember very little about the first half of this day other than the rain.

We hiked until 1pm when we finally stopped for lunch on the top of a mountain that surely had a wonderful view if only it hadn’t been socked in by a raincloud. One of the hikers in our group had gotten sick, was chilled and weak, and was just barely able to hold himself together enough to get to our lunch spot. He collapsed into our gear tent and napped while the rest of us had lunch in another tent. More soup: very warming.

And then, a miracle! It stopped raining at long last! We still had four more hours of hiking and this was the steepest downhill portion of the trail, so seeing the weather clear up lightened everyone’s mood considerably.

It was during this stretch of the hike that I had a small but important revelation, too. I had been so worried about my knees and steep stairs that I’d been going very slowly, but I was impressed with our porters’ ability to sprint down the trail even with their unwieldy fifty-pound packs on their backs. How did they do it? Well, obviously, it took some practice and a lot of strength, but it also seemed that they hiked on their toes rather than their heels. I thought about this and realized that it’s a lot more traumatic on your knees if you come down on your heel, even though that feels most comfortable and stable. Also, Luis, our head guide, told me that it’s better on the knees to go more quickly down hills, using your trekking poles more for balance than for support. I think both these tips really saved my knees on the hike and I’m definitely going to remember them for future hikes back home as well.

I’m surprised nobody fell, but we all did quite well, even the sick guy. We mostly dried off as it got warmer and we descended into the jungle. Finally rolled into camp, totally exhausted, at 5pm.

A really long day but it brought our trek nearly to an end — Machu Picchu mountain was in sight across the valley! Somehow our cooks made cake and jello to celebrate that achievement, and then with instructions to wake up at 3:45am to complete the final stretch, we all went to bed super early.

DAY 4: Winaywayna (8,700′ to Machu Picchu (8,000′)

Packed up camp and breakfasted by 4:45am, but then we had to line up at the final trail checkpoint and wait for it to open at 5:30am. I’m still unclear about exactly why we had to get up so early, but that did mean we arrived at the Sun Gate — the entrance to Machu Picchu that’s perched on top of a ridge a couple hundred meters above the main site of the city — nice and early, at around 7:30am.

The morning clouds had just lifted and the view was breathtaking! It seemed like a dream or fairy tale. You’ve seen the images we’ve all seen of Machu Picchu, but to actually be there — to take in the panoramas with your own eyes — well, it’s sure to be something to remember for life. Thousands of feet up a nearly-sheer but densely-vegetated cliff face, and all but invisible from the valley floor so far below, the Incas chose this mountaintop spot for its religious significance and proceeded to carve up the granite mountain to build temples, a school, homes, and terraces and storehouses to grow and store food for the few hundred important people who lived there.

For us in the modern day, spending some 3½ days hiking even just that small portion of the Incas’ sacred path to get to their most sacred city is probably one of the best available ways to gain perspective on an ancient civilization. If only the Spanish hadn’t destroyed nearly all other evidence of the Incas, we’d know so much more… (I hope they’ve formally apologized to Peru.)

After a few hours touring and exploring and taking photos, we hopped a bus down the mountainside — involving at least a dozen switchbacks and a single-lane gravel road with no guardrail — had lunch (pizza), then took a train and bus back to Cusco for a well-deserved shower and a clean soft bed.


The A-Y-P Exposition

Today the Seattle Public Library released its first online special collection, The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition Digital Collection, containing an impressive amount of material relating to the event that took place in Seattle almost 100 years ago in summer 1909. You can check out the Official Guide to the Exposition, or a map of the Exposition grounds sponsored by the city of Tacoma (motto: “You’ll Like Tacoma!”… hmm). There’s even a scan of a program for a Welsh history association event, which, surprisingly, must have been very popular because the pamphlet is chock full of advertisements!

Another thing that’s pretty cool is this map of Greater Seattle that includes the names of each and every neighborhood and housing addition in the city — and there are a lot of them. Unfortunately, it seems that the names of many of these areas have been lost in time or at least have fallen into disuse. For example, my neighborhood is generally known as the University District, yet in 1909 this larger area was made up of several smaller additions including University Hills, Harrison Heights, and Lake View — none of which I’ve ever heard of. According to this map I live in the University Heights Addition, an area bounded by Brooklyn and 15th Avenues to the West and East, and 45th & 55th Streets to the South and North. Interestingly, there is a remaining vestige of this name in the old University Heights School (now University Heights Community Center) where I buy apples at the U-District farmers market on Saturdays.


These soldiers in formation were just a few hundred of the countless LEGO minifigs crowding the exhibition hall at last weekend’s BrickCon.

But that was just the beginning of an extensive Scandinavian odyssey stretching across two full days.

