I’d had my little heart set on doing the Inca Trail even after Roraima highlighted my inefficiencies when it came to getting up hills and I’d renounced any thing resembling a multi-day hike, especially if it involved portions that can only be described as inclines. I didn’t want to do any alternative treks either. Oh no. I wanted to do THE Inca Trail, the one that takes a serious bite out of your budget as well as your resolve if you get hit by altitude sickness as you claw your way up a fuck off great big hill on the way to the jewel in Peru’s crown; Machu Picchu. I’d booked in advance, I’d had the foresight to hire a third of a porter and as the group stood at the beginning of the walk at Km. 82 taking photos, the early morning haze cleared from my brain and I suddenly thought, “Ah for fucks sake, what have I gotten myself into this time?!”
Apparently I’d gotten myself into the following; I know that even in my pre-tea state I’d somehow managed to drag myself out from underneath my doona at Yamanyá Backpackers and wait for the pick up before 6am because when I finally managed to open my eyes we were an hour and a half away from Cusco in Ollantaytambo staring at an all-you-can buffet breakfast. Mmm. Coca tea and eggs and all kinds of goodness. I munched what I could, chatted to a couple of the people I’d be sharing my space with over the next four days then it was back on the bus to Km. 82 and the start of the Camino Inka; The world famous Inca Trail.
There are two kinds of flat in Peru; Gringo flat and Inca flat. Flat to us means just that. It’s flat. No up, no down, we take the word and use it literally. To the Quechua people flat means an equal amount of up and down as opposed to a full day of one or the other and today we’d be walking about 12kms on the latter version on flat. I like our version better in that it hurts less and doesn’t make you sweat in an unpleasant manner but the Peruvian version knows how to keep you distracted from the fact that your lungs and legs are plotting mutiny with shiny things. Fuck me backwards, the scenery is amazing!
Our guides were Elistan and Ernesto, Elistan being the passionate lead guide who gathered us round to share his knowledge of history and the region, to give us breaks, direct to towards the lunch tents and the toilets and to keep us up to date with what would be happening the next day. Ernesto was the quieter one who hung back to make sure the people at the back (yep, that’d be me then) were ok, showed us flowers and talked to us about where we were from, how long we’d been here, the usual questions that, as a backpacker, you answer daily, sometimes several times a day to the point you consider writing everything down on flash cards to hand out in the event of meeting new people because the sound of your own voice had started to make your ears bleed.
It was such a lovely day. We gawped at the Patallecta ruins from a distance and stopped for lunch in a village where an old woman was grinding purple corn for chicha, an Andean drink which the women make. Sometimes they help it ferment by chewing it first. I didn’t think I’d be trying chicha anytime soon, I’m far too socially conditioned to drink something that may or may not have already been in someone’s gob. Aaaanyway, today was a piece of piss. We had heaps of breaks, generally meandered up and down the hills, burnt through SPF45 under the relentless sun, got to know each other a bit, marvelled at the loads the porters were carrying and were suitably awed at every turn by the scenery as we made our way to Wayllabamba. Way to break us in gently, guys. I reckon I could get used to this trekking crap ay.
A hill is a hill where ever you’re from and day 2 would be all about the hill. You even have the chance to hire another porter to carry your shit up the aforementioned hill on account of the hill being what can only be described as a bitch of a hill. Day two is the hardest day on the Inca Trail, we’d be heading up towards Abra de Warmi Wañusca at 4200 m.a.s.l, ominously translated as Dead Woman’s Pass. Dear NHS, I’ll be needing that full body transplant now, please.
There’s no rush though and you see everyone from the other groups, everyone with varying fitness levels making their own way up to the highest point on the trail. We stopped often but not for too long, if you rest too much your body cools down and doesn’t like to get going again. We walked in a zigzag pattern across the path and found the smallest steps to climb up in order to save energy. As always we didn’t go hungry, we had a well deserved rest for lunch before we started up the big incline, the one where you could see the top but like the pot at the end of a rainbow, still seemed totally out of reach.
