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Trekking the Andes: Story and Pictures

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I will acknowledge in advance that this may be a tl;dr post.

For those of you who are interested, the full story is posted below; if you're bored or short on time, scroll down to the pictures at the bottom. They provide a visual representation of the journey. Enjoy.


Day One

Backpacks? Check. Sleeping bags? Check. Passports, airline tickets to Peru, and an unquenchable thirst for adventure? Check, check, and check. Yep, this was gonna be a great trip.

Getting to the airport in Fort Lauderdale had been an adventure by itself. Ben and I had managed to get there in plenty of time, but Rob and Joel’s flight, booked separately from ours, had been delayed in Atlanta by almost two hours. They rocketed through security with minutes to spare, the last people to squeeze onto the plane. The four of us let out a collective sigh of relief and settled back for the six hour haul to Peru, which was largely spent playing cards and discussing the details of our upcoming adventure.

The Boeing 737 flared up and plopped gently onto the runway at Jorge Chavez International Airport just before 11pm. After navigating a flurry of taxicab drivers desperate for our business, we found one that would drop us off at an inexpensive hostel up the road. A three minute ride later we were there. As we entered the hostel Ben bid the driver a “Buenos nachos,” which, we found out later, is Spanish colloquial for “nice butt.” What international trek would be complete without a hilarious linguistic gaffe? There would be plenty more to come.

Day Two

Morning dawned cloudy – par for the course in Lima, we learned – and we took our time getting ready, sleeping in and eating a leisurely breakfast. Our flight to Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital city nestled deep in the Peruvian mountains, was scheduled to leave at around 2pm. And then Ben, casually mentioning this fact to the receptionist, was informed that Peruvian Airways had been shut down by the government for safety issues the previous day.


At that moment everything turned completely upside down and we abandoned our slothful ease for adrenaline-induced pandemonium, cramming our belongings back into our packs and racing for the airport. We rushed inside, located a ticketing kiosk for Star Peru, and found that, by some miracle, they had four tickets available for that afternoon. It took some finagling but we were able to pay for everything in cash, and by the time it was all said and done with we weren’t leaving any later than we’d originally intended. Crisis averted.

For the next three or four hours we tooled around in Lima, wandering the streets of Callao (not known for being the nicest neighborhood) and celebrating our good fortune by downing the Peruvian version of KFC. When at last the plane to Cuzco leapt off the runway, we were on it.

Cuzco, it turns out, is absolutely beautiful. The clean air reminded me of living in Colorado. At over 11,000 feet above sea level the air was rather thin, and simple tasks like walking up hills became more than a little difficult (it should be noted here that the majority of Cuzco’s streets are at incredibly steep angles.) By the end of the day all four of us had headaches, a common effect of being at such a high altitude so suddenly. We went to bed early that night, lodging in a small guesthouse, well priced with a spectacular view of the city to boot.

Day Three

We felt a little better when we woke up. By the time we checked out and moved our bags to a new place – a hostel, clean and inviting, only ten bucks a night – we’d been in the city for twenty-four hours. A day makes a big difference when you’re trying to acclimatize. It was a critical process – trying to trek through the thin air high in the Andes would be a difficult task. Altitude sickness was a serious concern and the more used to the climate we were the less we’d be affected.

As such, the day was spent rather moderately. We avoided physical exertion as much as possible, save for a stroll up the hills at the north end of town to explore some Incan ruins. We also checked in with our trekking company, meeting our guide and getting briefed on the schedule of the trek. As the maps were laid before us, replete with peaks and valleys and villages with mysterious names, our excitement built to a roaring crescendo. This was going to be the beginning of an incredible four days hiking through one of the most vast, wild places on the planet. The magnitude of our journey had not really hit me until that moment, but now I was ready to go. We all were.

Day Four

Ben’s alarm went off well before dawn and the four of us were instantly awake. We finished arranging our packs and making sure everything was properly tied down, and finally strapped on our boots. We were dressed warmly – I tucked my thick pair of khaki pants into my jungle boots, left over from my days in the Marines; a tshirt, flannel long sleeve shirt, and wool jacket completed my attire. And even this, capped off with a warm hat, hardly felt sufficient in the frigid mountain air.

