Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Inka Trail - sometimes the journey exceeds the destination

The day before we set off on our 4 day hike up and down the Andes, Darren and I were worried about our ability to trek such altitudes. I mean, we got puffed ascending the 10 steps up to our guesthouse bathroom. Later that night our fears were somewhat assuaged at our pre-trek briefing by Carlos, our more than genial guide "You will be fine amigos" and by the fact that our 5 other trek mates were equally intimidated. Still, from excitement or nerves, probably a little bit of both, I got no sleep that night. We were picked up at 5am that next morning and driven a couple hours through the country side to the starting point. As we slapped sunscreen and insect repellent on, my exhaustion melted away. A visage of mountains and winding river greeted us. We gripped our walking poles and began!
Our trek team, later named the Blue Pumas, at the beginning of the trek. We all became fast friends, nore like family. Note the 20 kilos on Darren´s back. My hero.

The first day was mostly a gentle trek alongside the river. There was a lot of commerce along this part with locals selling water, Gatorade, chocolate etc at every rest point. They certainly knew their market. It was dusty and windy at parts accompanied by flocks of tiny mosquitoes. We came across our first ruins just before lunch. We sat on the cliff above the ancient remnants of a Quechua administrative centre. The Quechua empire ("Inka" is a misnomer interpreted by the conquering Spanish. "Inka" is the Quechua word for their king. For the purposes of historical accuracy I will refer to the people of this area as Quechua as they should be referred to) was extremely well organised and bureaucratic. The trail to Macchu Picchu (or along the Sacred Valley) was well guarded and administered by Quechua citizens paying their taxes as soldiers, administrators, astronomers, farmers etc. Note, mostly men held these roles. Women could sometimes paid their dues by singing to farmers in the fields (motivators!), weaving and cooking for workers. We started to climb up about halfway through the afternoon. At one of our rest points we saw the first of many hummingbirds. The last hour before getting to camp was steep and slow going but Darren and I powered through and led the charge. Carlos, our guide, kept saying that this first day was "practice for day 2", the most challenging day of the trek. As dusk drew to a close we made our triumphant arrival. High fives and a round of applause from the crew greeted us.

End of day one, only slightly exhausted.
Though we carried our sleeping bags, sleeping mats, water, sunscreen etc (well, Darren carried most of our stuff), we had a  team of 10 porters accompanying us. All Quechua, they were the true heroes carrying up to 25 kilos of gear, food, tents, etc. Carrying these huge loads half would power ahead of us to set up for lunch (as all meals turned out to be, these were elaborate affairs of three courses laid out in a dining tent, cooked in a kitchen tent by a chef in a white chefs uniform, hat and all and served by Luis, the porter coordinator, a gentle ever smiling man) and the other half would literally run ahead to make sure we got a good camp spot, set up our tents and have hot water ready for us when our exhausted asses finally showed up. With enviable calf muscles they soldiered up and down the mountains in jandals (flip flops for the Canadians) and make shift back packs. It was hard not to feel pathetic in comparison and guilt too. But there was no way we would have been able to complete the trek having to carry all the usual stuff you have to for an overnighter. We asked Carlos if he thought that the porters resent these tourists who huff and puff up this trail. He said they didn´t and that they were happy to share their country with us. Stock answer? I don´t know. They were unfailingly nice, encouraging and non plussed the whole way. We learnt "thank you" in Quechua and cheered them as they burned past us on the trail. At the end, our affection for all ten of them was immense.
The entire "Blue Puma" team, including porters, chef and assistant chef.

Big breath. The daunting second day arrived. We were going to climbing, for four straight hours, to 4,215 metres over Dead Women´s Pass (so named because from a distant you can make out a perfectly shaped breast with nipple at the crest, *snort*). Darren and I had done suprisingly well with the altitude so far suffering no ill affects at all. Nevertheless we both chewed on several coca leafs to give us the energy to get going. Climbing a steep mountain at 7am is a tall order of a bunch of city folk. Though yesterday there were literally hundreds of hikers on the same trail as us we hardly saw them. This day was a different story as a never ending line of us laboured upwards. You´d think that it would be really annoying but there was a spirit of camraderie as you pass a few peeps who then pass you as you take a panting break. There was a sense of relief knowing that other people were having as much a hard time as you were. We were the first in our group to make it to the top of the pass where invariably you´d be greeted by cheers admidst the clouds and wind.