After watching Elistan, our guide and “Indian healer” hit Pete over the knees with stinging nettles to help his post-surgery knee problems I got thinking about indigenous healing. I gotta admit, I’ve always been sceptical about natural remedies, I don’t care how old and relied on they are. Give me doctor and a prescription pad any day, if anyone came anywhere near me with stinging nettles and a claim that if they hit me with them it’d cure some ailment or other they’d learn pretty quickly exactly what stinging nettle tasted like. I adjusted my knee support and continued up the hill.
Meena arrived at the pass first closely followed by Seeth then me. Third out of my group! Not bad for someone who only has legs as a backup in case there’s no one else around to make me a cup of tea. We did the photo thing then positioned ourselves next to the end of the climb to cheer on the rest of our thirteen, and a random man named Michael who, from the shouts of the rest of his group, seemed to have been climbing since he tripped over a hatching brontosaurus. One by one our guys made it to the top, the hardest part of the trail over and done with.
The sense of achievement was fabulous as we gathered together, grins spread across our faces, for the customary group photo. Downhill for most of the way to the second campsite with a spot of Inca Flat thrown in to remind us where we were. As soon as we started descending on the other side of the pass the wind whipped up and the temperature dropped. Whilst the side we climbed up was sunny, the opposite side was shrouded in fog. It was a different kind of challenge as we made our way down, choosing our steps carefully, bracing ourselves against the cold. Diane lent me a walking pole so my knees didn’t stage a mutiny. By the time we made it to camp I was knackered but still braved a freezing cold shower after dinner.
Elistan wanted everyone to meet the porters, the local guys who were carrying all the equipment and some of our personal stuff along the trail and told us that these guys were farmers. Portering was seasonal work mainly but it was only the farmers who could handle it. The Quechua people are strong. They’re short and stocky and are used to the altitude, and that includes the women, and it’s not uncommon to see them walking through the fields or even through the towns with huge loads strapped to their backs. Of course they don’t use a shiny, technical backpack from Kathmandu or Millets that distributes the weight and takes the pressure off the spine. All they use is a large cloth tied around the load then across their chests.
The farmers have been doing this from a young age, it’s just what they do. They don’t have machines to bring in their harvest, it’s all done by hand, all the crops are picked and carried back by men and women, or where possible, mules. They’re tougher than anyone I’ve ever met, they do the portering because farming doesn’t pay enough but they don’t realise the detrimental impact it has on their backs and knees. The guys ages ranged from early twenties to forties but they can’t keep it up for too many years before their bodies just can’t take it.
After the 20 or so porters and the cook had introduced themselves it was our turn. Then it all started to fall apart. I was starting to feel pretty ill and by the time it got to me to talk about myself I was feeling too crap to stand up and do it. I mumbled an introduction in my best Spanish before we all headed off to clean up or crash out or whatever. I felt bloody awful. The kind of awful where you needed to offload the contents of your stomach in order to feel better so that’s exactly what I did without any need to employ the old sticking the fingers down the throat technique. Bye bye, dinner. Then the other end started. Oh man I felt like shit, nothing made me feel better. By the time I slunk out of the cubicle I was drained, the queue of women waiting for the toilet obviously concerned. Diane was amongst them and when I finally freaked out and actually started breaking down she went to fetch the guides.
What followed was what felt like an eternity of diagnosing. I could have had everything from altitude sickness to a parasite, all I wanted was for it to stop for long enough for me to sleep but it wouldn’t. And then started the traditional remedies. Oh dear lord, no. I was handed a cup of some infusion or other with a tea bag hanging out of one side and some kind of green plant hanging out the other. It wasn’t the first cup of plant related tea I’d been told to drink either and both ended up in the sick bag I’d been given. I mean, plants?? How were plants going to help? Do I look like a fucking llama? Take your foliage and hand me some Imodium, please. The tea made me feel worse, eventually they handed me a bottle of boiled water to drink which was still warm. After one last trip to the toilet where I met poor Diane who’d also started with the same symptoms I curled up in my sleeping bag clutching the toasty bottle of water to myself. If scientific explanation number three was correct and my “stomach was just a bit cold” I figured I’d try and remedy that without attempting to ingest anything.
