I try to keep my blog entries short and sweet in hopes that a few might read them in their entirety but this is going to be a lengthy one for two reasons:
1) I have a 12 hour travel day and
2) the Inca trail was an experience of a life time that needs to be shared with all who are interested…it went as follows…
Day One: Easy Peesy Articheesy
Our first day got off to a late start. The luggage of two sisters from Colorado (whom later became my hiking buddies) got lost in transit from LAX to Lima. We waited in Ollantaytambo for the reluctant taxi driver coming from Cuzco and a few hours later they were finally reunited with their bags. The taxi driver even relieved them of a few pounds. I’m sure it was because he was concerned about the integrity of their backs.
After a 45 minute drive, we reached the first check point and the start of the Inca trail at km 82. The Inca trail used to go from Cuzco but over time the land has been developed at the sacrifice of the trail. It was only 10 years ago that the trail became protected and only 7 years ago that they started regulating the number of people allowed. Today, only the first section of the trail can be traveled by donkeys and horses. The rest of the trail is restricted to foot traffic in order to preserve the stone pathway and steps. The present day Inca trail was the route reserved for the top of the hierarchy. Some believe the king was even carried the entire way. There are about 5 other known routes leading to Machu Picchu which were likely for messengers and commoners. I obviously belonged on the path for the privileged.
With regards to the hiking, the day was easy. A small climb here and there but mostly flat the entire way. Highlights included trying the corn beer which the porters chug like water from a dessert oasis, getting to know the group of 12 fellow hikers that were soon going to know way too much about my bowel movements and spending some time in the untz untz party tent before dinner.
Right from the start I was impressed by the porters and I only continued to be amazed by them each day that followed. 22 porters and 2 chefs made our lives as hikers plush. They carried our bags, tents, chairs, dining room and kitchen. Anytime I was tired I just thought about the porters carrying 22 kgs wearing only rubber sandals. I was in awe of their strength and organization but most impressive was their ability to laugh, joke and have fun the entire time.
Benito, the oldest porter, would greet us at the camp site with a huge smile. He stood at about 5 feet with scoliosis contributing, was missing an ear and might have been blind in one eye but he was such a gem. He would applaud and ramble off some muttered Spanish then lead you to where our group site was. We were told he was 65 years old but we later found out he is 68 and lies about his age because you are not allowed to work a day over 65. He plans on retiring at age 70 but with how much he enjoys being a porter, I wouldn’t be surprised if he continued to work for as long as his body will let him.
Day Two: Dead Woman’s Pass
This is the day that everyone dreads but being raised by mama Putt the hiker, I actually enjoy a good tough hike and they are always guaranteed to come with beautiful views. Everyone took the pass at their own pace which gave me some time to walk alone and really just soak in my surroundings. Sure, the million plus steps were difficult but they couldn’t take away my enjoyment of being immersed in nature.
Our guide told us the pass got its name because the guy who rediscovered the Inca Trail found two women mummies at the top. No, they didn’t die because of physical exertion, they were likely offerings to the gods. But along the trail I heard a different story. A group of American guys told me it was because the rock formations on the ridge look like a women lying on her back with her arms crossed over her. I could only make out the boob but I guess with extreme dehydration, exhaustion and some corn beer, it could look like a full body.
After taking a few pictures at the top I started the long descent down to camp. This is why the Inca Trail is more of a pilgrimage than a trek. If you go up, you go down and then you are bound to do it again. We hiked to about 4,000 meters twice when Machu Picchu is at 2,430 meters. Why you ask? Well I did. Turns out it was all on purpose. Since Machu Picchu is a sacred and holy place, you had to earn your way there almost like an offering of blood, sweat and tears to the gods.
I arrived to camp 2 hours earlier than expected which caught the porters off guard. Benito wasn’t there to greet me and half the crew was sleeping. When I walked through the tents they immediately started scurrying around to get me juice, applaud and shake my hand. It was quite comical as I tried to tell them “tranquillo, tranquillo, estoy bien” meaning “calm yourself, I’m good”. Only problem is most of them speak the native language of Quechua and no Spanish but I think I eventually got my point across and we all settled again.
