The Trail We Blazed

Trip Start May 20, 2013
Trip End Mar 11, 2014

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Inka's Rest

Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Saturday, July 27, 2013

In Arequipa I insisted on us watching 'The Road to El Dorado', so I was feeling pretty well-prepared for the Inca Trail. Since arriving in Cusco, I had been singing 'The Trail We Blaze' pretty much non-stop, and we were both really excited (for anybody not familiar with the song from the hugely underrated Disney classic, here's a link:

The night before our tour started, we met our group and had an induction with our guide, Percy, who told us what to expect and showed us the route we'd be taking. Our group was absolutely lovely, made up of couples aged about 23-35 and a father/son duo, both named James. James Sr is 62 and had a total knee replacement 2 years ago, so we all felt a little bit relieved about how hard the trek was going to be.

The following morning we set off bright and early at 6:30 am in our mini bus, and our first stop was a little Quechan community that G Adventures supports. We met the families that live there, learnt about their handicrafts and could buy the Alpaca wool goods that they had made. Percy gave us a very long speech explaining how everything is done, then gave us some free time to look around. He had barely finished telling us that we could speak to anyone or go and feed the alpacas before he was engulfed in a cloud of dust as every single one of us sprinted for the adorable alpacas. He very nearly had some very fluffy stowaways on the mini-bus.

After this, we drove to the first Inca site of the trip, where we walked for about an hour to some ruins. Now, it was only at this point that I started to feel some concern over altitude sickness. I had been fine in Cusco, but the air was starting to feel a little too thin, and my wheezing was becoming more noticeable with every step. Not a great start, but we felt sure that I would acclimatise again for the Inca Trail, so we tried not to let it worry us. We had our first group photo, and Ollie almost immediately tripped over and nearly dropped our camera over the edge of a very steep drop. Everybody in the group made a mental note not to ask him to take any photos during the trek.

We then headed to Pisac, where we visited a market and a silver shop to learn how the beautiful traditional pendants here are made. It's all done by hand, and is incredibly impressive. After Ollie dragged me away, insisting that silver jewellery does not account for essential travel expenses, we drove to a lovely restaurant for lunch. Had I known that this was to be my last full meal for a week, I might have hit the all-you-can-eat buffet a bit harder. 

We then drove to Ollantaytambo, where we would be spending the night. Here we climbed up to another Inca site, and we really started to feel impressed with Percy's knowledge and enthusiasm. He is a Quechan who is fiercely proud of his heritage, and who always says 'we' when describing something that the Incas did. You can tell that he still feels a lot of hurt over the way that the Spanish destroyed what the Incas built, and he said that his people truly feel that they are owed an apology. He explained how the Incan buildings were made with no tools apart from rocks. The stones are perfectly cut to size and smooth, so we were fascinated to learn how they were shaped. A small crack would be made, and cold water would then be poured into the crack at night, high up in the mountains where it would freeze. The ice would force apart the rock, and it would then be chiselled to the correct measurement using smaller rocks. These great big boulders were transported around by hand. Rivers would be diverted to make it easier to transport them, and then diverted back again once the crossing had been done. Whilst we were learning so much, we kept hearing snippets from other guides saying things like 'these stairs are very steep' or 'these rocks are very old', so we knew we were very fortunate to have a guide as enthusiastic and well-informed as Percy. 

The following morning, we headed to KM 82 to start the Inca Trail. There was a real sense of excitement as we climbed out of the minibus and collected our walking poles. Here we also met the 2 assistant guides, Elias and Ever, who, unbeknownst to all of us, were about to spend a lot of time with me over the next 4 days.

We all took a moment to marvel over the 22 porters and 2 chefs that would be walking ahead of us for the entire trek. Most carried at least 30 kg each day, doing the same gruelling route that we took. One of them was 64 years old. Over the next 4 days, we would be consistently amazed by them. Every time we reached camp, everything had been completely set up for us, and they were waiting to give us a huge round of applause. They were always smiling and joking around, and never seemed to complain at all, despite the relentless heat, heavy loads and hours of ascent. They were bloody incredible.
We registered at the checkpoint and got a stamp in our passports, took another group photo, and we were off! 

