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The Inca Trail… Part II

Checking an item off your bucket list sounds exciting, right? Fulfilling, dreams coming true, etc., etc. And it can be all those things, but I think it also creates a little… anxiety. What if it doesn’t live up to the expectations you’ve held in your head for so long? What happens AFTER you check it off the list?
A View of the Terraces at Machu Picchu
Friends who’d walked the Inca Trail provided varying reactions and regardless of what you read here – good and bad – I very much believe that it’s a trip worth making: different people will get different things from it.
And in that vein, I’ve been wrangling with exactly what I should write here about the trip. In the end, the initial question in the first part of this post : How does one begin to write about the experience of the Inca Trail, a journey that had been on my bucket list for more than 10 years? 
I could describe it to you in literal detail, the schedule, the terrain, give you stats about distance covered and height above sea level, but you can get all that from a thousand other sites and blogs (If you really want to know about these details, though, please feel free to get in touch). Instead, I’m opting to share with you some of my personal story – the sensations, challenges, thoughts and conclusions that formed over the days and hours of the journey. 

One of the Ruins Along the Inca Trail

If it’s physically possible (and safe), complete the trail. Our guide was quite excited that none of our group quit. You should’ve seen our reactions – part disbelief, part hilarity: we had no idea that was even an option! Apparently, it’s not uncommon at all and one girl in our group told me that her friend’s group had two individuals quit after the first hour of the trail! Hmmm… perhaps a very wise and strategically well-timed decision on our guide’s part not to impart this knowledge to us until after we’d finished.

Believe me, it’s not easy. I was not prepared for how much the altitude would affect my breathing. I’d been at higher altitudes before – base camp at Mount Everest – and hadn’t experienced any significant symptoms other than a little shortness of breath. In Peru, leading up to the beginning of the trek, I’d also not had any other symptoms, not even shortness of breath – no headaches, nausea, dizziness or loss of appetite. So, it completely caught me by surprise when very quickly after we’d started the walk, I found myself already needing to take a break to catch my breath. For me, this was the most physically difficult part of the trek: as the days and kilometres continued on, and particularly on the ascents, frequent stops were needed for me to get air into my lungs, sometimes as often as once every 10 or 15 paces. Some people advised me to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth to slow my heartbeat down, but the thing was, my heartbeat was fine. I simply couldn’t get enough oxygen in.

Pausing for a Look: The Valley Below
Psychologically, though, it never entered my thoughts to quit or to stop. I was always going to complete the trail. That was a foregone conclusion in my mind. Difficulty breathing just meant going much slower. In all honesty, this was the bigger mental challenge: I finished last for every section, every day and letting go of my embarrassment over this fact was far tougher. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s not a race, after all. But for me, it signalled a weakness – I am not used to finishing last (in fact, I work very hard not to finish last in all aspects of my life – yes, I am a Chinese-Canadian ambitious, perfectionist female… can you believe we exist? Ha!) and though I wasn’t at the peak of my fitness level, surely it was better than this… wasn’t it? Eventually, the embarrassment subsided – it’s amazing how the little things stop troubling you when something like breathing becomes a struggle – but in actuality, fitness level and susceptibility to altitude aren’t correlated. Some people just adjust better to the decrease in oxygen. I am not one of those people. 
Take it Slow

So, take it slow.
Altitude: A slower, steadier pace will make it easier on you and your lungs. Also a slower ascent overall helps your body acclimatize.
Attitude: It really isn’t a race; take the time to look around (which, coincidentally, is a very rewarding thing to do while catching your breath) and enjoy where you are and what’s around you. The ruins are amazing, in the truest sense of the word, but so are the natural aspects. 
Day 3: The ‘Easiest’ Day of the Trail Brought us a Rainbow to Enjoy

