¡Hola a todos!
Fresh from the excitement of attending ‘Inti Raymi’ I bid a fond and temporary adieu to Cam and Seb, before wandering over to my hotel for the night, part of my Inca Trail package. It was here that I was due to meet our tour leader and the rest of my group in a swift briefing that would prepare us for the trek ahead. I checked into the hotel a little ahead of time, so as to settle myself in my room and pick out some of the gear that I thought would be most useful for the coming days: I had already dropped off my main pack, full of items that I would not require upon the trek, at the South American Explorers’ office in San Blas, a popular, arty barrio (neighbourhood) of Cusco. The room itself was sober but, it boasted a single bed and en suite, two utterly novel concepts for my whirling mind to digest: I was certainly being encouraged to commence the trail in peak condition at any rate! Arriving back downstairs in the communal courtyard area, I was greeted by my guide for the coming trip but, no other body was to be seen. It transpired that the rest of my trekking group were part of a larger tour, organized by the same company that were taking us to Machu Picchu, and that they were not actually present in Cusco but instead were waiting to join me in a town nearer to the head of the trail. Although slightly disconcerted at learning this, I was not able to remain disheartened for long, as I listened with increasing glee to my guide, Marco, as he explained our itinerary for the coming days. The briefing swiftly concluded, I headed out for an early dinner with my friends Cam and Seb and then retired to my luxurious single bedded room, where I slept soundly until morning.
The following day, I rose early and was picked up by our transport van, carrying a sleepy-eyed Marco, as dawn broke across the city. We made swift progress over hill and dale, dropping down into the valley adjacent to that within which Cusco is situated. This neighbouring valley is full of Incan ruins and leads, eventually to the foothills below Machu Picchu itself: the numerous ruins suggest that this valley was very important to the Incas and surely contributes to its name, the famous ‘Sacred Valley’. We arrived in one such ancient centre, now a thriving small town, called Ollanaytambo. Marco informed me that we would have twenty minutes here to gather last-minute supplies for the first day on the trail, before continuing on out of town and to our rendezvous point with the rest of our group. I made use of my time, buying bottled water and coca sweets, as much as to provide a source of chewable motivation as to alleviate any latent feelings of altitude sickness. I then toured the main square, seeking a place to enjoy a hot drink – yes, hot chocolate – before meeting with Marco once more. So it was that I stumbled into ‘Hearts Cafe’, an eatery-cum-social project opened by a British ex-pat some years ago. This lady, well into retirement age, had come adventuring to Peru in later life and so fell in love with the place that she decided to remain indefinitely. Seeking inspiration and a way to fill her spare time, she came to establish this cafe-project, aimed at raising funds to support impoverished local women; those widowed, abused by husbands and fathers and generally struggling to survive. Her story was itself inspirational and I enjoyed my hot chocolate all the more in the knowledge that there are such wonderful people in the world, each contributing in their own unique, small way to changing this place for the better.
We journeyed on to the edge of the town and to my meeting, finally, with the rest of my group. This group, to my initial consternation, comprised of six Australians, one Kiwi and their Peruvian guide for their entire South American tour, who was also to tackle the trail. I was the sole Brit, the sole representative from the entire northern hemisphere no less. I was, surely, to have my work cut out for me on this trip. As it swiftly became obvious, there was no such cause for any alarm: each and every person in the group was friendly, considerate and great company. The was a jovial, newly married couple from Melbourne, Rob and Shannon, who soon revealed themselves to be incredibly speedy hikers – even I gave up trying to match their pace on some days. Steve and Shaun were two witty individuals who were quite happy to take things slightly slower, Steve still in the process of recovering from a bout of flu earlier in the tour. Jan and Ruth were a couple of retired teachers, well-motivated and very interesting characters. Our token Kiwi, Rea, was in the dusk of her South American trip, due to fly out to Europe some days after our trip. She had become close to the group’s long-term tour guide, Carla, a native of Lima: these two set me in mind of terrible twins, often conspiring, and thick as thieves. Initial greetings were concluded and conversation soon followed easily.