At this point I'll explain that Ollie and I had completely different experiences of the Inca Trail, as I was horribly unwell for the duration of the trek. Altitude sickness affects people very differently, and as we learnt in Bolivia, I suffer from a very severe kind. Throughout the entire trek, I was having real trouble breathing, was so dizzy that at times all I could see were black spots, had absolutely no appetite and vomited anything that I did eat, had a horrendous cough, and was so weak that just raising an arm to brush my hair from my face would leave me panting for a good 5 minutes. All in all, not an ideal way to tackle a physically demanding 4 day trek. That said, I could still enjoy the incredible scenery so I don't regret continuing. Ollie, on the other hand, had an amazing experience, so I'm going to hand over the reins and let him describe the incredible Inca Trail (I'll add occasional thoughts in italics).

Ollie here now. The first day of trekking was "the easy day"; 10km, and fairly steady going from 2700m high to 3000m. We passed through the valley seeing small Inca ruins and following the river, preparing for the more gruelling days to come. Some communities are allowed to live in the earlier stages of the trail, so we would occasionally be passed by a herd of llamas and the spritely locals; the day that we started was also Independence Day in Peru, and we'd see people running ahead with jugs of chicha, a fermented corn drink, for the festivities to come. When we reached the campsite later that night, we would learn how these small Andean communities celebrated. And it was weird, but more on that in a bit.

Unfortunately, as Hannah has mentioned, she couldn't breathe. The gentle walk for the rest of us was therefore ten times harder for her, and we arrived at the lunch spot a bit later than everyone else. As she couldn't eat much, I got extra portions for the next few days! I suppose I should feel guilty about that, but the food prepared by the chefs was so impressive that it was hard to turn it down. Most meals started with a traditional Peruvian soup, followed by a delicious concoction of meat, veg and rice, and a dessert. They even managed to make a cake for all of us on the 3rd day, despite only having camping stoves.

6 courses later, I rolled into the campsite in time to join the local festivities. We went to the village schoolyard, where we were given some chicha (it tastes like alcoholic corn, so we went for normal beer after the first mouthful) and told to take a seat. Some fruit and a bottle of beer were suspended in the middle of the yard, and some men were on horses to the side. A simple, yet highly entertaining, spectacle then started as the men charged on their horses, blind drunk by this point, and tried to catch the bottle of beer, which was being pulled higher by the women in charge. They were whipping each other, being kicked by spectators and trying desperately not to fall off the horses and over the side of the cliff, and the crowds went wild. Each time the bottle was caught, the village kids rushed in to catch the falling fruit - one horseman was booed for stealing an orange from a toddler who hadn't managed to catch anything until then, until he gave into peer pressure and handed it back. As the game stopped and darkness fell, the girls in the group politely declined the drunken offers to come dancing at the bottom of the hill ("necessitamos CHICAS!") and we all went to bed.
Hannah, upset by the sickness issue but determined to keep going, insisted that I should go ahead with the rest of the group in the coming days. I'll make it clear now, as I had to make it clear to the group at the time to avoid being labelled a monster, that I protested and wanted to take care of her, but she's stubborn. The second day involved a climb to 4200m and the ominously-named Dead Woman's Pass, and a rapid descent afterwards to our campsite at 3600m. I bade farewell to my wheezing girlfriend and galloped away, reliant on radio updates from the guides for her progress. The path generally had a 45 degree incline uphill, and the altitude meant that the whole group was out of breath quickly. I got into a competition with the 64-year-old porter, who was obviously destined to win; every time he stopped for a break I'd pass him and he'd applaud, saying "Bravo Papi!". My Spanish isn't excellent but for some reason I think he was calling me his father. He'd then pick up his 30kg pack and sprint off past me again in his flip-flops.
As we reached the pass, I collapsed onto a rock and took a look at my companions. Cian from Ireland was wheezing while his girlfriend, Brid, carried his bag up to the pass. She's half the size of him. He tried to snatch it back before we saw, but the damage was done. Abby and Murph from Melbourne had sprinted up and barely broken a sweat, looking like they'd stepped right out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. Most of the others looked like I felt: shattered but proud to have reached the highest point of the trail. We looked out over the beautiful surrounding valleys and caught our breath.

