Motorbiking Around Ecuador

Finally, we come to the third phase of the trip but the cornerstone around which I built the entire itinerary.  Back in the summer, when I was considering possible “off the beaten track” trips, I ran across a small sidebar in Men’s Journal about a company in Ecuador that conducts guided or self-guided tours around the country.  After checking out their website – www.freedeombikerental.com – and some back and forth correspondence, I decided this was exactly the trip for me.  Granted, I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle for about 30 years, but that did not deter me.

First day of riding - haven't even gotten dirty yet!

First day of riding – haven’t even gotten dirty yet!

 

But, perhaps the biggest coup I pulled off for this trip was getting a friend of mine to sign-up for it, as well.  Actually, I didn’t have to do much convincing.  I really just had to tell him about it.  So, I went out and bought a used KLR650 motorcycle, the same type of bike I would be renting in Ecuador, and started riding pretty much any chance I could find.  We also sought out a variety of conditions – winding country roads, sand, gravel, off-road.  After all, this was a 7 day, dual sport adventure that promised about 25% off-road riding.

I have to say that I was very happy with Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental.  We had a blast.  I won’t try to recount the whole trip as they have a complete itinerary on-line for the Cloudforests, Coast, and Craters tour.  We spent each night in a different locale – Mindo, Pedernales, Quetavado, Salinas del Guaranda, Banos, and a few others I can’t remember off-hand.  We rode about 5-6 hours a day and always got in before dark.  The accommodations ran the gamut from simple, rustic inns to some gorgeous boutique properties but all were satisfactory.  The meals were very good and ranged from steak to Chinese to excellent Italian pizza in Salinas.

We saw volcanoes, ocean fishing villages, birding lodges in the cloudforest, and one verdant valley after another.  We had the chance to deliver school supplies to small villages in rural Ecuador where caring folks are trying to bring basic education to places where it hasn’t traditionally existed.  We met workers in palm groves harvesting canola for oil production, saw soccer balls being produced, visited cooperative cheese and chocolate factories where entire communities work together to bring industry and jobs in places that traditionally offered only farming jobs. Probably the best way to capture the trip is through photos..

The views were astounding

The views were astounding

 

The palm groves that produce canola oil

The palm groves that produce canola oil

Only a few missing boards..

Only a few missing boards..

Dirt roads high above the town of Banos

Dirt roads high above the town of Banos

Riding along the Pacific coast

Riding along the Pacific coast

Waiting for his sister outside of the rural school where we delivered school supplies

Waiting for his sister outside of the rural school where we delivered school supplies

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Sunrise on the last morning in Chugchilan

Sunrise on the last morning in Chugchilan

The end of a great week in Ecuador

The end of a great week in Ecuador

 

 

 

 

Quito Ecuador for Next Adventure

After finishing the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, it was time to move on to the third phase of my South America trip.  Using another 20,000 United miles for business class service from Cusco to Quito, Ecuador on Avianca, I got into Quito in the early afternoon and headed straight for the JW Marriott in La Mariscal district.  This area is the “high rent” district of the capital and most visitors either stay here or in the Old Town area.

Old Town Quito from the National Basilica

Old Town Quito from the National Basilica

 

Quito holds the claim as highest capital city in the world at an elevation of 9,350 feet above sea level.  With a population of about 2.6 million people, almost all of whom live in non-high rise buildings, it stretches across a long plateau lying just below the active volcano Pinchicha.  On the day before the motorcycle tour was to begin, my friend and I spent some time walking around the old town area, visiting some churches, seeing the Presidential palace and then walking back up to La Mariscal with a stop in a karaoke bar where the others were apparently not impressed with my Spanish singing of a Paulino Rubio song.  It may have been a really bad song selection in a culture of machismo.

The Basilica del Voto Nacional

The Basilica del Voto Nacional – from the Belfry

 

With only spending a couple of days in the capital city, I cannot make too many conclusions or opinions on it but will say that it was more cosmopolitan than I expected.  Anyone I interacted with was friendly and helpful and appreciated our attempts at Spanish.  From what I understand, there are some real perils ahead for their economy but it was a good visit for us.  Finally, we stopped by Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental and did our final paperwork for the tour that would begin the next day.