Nothing starts the day like a ghost story. I’d missed the telling of this whilst I was curled up in my sleeping bag wishing I’d invested in a tonne of Imodium and some butt corks but it was relayed to me this morning. Many years ago, an Iranian bloke and his mrs, a blonde chick, were on this trek and she did nothing but nag him. She was a royal pain in the buttocks, always complaining about how she wished she hadn’t come on the trek, she hated it, she was miserable, bitch moan whinge. He tolerated it until the third day when he took her for a short walk, pulled out a gun, shot and killed her and took off into the wilderness never to be seen again. Legend has it that her unhappy ghost now roams the area looking for the man who killed her, seeking revenge for her murder, even trying to lure men from their tents into the trees to meet their dooooom. Mwahahaha. *insert flashlight underneath chin and look sinister*
Just your average campfire story, right? Until you hear the next part. After the story was told, Pete had looked over to his wife, Kayla, and said, “Should I tell them?” On the first night, Pete had dreamt that he was in his tent on this trek but we were at a site he’d never seen before. It wasn’t this site, but it wasn’t our first site either. A blonde woman with an accent had tried to drag him out of the tent. Now that’s a bit freaky! But onward with the Inca Trail, thankfully with all our menfolk in one piece,
Day 3 would have been a walk in the particularly large and expensive park if it wasn’t for the fact I couldn’t eat a bloody thing and everything I’d tried to consume the previous night had exited via the nearest convenient orifice minutes after it had entered my body. It’s times like this when you truly realise that food IS fuel and you desperately need it when you’re trekking, especially uphill. My food intake as a rule contains the nutritional value of a spanner, I can’t cook so unless I eat out I’m stuck with noodles or pasta. My nutrition levels are so low that if I was an African nation, Bono would have arranged an aid concert for me in the 90’s. I scoff at the mention of protein and wouldn’t be able to balance a diet with a set of digital scales and full instructions. Generally my body is used to not getting everything it needs and still functions fine. Until now. Every step was an effort, the gas tank was empty and Elistan had tried to get me to drink this saline solution stuff to replace my salts and fluids. All it did was cause more fluid loss through whatever end it was closest to when my stomach rejected it. God this was fucking miserable.
Di was still suffering too and it turns out Jon was the worse for wear and apparently a few people from other groups were showing the same symptoms ruling out the food we’d been given. I didn’t know about Jon last night, I was too busy wallowing in my own self pity but I think I was in a slightly better position than the other two. I’d gotten crook sooner so I’d managed to get it out of my system and get some sleep with my tent mate, Niamh, making sure the guides didn’t try and wake me up to feed me more vegetation they found growing around the camp site.
I walked in fear of being force fed more natural remedies until suddenly the walking dead amongst us were handed a bottle of neon pink stuff. Pink? Hmm, this seems more promising, hadn’t seen many bright pink plants knocking around. They managed to source some powdered Gatorade or something. That did the trick. Eating still wasn’t an option but as least I wasn’t feeling as shit towards the end and was able to start enjoying the walk. The surroundings had changed an all, the area got thicker with vegetation as we descended towards the last camp, Wiñay Wayna, the closest camp to Machu Picchu itself.
We wandered through a couple more impressive ruins but none quite as impressive as Wiñay Wayna near the camp site. If I didn’t feel like my internal organs had been replaced with sand and that I’d borrowed my legs off Steven Hawkins I might have checked it out… maybe… instead me and Cheryl just hung around the top and waited for Diane to walk back up all the steps she’d just walked down before heading back to stare at food I couldn’t eat and overpriced beer I couldn’t drink. Yep, the last night brings luxury in the form of hot showers, snacks and cerveza from an actual bar. Where there’s tourists there’s always a way to cash in, I just wished I was well enough to help them fill their tills.
There aren’t many things worse than a 4am start but a 4am start in the drizzle is definitely a contender. We’d had three days of perfect weather; the clear skies that had made our mornings so cold had made us thankful for the trees and shade along the way but this morning we’d woken up to a fine misting of moisture. Bollocks. The one day we needed it to be clear for that first view of of the ruins we’d trekked all this way to see. When you take on the trek you accept the fact that it might rain, that you might find yourself stripping off sodden clothes at the end of the day and that maybe, just maybe you won’t be able to get that classic, postcard photograph of Machu Picchu on account of fog and cloud. But just because you’re aware it could happen it doesn’t stop your heart from sinking when it looks like that once again, you’d parted with a load of cash and spent days testing your resolve, walking upwards just to look at some cloud.
