The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Peru  ,
Monday, January 21, 2008

As an aside....

For those of you who felt that my 5 travelpod entries and 200 photos weren't enough to quench your thirst for all things Ghana, then take a look at this cool video:

One of the volunteers, Sasha, created this 26 minute video from various pieces of footage she took while we were in Sega.  If you have some spare time, a fast computer and a solid internet connection (none of which I have managed to locate in Eastern Europe or South America) you can take a look.  From the bits of pieces I have actually managed to see of this video it has definitely worked to make me Ghana homesick.

* * *

It was always going to be an impossible task convincing Iain to participate in a four day trek which involved:

1. camping
2. trekking
3. nature in all its glory.

So I really have to be grateful for the effects of 4 person peer group pressure which managed to coerce him into thinking that a couple of strenuous days of hiking through forest from the small village of Ollantaytambo to the Lost City of the Incas would be enjoyable.  Well, peer pressure helped but I think the fact that we had 21 porters to carry our bags and set up the tents and a dedicated chef to prepare all our meals really swung the decision for him.  I sold it as "camping, but without all the hassle" and somehow it worked.  He agreed.  We were locked and loaded.

You can probably understand my concern that he was a little unwell before we set out.  My concern was partly due to the fact that if he couldn't complete the trek he may have required a medical evacuation, but the majority of my concern was that this sickness would mean he would be complaining even more than normal about camping and trekking.  Now that's a lot of complaining.

No doubt he will regale you with his own view of the trek (mostly from the toilet) and mention that he was considering a medical evacuation just to avoid having to sleep another night on the thin camp mats in the tents, but from my point of view it was a worthwhile and unique experience.

We all knew that we were taking on this arduous trek in the rainy season and more importantly in January, the rainiest of months in the rainy season.  It was forecasted to rain 18 days of 31 during the month of January and Pachamama (Mother Nature) didn't let us down.  It rained on and off for the entire 4 days of the trek but only the third day was an arctic, windy, Take Me Indoors Put Me On A Couch And Serve Me Hot Chocolate With Floating Marshmallows type of rain.  Unfortunately this was also the day with (apparently) the most breathtaking views.  We didn't actually see them because along with the rain came fog.  Lots of thick, white, impenetrable fog.  We could see the path as it coiled up the hills but that was all we could see.  Looking over the mountain edge was just a sea of brilliant white.

The remaining days were much more enjoyable.  Even day two - the day of the killer ascent - was cool and drizzly ensuring the climb was relaxed and achievable.  Despite being a party of 16 on the hike the trail allows you to roam at your own pace (whatever speed that is) and then catch up to resting group members every time the guide has something to explain to the pack.  Furthermore, when climbing at altitude it is encouraged that you don't push yourself, rather ease yourself into the hike.  For these reasons, along with the chef's sumptuous meals and snacks, the trail was not overly challenging which meant you were able to admire the unique orchids, scattered ruins and beautiful scenery along the way.

We chose a tour company that was particularly benevolent to porter staff, but it was still heart-breaking to see these 21 men (some aged 55 years old) stacking up propane gas bottles, chairs and silver service sugar bowls to bundle into 25kg packs which they then attached to their backs to cart up the mountainside.  These men were extremely fit as they hiked the Inca Trail close to four times per month, but also because they had to run the trail to beat us to campsite to erect tents, prepare meals and shamefully applaud us when we finally made it to base camp.
Machu Picchu was a beautiful site, helped by the fact that soon after arrival the sun came out from behind the clouds for the very first time in four days.  However, the warm sun, the early start and the fatigue setting in from trekking for four consecutive days meant that I was tired.  My elation upon reaching Machu Picchu had much more to do with the fact that we had survived the Trail and reached our goal rather than the magnificence of the ruins.  In fact, in retrospect, I preferred the impressive Incan ruins we visited on day three of the Trail at Winay Wayna as well as our day trip to the understated yet picturesque Pisaq ruins more than Mach Picchu.

┐Would I do it again?  Probably not, because I have already done it.  ┐Did I enjoy doing it? Yes!

* * *

(Warning: the following contains some scatalogical references. You may wish to skip this entirely and just enjoy your day. Please.)