Machu Picchu and Huaynapicchu

The culmination of the Inca Trail hike is the arrival at Machu Picchu, listed by some as one of the seven modern wonders of the world.  Built around 1450 by the Incas, it was “discovered” in 1911 by Hiram Bingham.  It really is an incredible site located, as it is, in the remote mountains overlooking the Sacred Valley.  While my Sun Gate photo of the site was cloud covered, here is what it can look like from that same vantage point on a clear day.

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

 

Once we completed the descent into MP from the Sun Gate, the weather had started to clear and I was able to get several shots that give a sense of the place.

After a 90 minute guided tour of the area, I set off for my hike up Huaynapicchu.  This is a separate ticket – I think it costs $65 USD from my outfitter – and only 400 people are allowed to go up each day with 200 allowed in each designated time window.  This hike is basically straight up with over 1,000 in vertical climb right up the side of the mountain.  At places, there can be traffic jams between those ascending and those descending as their is not enough room to pass each other.  It takes a little over an hour to get to the top and it requires some hand over hand climbing, at points.

Unfortunately, the clouds were still not cooperating with me but I did get a couple of glimpses on the way up and once I got to the summit.

Machu Picchu during the axcent of Huaynapicchu

Machu Picchu during the ascent of Huaynapicchu

Brief glimpse of Machu Picchu from the summit of Huaynapicchu

Brief glimpse of Machu Picchu from the summit of Huaynapicchu

 

After the steep descent, I found my way to the entrance and caught the shuttle bus that takes you down to Aguas Calientes for a last lunch with my fellow hikers before taking the train back to Ollantaytambo.  From there, the outfitter had a shuttle back to Cusco and got back around 8:00 p.m.  Again, Alpaca Expeditions did a great job and I feel really lucky to have been able to do this hike and see this site.  After a short night’s sleep, it was time to move on to Ecuador..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Inca Trail – Physical Considerations and Altitude

While I made some mention of the physical exertion required to hike the Inca Trail in my last post, I would be remiss if I did not make some further commentary as this is a significant aspect of the hike to Machu Picchu.  The total distance for the “classic” four day, three night hike is 26 miles and there is over 7,000 feet of vertical climbing and a corresponding amount of steep descent.  All of this is done at altitudes ranging from 7,800 feet above sea level all the way up to 13,779 feet at the highest pass.

The Start of the Inca Trail

The Start of the Inca Trail

 

This is not easy.  Most of the people I saw on the trail where in there 20’s and 30’s and most appeared to be in good shape.  On the other hand, I’m 52 years old and a powerlifter that competes in the 220 lb. weight division.  I’m a good person to have around on the trail if there is a rock slide and someone gets trapped under a heavy rock that needs to be lifted off of them.  On the other hand, powerlifters are not known for their extensive conditioning programs or for being particularly fleet of foot.  I’m not fat, but I’m thick.

Of course, it is not the distance, but the steepness of the trail that is challenging.  Leg strength was not an issue on the climb but the vertical portions of the trip were very taxing to my cardio – my heart would race and I would quickly lose my breath.  When I first booked the trip, I immediately upped the amount of conditioning I was doing and did several hikes in preparation.  But, a combination of travel, sickness, and lack of discipline resulted in doing less than I meant to in this type of preparation.

It is hard to capture the steepness of the trail in pictures, but here are a few that give an idea of the slope of much of the hike.

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On the second day, during the last hour of ascent before the highest pass on the trail, I passed my time by thinking up headlines to accompany the report of my death on the trail in the Cusco Gazette.  Some of my ideas included:

  • Didn’t He Know There Was a Train?
  • What Was He Thinking?
  • Powerlifters Shouldn’t Hike the Inca Trail

All that being said, I still made all of the checkpoints well under the advertised time frame, even if I was several minutes behind the young folks in my group.  And, in addition to the Inca Trail, I also did the hike up Huaynapicchu once we got to Machu Picchu which requires another climb of 1,180 feet above MP.  Once again, I asked myself “What was I thinking?”

After I got done with the trail, I went back and looked at the hiking I did in England in the Lake District last Spring.  My memory was that it was hard but not nearly so taxing as the Inca Trail.  But, in looking at the data from that hike, we did over 7,000 feet of vertical climbing over the course of two days as we made the summits of Scafell Pike and Pillar.  So, what was the difference?  Of course, one answer might be that the memory of the difficulty has faded over time.  However, the more logical answer is probably the altitude.  The summit of Scafell – the tallest mountain in the whole of England – is 3,209 feet.  We started the Inca Trail at 8,923 feet.

