Is United Mice a good company?

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I just came back from a two-week excursion in Peru, five days of which was left into the hands of United Mice—The Deep Peru Expedition: Salkantay to Machu Picchu.

The reason I’m posting this is simple. When I planned my trip I felt somewhat in the dark and would have truly appreciated someone telling me what the f*ck was going on, so without further adieu.

Some things I want you to know about me:

1. I was just like you—I wanted to go to Machu Picchu but didn’t book five months in advance and was forced to book an alternate route.
2. My only knowledge of tour groups was online research, friends of friends, and Lonely Planet/Fromers/Rough Guide books.
3. I exercise regularly but had very little experience hiking.
4. I didn’t want to die.
5. I didn’t want to get scammed out of money.
6. I am not affiliated with any tour group of any kind; I am a person with a child, and a girlfriend, who hates his job (like most self-respecting Americans).

I was scared of altitude sickness. I had heard from many people, you should get to Cusco at least three days in advance in order to acclimate. I tend to not believe in things I can’t see. Like “physics” or “written testimony” or “science.” That’s me. I hope you’re different. My girlfriend’s ex (let’s call him Ben) warned her it becomes an issue especially on the first day when you’re not used to the altitude and you’re climbing over 15,000 feet. She passed on the warning to me, but I said, “I’m impervious.” She said Ben wasn’t impervious. I reminded her that Ben is fat.

Was this just a reflex insult? Yes. Was I incapacitated because of the altitude? No. What does that tell you? I’m not sure.

When you go to Peru, you will land in Lima. There is no need to stop in Lima. When you hike Machu Picchu, you must first get to a town called Cusco. Cusco is 11,200ft above sea level. That’s a fact. Because I’m cheap. I convinced my girlfriend to take a bus with me to Cusco. I figured it would acclimate us more than a plane ride. The bus however, took 21 hours and whether I got acclimated or not, it stands as the biggest regret of my life. Yes, I took Cruz Del Sur. Yes, they are a good company, meaning nothing was stolen, the seats were comfortable. “Don’t you just lean back, fall asleep watching movies?” No. The movies are terrible. They come on—blaring—and you’re watching and thinking, “I vaguely remember this from a preview in a movie I didn’t like.” You have no choice but to watch, and 21 hours of anything will kill you. Your eyes are on the TV because it’s the only presence of light. So you close your eyes, but the double-decker bus leans into a right turn and you feel your body falling into the deep ravine. And a left turn and you feel your body falling into a deeper ravine. It worries you so you open your eyes look out the window and see your bus in the passing lane and the lights from an oncoming bus is getting brighter and brighter and the horn starts blaring and FEW! you make it back into your lane—now multiply that by 21 hours.

{I see what’s happening. That was a review of Cruz Del Sur bus company. I can’t seem to be able to put things into their own place because the trip had such a culminating scope of excitement for me I seem to view it as one long journey. Forgive me. I’m trying to remember it as it happened. Skip if you have to.}

In Cusco I did feel a shortening of breath. I also felt the sun was closer to my eyes. Sunglasses are imperative. I began drinking coca tea the moment I sat down at the restaurant. I did feel tightness in the front part of my head but it didn’t stop me from walking all over town. You get used to it. It was not unbearable for me or my girlfriend. There are also these candies (coca candies), they were delicious. They came individually wrapped in a green package. I made a joke with salesperson asking where I can get the other coca candies. She showed me chocolates. I said the other coca candies. No entiendo. The other coca candies. She did not take this lightly and shook her head quickly from side to side. Don’t ask people in the streets for coca even as a joke. It winds up only being funny to you.

There was a pre-meeting arranged by United Mice where you meet the group you’re travelling with. You ask any final questions: what we need to bring, fresh water, will we get to Haunya Picchu (there are a thousand questions involved in how to get to Machu Picchu, everyone gets crazy, everyone is involved. This one wants to walk, this one wants a bus, this one wants the train, there’s a place called Aguas Caliente… in short. Don’t worry about any of this crap. It’s all city anxiety that does not exist on the trail. Everything is answered in due time.