The alarm goes at a dark hour for your 5:20a.m. pickup. With one more day of recovery, I would be looking forward to this, as much as one looks forward to three days of camp food and sleeping on the ground. But there are no days of recovery, for Peru Treks brooks no delays once your US dollars are safely squirrelled away.
So it was that I became a cog in their admittedly super slick operation. They had 16 of us picked up from a motley array of hospedajes in around 10 minutes, then got on the road out of town, all the time picking up porters and cooks who would form our 21 man entourage for the trip. I know it doesn't sound like roughing it, but in my book, it still is.

Departing our nice little bus at Km82 was the cue for the rain, our new constant companion. In truth, most of the time a little rain is a far better companion than heat as you go through so much less water - water that you have to carry.
Crossing through the first checkpoint with the group it rapidly becomes clear that I am not the only one under the weather. Indeed, our first morning passed very slowly with one member of the group spending more time in the bushes than on the trail. It wasn't just the sickness that earned him my pity, it was the knowledge that with his wife departing with him they had just spent an unrefundable $1000 to shit in the woods for two hours. 
In our time waiting for Charlie to decide to turn back, the rain took the opportunity to really belt down. Claude's $6 heavy duty rain poncho investment decision took on all the hallmarks of a moment of genius, as did my reluctant decision to also buy one purely to avoid any potential warmth and dryness oneupmanship. Unfortunately, Liz was not part of this poncho arms race, and her thinner $2 rain poncho hit its 2 hour lifetime warranty and moved immediately into the process of biodegradability.
After some very easy walking (actually ponderously paced, even in my laggardly state), we reached lunch. Silverware. Entrees. Little quartered avocados with a delicate tomato and lemon juice salsa. Trout with warm spring vegetables. We checked our notes, and it clearly said "cook", not "mobile restaurant". The man could put Jamie Oliver in the shade, and all after having to carry the same allocation of 25kg as every other porter and run ahead of the fat westerners to assemble the kitchen and dining area before we arrive.
Dinner would prove to be even better: is there any better way to end a day's camping than with lightly sauteed bananas in brandy served a flambe?
I had made it through day 1, and was feeling fairly well and thinking that my recovery process had not been hampered by a day's rainy exertions. This was to prove incorrect.
On the little guide the trekking companies provide, day one is marked as "easy", while day two earns the label "challenging". Central to this is the requirement to cover 1100m vertically, moving from a very cosy 3100m campsite through a 4200m pass.
I awoke with the first light. Awoke is somewhat misleading, as it infers a level of lost consciousness which cannot be achieved in a tent. But my body had held together, and I was ready to embrace the day. Positive thoughts left me rapdily about 20 minutes into the day when I all but seized our guide, "Puma", and urgently requsted the banio. The Lord smiled fairly upon me, for we were close to a ranger station, and that ranger was clearly expecting Queen Elizabeth at some point midmorning, such was the quality of the facilities. Rarely on entering public facilities does one feel obliged to remove shoes in order to maintain the elegance of one's surroundings, but that was the quality of this installation. It had everything bar Vivaldi┤s Four Seasons playing in the background, but my body chimed in to provide the music, much to the ranger's audible, wincing disgust as he lingered immediately outside the door. He had clearly not been appraised of the magnitude of horror about to befall his little corner of respite.
Problems multiplied here. I was now 15 minutes behind the group, and not feeling a whole lot like walking. What I was feeling was a whole lot like curling up and going to sleep in the rain. The effect of this is that on catching the group at the first designated rest break on the ascent, my rest was curtailed to about 90 seconds before pushing on. Punishing.
We reached our second break point at 3800m, and my ego was taking a bruising. I am not used to being in the fat old people's group in areas of physical fitness, and whats's worse, it was taking everything I had just to keep up with them. At the break I was careful to ostentatiously request a second cup of tea and in so doing subtly extend the break and our time out of a wind that was now ripping across the mountains.
Surprisingly, the ascent has very few steps and is actually pretty easy. We had climbed a mountain in China on this trip that was a pure lactic acid nightmare of thousands of knee destroying stairs, and I had visions of this being equally painful. In truth, my legs and lungs never cared. Other parts of my body were caring enough for everybody.
As a constant companion, the chef needs all provisible plaudits. Flavoursome vegetable soups and light fresh salads were psychologically imperative to help me ignore the excellent other foods that were available that I just knew I had to stay away from.
After another night with all the restful properties of sleeping in a shopping trolley at Westfields, I merely lay awake waiting for the light. War had been declared, and I did not feel like allowing the battle to commence with absence of light an added factor. As soon as th peering sun permitted (about 5a.m.) I moved with undue haste to the western toilet thoughtfully installed at the campsite a few years ago, and never cleaned since.