It all started at Seattle Center on Saturday morning, where a long line consisting of a mixture of 50% kids, 25% parents, and 25% massively geeky IT workers made its way slowly into the hall. Approximately 700 billion LEGOs awaited those of us willing to brave it. I stood in the shadow of a LEGO-scale Space Needle, which for the record is still pretty tall, then made my way through the other sections of the exhibit. There was the World of Warcraft village, complete with an ice castle; next up was a modern urban Anytown USA featuring a baseball game in progress and a second Space Needle; then we had the Blade Runner-esque futuristic corner, with its two dueling monorails. I kind of felt like a loser, but BrickCon was so worth it.

Later Saturday found me wandering the endless Nordic wasteland that is Ikea. I was, as always, highly impressed by their clever store layout, which forces you to hike three miles in search of that one perfect TV stand… But just when you’re about to collapse into a whimpering heap, the Ikea restaurant appears like an oasis — and it’s filled with yummy meatballs. After a quick recharge you’re up and at ’em and ready to part with even more of your hard-earned Euros.

Sunday’s escapades were a bit less in-your-face Scandinavian, but I would argue that spending time in Ballard counts for something even if it’s only a trip to Fred Meyer for towels and provisions. Additionally, I was lucky enough to have tickets to see Iceland’s second most famous musicians, Sigur Rós, in concert at Benaroya Hall. The experience left me speechless and grinning, clutching a souvenir piece of confetti paper in my fist, and went straight into my list of the top five best shows ever. After all, a couple thousand mesmerized fans can’t be wrong. (I may in fact still be mesmerized.) If you ever, ever have the opportunity to see Sigur Rós you simply must go.

And that was my Nordic weekend.

On Cranes and Guns

Yesterday afternoon, we all (cats included) were a bit concerned about the strong winds whipping through Seattle. Mindful of the 10-story crane next door to my building, and not wishing to experience first-hand a repeat of the Bellevue accident, I kept glancing out the window every time there was a particularly loud gust. It appeared that the crane might be pivoting about its base in the breeze; this led to some unpleasant trains of thought, such as imagined images of my co-op reduced to a pile of bricks.

The winds died down by bedtime and I was able to rest easily for part of the night, until a series of loud crack-crack noises disturbed my slumber. The sound of sirens followed. Obviously the crane was finally collapsing; my first thought was along the lines of, “And now I die.” But I waited and waited, and no catastrophe seemed to be unfolding (read: the ceiling hadn’t caved in, and I heard not even one blood-curdling scream) so I went back to sleep.

Today I discovered, happily, that the crane still stands. And the noise I heard? Oh, it was only a gunfight down the street — great.

Tower of Power

This is Smith Tower. Once the tallest building west of the Mississippi, it is now dwarfed by the newer buildings making up Seattle’s contemporary skyline. But Smith Tower still inspires respect, awe and mystery, due in large part to its architectural details, such as the glowing sphere perched atop its spire, a globe whose color shifts in concert with some unknown cue (or otherworldly force). A mysterious, wealthy benefactor of the arts lives in the pyramidal apartment just below this sphere, but little is known about this person. Of course, theories and speculations abound. To me there is no mystery. To me it is obvious that the Smith Tower Penthouse is occupied by a Superhero. Think of it; who else but a Superhero would live in the attic of a skyscraper? Why else but as a Superhero signaling mechanism would the Smith Tower globe change color? And could the penthouse’s large Gothic windows be any more convenient for flying out of? It’s easy to imagine a Superhero, dressed in Superhero finery, spending his or her sleepless nights crouched inside the globe, waiting and watching…

(Photo by Flickr user ChrisB in SEA.)

Snowy Is Not Just a Dog

When it happens, snow in Seattle is quite a mess, because we’re just not equipped to deal with it. For example, although there’s been snow on the ground here in the U-District for two days I haven’t yet seen even a single snow plow on the streets. Luckily there are some positive aspects to the chaos that occurs when we get half an inch of snow.

  • It only happens about once per decade.
  • White snow looks nice next to evergreen trees.
  • There are tons of hills to sled down. Hopefully intentionally.
  • Half an inch in the city means the mountains probably got four feet of powder — time to go skiing!
  • Living in this eminently walkable city, the essentials (teriyaki, coffee, etc.) are always available within walking distance of home.
  • Your shoes don’t get ruined from salt stains because nobody puts salt on the sidewalks.
  • It’s funny to watch all the Californians freak out.
  • It’s funny to watch the Midwesterners and East-Coasters laugh at everyone else.