The following day we were picked up at 4am in our hostel and the first person we met was our guide Jaime, who introduced himself, took our backpack (bring one if you’re two), and led us into the small bus where we began a three to four-hour drive to our starting point. The first thing I noticed is that our guide spoke to the driver. I liked that. If I’m sitting shotgun, I think it’s important to make conversation with the person operating the vehicle. You keep his brain working. You keep him up. This made me comfortable as I was sitting in the front-center backseat, and the last thing I wanted was to get thrown through the windshield.

We got out in the middle of an enormous mountain range. There were lamas, mules, horses and humans. Other groups were coming behind us, and other groups were already ahead of us. It was in no way a conga line of tourists, simply a jacuzzi, if you will, a starting point before hopping into the ocean. (We were, after all, going to the same place.) We put on our sunblock, took off our warm gear and began to hike. A note about warm gear. I went during the dry season so of course brought my rain gear. In two weeks it never rained. I was, however, happy I brought it because it doubled as a wind breaker which was imperative on our first night.

Let me get back to the point. Jaime always with us, always optimistic. He was engaging when he poured over the history of the Inca’s first introduction to the Spanish Conquistadors; thoughtful during the planning of what we’d encounter the next day; concerned about our health (one of our team—family, as Jaime refered to us—had hurt her ankle months before the trip but it began acting up on the first day of the hike. He took care of her in a way that didn’t intrude on our trip, or put her in a position where she felt she was holding any of us back. He let us hike at our own pace. There was always someone in front and someone in back.

The food was nutritious and original, and after hours of hiking you’re just happy to stop (so food is a plus). When we arrived to camp (or, place in middle of mountains), everything had already been set up for us. The porters, the mules, the chef, the guide, everyone is busting their ass: putting up tables, putting up chairs, setting up cutlery, preparing meals, putting up tents, unloading your bags, then loading your bags, breaking down the chairs, tables, cutlery, kitchen, tents. Sometimes in the dark, sometimes at three in the morning. Make friends with them. Chat with them. Be kind to them. They are working very hard. They have to get to the destination before you and they’re leading horses and mules and nine-year olds. We had a nine-year old lead the mules to all our camp sites. He was nine-year olds and in charge of four mules. He also played soccer, and had a couple of goals with a few assists!

We had fresh water every morning (though someone mentioned you can still get sick from that, so I simply purchased water at every opportunity, of which there were many. Yes, they charge more at these stops but it’s a dollar for you, and a shit load to them. They also had Gatorade which my girlfriend found to be a pleasant surprise). Tea, or coffee three times a day. We dined amongst the gods. The scenery was breathtaking. I have never seen anything quite as extraordinary as mountains that stretch as far as your eyes can see. When it came to downhill, those that were up to it, could race down. When we hiked up, we went slow and steady and stayed together. You could literally stop every two seconds to take pictures. You become so immune to the beauty you begin to think all the pictures you take are the same. Only now when I load them on my computer do I get that sense of holy f*ck!

Jaime was terrific. The staff of United Mouse I didn’t have to deal with, but seemed like they had their shit together. The porters were excellent, had great energy. We played soccer, we sipped beer, we chewed coca. I never felt unsafe. There were ghost stories at night. It didn’t end with the hike. That is what I want to stress. It didn’t end with the hike. He was always looking after us. At one point my girlfriend and I wanted to go down to the river. It was getting late and he saw me heading downhill and offered to come with. I said no, but he insisted. He had a toothbrush in his hands, he was on his way to brush his teeth (or whatever he was going to do with a toothbrush—clean something small?), there was no way he wanted to come down to the river with me and girlfriend, but he did! (To be honest, I would rather of had some alone time with me and my girlfriend at the river, though it got dark quickly and I was happy to have him.)

If you are at the level of hiking where you need to be in a group, I wholeheartedly recommend United Mice.

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Cusco

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We did it!

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Jaime

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That’s your regular trail.

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Snow-capped peaks!

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Top! (Not my hat)

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