Our trek officially began several hours after dawn. A two hour ride to the trailhead terminated at the mouth of an enormous valley, and we piled out of the four-wheel-drive van, awed by the sight. Salkantay, one of the highest peaks in the South American Andes, loomed far above us, a gleaming, snowcapped monster. Beautiful, glorious, treacherous.

The horsemen loaded our packs – carefully distributed so that each was below 5kg – onto a pair of horses hired for that specific purpose. Another pair carried the cooking gear and tents. Our group was eight: Rob, Joel, Ben, and myself; our guide, Richard; the cook, Cheechah; and the horsemen, Cocho and Hucchu. We were fortunate to have such a small group; standard treks on the Inca Trail were in the dozens, passing hundreds of other people during the course of a day. Out on the Salkantay trail we would have the splendor of the wilds all to ourselves.

With a hearty “hacuchu!” – “let’s go!” in the native Quetchua language – we were off. Impetuous and full of energy, we took the first hour of trekking by storm. The trail snaked innocently across miles of barren flats, the bottom of the valley, traversed occasionally by impromptu streams, runoff from the end-of-winter melts in the mountains above.

This part, much the same as with my attempts at photography, is where it gets difficult. It is utterly impossible, using ordinary adjectives, to describe the majesty of the landscape through which we trekked. “High” and “wide” and “vast” simply do not cut it. The magnificence of the valley was intensified not just by the staggering scale of it all, but our minuteness in comparison with all its spatial glory. If it was a galaxy, we were but stars; if a forest, we were but leaves; if it was an ocean we were four grains of sand in the midst of its eternal waves.

In the rock-strewn canyon before Salkantay every man becomes an existentialist, if but for a moment in his heart.

Then, wrapped up in the beauty and glory of the landscape, we reached the switchbacks. Up until that moment we had all felt fine; as we began the initial ascent I noted the first traces of a churning in my stomach. I pushed them aside and began the climb.

Richard called them “Los Siete Culebras” – the Seven Snakes. They were serpentine visually and every bit as deadly as the most fearsome viper. Crumbling cliffsides threatened mortal demise at the first misstep, and the climb was excruciating. It ripped our lungs from our chests. And then, passing 13,000 feet, the paucity of oxygen was fully felt; minutes became as miles, each boulder a Mount Everest, terrain that would make Edmund Hillary quake and Tensing Norgay cry.

Our breaks were frequent. Joel, beset by massive, skull-crushing headaches, rested with his head between his knees. I, my churning stomach exacerbated by the intensity of the climb, leaned back and sucked in deep breaths of air (or tried to.) Rob, at sixty as sturdy as any of us, mounted the spare horse for the treacherous ascent. Only Ben seemed unaffected by the thin air, pulling ahead at some points by four or five switchbacks.

Eventually the terrain leveled out and we were on a plateau of sorts. Ahead through a field of house-sized boulders was a small hill with a square tent pitched on it – our lunch spot. Joel and I arrived and immediately lay down on the grassy knoll next to the tent, exhausted and sick. We were asleep within thirty seconds, finally nudged awake by Richard, who announced it was time for lunch. This was the last thing I wanted to hear. I was on the verge of nausea and only picked at my meal. I knew I’d need the energy for the trail ahead but somehow I couldn’t stomach it. I munched on a few kernels of roasted corn and drank about half a cup of purple corn juice and then went back outside. The wind was howling, blasting the dining tent at an awkward angle. I curled up behind it, where the wind broke, and curled up for a small nap.

Twenty minutes later we were back on the trail. We were immediately faced with another set of switchbacks, a series of dramatic rises that would eventually take us to the mountain pass directly facing Salkantay. About half an hour into the climb the altitude sickness finally got the best of me and I heaved on the side of the mountain. It was purple, which was gross, thanks to that juice from earlier. I felt better afterwards, but what little strength I’d had was gone, and I continued up the trail feeling extraordinarily weak.

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Around 1pm we finally crested the top. Wind howled across the barren pass; Salkantay, great white devil, stared down at us. We were in her realm, and at her mercy. As if to emphasize the point, a low hissing sound drifted through the thin air. Richard pointed: “Avalanche.” The hissing morphed into a dull, distant roar, and we watched, mesmerized, as a thick white line advanced down the slope. We were in no danger; the mass of snow thundered into the gorge separating us from the peak.