Döner ist Wunderbar

Last week I spent a few days exploring Berlin, a unique and amazing city. I think much of the character it exudes stems from the extreme changes it has faced during the past century. The city center was all but destroyed during World War II, then rebuilt separately by the Allies and the Axis according to two wholly distinct philosophies. After the end of the Wende reunited East and West Berlin in 1989 the city began to coalesce once again, but the personalities of the two halves remain highly evident today. East Berlin is still full of vacant lots, piles of rubble, and graffiti. There is a lot of building and rebuilding going on everywhere one looks, resulting in a level of gentrification which I suspect is unsettling to many longtime East Berliners. By contrast, West Berlin is more tame, more “westernized” and therefore quite a lot less interesting.

One of my goals for the visit was to explore the many museums on offer — there are over 70 state-owned museums in Berlin and countless private ones too. That may sound like an obscene number of museums and, in truth, it is, especially if one has only four days to tackle the challenge. I got around to just a handful of them: the Pergamonmuseum, the Altes Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, and the Gemäldegalerie. (Also in the museum-ish category is Schloss Charlottenburg, King Frederick III’s giant baroque castle, which I toured.) Unfortunately the permanent collections of the Ägyptisches Museum, Museum Berggruen and the Neue Nationalgalerie were all unavailable during my visit, or I undoubtedly would have added them all to my roster.

But Berlin is not just about museums. It’s also about the best street food ever: the döner kebab, a Turkish-inspired concoction of sliced meat bits, salad, and garlicky yogurt sauce, all stuffed into a toasted triangle of thin bread. All in all, a lovely invention. I happily ate döner almost every night, but the best one I found was at Pergamon Bistro in the Friedrichstraße train station. I also tried Currywurst (sausage with curry sauce), Apfelsaftschorle (a mixture of apple juice and soda water), and some random confectioneries. I enjoyed huge carb-laden German breakfasts every morning. And of course I couldn’t resist trying a selection of local beers such as the ultra-cheap and quite decent Berliner Pilsner, and the green variety of Berliner Weisse, which is singularly weird.

Anyway, I took some photos, which are now online, complete with pithy and uninformative descriptions. Enjoy.

Day 1 – Unter den Linden, Alexanderplatz

Day 2 – Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz, Holocaust Memorial

Day 3 – Museuminsel

Day 4 – Charlottenburg

Ethnography in Berlin

Tonight I went out to an “Indie Pop” show at Berlin’s Mudd Club, a tiny place with the feel of a wine cellar; it was underground, with brick columns interspersed and low, vaulted ceilings. It also featured a pitch dark corridor leading off to who-knows-where (actually, in retrospect, it probably led to the bathrooms).

UK band Amusement Parks on Fire headlined. Needless to say, the show was excellent, but since I had nobody to talk to, I took on the role of resident American ethnographer. My observations follow. It’s all quite scientific.

  • Estimated total numbers of attendees: 175.
  • Percentage of which female: 10.
  • Percentage of which smokers: 40.
  • Number of chain smokers standing right next to me: 2.
  • Percentage of audience members dancing: 0.
  • Percentage of audience members nodding heads: 30.
  • Percentage of audience members standing stock still: 70.
  • Number of times I had variations of the thought, “Hey, they’re just like us!”: 3.
  • Number of couples observed making out: 4.
  • Ratio of words spoken by me in German and in English: 11:0.
  • Ratio of words spoken to me in German and in English: 1:7.
  • Minimum number of prostitutes encountered on the 10-minute walk along Oranienburger Straße back to my room: 6.
  • Number of Death Cab for Cutie songs heard during that journey: 1.
  • Overall fun rating of the evening, expressed as number, with 1 representing the least amount of fun and 5 the most: 4.


This year’s Labor Day weekend extravaganza of musical variety, “ethnic” food, and teenaged girls — that storied Seattle festival known as Bumbershoot — was, surprisingly, not ruined by a series of miscalculations which caused me to skip events that I really did not want to skip. For example, although I heard the final, lingering, feedback-laden note of The Invisible Eyes’ set, that was the only note of it I did hear. Still, the highs were quite high indeed, including Jeremy Enigk and Blue Scholars.

But check out this geekiness…

In line for Best Week Ever Live (yes I love that celebrity gossip!) it was an hour before curtain and I was all alone. What else was there to do but whip out my trusty DS Lite and turn that hour into New Super Mario Bros. Fun Hour? As I merrily head-stomped my way past World 5-1, a goofy-looking high school guy with goofy-looking hair tapped me on the shoulder, and with these words my descent into geekiness was complete: “You wanna play some Mario Kart? I’ll host!” And that is how I came to be competing over Nintendo WiFi with a de facto nerd. Much to my delight, I managed to trounce him the first couple of races before he handed the DSL over to his buddy, who whooped my ass at Mario Kart, then whooped it again at VS Mario.

I felt somewhat vindicated when that very same kid was brought onstage at the finale of the show (Who’s Having the Best Week Ever?) and the audience booed him. Ha!