After a rest and having been assured that Hannah was doing well but a bit behind, we started the treacherous descent. The steps were even steeper on the way down and a hard slog led us to the campsite in a couple of hours, where we nursed our aching joints and muscles. Lunch was served, and I arranged the tent and awaited Hannah's arrival.

I'll be honest, I was not having a great day. Between vomiting and the deep, ab-aching wheezing, I had been told by a brutally honest Elias that I had about another 7 hours until I reached the ominously, and by this stage, very possibly aptly named Dead Woman's Pass. Being able to spot this pass on a mountain in the far distance did not help morale. Neither did the knowledge that the rest of the group was about to tuck into lunch. At this stage, I had been able to eat literally 3 mouthfuls of food in the past 24 hours. And then, as I rounded a corner, I spotted my saviours. Three red-faced Irish women were sprawled in varying stages of collapse over a boulder. I can't describe how lonely and miserable I had been all day, seeing Elias only about once an hour, so the prospect of company made my day. After I joined them on the boulder, they introduced themselves as Una, the mum, and her 2 daughters Kate and Ruth. The dad and 3 brothers were skipping merrily ahead, but the girls were having some difficulty. Here we formed an alliance, and became a rag-tag team of Inca Failers. We cheered each other on, swapped medicine, and wept together when it all became too much. With their help, I reached Dead Woman's Pass ahead of them, and cheered for them as they reached it. We had emotional hugs and photos, and generally behaved like Rocky when he runs up the steps, before we looked down the other side of the pass and realised how much of a climb down we had. A billion steps and an oxygen tank later, I made it to camp.

After a few hours, I was getting more and more worried. Percy and the assistant guides had told me that she was OK, she hadn't had to turn back, and that she was going slowly with Elias to help her. Still, it was with some breath relief that I spotted her on the trail above, and set off back upwards to meet her. I have never been as proud of her as when she limped into view, seemingly broken after 11 breathless hours but steadfastly going on. As hard as the trail was for me, it must have been infinitely harder when sick and unable to breathe. My girlfriend, though, has one hell of a stubborn streak.

The following day would be my favourite of the trail, and Hannah's least favourite. After a couple of hours uphill through an Inca settlement, we reached a place considered sacred. The whole trail was a pilgrimage for the higher classes in Inca times, and they would carry a stone from the river below to this final high pass. They'd then lay the stone down and pray for the gods' blessing on their journey. We set our stones down and prayed that Hannah would breathe by the end of our journey. We then started going downhill steadily for another 7 hours. Overlooking the Andes and the trail below, Percy treated us to a performance on an Andean recorder called a Kena. The scene was so perfect and the music so beautiful that a few in the group were noticeably welling up (Hannah included, but the breathing/dizziness/vomiting may have contributed). The trail led us from the stark mountainside, through cloud forest and lush jungle and along steep cliffsides, to our last campsite in the jungle at 2500m. The scenery here was unbelievable and so varied, and the wildlife changed from llamas and sparse plant life to orchids, hummingbirds, snakes (apparently) and yes, more llamas. They're ubiquitous in the Andes, whether on cliffsides or in the jungle.

I'd left the camera with Hannah, so the others in the group took pity on me. There are now several photos of me squinting in the sunshine on all of their cameras, and Brid even conducted a photo shoot in one set of Inca ruins. Later that night I could hear Cian howling with laughter as he reviewed the photos in their tent.

After stunning scenery, scrambling through caves and meandering through jungle, we slumped into the camp to prepare for the final day. We'd be getting up at 4am to start the journey to Machu Picchu, and we'd be doing it all together.