We briefly performed an ancient Incan ceremony for good luck, stacking a series of small flat stones together in a pyramid, sandwiching coca leaves in between the rocks, and dribbled a bit of wine on the ground. The Incans had done this in the past as thanks to the gods for safe passage across the mountains. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them had ever barfed purple corn juice in front of Salkantay like I had.

From here the trail twisted downward, much to my relief; though going down was much harder on my already-bad knees, it meant we were descending to a lower elevation, where the effect of my altitude sickness would be diminished. I lurched forward, leaning heavily on my walking stick, alternately resting, throwing up, wiping the dribble from my face and lurching forward once more.

How I got through the next five hours I will never know. My every instinct screamed to curl up on the side of the trail and close my eyes, to either sleep or to die, it matters not which, to just be still. Instead I focused on placing one foot in front of the other, just moving, not stopping. Everything blurs together when I try to remember it; four hours worth of walking is a snap of the fingers in my mind.

I do remember that all of a sudden I was no longer on the rocky mountainside landscape. The terrain had changed dramatically, now a series of gently rolling slopes, moss-like green grass covering them. Large gray rocks protruded from random locations, reminding me for all the world of Stonehenge. A thick fog had rolled in, blanketing everything, muting all sounds. The silence was eerie; only my footsteps were audible, and my own labored breathing. A group of horses appeared, ghostlike, in the fog ahead of me; they were noiseless, as though apparitions, until right up on me when I could hear the jingling of the lines and the creaking of the cargo strapped to their saddles. Their herders looked on inscrutably, leading them in the direction from which we’d just come. A few muffled hoofbeats and all was silent once more.

By the time the sun had reached the western horizon and sunk below it, I was on my last legs. I was contemplating simply falling over when I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. The fog to my left had rolled back, ever so slightly, to reveal a very large horse. It was tall, muscle-bound, and pure white, the very picture of power and dignity. I paused, transfixed by its beauty. And, eyeing me likewise, the magnificent creature whinnied mightily, breath blasting through flared nostrils.

I was at once overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it. Aware that I had been shown a glimpse of something as beautiful as it was rare and precious, I was filled with a tangible strength that flowed through my veins and lent wings to my feet. Granted this energy I leapt forward, doubling my pace, my heart racing with an odd sort of thrill. I made it into camp just as the last rays of sunlight disappeared from the horizon. I ignored the better part of my dinner, downing just enough soup to fill me up, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I crashed for the next nine hours.

Day Five

The outside of the tent was encased in a thin layer of ice when I woke up. We were still at a high elevation, but I felt worlds better. A hot breakfast and a few mugs of coca tea and I felt fantastic, a far cry from the previous day. After eating I wandered around to take a few pictures. Daylight had brought a new perspective to our location, revealing what the darkness had obscured. We were in a gorgeous valley, surrounding on all sides by massive cliffs and dramatic mountain profiles, with several snowcapped peaks – Salkantay included – jutting up in the background. Our tents had been pitched next to a “village,” which consisted of three simple stone buildings with wooden roofs. A handful of ducks and pigs wandered around. An impassive dog observed us newcomers; we were the most exciting thing to happen in quite some time, by the looks of things.

We set off shortly after breakfast. The trail continued downhill, albeit at less of an angle. Much of the rocky ground gave way to a clear, even path, and we found that an hour into the hike we’d descended back below the timberline. Fresh growth began to appear everywhere. Springtime was coming in the valley, and budding flowers burst from patches of foliage that, perched on the cliffside, overlooked a roaring mountain river far below.

Down, down, down… the trail descended steadily, winding through the narrow gorge. Our progress was quick, impeded only by the occasional arrival of a supply caravan coming in the other direction, an event which invariably led to our leaping to the side of the road while the pack animals plodded past. We reached our lunch spot well ahead of schedule.

