And welcome back to South America! When you left me I had just joined up with my brand new touring group for the Inca Trail over twenty-one days. We didn't know them then so no details were given other than their names but we sure know them now! OK; roll-call. We have Chris and Ben; two twenty year old lads from Bradford and London respectively.
They are both party-loving wide boys and exactly what I didn't need on my health-trip build up to the Inca Trail. They turned out to be really nice though so I will let them off. I was kind of hoping for a group all in their forties so it would be very easy indeed to just eat salad and drink mineral water and not stick out like a sore thumb. This was not to be the case. But I got by. Next up we have Belinda, a really generous and pleasant Australian girl who looks like Kietha from Flight of the Conchords.
And we have Merrill, a seemingly calm and conservative lady in her early fifties, who had been a bit ill of late but is determined to climb Manchu Picchu and
who is a devil with a glass of red wine inside her. Then we have Rod, an Australian chap who, thankfully, paid a little extra to have his own rooms on the tour. This meant that, because of the numbers, I also got to have my own single rooms at no extra cost. Result! This made my enforced healthy living a lot
easier. He also looks like a cross between Yul Brynner and Howie Mandell. And then there is Luciano, our Argentinian tour leader who is also a really nice guy, chuckles all the time, looks like Richard Ashcroft and sounds just like Jesus from The Big Lebowski
Well that's the 'who we?' now for the 'where we?”. Peru in short. Puna in long. We got there by heading back the way I had come from La Paz to Copacabana just two days before. That meant crossing Lake Titicaca on the same boat I had been molested by an elderly lady just two days previously
. The wounds were still tender. Luckily the doctor said most of the scars were purely mental. After a night in Puna we got up bright and early and headed in a boat again onto Lake Titicaca to the distant island of Taquili. Now, Lake Titicaca is huge
. I mean really, really big. Take the image out of your head that appears when you think 'lake' and replace it with the one you get when you think 'sea'. 'Lake' T is one hundred and seventy kilometres by sixty-five kilometres or so. So pretty big. And it took us three hours to get to Taquili so we knew about it. We had a look around the island, had lunch and then moved on to Quina Chico where we were told to expect our new families. We would be staying for a day and that meant being part of the family and community. This consisted of cooking with them, playing with their children and sleeping in their house. And these are good old, none English speaking, rustic farming folk.
To begin with we played a game of football against the locals. It had been a while a since my last game in Bolivia and I was determined to put on a better show than our wheezing defeat that day
. Our line up consisted of the six of us travelling types, Luciano and our tour guide Roger. We were up against seven young local lads and the altitude. It started promisingly and, as a lazy, lazy man I decided that goal-hanging, sorry, leading the front line was the best idea for me. The aerial advantage could not be over-estimated as Chris, Ben, Luciano and myself are all over six feet tall and all
the Peruvians were midgets by comparison. They were fast though and stocky as anything. Long story short we ended up playing them twice and losing the first and winning the second. I certainly don't wish to brag but I scored myself a pretty snazzy hat trick and set up our winning goal to boot. If there had been a larger crowd it would have roared it's approval I am quite sure.
After the football we got paired off and introduced to our new 'fathers'. Rod and I got a gentleman whose nickname was 'great lover' in their local language. I told him “well you can keep your hands to yourself tonight great lover!” but I fear it got lost in translation. He took us back to his dwelling on the top of the hill (and boy
, was that
hard work) and as soon as we put our bags in the sleeping area his two daughters jumped Rod and me and forced us into games of marbles and jacks
. Whatever 'jacks' is. The girls are four and six years old and called Ophelia and Cassia. They seemed to love Rod and I swinging them around by their arms over and over again and how we didn't rip at least one limb off I will never know. Needless to say we finished far more tired than they did. Altitude + children = trouble.
Our new family then gave us a beautiful traditional meal and then dressed us up for an evening of dance. My traditional dress seemed to have been borrowed from Clint Eastwood but I didn't mind. It was another hat to add to the collection. The dancing itself was a little crazy and quite embarrassing to begin with. All seven of us had to dance with somebody from the town in a line. I danced the first dance with a lady in her late sixties and she didn't seem too keen on the whole thing. With the freakish strength of the Peruvian ladies as well Ben, who is a strapping six footer himself, was thrown all over the dance floor by a veritable midget of a lady. It was great fun though and we really felt part of the community
. It was a little sad for us all to bid farewell to our brief Peruvian families the next day but we left them with lots of presents to help ease the blow. A really nice excursion all in all.