The trek itself, even before arriving at the famous citadel on the mountain, was exceptional. Every day brought with it new sights, sounds and smells, often in wildly altered circumstances, yet within easy walking distance from one another. The first day was an easy day, one in which we were able to become accustomed to the trail and to our surroundings, while our guides became familiar with our personal strengths, weaknesses and general walking speeds. I ambled along at a steady pace, quite happy to practise my Spanish with Marco, while he in turn worked at his English. This comfortable pace also gave me ample opportunity to take in the fabulous surroundings: rolling hills, crowded in by soaring mountain peaks, reaching up to snap at the fluffy clouds gliding gracefully overhead. The abundant greenery shimmered energetically in the water of the sacred Urubamba River, gushing noisily below our trail. This day also offered the most information from our guides by way of ornithology and the topics of flora and fauna. We were also introduced to a happy feature that remained constant throughout our trek; that of sumptuous, bordering upon decadent, meals, prepared by our genius chef and his helpers, who doubled up as some of our contingent of porters, those Peruvian men who carried all our camping and cooking equipment, as well as a maximum of five kilograms of luggage from each trekker. These porters remained a fairly taciturn bunch throughout the trek but, there is no doubt that they are deserving of their plaudits, carrying at least seventy kilograms each for every day that we were on the trail. Most of the porters are not locals; rather they arrive looking for work from the surrounding rural regions and can often most easily find this upon the trail.
Our second day upon the trail was also most widely reputed to be the most difficult. I had met many previous walkers of the trail and many had spoken most lengthily about the horrors of this day. Reactions were diverse: some would shrug their shoulders nonchalantly and assure me that there was nothing much to the early morning climb of more than one thousand meters, peaking at a pass of 4,200m, quite aptly named ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’, the impressive Quechua for which I have long since forgotten. Others became wide-eyed, unsteady, shivering shells of their usual selves and often refused to say more than a few words on the subject – frequently these words included a number of expletives and terrifying adjectives, whispered almost reverently. I confess that I gave little notice to any of those reactions mentioned here: as far as I was concerned, Machu Picchu lay beyond this fabled pass that therefore had to be crossed. Timing was of little consequence, style also: all that mattered was that the pass was conquered and that I retained some residue of energy in preparation for the remainder of the trek. Our group rose early to the news from our guides that on this day and this day only we were encouraged to walk at our own pace; there would be no group stops before camp, which was described to us and pointed out on the map before we broke camp. The group had soon splintered into pockets of walkers: I strode at the head of our motley crew, in the company of Rob and Shannon. These two walked well together but, I preferred instead to strike out alone, taking stops when I needed them, occasionally snatching a quick photograph opportunity or swig of energizing water. The walk soon steepened, leading away from the campsite and to the head of the climb. There followed two hours of pure uphill slog, a grateful diversion ever-present in the wealth of fabulous natural scenery that hemmed the trail in on all sides. We climbed in the early morning light, the glare of the sun not yet present over the peaks towering over us to the right of the valley-pass. The cool early morning light, coupled with the proliferation of shade provided by the gnarled characters of the woodlands that we passed through, combined to lend highly-appreciated, favourable walking conditions to our enterprise. I walked as swiftly as my lungs and legs would allow, with few, short rest-stops so as to retain as much warmth as possible in my screaming thighs and calves. Breaking out onto open ground for the second half of the climb, I was afforded the broadest, clearest view of my fellow hikers upon the trail. Five hundred hikers, porters and guides are permitted upon the trail every day. Many of these five hundred could now be seen, strung out along the trail, each undergoing their own, personal battle. Passing heaving individuals, young and old, male and female, slim and thickset, I called greetings or encouragement everywhere that I could. The varying responses set me in mind of my previous hike in the Colca Canyon: some people were able to answer quite cheerily; others barely muttered a word, preferring to conserve every breath for the onward, upward drag. Late on in the trail I even came across a young Peruvian boy, no older than ten years, who was accompanying his father, a porter, upon the trail. The sight was inspirational, to see this young chap climbing without complaint, happy to call out an ‘hola’, never more than a few minutes behind his watchful father. I amused myself with thoughts of such a radical ‘bring your child to work’ scenario and continued to climb.
