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They call me Frankie Avalon

I am writing while I still can; I just got back from a 4-day hike of the Inca Trail and my fingers are the only part of my body that are functional. My brain isn't, though I am not positive that that will affect my writing style.

After arriving in Cuzco last week, I spent a few days wandering around the town with Justin and Nick, just generally relaxing. Cuzco is very pretty and has the nicest plaza that I have seen in South America, a definite feat considering how every city here seems to have about 78,000 of them. There are lots of things to do in Cuzco, as well, and the night life is constantly jumping. If there is a problem, it is that there are too many gringos. I realize that I, too, am a gringo, but everything here is geared for foreigners and it is very easy to forget that you are in Peru. Especially after experiencing the nightlife, after which point it is very easy to forget a lot of things.

Last Sunday, after a big Saturday night on the town, Justin, Nick and I decided to go to the Urubamba river and try Hydrospeed, a new European (and now Peruvian) sport. In Hydrospeed you go down a river, riding through rapids, just like white-water rafting. The difference is that instead of being in a raft, it is just you alone in the water, hanging onto a styrofoam board and cruising through the rapids. I figured a little pain never hurt anybody and decided to go.

The sport is moderately dangerous at best, and in our slothful, hungover states we weren't sure how we were going to make out. Luckily, we weren't the most hungover people in the group - our guide, Philippe, was hurting far more than we were. Inspirational. He drove us out to the river where the three of us and the other 5 in our group dressed up in massive rubber wet suits, helmets, vests, life jackets, flippers and other gear before getting into the river. Philippe lectured us on keeping safe in the river, while Justin and Nick put the flippers on their hands and started slapping each other with them. After Nick and and I continued to run into each other helmet-to-helmet Philippe gave up.

The ride was excellent - we coasted down the waters for about two hours, occasionally fighting through Class III rapids (in technical terms, Class III will smack you about but not break bones) and playing in the waters. At the hardest point, Philippe instructed us to ensure that we took the left set of rapids and not the right as going the wrong way could be painful. The funny thing was, he said it as if we had a choice. The waters swept Justin and I right - Justin got pinballed between various rocks and I got pinned atop a boulder before being tossed back into the rapids and flying stomach first into another large rock; it was excellent. We all survived, battered, beaten and weary-boned, just in time to take the strenuous 4-day hike up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu the next morning.

I had been in touch with Erez via e-mail and he arrived in Cuzco at 6 am Monday morning, just in time to make the trip to the Inca Trail with us. Four relatively trepid travelers deciding to make the journey without a guide or porter, we took the train to the starting point, km 88, where we disembarked and started on Day 1 of the 4 day hike.

Day 1 is straight uphill and I suffered for it. In a 6-hour hiking day, you go from 2500 metres at the train station straight up to 3700 metres at the 1st night's campsight. Everybody was tired, but I was in pain. It wasn't so much my muscles as the fact that I was having terrible trouble breathing in the altitude. I was constantly short of breath and found the last 2 hours of the day excruciating. At night, our 4-man tent, which could hold approximately 1 skinny man and a pygmy semi-comfortably, reached boiling proportions with all of us and our backpacks in there, and I couldn't breathe again. I opted instead to sleep outside, even at 3700 metres. I still have the cough to prove it. The most impressive part of Day 1 (and the other days) was watching the porters for the other groups constantly passing us on the mountain, carrying 2 backpacks, huge metal canisters of gas, big stoves, tables, folding chairs and other ridiculous things as they just whistled or listened to the radio and generally made you feel like the weakest person on the face of the planet.

Up in the morning, we headed out for Day 2, which is the hardest one. From 3700 metres, you go straight up a steep incline to the first mountain pass at 4200 metres. Next, you drop down to 3500 metres along a staircase so steep most people prefer the uphill. After that, you climb steeply again to another mountain pass at 3800 metres, before finally descending down to 3500 metres again, once more over a knee-jarringly steep staircase. After Day 1, I was nervous to say the least, but Day 2 flew by easily (in comparison) and all I can say is that Coca Leaves are my friends. Coca leaves are chewed with an alkaline cereal mixture in order to create energy and reduce the effects of altitude sickness, and on Day 2 I got up and down and up and down with minimal difficulty while chewing a disgusting and potent green wad of coca leaves. The habit is without a doubt vile, but it saved me a lot of pain on the remainder of the trip.