Fiddling with the banio door, I failed to note that the prior occupant of the facilities appeared to have been a bovine who'd had a dodgy curry. It was despicable, but my die was cast and I had no further metres I was able to traverse. And so began day 3, labelled with startling insight "Breathtaking and Spectacular".
The views on this day of the trek, I am told, are quite good. But alas fog was our friend today, and the views - the payoff - was minimal. But quiet time with one's thoughts in the eerily, beautifully silent mountains is equally enjoyable, allowing one to reflect on exactly why one just didn't catch the damn train in the first place, thereby avoiding 45km of walking, in the rain, without views, with, um, "body issues".
My time for reflection ended promptly after our combined morning tea/ lunch break. The sick hiker has no activity he wishes to do less than surrender and acknowledge a bacterial victory somewhere adjacent to the trail. But there was nought for it, and I conferred with Mike (Claudine being NOWHERE in sight, which has been noted for future reference), and advised him of the full horror of the situation at hand.

Perhaps not ackowledging the import of the full horror described, Mike rocked back and forth in decidedly unsympathetic laughter as I passed him, with due speed and alacrity, my hiking stick, daypack, rain poncho, and dignity.

If there is one thing worse than proceeding into the woods for an emergency of this nature, its being the fourth person to proceed into that same patch of woods for the same emergency. Once again, the onward march of downstairs urgency meant there was no time for new site selection.

Initially, the gentle summer rain brushing the buttocks of he indoorsy office worker is refreshing and invigorating. Less invigorating is the quick changeover to driving rain and the realisation that total relief of the crunching stomach cramps will require the same 15 minutes as the prior day. No Vivaldi either. One compensation is that one grunt of pain I emitted led a passing French lady to spin around with her Nikon thinking she had captured some kind of Andean Bear.

Indeed, when I joined the group at the next break, I noted some other long faces, faces whose length could only have one cause. "May I ask if you also recently joined The Bear Club?" I delicately asked of Kyla. Indeed she had. One who has joined the club can instinctively unravel the riddle and return your knowing look.

The Bear Club derives its name from the answer to the rhetorical question given in response to an earlier question with an obviously positive answer. As an example, Claudine may ask "Iain, do you feel like a Sausage and Egg McMuffin?" which has the matching response "Does a bear shit in the woods?" 

Today was the day that the rain became really and truly unpleasant for all concerned. However, it did at least end well, with a visit to Huinay Huayna (translates as 'Forever Young'). This is the classically styled terraced agriculture implausibly built into a 60 degree steep hill. Claude can tell you more about it as I was drawn away from the guide's explanation for bodily failure numero cinqo. You will note in the photos that I stopped bothering to deponcho. If I had to leave, in each instance it would be without ado.

A horrible 3:45a.m. start for the group kicked off the fourth and final day. I actually enjoyed the earlier commencement, as it simply meant two fewer hours of lying on the hard ground wondering why on earth people went camping for fun when smashing your teeth with a hammer was a cheaper and more entertaining alternative.

Arriving at the Sun Gate was quite cool. I am not throwing around phrases like "made it all worthwhile" as the old ducks passing us walking back the kilometre from Machu Picchu to the Gate reinforced that this key trek highlight was equally enjoyable from the train.

Machu Picchu itself is a grand spectacle. Critically, it has that ridiculously, crazy bigness that leaves you wondering how on earth anyone decided to build it. Surprisingly, very little is known about what purpose it served: was it the centre of the Inca Empire? was it just Pachamac's beach house and summer palace that was rarely used? I had expected to get some answers to this, but apparently this secret has not been able to be revealed.

Some of the stories we were given were somewhat illogical. The Inca managed to outsmart the Spanish by leading them away from Machu Picchu and they never found it. At the same time, we were told, the Inca chose to abandon this seemingly impervious citadel in the face of a few advancing Spanish. Huh? Other elements revealed considerable genius and deft agricultural touch: stones that emit a perpendicular shadow only at the Summer Solstice being the best example.

In some ways, my central memory of seeing Machu Picchu was a sense of relief that the ordeal was over, which is a bit of a shame. Adding insult to injury, we caught the train back to civilisation the following day: glass roofed, waiter service, seats plush as a thousand dollar teddybear. Woe betide he who passes up the train.

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