To say that the 3rd day was a bad day would be an epic understatement. I had to set off alone at 5 am to ensure that we were all at the right spot for Percy's prayers, so I wheezed uphill mostly in the dark with Ever. After the musical interlude, James Sr and I fell behind for a day of hellish Inca steps (they're all about 2 foot high, so that was fun). By this point, I was empty and exhausted, and my jelly-like legs made me fall over about every 10 minutes. When Ever and the porters excitedly pointed out a snake to me, I seriously considered hurling myself off the mountain. Also, where Elias had been brutally honest about how much longer I had left, Ever was infuriatingly kind. 'Just 15 more minutes senorita' became his mantra, whilst pointing out the spot 2 mountains away that we would be camping at that night. The final straw came on the last descent to the campsite, which took about an hour and consisted of tiny, narrow steps. A really kind porter had taken my day pack about an hour before, so that was sitting waiting for me at camp, with my glasses and head-torch. When night fell, and I was left with only prescription sunglasses to navigate the steep, pitch-black stairs, I was therefore a tad fraught. 
The short trail in the morning took us along paths about half a metre wide before the sun rose - probably best that we couldn't see the sheer drops alongside. Our failing bodies were then subjected to the "Gringo Killer", a staircase so steep that you need to crawl up it like a monkey. Hannah, less sympathetic than usual, pointed out that my long arms, gorilla-like nostrils and large cranium gave me an advantage at this part. At the top was the Sun Gate and our first incredible view of Machu Picchu. The Sun Gate was built in a mountain pass, and on the summer solstice the sun shines perfectly through here to the window of the Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu; just one in an ever-increasing list of amazingly advanced structures we had seen. Seeing Machu Picchu below brought home, for me at least, that we had really come this far - on the Inca Trail and on our own adventure. I think Hannah was too empty and tired at the time to reflect on what she had accomplished, but hopefully she'll be able to look back and be as impressed with herself as I am. We all felt quite superior as we watched the clean tourists struggling on the walk from their buses up to the ruins. Unfortunately, it was only upon encountering these freshly washed tourists that we realised just how stinky we all were after 4 days of trekking, camping and not showering.

Being back in civilisation was most keenly noticed when all of the girls went to the loo. As they were queueing, they were all squealing with delight over the real toilets, soap and paper towels, whilst all of the other women tutted over how unpleasant the bathroom was.

It's occurring to me as I write this that there's no way I can do justice to the sights and feelings of these four days, nor to the knowledge of Percy and the others about the history of the places. I'll just say that I was quite emotional by the end of it, and so impressed with the things the Incas were able to do with such limited tools. We caught the bus down to Aguas Calientes town for a celebratory lunch, then the train and bus back to Cusco.

Despite our sleepless and exhausted state, we were somehow convinced to come out for a drink with the group in Cusco. This turned into a few drinks, and then into a party til 4am; we'd been up for 24 hours and done so much by the time we crashed.

Suffice to say, the trip was made what it was by the amazing support of the guides, porters and cooks, but also by being part of a fantastic group. So thank you, if you ever read this, to Abby, Murph, Brid, Cian, Marisa, Martin, Felix, Clare, James Sr, James Jr, Jessica, and Chris!

Our next stop is Lima briefly, then up to Cuenca in Ecuador - our final country in South America (for this trip, at least)!
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Jess on

This looks like such an amazing experience (possibly slightly less so for you Wabe)! Can't wait to see more pics when you upload them on facebook!

Hope you're feeling better now and are planning to stay at sea level for the rest of the trip!!

Lots of love xxxx

Jess on

P.S. I thought your underrated Disney classic was going to the Emperor's New Groove which is CLEARLY the most applicable here:

Jane (Bristol) on

Hannah, you are so brave. Congratulations to you both on making it. I am absolutely loving your blog and am merrily planning Mark and my trip to South America. So many amazing experiences: I'm envious. Lookingforward to reading all about your next stops. Now time for a glass of wine and some Larry spotting!

Mum G / Claire on

Well Done ! what an achievement both of you . The photos look amazing and the descriptions make us feel we are along on the trip. ( Just imagining of course as I don't like heights !)
Take care & lots of love xx
p.s we can't find Larry

Dad B on

Stunning photgraphs, actually being there must be breath-taking !
Hats off to the pair of you for getting there.

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