At the top of ´Dead Woman´s Pass´. A 4 hour trek uphill. F**k yeah, we made it!
If we thought getting up was tough we were totally unprepared for the arduous descent to our lunch spot. Now on the original Quechuan trail (miraculous how they meticulously laid all these stones) it was two hours of knee crushing labour. I fretted for Darren with his monster pack on and I was so worried about not tripping that I scarcely noticed the steep frickin´mountain I was climbing down. Hardcore fears being obliterated bam bam bam! After revelling in our sumptuous lunch the realisation started to slowly dawn on us that we had to ascend another huge mountain, this one only 200 metres smaller than the last. The artist rendering of the trail misleads using a scale that makes the second climb much smaller then the first - we were totally unaware! Carlos was blithe and echoing an earlier inspirational speech I declared to the group that "we must have a postive mental attitude, we can do it!". The journey up was nicely broken up by another set of ruins, this time a look out post. As we sat in a semi circle ("sit close amigos, share the body warmth") Carlos took us on another historical journey. When we made the crest I realised that we were about to descend into cloud forest. The cloud was thick, obscuring anything 10 feet in front of you. As we got half way down, the cloud dissapated and the humidity was back in the air. The sun was setting but we were joyous at the jungle foliage, the flowers and hummingbirds that now made up part of the landscape. Amazing the difference in topography in a matter of hours! The wonderment quickly turned to worry (at least for me!) as we realised that we were quite a whiles away from our camp spot with night fast approaching. Climbing down mountains affords perfect views of your campsites and this one looked far! We started to race and had to bypass another set of ruins (bugger climbing up 99 steps). We made it with mere minutes of dusk left. Dinner that night was a rather giddy affair so stoked we all were with our achievement. Carlos had been teasing us all day about a special surprise and after dessert he cracked out a pitcher of a warm Quechuan liquid concoction made of maize, apple, cinnamon, orange, black tea and lemon. Stoked with just this, cheers greeted the bottle of rum Carlos then whipped out of a bag. With our hot toddys well toddied we took our seats outside. The stars shined above us as Carlos regaled us with ghost stories and hilarious accounts of previous treks.

Sunset, descending into the cloud forest
Day three. This day was to be our shortest trek through the cloud forest. Still we set a fast pace stopping every now and again to take in a hummingbird and, as we got closer to our final campspot, scores of colourful butterflies. Our legs were doing pretty well but after 4 hours of hiking we were all about done. We hiked to another set of ruins, this time terraces for growing potatoes (the Quechua grew thousands of varieties). We had the afternoon for free time which mostly consisted of waiting for a shower with hundreds of other dusty, sweaty hikers. That night we beered it up but still went to bed early as we would be getting up at 4am in order to catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.

Welcome to the jungle
4 am came up fast and we stood at the check point until 5:30 watching the stars slowing disappear into the daylight. A furious pace was set and because of it we were amongst the first to ascend the sun gate and get primo shots with Machu Picchu behind us. It was quite emotional sitting there taking it all in, the culmination of our amazing journey.
Sunrise during the final morning at the sungate
It was a gentle final hike down to the ruins of all ruins. From way up at the sun gate we could see the hordes of tourists that had bused up to visit and it was really jarring to be among them all. Truth be told it was quite obnoxious and we felt a sense of indignation. We had hiked up and over the Andes thus we deserved to be there. We had suffered in body and made a physical sacrifice (the Quechuan reason behind taking quite a winding, undirect route to get there) to be at this spiritual city but you don´t get a sense of that these days. It was great to be told the significance behind the different structures but after the 2 hour tour of the site we were all in a hurry to get out and down the mountain.

Who´s huge?

Darren ran up a million stairs to get this final classic shot. I went and sat in a thatch roof hut out of the hardcore sun. This trip was truly a blessing and miraculous. Transcendental. Many thanks to the amazing Carlos for his inspired guiding and for the company of Erin, Lindsay, Elizabeth, Jo, and Tracy. Team Blue Puma forever!

The classic shot.


  1. Wow Darren sure likes posing with a bunch of girls. Remember this?


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