Lunch was had on a grassy paddock that was bordered on two sides by sheer drops. To the east we could see Salkantay and the prominent Andes peaks from whence we came; down the cliff led our trail, winding ever lower into the cloudforest, along a cliff and above a river, until it disappeared deep into the undergrowth. By the time we reached Machu Picchu, we were told, we’d be entering the outer edges of the Amazon River Basin; in four days of trekking we’d have gone from 15,000+ feet where trees can’t grow to dripping rainforest. Quite a transition.

After eating we set off down the trail, winding past massive landslides that’d dammed up portions of the creek, and past waterfalls with hundred foot drops, and across a bridge spanning thundering rapids a hundred feet below in a boiling cauldron. The old Salkantay Trail had been wiped out the previous year in a particularly heavy rainy season, and the trail we were taking had only recently been carved out – we were some of the first trekkers to view things from this particular side of the gorge. The trail, being new, was flat and easy to walk on, and we made extremely good time. As the sun’s rays waned late in the afternoon, a van arrived to ferry us down to the night’s campsite far below; the driver, knocking back a bottle of rum behind the wheel, blasted precariously along fatal ledges, skidding around hairpin curves with little regard for safety. None of us breathed until a few minutes later when we were dropped off next to the river and entered our campsite.

The rest of the evening was spent relaxing. We played a scrimmage match of soccer with the Peruvian guides; we were terrible but it was fun. A handful of British guys, our first contact with non-Peruvians in days, had played right before us and ruined the game by screaming profanities at their opponents, accusing them of not playing fairly and demanding free kicks. They were playing for a case of beer – loser buys – and after losing refused to own up and buy the Peruvians their winnings. We felt embarrassed to be lumped into the same category as them. You’re guests in someone else’s country and it’s an impromptu scrimmage, not the world cup – why make a scene and give foreigners a bad name?

Joel, Ben and I stayed up well after dark, playing cards by candlelight and drinking Inca Kola, a Peruvian soda that we’d all taken a liking to. Our giddiness was building: our goal of arriving at Machu Picchu was a scant thirty-six hours away.

Day Six

This was our “sleep in” morning and we weren’t up until 7am. Breakfast was delicious, per the norm, and after eating we were eager to hit the trail. Today would be an easy day – we’d arrive in Aguas Calientes, a small town at the base of Machu Picchu Mountain, by no later than 3pm. We were taken by van to the town of Hidroelectrica, down the road, and dropped off in front of the train station… from there we began the final stage of our hike.

The trail ran alongside the railroad tracks, crossing it occasionally, but rarely diverting from its path. We reached a lengthy railroad bridge and walked across. All I could think of is the bridge scene in Stand by Me – luckily no trains blasted through while we were stepping across the widely-spaced beams. Later on we were surprised by a train roaring through the valley, and managed to get a few good pictures of its approach. An hour later Ben and I were strolling across the tracks when a horn blasted through the air and a locomotive barreled around the corner in front of us. We leaped off the track just in time.

We arrived in Aguas Calientes an hour ahead of schedule. We were sore and filthy – we hadn’t showered in three days – but in high spirits. Far above us, out of sight, towered Machu Picchu. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in hot mineral springs north of town and casually eating dinner. We went to bed early that night – the first bus to Machu Picchu departed at 5:30am, and in order to be on it we’d have to be in line at the station by 4:00am. This was the Mecca of a once-in-a-lifetime journey, and we wanted our pictures of the ruins to be tourist-free.

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Day Seven

3:30am was brutally early, but we kept our goal in mind and lurched out of our beds, collected our gear, and set off for the bus station. The wait was supplemented by playing cards and munching on some disappointingly light sandwiches purchased from a vendor. The first bus departed at exactly 5:30, and we were on it. The first streams of light refracted over the mountainous eastern horizon as the bus labored up the incline, and we were able to observe our ascent. Mist clung to the hills, floated through the valleys. At the top we were admitted into the ruins; s footpath led up from the entrance point, spilling out on top of a hill overlooking the ruins.

The Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, lay sprawled before us in tomb-like silence. There was a regal dignity about it, as though speaking in its presence was a sort of sacrilege, and save for a few hushed whispers the city was observed in silence. The view was astounding. To our right the mountain plunged thousands of feet below, and to the left it did the same; perched on the top was a collection of stone walls and buildings, green courtyards and mossy terraces, everything intricate and precise, all enveloped in a thick, drifting fog.