At the end of the day, completing the trail is largely about mental attitude and a willingness to embrace the suck that some sections of the trail require.  Obviously, the more conditioning done before the trip the better.  I used walking sticks – as did most of the hikers – and they were a big help both on the ascents and steep descents.  A decent set of knees and good balance are also requirements for this hike, especially on the descents which, while not as taxing overall, can make the legs a little shaky. Finally, everyone universally recommends a couple of days in Cusco before the trip to help adjust to the altitude.  I was in Bogota – over 8,600 feet above sea level – for five days and then in Cusco for a day and a half before the hike and did not suffer any real altitude sickness.

But, the reward for all of this work are some amazing views..

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Hiking the Inca Trail

On Sunday morning, Alpaca Expeditions picked me up from my hotel at 4:30 a.m. to start our journey.  My hiking group consisted of a brother and sister in their late teens, three mates from Australia in their late 20’s, a young Chinese woman of 24, and me.

A two hour drive gets you to the town of Ollantaytambo and the start of the Inca Trail.  The trail goes for about 26 miles and has over 7,000 feet of vertical climb and a corresponding amount of descent. Different outfitters have slightly different ways they break up the four days.  Alpaca designs their trek with a really long and tough second day, but a relatively easy and leisurely third day to get everyone rested for the early morning into MP.

Our first day’s hike starts at an elevation 8,923 feet and the first couple of hours are relatively flat, aka “Peruvian Flat,” and easy walking and then some uphill to the lunch spot at 9,612 feet.  After lunch, the ascent begins with a climb of over 1,200 feet in the course of about 1.5 hours to the camp spot at Ayapata which is at 10,829 feet.

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First night campsite in the Andes

 

Honestly, this first day had both me and some of the others worried as it was billed as an “easy” day and I found myself stopping several times over the course of the last hour of vertical ascent to catch my breath and get my heart rate down.  Over dinner at camp, all of us showed some concern about day two and how hard it might be for all of us.

Day two started early and includes two major passes.  The first three or so hours of the day absolutely sucked as we made our way to the highest pass on the trail.  Dead Woman’s Pass is at an elevation of 13,779 feet which means a vertical ascent of 2,950 feet.  Make no mistake about it, this was hard.

Our group at Dead Woman's Pass

Our group at Dead Woman’s Pass

 

The younger crowd moved more quickly than I did and I got to enjoy some nice solitude along the trail.  My legs were no problem but I found that frequent, short breaks (about 30 seconds) were the key for me.  Longer breaks did not result in more recovery.

After lunch, there was a steep descent to our lunch spot at 11,700 feet to refuel for our second pass of the day at 13,123 feet.  This works out to another ascent of over 1,300 feet.  Again, it sucked.  Another steep descent brought us to our second campsite, this one at 11,800 feet.

The view from the second major pass

The view from the second major pass

 

Day three started out with a steady rain that diminished into a light drizzle over the course of a couple of hours.  We were now in a rain forest type of environment and the first few hours of hiking were relatively easy and enjoyable.  There was a bit more climb to a third pass of the trip at 12,073 feet and then a very steep descent to camp at 8,792 feet near the ruins of Winay Huayna.

Winay Huayna - our campsite for night three

Winay Huayna – our campsite for night three

 

This was our launching point for the final day into MP.  We broke camp at 3:00 a.m. and headed to the checkpoint into the final leg of the hike.  So, we were at the checkpoint by 3:20 a.m. (it is only a few minutes from where we camped) and settled in for the wait until it opens.  It opens at 5:30 a.m. so we had some time.  The upside is that we were the first group through and my Aussie mates were actually the first to reach the Sun Gate – the iconic spot for first glimpsing, and taking pictures of, Machu Picchu.  I was the seventh person through the gate but probably in the first 50 to arrive at the Sun Gate.  So, here is the iconic image of MP that I took from this spot..

Early morning view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Early morning view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

 

That’s right, you can’t control the weather.  After waiting about 15 minutes to see if there was any indication that the clouds would clear, we continued onto to MP.

 

Machu Picchu – Planning and Logistics

Machu Picchu, an archaeological site in the Andes Mountains outside of Cusco, appears regularly on “bucket lists” and “must see” destinations.  Since I had time between by time with my daughter and the start of my Ecuador tour, I decided to book a trip to see this site.