Well I for one was disheartened as we quickly packed our stuff up in the dark. We were the second group to make it to the checkpoint which didn’t open for another hour but it was worth it just to be at the front of the queue. The aim was to get to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, as soon as possible. Not to watch the sunrise or anything like that, Elistan told us that was just a myth, the early start was to help the porters get ready quickly so they didn’t miss their train back to Ollantaytambo. For our own benefit, the quicker you get to Inti Punku then the sooner you’ll be at the guardhouse which means there’ll be less people crawling all over the ruins if indeed you did get a chance for your postcard photo. The chances of that were looking slimmer than Kate Moss on smack though. Once we were through the check point everyone set off at a hectic pace, a mad dash to reach their goal, the entire time the thick cloud which loomed ominously to the right covering the landscape never lifting, not even showing signs of dissipating.
We were fucked by the time we got to the steps that lead up to the Sun Gate, I think there’s about 50 stone steps which for the last part are so steep you find yourself clawing your way up with your hands as well as your feet. I think there’s 50 anyway, it’s hard to count whilst your lungs are collapsing in on themselves and you’re reminding yourself that watching Zumba commercials and thinking about going to the gym as you brush the cake crumbs off your lap isn’t going to get you fit. One foot in front of the other, one hand over the next, Elistan at the top wearing a huge grin, shouting words of encouragement, telling us we were nearly there and there was a great surprise at the top when we made it. Thank god the drizzle had stopped even if the cloud hadn’t lifted… I hauled myself through the sun gate, stumbled to my feet and almost as quickly as I regained my breath I lost it again. It was perfectly clear and there in the distance, only the size of a postage stamp but very definitely there was Machu Picchu. Even this far away it looked amazing and the realisation that it wasn’t all in vain, that we’d made it, we’d conquered the Inca Trail and our prize was in reach was awesome.
After a rest we made it to the guardhouse for the photos we’d been waiting for. Us, the ruins, the mountain in the background with a fine mist of white cloud across the tip. It couldn’t have been more perfect if it was Photoshopped. We were guided around the ruins for a couple of hours, fighting off these evil little sandflies that snuck up on any unprotected flesh you left exposed like ninjas and the only reason you knew they’d been there were the intensely itchy blood spots they left. Why is it that every beautiful place here is guarded by demons with a penchant for blood? Transylvania ain’t got nothing on South America. And here’s where all faith in anything Elistan had told us over the last four days vanished as we play Spot The Bullshit!
The Incas were more accurately known as the Quechua people as the title of Inca was only ever held by one man at a time; The king.
They believed that this life was a prison life and the most important thing to them wasn’t land but food. They fed the body they lived in in this life on their way to death and the better life that followed.
They used the stars as a calendar so they’d know when to plant and when to harvest.
They built aqueducts to direct spring water to their settlements because spring water, they believed, came from the mountains and they worshipped the mountains as gods. They never drunk from rivers as river water is dirty.
They were a sophisticated culture and as they conquered they absorbed more and more skills from the cultures they took over. They learnt to work with pottery and metal and they learnt different building techniques including building two-level structures.
The famous Inca walls of the buildings had smaller stones at the bottom and the walls sloped backwards in order to protect the structures from earthquakes.
All good so far? All sounds very feasible? Lapping it up as we were? Good.
So apparently South America suffers from a lot of earthquakes because it’s positioned between two oceans and the pressure of these two oceans’ waves causes seismic activity… Erm… So, we’re not buying this new-fangled tectonic plate theory are we? To be fair, everything else he told us seemed pretty legit, it was just that one little nugget that caused a small amount of eye rolling.
We chilled out at the ruins until we made it to Aguas Calientes for lunch, the little, expensive town situated a little, expensive bus ride away from the ruins. Thirteen trekkers, two guides, twenty porters, four days and one dream. Smashed it. The trek, and my digestive system.
The Inca Trail, Peru
Activity: Trekking with Peru Treks