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The Inca Trail

Ollantaitambo, Peru

The night before the start of our Inca trek Josh fell ill. I knew it was serious when he announced that he didn´t want any dinner; I left him to sleep and hoped that the early night would sort him out. It didn´t. Early the next morning as we made our way up to the start of the trail his head hung heavily and it was clear that the so called “easy” first day would be anything but.

The path was fairly flat and asked little of the various tourist groups who plodded along cheerfully. I was expecting a fairly large group but our entourage was immense – an army of 30 porters, all heavily laden with oversized packs, joined our group of 22 (not including the 5 or so guides), striding past (sometimes jogging) in order to get ahead and prepare our next rest stop. At first I resented this pampering and I wished we could have had a small group with a couple of tents and a camping stove but from the first meal (cooked by our personal chef and eaten in our dining tent at a long table with stools) I felt nothing but grateful for their efforts. By the end of the trip they would be heroes.

With Josh feeling terrible, our guide took the two of us on a slightly shorter route to see the first of the large ruins. In fact this was the best part of the day as we separated ourselves from the densely populated path and were given very interesting lessons about Inca history and the local flora and fauna. The ruins themselves (Patallacta) were well preserved and set spectacularly at the bottom of the valley alongside the river Wilkamayo (or Uru Riobamba) which we followed for most of the day. That evening we ate well and retired to bed early in preparation for the infamous climb up to Dead Womans Pass the next day. During the night Josh shouted happily to himself and I hoped that the rest was doing him good.

The second day is known as the biggest challenge of the Inca Trail and I couldn’t have been more up for it. After the relaxed pace and frequent stopping of the previous day I couldn´t wait to push myself a bit harder. Thankfully Josh seemed to be back to normal and we set off at an impressive pace, eager to distance ourselves from the crowd. With long strides and measured breathing we climbed steadily through the mossy “Montane Rain Forest” where the exotic looking Unca trees twisted their way up to form a cooling canopy and eventually we emerged onto the steep, sunny steps which led up to the pass. I marched up them, maintaining a steady pace and stopping only for photos and to offer water to the sweating porters- their packs looking impossibly heavy as they trudged up.

Inspired by the strength and pace of the porters I soon reached the top. The views on either side of Dead Womans Pass (so called because the mountains are shaped like a woman lying on her back – nothing sinister) were dramatic and rewarding. I spent some time at the top taking photos and trying to breath normally again. Our guide had suggested that we take two stones – one for Dead Womans Pass and one for Machu Picchu – which we would then leave as a traditional Inca offering to the mountains and to Pachamama, the Inca equivalent to Mother Nature. I liked the idea and I proudly perched my stone at the top of a pile. Josh had fallen behind and, although I had intended to wait for him, after fifteen minutes or so I was getting cold and decided to carry on alone.

I dedicated the journey downward to Michael Jackson, dancing quickly down the rocky stairs to a lively mental megamix of all his hits. I had just completed a complex merging of You Wanna Be Starting Something and Another Part of Me when I realised I had already reached camp! I had even beaten most of the porters down! The camp had incredible views in every direction and I washed in a cold, clear stream while the tents were being put up. Directly in front of the camp was the deep Pacamayo Valley ; The Inca Trail wound up the mountain to the left of the valley and gave an enticing glimpse of tomorrows walk. It was only 11.45am but we were done for the day so I made myself comfortable, watching the clouds floating in and filling the valley and enjoying more of our chefs delicious cooking before a chilly night of llama clad lethargy.

We were woken early with tea (a very nice touch) and after a filling breakfast zigzagged our way up to the first set of ruins. This was to be a very informative day with lots of ruins and although we were eating and sleeping with the large group it had become apparent that we had our own guide, Selsa. This was perhaps because the other group were all part of a larger tour of South America and they were worried we may not fit in. In any case, being able to distance ourselves from the group was a definite advantage as we could walk at our own pace rather than in a frustrating cluster and have interesting discussions about anything we were curious about. On this occasion we were taught about Inca architecture, particularly in relation to the social politics of the time. It was good to be able to see more than just a ruin.

Later, as we continued our trek up the mountain, I found myself in a predicament. We were hours away from the next toilet stop and I sensed that I might not make it. Also the toilets are so bad that waiting for one seemed a bit pointless really. I was far enough in front to sneak off the path and find a suitable rock to hide behind… A miserable pair of boxers told me that I was not the first. Watching my step, I decided to proceed. I was, after all, a man of the mountain now.

Happily relieved, I caught up with Josh and Selsa and made it to the top of the mountain. The views were mind blowing and made even more satisfying by my recent excretory accomplishments. After a short rest we stomped our way down the familiarly steep, rocky paths and stairs until we reached the complex and interesting ruins of Sayaqmarka. Another lesson followed, this time about the Inca kings and the history of the Inca trails themselves. It amazed me how recently a lot of the trails and ruins had been discovered. Feeling well informed, we continued down the mountain side and into the “Cloud Forest”.

Although there were no clouds (at least not at first) the transition as we entered the Cloud Forest was clear. You could feel moisture in the warm air and dense vegetation suddenly appeared on each side of the trail. Soon we were enveloped in trees and bushes which created a beautiful and atmospheric walk. Every now and then the foliage would give way to incredible views of the mountains, the most memorable being from the top of Phuyupatamarka where we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu . There were also some agricultural ruins visible from this summit. These sites are always spectacular as the farms made use of iconic Inca terracing – huge, perfect steps which climb down the mountain.

The walk back down to our campsite, via the ruins of course, was an endless rocky staircase with more of the same leafy vegetation disguising steep drops on one side and the jagged mountain wall on the other. It was the most scenic walk so far, although the steep steps were cruel to our feet. One of our group, a hilariously competitive guy whose name I never learnt, decided to run all the way down. Knowing that this would be the main topic of conversation at dinner that night I was disappointed not to find him crumpled at the bottom of some of the trickier stairs but when we got back I was pleased to find that, in his haste, he had missed the final ruin, WinayWayna, which had an amazing row of thirteen water fountains and the best looking terraces so far.

That night we had a “ceremony” whereby the porters all came and stood uncomfortably in front of us – telling us their names, ages and whether they were married or single (the main guide, Julio, had an irrepressible sleazy streak and enjoyed playing translator/ cupid for the porters and the younger girls of the group. We then handed out tips. It was a bizarre and uncomfortable ceremony for all concerned and I felt bad that Selsa, our own guide, had not been particularly involved. Afterwards we made sure that he knew how grateful we were for his personal tuition and he in turn expressed how lucky he felt to have such receptive students who he was able to be so open with. I got the impression that he didn´t often reveal his religious side so openly and I was glad that he felt comfortable enough to do so with us, particularly as religion is such a key part of understanding the Incas and the reasoning behind these spectacular mountain constructions.

We were also told the plans for the next day. We would be getting up in the middle of the night and walking the 6km to Machu Picchu for sunrise. We asked whether we would have any chance of climbing Huayna Picchu, the mountain which rises over the lost city affording amazing views, Selsa explained that the number of daily visitors is restricted to 400 and these tickets disappear fast. In order to have we would have to move very quickly. We both agreed it was worth a try.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on July 3, 2009 from Ollantaitambo, Peru
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged IncaTrail, Porters, Poo, Packs, Pachamama and Illness

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My Stevie-bogskipper of the lake district graduates! I knew you would be fit enough!proud mama xx

permalink written by  sue stamp on July 4, 2009

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