At numerous points, the four of us at the tail end of the pack would pause, thus allowing us to take in our surroundings. We looked backwards, observing our trail snaking back down the mountain and realized just how far we’d come. At other times, we would look up and ahead, suddenly aware of just how close we were to the top of the mountains. I couldn’t take my eyes of the peaks. 
I’m a sucker for mountains, valleys, dramatic skies, cloud formations… really anything and any moment that reveals to us, yet again, the beauty that Mother Nature has bestowed upon us. It’s an addiction – I fall silent in awe, so grateful that I get to see it in person and I only end up wanting to see more. Enjoy it, take it in because no matter how well you’ve captured it in a photograph, there’s nothing like being there to smell the moss, hear the waterfall, see the shades of green and feel the texture and edges of the rocks and stones. 

If Only….

As the attempted (and ultimately successful) conquest by Spain of the Incan Empire wore on, the Incas living at Machu Picchu were instructed to take their belongings and abandon the site and to make their way to Vilcabamba, the last capital of the empire and the last refuge of its people.

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, though, and you can’t help but wonder what might have happened if those who lived there had never left. Would some of the Incans have survived? Would there be individuals today with 100% Incan blood and ancestry? Would there be fewer legends and more facts?

Mountain View from Machu Picchu
The Incan Empire was, in a word, impressive. 
Geographically, it stretched through 6 countries of western South America: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. Despite the numerous nations that were enfolded (by force or otherwise) into the empire, there was one language and one religion. At its core were the Andes mountains and a 14,000 mile long network of trails/roads was constructed in and amongst the range to link all its inhabitants together, thereby allowing for efficient communication and travel. Much of this network still exists today and is in relatively good condition, some of which we traveled on during our 3.5 days on the trail. 
The Incans were also well known for their architectural achievements, their legacy evident in the structures that still stand today. The blocks that were used to construct buildings were finely cut into precise shapes and angles, perfectly fitted and held to one another without mortar, so close to each other that a knife cannot be passed in between. Their construction methods also essentially made buildings “earthquake proof”, with small occurrences having no effect, while larger events caused the stones to jiggle, for lack of a better word, and then fall back into place once the earthquake ended. 
Perhaps it is the fact that so much of its existence endures, that we can still touch, walk on and see the work produced by this remarkable people, in spite of the long span of time that has passed since their disappearance, which we find simultaneously so sad and yet so alluring, that lead thousands to visit Machu Picchu a day. 
Machu Picchu, Another Look
For me, walking the Inca Trail was an achievement. Knowing what’s involved – the sleepless nights, the physical challenges, three days without showering, less than ideal bathroom conditions (by the way, there are way worse) – I would happily do it all again and then some. 
The memories of that trail will stay with me: the ‘gringo killer’ sections where you forbid yourself from assessing the degree of steepness and how easily your momentum could carry you forward into a tumble; the closeness of the rainforest, the weight of the humidity bearing down on your sweat and your shoulders while its thickness made you feel like you were trying to breathe in something solid; the rare quiet moment where it was only me and the sound of the birds and a distant waterfall; the realization that you had so much farther to go and the immediate impulse to just continue putting one foot in front of the other; the consummate satisfaction and happiness of arriving at Machu Picchu, the ‘end goal’; the admiration for the scale of the site and learning that it was not even the biggest Incan settlement. 
Machu Picchu did not disappoint: its magnitude and its endurance, an embodiment of the lost empire. 
The Inca Trail was not what I expected. In fact, I’m not sure that in all my imaginings of this trip, I ever gave due consideration to the trail itself, but rather only thought of the ‘end goal’. In this sense, the trail was much more than I expected, a true experience, one that taught me lessons and challenged me. 
So what happens now? 
Well, I suppose I should find another experience to add to the bucket list. 
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Meteora: “Middle of the Sky” Monasteries

You know when you’re a kid and you see something – a person, an image, an arena – that seems too amazing, too big, too beautiful to be true? That’s how I felt about Meteora and its famous complex of monasteries.