We then moved to Cusco for four days in preparation for the Inca Trail. Cusco, for some reason, struck three of our group down with altitude and food-related sickness. Luckily I avoided all of that malarkey. Rod and Chris even ended up in the clinic overnight with different, but equally nasty, viruses. It was a crazy time. Other than illnesses we didn't get up to a great deal there though. On our last proper night there I decided to forego the self-imposed drinking ban for one night and we went to the Loki Hostel in town which we'd heard was a fun place to be. The only ones of us fit enough to go were Bell, Ben and myself but we made the best of a bad situation. As soon as we got into the hostel bar we spied the only free seats at a table nearby. We sat down and introduced ourselves and as luck would have it Bell had been in a hostel in Brazil with two of the guys and I'd been in the Wild Rover
with three others
. South America is
a small place. After five minutes the bar maid announced the winners of a competition they'd had on all night to name all the songs played. As luck would have it the guys on our table won first prize and the bar maid came over and said “free shots for everyone!”. Before we could say “but we've only just arrived” we were whisked to the bar and then received free T-shirts to boot for our hard work. I think that's what is known as being in the right place at the right time.
And so onto the Inca Trail. Chris and Rod returned to full health and our group was joined by another GAP group that, through illness, themselves had been reduced to just three. They were Cindy, a perky young Australian girl and Adrian and Toby, two semi-pro Aussie Rules footballers on their off-season break and keen to see the world, drink and be merry. It took the new guys a little while to integrate into the group but when they did they did with a bang. The lads are pretty much what you would describe as typically Australian
. If you were to hire two people from central casting to play huge Aussie lads in a TV show you would go straight for Adrian and Toby. They are both full of local witticisms, six and a half foot tall and nearly as wide and constantly bantering. We did warm to them and had great fun swapping jokes, amusing stories and playing the 'name a city you've been to and I'll come up with a film that incorporates the city's name' game. It's a long title but a good game. They also both enthusiastically embraced my search for eighty hats and actively helped me out in chasing down those precious rare head-rests. Even on one occasion chasing a man down a mountain with me; but more of that later.
The Inca trail is split into four days, each more gruelling than the one that preceded it. In truth the second day is renowned as the worst but the accumulation really does some damage to you. Mentally and physically. Day one we set off from out hotel and the moment we reached the initial check-point for the trail it started raining
. And raining. And raining. We all donned our protective water ponchos and prayed for it to stop. This is did not do for about three hours. We knew we were approaching rainy season and our guide, Umberto, had warned us to expect wet weather most days but surely it wasn't going to rain for four straight days? Was it? Well, in short, no. After that first downpour we had only half an hour of rain or so for the rest of the trip. The dead Incas were on our side, clearly. That first day constituted a four hour walk and a lengthy lunch. Preparation really for the nightmare that was to come; Day Two. As it's title suggests Day Two started on the second day. We had heard people refer to it in hushed tones and knew there was trouble ahead. The day before the trail had begun we'd done three hours or so of trekking and then the four hours on Day One but that really doesn't prepare you for nine hours of trekking almost entirely uphill, at high altitude, up over six thousand stone steps. And not just small steps but huge bounding stone steps. We were in trouble.
Luckily we did have 'the weather' for Day Two but that was about all
. We crawled out of our tents at six, had some breakfast and set off. Uphill. As we would be doing for all but the last hour of the day. After some comic banter had become serious the night before Adrian ended up with a tougher day than the lot of us. He had – half jokingly I believe – commented that the porters have a far more interesting time of it than us tourists. We had twelve or so porters carrying everything from camping equipment to our dinner table and cooking stove and these fellows run
up the trail with around thirty kilograms on their backs. You spend the four days dodging these speedy-Gonzales' making their way past you at incredible speed so they can get to the camp-site ahead of you and set up. Last year a porter broke the previous record and did the whole trail
in three and a half hours. We would be doing it in four days. And it would nearly kill me. So you can guess how fit these fellows are. Anyway, Adrian, in his Australian way, commented that this would be a real challenge and that for one of the days he would swap places with a porter, carry the large pack and let the lucky porter carry his day-pack. A porter's holiday if ever there was one. Umberto played along and said that sounded very interesting but obviously he wouldn't want to do it on Day Two. This seemed to rile something up in Ade and, with a little goading from Toby, he promised that he would do just that. He was true to his word too, and set of with us in the morning with the full compliment of twenty-six kilograms on his back and a smiling porter stood behind him carrying around five kilograms of day-pack
It's quite hard to describe the day without being stupidly simplistic. So I'll do it anyway; it is really
hard. And the hardest bit is the second half when you are already really tired from the previous six hours. I had been making my way slowly backwards
through the field during the day realising how unfit I was. I was pretty much last in our group when we approached the real killer part of the trek. Here I noticed Adrian was also struggling with his huge porter's pack. His porter was standing next to him offering to take over the hard graft every ten minutes or so. Adrian would have none of it though and credit to him for that. Nobody would have thought less of him if he had. We decided to try to tackle the climb in short bursts interrupted with five minutes of getting our breath back and talking about the intricacies of Aussie Rules football. It actually worked as a tactic. Reaching the summit was something quite special. I hadn't really come that
close to quitting but it had tested me greatly.