Being the offspring of papa Putt, I carried two beers up the pass so I could enjoy a nice refreshment once I got to my destination. I placed them in the ice cold river to cool and then went and showered in that same freezing water. I’ve taken many cold bucket showers in my days but this water belong in a separate classification of cold. Lets just say it was the shortest shower I’ve ever taken. After I put on every layer of clothing I brought, I grabbed my beer, which I now wished was warm, and sat on the ridge to enjoy the view.
One of my highlights was the hours that followed. It was just me and the porters waiting for the rest of the crew. During this time I had the privilege of seeing the porters at their best, f-ing with each other. There was only one porter still sleeping and was therefore an easy target. It started by securing his feet to his bag with a rope and then they tied his shoes together. When he didn’t even stir, it was almost like he gave permission for more. Another porter placed sticks over him in the formation of a cross with flowers and proclaimed that he was dead thus offerings were in order to show respect. Food was put by his head, dirty socks along his legs and finally, a paper mustache carefully placed so he looked his best even at time of “death”. I took the photos and participated in the common language of laughter. It was great. Although I must admit, I was a bit concerned he would try to get up and fall in the river. Thankfully the napkin over his upper lip gave him the hint something was off when he finally awoke so he saw the rope around his feet before attempting to get up.
Once everyone else arrived we ate lunch, had a siesta, ate again and went to bed. Overall it was an epic and rewarding day.
Day Three: A Lot to be Thankful For
By now I was getting used to our daily routine: wake up call at 5:30am; accept coco tea and try not to spill it as you change and pack up your clothes, sleeping bag and mat; exit tent to find a hot bowl of water to wash your face and hands; go to dining tent and eat breakfast; put sunscreen on, fill up water and brush teeth; leave camp by 7am; hike until 12pm; eat lunch; hike until 4pm; clean body with baby wipes and change; wash feet and face in bowl of hot water; tea time at 5pm; dinner at 7pm; sleeeep.
Day three was long but the most beautiful. We trekked up and down the mountain range through the cloud forest and the views were breathtaking. Then we had a special surprise for lunch. Every meal has really been a surprise for me. We always had a soup starter, a main course with meat and a dessert for both lunch and dinner. It was amazing what these chefs could make and even more impressive that it was all carried on the porters’ backs. But today I was even more surprised than usual. Instead of being handed a full plate, we were given empty ones and out came the buffet style lunch. Being Thanksgiving, I was the happiest kid on the Inca Trail. I stuffed my stomach to its max capacity and then came dessert, a CAKE! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I walked out of that tent feeling as I do when I get up from the Thanksgiving table and I was content. For a little bit.
What followed made a long day even longer. We had 3 hours downhill which in my opinion takes more concentration and technique than going up. After about 20 minutes I needed a bathroom. Like really needed a bathroom. Of course this would happen when there was no bathroom until camp. 10 minutes later I decided I would have to contribute to nature, a bit more than I would have liked to. Only problem was my whole crew including the 22 porters were coming down the mountain too. After searching for what seemed like forever, I finally found a spot to disappear into the moss covered branches and thick vines. Right as I de-panced a porter stopped at the entrance of my jungle hiding spot to fix his shoe. Figures.
I felt much better after being one with nature but it was obvious to me that this was only the beginning to my bowels being exfoliated. The two hours that followed may have been the longest of my life. The impact of every step down was like a punch to the stomach. Needless to say I just about cried tears of joy when I reached the toilet at the campsite.
Day Four: Icing on the Cake
In my opinion Machu Picchu was not the highlight of the Inca Trail, it was just an added bonus. We woke up at 3:30am, packed in the dark and had a very quick breakfast because the porters have to catch the first train back to Ollantaytambo. We reached the sun gate only to look down into a valley completely full of fog. Some of us waited for a bit for it to clear and celebrated at the glimpse of a spec of blue sky. As we headed down it finally cleared. Seeing Machu Picchu from a distance was spectacular. It is an amazing site of ruins in such serene surroundings. Up close it was a different story. By the time we made it there everyone and their mom was there too. While the Inca Trail’s max capacity is 500 (including guides and porters), 2,200 people are allowed on the site of Machu Picchu. I’ll likely butcher this but I believe someone super smart and famous once said “its not the destination, its the journey” and thats how I felt about my days on the Inca Trail.
Congrats to anyone who made it through this novel. I promise not to do it again.
More Photos of the Inca Trail
Peace, Love & Happiness,