Several hours were spent exploring the ruins in detail, and around noon we bid farewell to our guide. Richard had been fantastic and we were sad to see him go. By this point all that remained to be seen was Huayana Picchu, the jutting mountain visible right behind the ruins in the classic Machu Picchu shot. Entry was limited to 400 people per day, but we’d reserved space in advance and headed up the trail.

The climb was brutal, 45-degree-angle switchbacks scaling the edge of the precipice. It was a climb for the ages. It took us roughly thirty minutes to make the ascent, which, at over a thousand feet straight up, was no simple task. Near the top the trail ended and a steep (maybe eighty degree angle) flight of tiny stone steps towered upward towards the summit. A thick rope hung down from above, an aid to the treacherous climb. We scrambled a hundred feet to the upper ledge, aware that one slip would lead to a two-thousand-foot tumble to death, and then made the final climb of thirty feet or so to the very top of the mountain.

The views were staggering. Machu Picchu was a green and gray smudge far below, and we could see Aguas Calientes, Hidroelctrica, and the river far below us. Salkantay was visible far in the distance. A stiff wind cut across the top of the rock, threatening at any moment to dislodge our precarious balance on the uneven surface. A dozen or so people were clustered at the top, where everyone became a narcissist, relishing in the prospect of pictures of themselves at the summit. Cameras were passed around constantly, and we were no exception.

The journey to the bottom was interrupted by our discovery of a cliff-side terrace with vertical drops; we realized it was a perfect setup visually and proceeded to take dozens of pictures of flying sidekicks set against the Andean skyline. At the bottom we returned to the entrance to find something to drink, and ran into Michelle Rodriguez.

Not a bad day. We caught a train back to Cuzco later that night and crashed, exhausted.

Day Eight

Free day. Our trek was over, so this was time to relax. I had a sore throat and decided to spend the day writing, while the others explored more of Cuzco with Adrienne, our newfound friend (an archeologist and Fullbright scholar… uh… awesome?) who’d been a veritable pool of information since our arrival. We ate out that night in a small French restaurant, celebrating our final night in the ancient Incan capital.

Day Nine

We bid farewell to Adrienne and one of the most captivating cities in the world, and caught a flight from Cuzco to Lima. En route we got to know Lauren, a girl from New York who we’d talked to in the hostel the previous evening. She was facing an all-day wait in the airport – our flight left at 10:50pm and hers at 11:30 – and at our behest decided to join us on the day’s adventure. Once in Lima we rented a Kia Rio with the intent to drive to Paracas National Park in the desert wasteland south of the capital.

We loaded our gear into the trunk of the car, plugged in the GPS we’d added onto the package, and ventured out into the streets. Traffic was tame compared to Southeast Asia, and I had little problem with it. I hadn’t driven a stick shift in years and I think I started in third gear for the first few minutes, but I adjusted quickly enough. We navigated to a coastal road that wound along the Pacific, providing spectacular views. Eventually the GPS navigation kicked in and led us to the Pan American Highway. We headed south.

After an hour of driving and watching the city fade to suburban scenery we were all pretty hungry and pulled off near the tiny coastal village of Pucusana. Attempts to locate a restaurant were waylaid by getting lost in the heighty back roads of the town, meandering down one-way streets the wrong way, and getting lost again (Lauren, thankfully, spoke Spanish fluently and was of invaluable assistance.) We eventually found a place and spent the next hour there downing our meals, pausing afterwards to photograph the myriad fishing boats clustered into the harbor. It was an out-of-the-way little place and we were definitely the subject of much gawking.

The road opened up after that and we flew down the desert highway. Slow traffic was a common annoyance but passing in the oncoming lane was usually a viable option due to the general lack of northbound traffic. And it was fun. We kept a pretty steady pace of 120km/hr for the next ninety minutes, arriving at the coastal town of Pisco by 5pm. By the time we got to the entrance of Paracas it was well after 5, and we knew we’d have to leave shortly and drive quickly if we were going to make it back to the airport in time. We hung out on the wind-driven beach for a few minutes and shot some pictures of the desert and jumped back in the car.