And I had survived!
After surviving making it to the top of the pass we then had to walk down the other side for an agonising hour. Believe me, your knees do not forgive you for walking for eight hours or so and then going downhill on slippery rocks in steadily falling drizzle for an hour after it. We all got to camp safely, congratulated Adrian on doing so too, and went to bed at seven thirty. Like good boys and girls. Day Three was an interesting one too. With what we were told was the worst behind us we woke up at five to see another huge mountain we had to climb first thing after which it would “all be downhill... more or less” for the rest of the day. That first climb was fierce and lasted around an hour and a half. All the way my knees kept reminding me of the previous days exertions. Luckily by chance I noticed Toby had a Pearl Jam T-shirt on. We got to talking and it transpires he knows as much about the band as I do. Which is a stupid amount. We chatted for the next six hours or so all about gigs we'd been to, favourite songs and general band banter
. This annoyed the other people in our group but when you get two die-hard P.J fans together then this is going to happen. And it made the gruelling walk that much easier. This turned out to be our longest day – getting in at four - but as reward the camp-site we were staying at had hot showers – the first showers of any kind for three days – and a bar; luxury! We didn't go crazy as we had a really early start the next day but we had a couple of refreshing beers and Ben even had a massage. One step too far I felt. This was supposed to be roughing it you know...
So our final day on the Inca Trail started at Four O Clock with a run to get in line at the gate to Machu Picchu. We had been told that only four hundred tickets were given out a day to let you climb Wayna Picchu – Machu's big brother – and thus get access to unparalleled views of Machu Picchu. We were told this was well worth doing but you would have to rush the hour and a half walk to the site in order to snap up one of these golden tickets. This we grudgingly did and as we arrived at the site we were to behold M.P in all her misty-six-thirty-morning glory. And she was, indeed, breathtaking. Sadly she was soon to be pretty much invisible with that morning cloud and we were starting to wonder whether we should make the forty-five minute hike up Wayna Picchu at all if visibility was at nil
. We took the tour around M.P and then set off to do W.P regardless. We'd come this far hadn't we? Little did we know. Wayna Picchu is an absolute monster and is pretty treacherous to boot. The photographs I have do not do justice to the height of the thing but believe me, after four days of trekking this was just about the hardest physical activity I'd ever done. But when we finally got to the top it was well worth it. The cloud parted after five minutes and the views were truly spectacular. Our journey was over! I'll never walk up steps again!
Well the Inca Trail may have been over but a larger journey was still going on. As I mentioned earlier Toby and Adrian, even though they had only known me for a matter of days, were all about
my eighty hats venture. When we first stepped into M.P that morning we spotted an Asian gentleman wearing the most extraordinary fur hat. It looked for all the world like he had a dead animal on his head. Perfect for my collection! A true one off. Anywhoo this gentleman eluded me at M.P and I thought this hat had slipped through my fingers until we got to the top of Wayna Picchu
. “Your hats over there, Dan!” Adrian shouted out as he pointed to the same gentleman on the far side of W.P. We left our sightseeing to one side and followed him. As soon as we got down to where he had been he had made his way to another viewing point. So we continued to chase him but each time he was always one step ahead of us. Much like a slippery snake we couldn't get our hands on him. Just when we thought we had him he was spotted halfway down the mountain and out of our grasp. We were furious but gave it up as a bad job. About an hour later we were waiting for our bus when Adrian sat down on a bench and who was sat next to him? That very same be-hatted Asian gentleman. And what a nice chap he was. Thank you very much I said' Hat seventy-eight in the bag. A thoroughly perfect ending to a stunning day.
Next time; The end of the road...
Lots of Love,