Eventually, nearing the point beyond which I would no longer care, I crested the summit of the pass. After walking alone for the majority of the climb, I arrived directly behind Rob and Shannon and so we enjoyed a leisurely break upon the summit, gobbling chocolate, fruit and gulping water while looking out over the valley below, filled still with walkers marking the trail in their multitude of colourful garments. The view was quite spectacular and ample reward for the tough climb. We three amused ourselves taking a plenitude of photographs and eventually descending to our campsite for the night with no sign of the remainder of our group. We arrived in camp after some punishing downhill a little after half-past eleven in the morning: we had been walking for a mere three and a half hours. In fairness, everyone was in camp long before sunset and able therefore to enjoy a well-earned restive period before another fantastic evening meal. This was preceded by afternoon tea, which consisted of a mind-numbing choice of teas, coffee and hot chocolate, accompanied by popcorn; yes, popcorn. I am far from falling into the haunted camp of hikers when asked about this day’s walk and its infamous pass. Nonetheless, I can appreciate that it was a hard climb and fully deserving of a pat on the back upon completion. We amused ourselves before and after dinner with a set of cards and some interesting new games, orientated towards large groups of people. I ended my evening whiling away an hour with Marco and our second guide, Reuben, drinking some red wine and learning more about Pachamama, who I had been required to provide with a small, votive offering; a libation of fresh wine, before it had touched my lips, poured upon the earthen floor. This helped to guarantee the ongoing support of ‘Mother Earth’ and all that such entailed, especially the reassurance of bountiful harvests.
The following day, the final one before we arrived at Machu Picchu, was also the most educational, as we visited a multitude of small Incan settlements, the final of which, Winay Wayna, is only slightly less impressive to my mind than the final extravaganza itself. One highlight of this day was my first experience of a cloud forest, covering the area around our second and third passes along the trail, both lower than that of the previous day and complete with a much more abundant array of wildlife, on account of the life-nourishing water provided in the laden clouds obscuring much of these peaks. I contented myself with admiring a vast supply of orchids, my first sight of this beautiful flower in the wild (do not worry, Mum, they were not quite as impressive as your kitchen occupiers). We also visited a small outpost settlement, built quite improbably upon a steep gradient and seemingly quite impregnable to all assailants bar those with heavy artillery. The day ended at Winay Wayna, an Incan settlement larger than any other upon the trail, bar Machu Picchu itself. Archaeologists believe that this centre provided a welcome nocturnal stop-off point for those on their way to the famous citadel; a place in which one could recuperate and rejuvenate themselves and their outward appearance in preparation for arriving at such a significant location.
Winay Wayna these days benefits as being the sole final camping destination for those upon the trail. Consequently, it offers the first opportunity of a hot shower and of a well-stocked bar, thus covering the gender divide quite inspirationally. The campsite is a mere five minute walk from the Incan ruins and so, after arriving quite late in the day and setting down my gear, I wandered off to view this urban ghost alone. The sun was dying low in the sky as I approached the ruins. Birdsong lit my path on all sides, a harmony of unfamiliar cantos. Quite suddenly, the path opened out upon a small plain; the sight before me was utterly arresting. Winay Wayna lay stretched out before and below me, clinging tenaciously to a steep slope, a marvel of terracing – even by Incan standards. Buildings huddled, their roofs long since vanquished by the elements. A steep staircase led down to the main body of the settlement and to breath-taking vistas out upon Machu Picchu Mountain (although with no hint of the city itself) and down into the verdant valley below. Few souls wandered still among the crumbling walls so late in the day and so I was able to envelope myself in the mystical, restive air of the scene, punctuated by that wonderful dusk-chorus of birdsong still. It was in a small alcove in the lower town, looking out upon the following, final day’s destination and warmed by an electrical excitement rarely felt, even upon this most marvellous of adventures, that I was discovered by Rob and Shannon. We admired the scene a few minutes more, conversing in respectful, hushed tones in this magical place, before ascending the staircase back to the trail and to our camp. Here, at seven o’clock, midnight back home in England, I commenced celebrating my 23rd birthday, sharing a bottle of wine and happy anecdotes with Rob, Shannon, Rea and Carla in the campsite’s illustrious (well, for that evening at least) bar. Really; the first alcoholic supplier upon the trail and it arrived just in time for my birthday – fair fortune indeed!
A pleasant evening enjoyed, we retired to our tents and to our thoughts and hopes for the coming day’s exhilarating possibilities.
¡Saludos a todos!