Now, there are a couple of ways to “do” Machu Picchu.  The most popular, by far, is to to take the train from Ollantaytambo town to Aguas Calientes – a town that sits just below MP.  From there you can take a 15 minutes bus ride to the entrance and then spend as much time as you’d like exploring the site and hiking as much, or as little, as your heart desires.

But, the other option is to do the classic “Inka Trail” which is a four day, three night hike through the mountains to enter MP from above at the Sun Gate.  For some reason, I thought this would be a good idea.  After all, I had most of the gear I would need from my hiking trip in the Lake District of England last Spring and I would also be “in the neighborhood” already.

Since there is so much ground to cover – both literally and figuratively – on this trip report, I will break it into a few separate posts.  In this post, I’ll just try to cover the logistics of booking the trip and I how I selected my outfitter.

Years ago, one could actually hike the Inca Trail on their own, but the government stepped in to regulate this important site for several reasons.  First, they wanted to better control the site and prevent damage to the sites and trail.  Second, they wanted to provide jobs for locals given the rather glum economic environment in the area.  And, finally, they stood to generate a tremendous amount of additional revenue by taking a more active role in managing this site.

As a result, the number of persons who can enter MP each day is limited to 2,500, the majority of whom come via the train to Aguas Calientes.  The number of persons that can enter the Inca Trail on any one day is limited to 500 which includes guides and porters, so only about 200 trekkers.  And, for the Inca Trail, one must go with an outfitter and there are regulations as to how many porters must accompany each group and how much they can carry on the trail.

Permits for the high travel season can be hard to get but I was going in the rainy season.  In fact, January is the rainiest season of the year for MP and the trail is actually closed in February for repair and restoration work.

Now, there are lots of options for outfitters but I went to TripAdvisor and looked into their #1 ranked company for this hike – Alpaca Expeditions.  They have over 1,100 reviews on TripAdvisor and the comments were overwhelmingly positive so I started checking them out and inquiring for my dates.  They were quick to respond and I soon had my trip booked with them.

In my next post, I’ll share the experience of hiking the trail and exploring Machu Picchu.

Getting High in Cusco, Peru

From Bogota, I took a very early flight to Cusco, Peru – connecting through Lima – on Avianca.  It cost me another 20,000 United miles plus $87 for business class service.  After a delay in Lima, I arrived Cusco airport around 1:00 p.m.  I got a couple of nice photos of the Andes from the air as we were descending for landing.

Andes Mountains on Descent into Cusco

Andes Mountains on Descent into Cusco

 

Instead of spending time negotiating, I just paid the “official” fare of 35 soles (approx. $10 USD) for a taxi to the hotel.  The JW Marriott – El Convento is a superb property built on the site of an old convent, hence the name, and incorporates the old architecture into the building and actually has some old Inca walls as part of the property.

Courtyard at JW Marriott El Convento

Courtyard at JW Marriott El Convento

 

Upon arrival, my bags were quickly grabbed and I was taken to a comfortable sitting area in the lobby where I sat drinking the Coca Tea they brought me while my check-in was processed.  Three different people assisted with the check-in and they couldn’t have been more friendly and service-oriented.   For this stay, I used 70,000 Marriott Reward points for the two night stay (vs. a nightly rate of around $180 USD).  As a Marriott Rewards Gold Member, my stay includes free wi-fi, free breakfast, and an oxygen system in my room.  This brings me to the next subject.

Bogota was at an elevation of 8,660 and Cusco is another 2,500 feet higher at an elevation of 11,152 feet above sea level.  By comparison, the highest point in the city of Denver is 5,690.  Between the long day of travel and the altitude gain, I could really feel it.  My resting heart rate is about 20 bpm here than it is at home and shortness of breath is comes on quickly.

The common means of adjusting are to take it easy, avoid alcohol and heavy meals, and drink coca tea or chew coca leaves, the local remedy.  Yes, these are the same leaves that cocaine derives from and it is possible to trigger a positive drug test.  It doesn’t sound like the science is necessarily there for this but the locals have been doing this for a long time so one has to trust their experience.

Even though the hotel sits one block from the Plaza de Armas with all of its bars and restaurants, I can’t tell you anything about it.  I was in bed at 7:00 p.m.

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