The drive back was a long one, and we paused only to fill the tank up with gas. We were making good time, arriving at the outskirts of Lima by 8:30 – and then the GPS failed. It got us hopelessly lost in the back streets of Callao. We heard a few gunshots and saw more than a few police cars, and after a half-hour delay we located the airport. All good, right?

Nope. We couldn’t find the place to drop off the rental car, and once we realized we’d missed the turn it was another four miles in one direction past the airport before we could turn around again. By now we were extremely concerned about making our flight. “Here we go, turn left here!” exclaimed Ben, pointing at the opening. There was a “no left turn” sign posted, and a cluster of motorcycle cops sitting just before it. But we had little choice; the stakes were pretty high. We had to make that flight. I went for it.

…and the moment I swung left an officer stepped out into the lane, his flashlight baton held out before us. A sinking sense of doom filled us as I braked to a halt. The Peruvian police were notoriously corrupt, and this was nothing more than an opportune moment for them to extort a fat bribe from us. We’d be delayed at least a half an hour and the gates would close and we’d be stuck…

“We’ll go with the German shtick,” I whispered, and rolled down the window. The cop rattled off a string of Spanish, most of which was unintelligible to me, but it was clear he wanted me to pull over to the side so they could search the car and our belongings. I shrugged helplessly. “Alemanes, Alemanes!” I implored, suggesting we were German. That was the only Spanish word I used. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Was ist los? Wir sprechen Spanisch nicht. Wir kommon aus Deutschland und wir mussen nach dem Flughaven gehen!”

The cop paused and squinted, then rattled off more Spanish. I played dumb and let loose another string of German. “Kein Spanisch oder Englisch, nur Deutsch.” With an exasperated groan he rolled his eyes and stepped back, waving us ahead.

I couldn’t believe our fortune. I threw the car into gear and floored it, and the instant we were out of earsight the car erupted into roars of victory. How we managed to get away with that I’ll never know, but it saved us. We found the rental car dropoff and turned it in, blasted into the airport just in time to get our boarding passes, and headed up to security.

We had just enough time to scarf down some burgers with Lauren before passing through customs and bidding her farewell. We were the last four passengers to board the flight home; the journey had proved an adventure down to the last possible minute.

This is one for the record books.


Thanks to anyone who managed to read through all that! Here's some pictures...

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Young balloon sellers in Cuzco's Plaza de Armas


An old Spanish cathedral at dusk in Cuzco.


An elderly street musician in a cobblestoned back alley in Cuzco.


A local woman returns home from the market north of Cuzco.

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At the trailhead. Normally jumping shots are stupid but when you're in front of Salkantay anything looks cool.


The early morning sun over the Salkantay flats at the start of our trek.


Small runoff stream, full and rising at the onset of spring melts in the mountains high above.


Officially the coolest spot I've ever taken a nap.

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A couple of horses were grazing during our initial ascent...


An Incan father and daughter pause for a conversation with our guide during their trek down the mountainside.


A patch of snow serves as a holder for our walking sticks as we observe the surrounding scenery.


The view of the valley right before our ascent up the switchbacks.

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Looking down the first series of switchbacks. Shortly after conquering these I barfed in purple (you'll have to read the story ;) )


Stone residence in the middle of the valley, where we spent our first night.


High altitude winds blast Salkantay's upper heights.


A pack horse grazes contentedly on a plateau at the bottom of Salkantay's foothills.

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On the edge of a cliff...


A high river crossing...


An underground river bursts from the side of a cliff, Temple of Doom style.


Easy transportation for the non-trekkers on their way to visit Machu Picchu... we did it the hard way.


Machu Picchu in the early morning mist.

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A lone branch protrudes skyward at Machu Picchu's south gate.


Looking north from Machu Picchu's famed Temple of the Sun.


Huayana Picchu conquered. I am pictured here with the ruins of Machu Picchu far below.

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This is almost too ridiculous to post, but this is what I meant by martial arts on the side of the cliff. My chunky ass is on the left.


Parasurfers at Paracas, in the deserts south of Lima.

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I've been to Myrtle Beach. Pics later.

Seriously - amazing photos. Didn't read the whole story for lack of time, but the pictures really are worth thousands of words. Thanks PhillyB. Glad you weren't incarcerated.

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