I first laid eyes on Meteora in a James Bond movie. The Monastery of the Holy Trinity was used as a backdrop in For Your Eyes Only, the 12th in the series and the 5th with Roger Moore starring as 007 (my father’s a huge fan of the James Bond films). Although it appears the original intention was to film inside the building, the monks living there weren’t too appreciative of this idea. After all, the cliffs and pillars of Meteora were first used as a place of refuge by a group of ascetic monks in search of quiet and solitude. They literally lived in the rocks, about 300 years before the first monastery was built.

Once upon a time there were 24 monasteries up on the cliffs, but today only 6 remain above the town of Kalabaka and the village of Kastraki, more tourist sites than working monasteries although all still have residents.

 The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is visible on the left pinnacle overlooking the town…DSC_0966

The weather for my visit was mostly cold and grey, although there were a few moments of sunshine to be had here and there, mostly in the afternoon. Only warm clothing and an incredible amount of patience and luck led to a few photos with blue skies.

I stayed in the village of Kastraki at a lovely little hotel called Pyrgos Adrachti. It sat right below the cliffs and, following the suggestions I’d read, I requested a balcony room that allowed me to sit and marvel at the sandstone pillars whenever I wanted. There was a little pathway that led down from the cliffs – every so often, I’d hear a rustle and would wait for my eyes to catch the movement of a couple of adventurous trekkers making their way through the trees, surprised at finding themselves basically on the back lawn of this hotel.

The owners gave me a map to follow, but the monasteries were pretty easy to find: make sure you’re going uphill (there’s only really one main road in Kastraki) and follow the tour buses. The map was far handier for what the proprietors added – opening hours. The best days to visit are Sunday and Monday because only one of the monasteries is closed during that two-day period; all other days of the week contain a motley mix of open monasteries and visiting hours. To avoid the crush of tourists, go early and try to hit the two largest first: Megalou Meterou Monastery (also known as Great Meteoron) and Varlaam Monastery. While both offer visitors with the most amount of wandering territory (i.e. not as much of the monastery is private), they are also relatively accessible with ample parking space for tourist buses, hence the larger numbers. By comparison, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity involves a long walk down followed by more than 100 steps up; and, of course, the reverse when you leave.

The outskirts of the Varlaam Monastery can just be seen in the top right corner of the cliffs,while Agiou Nikolaou Monastery (St. Nickolas Anapausas) can be seen in the middle, just to the left of the large wall of sandstone cliffs…DSC_1027

The dual nature of tourism, though, made this a bittersweet moment for me. As a very popular landmark, visiting the monasteries is very simple and straightforward: a 3 euro entry fee and a wrap around skirt (provided by the monasteries) for females is all that is required. By comparison, visiting the larger Eastern Orthodox complex of monasteries at Mount Athos requires that 1) you be a male; and 2) that you obtain a special entrance permit (signed by 4 of the secretaries of leading monasteries) valid only for a limited stay.

The downside is that little to none of the meditative character remains: tour groups file through while their guides loudly provide running commentary and multilingual yells and shouts punctuate the air interrupted intermittently by the roar of bus engines. Additionally, as all 6 still have monks and nuns in residence, the 4 smaller monasteries offer very little in the way of viewing for architectural or historical context: you can walk through some in as little as 5 minutes.


Having said all this, the views alone from the area and from each of the monasteries I visited (I didn’t make it to Agious Nikolaou Monastery) made it a very worthwhile visit. Photos will never do justice to this amazing place: there is no way to capture the scale, textures, and colours of the natural beauty of the cliffs and pinnacles, nor the dramatic vision of the monasteries perched upon them. I hope, though, that these images ignite your imagination – as one once did mine – and create in you the desire to travel to Meteora and see these sites for yourself.


P.S. If you are planning a visit, stop by the Restaurant Boufidis along the main road to Meteora, at the edge of town – best pork souvlaki of my entire stay in Greece. You can’t miss it – the chef (and co-owner?) mans the charcoal grill outside by the side of the road.

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