That night the four of us had met up with 2 Swiss female trekkers and camped out and made dinner with them. Once again, I realized that sleeping outside the tent was going to be preferable to not sleeping inside the tent, so I laid my sleeping bag out on the ground again. The Swiss girls, whose two-man tent was somehow much bigger than out 4-man tent, invited me in to spend the night with them. It is a rough life, camping, but somebody has to do it. I think, anyway.

I slept fantastically, as compared to the three guys who, through the night, continued to kick each other as they just couldn't find a way to fit (Note: None of the other Justin, Nick or Erez are pygymies, in case people were wondering). Day 3 was a breeze, as it was virtually all downhill. Feeling absolutely fine for the first time in weeks and munching my way through another half bag of coca leaves, I virtually sprinted all day and the group of us made it to the ultimate campsite by 3 pm. We relaxed, drank some beer and ate pasta for dinner. Again. Gourmet chefs, we weren't. We drank beer as Nick's bottle of rum had exploded in his backpack earlier - we brought only the essentials camping, to be sure.

We woke up at 3:30 am on Day 4 in order to try and get to Machu Picchu for sunrise at around 6:30 a.m. It was rainy and misty all morning as we slogged our way for the last two and half hours to reach the viewpoint where there is the ubiquitous postcard view of the ruins. We made our way over the final ascent to the viewpoint, legs near-buckling and aching in every direction, pushing ourselves finally over the last hilltop where we, with about 100 other people, got to witness the incredible, intense and impressive view of thick, white fog. Machu Picchu was not even close to visible. Thirty feet ahead of us was not even close to visible. We sat through the rain with everyone else, waiting and hoping and praying for the fog to lift. Finally, after about an hour, it slowly began to clear. First, a mountain came into view and the people started to cheer. Then some grass down below and you could hear the excitement began to bubble throught the masses. Then, the fog cleared, just for a moment, giving us a pure, pristine and perfect view... of tennis courts. The fog had been so thick, we had all been looking in the wrong direction. Machu Picchu was still totally immersed in impossible whiteness, so we decided to screw it and move on.

Half an hour later we arrived at the ruins, which truly are beautiful. I have seen numerous Inca ruins in my trip so far, but all pale in comparison to Machu Picchu. It is not only gigantic and containing lush green terraces, but you can really sense the activity that must have gone on there while the city was in use. The ruins are alive and vibrant, which is far more than could be said for the six of us when we arrived. We sat about the ruins for hours, slowly meandering from area to area and letting our aching bones settle as we relaxed and sat about the site. The most refreshing part was that, despite the fact the Inca Trail was occasionally overrun with tourists, the ruins were relatively empty.

After our time at Machu Picchu, we walked down the mountain, bought our train tickets and then sat in some hot springs and drank a beer, which may have been less impressive than Machu Picchu but was nearly equally rewarding. We got out of the waters, feeling infinitely better and hot back on the train to Cuzco. I had figured the adventure was over after Machu Picchu, but the train ride was cause for excitement, as well. The thing of it was that it was overpopulated by at least 100%. People with no tickets littered the aisles by the dozens, cramming as many bodies as could fit into each car. Meanwhile, food vendors continued to press through the cars, offering up coffees and cakes that nobody could possibly want as there was no room to lift one's hand to one's mouth. It was hilarious and claustrophobic.

The train eventually arrived in Cuzco at 10:45. I say eventually because the Machu Picchu-Cuzco train has trouble making it through the mountains, so it zig-zgs for the last hour. It will go down part of the mountain, scream on the brakes, then roll backwards down another part of the mountain until it jars to a halt again, and reverts to rolling forward. It does this six times and takes an hour to go the last 5 kilometres.

We have arrived back in Cuzco, safe and mostly sound and are just spending a few days to recover before we all make our ways out of town. The Inca Trail was incredible and wonderfully rewarding; I am even more happy that I did it without a guide, as for me, a relatively low-experienced camper, I really got a feeling of accomplishment at the end of it all. And now, after nearly months without surf & sand, it is time for me to head Back to the Beach. Climbing the Andes is all well and good, but now I want to get that South American tan back...