A March to Picchu

Trip Start Dec 21, 2009
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Sunday, May 9, 2010

OK, the secret's out. We’re back in Australia. "But your blog says that you’re just about to go to Machu Picchu?" you doth protest. Those of you who have been following this blog know that we were playing a game of catchup with our posts, where we would prepare blogs on our netbook but only be able to post it up when decent internet was available. So we didn’t run out of time, so much as we ran out of good internet. Just so you know the problem didn’t just plague us overseas, it’s still a monkey on our shoulders in Australia. Getting it connected in our home is as slow as watching the Test cricket during a rain break. We hope you do continue to follow the blog, we promise that we cover plenty of miles and do plenty of crazy stuff before we head home. Since you’ve missed us, we’ve included an extra bumper edition of the blog below. If I have ruined your fantasy of us being overseas (when in actual fact we are back in Sydney) then forget the last paragraph you’ve just read. ENOUGH.....TO THE BLOG!

The last blog consisted of a major segue way into the effort of the porters but felt it was necessary to know a little about the guys who make the whole Inca Trail thing work. We last left it with us meeting our porters on a football field and dividing up our packs for them to lug on our behalf. To make things easier, I’ll break this blog up into the respective trekking days.

Day 1

We leave the town of Ollantaytambo and after a quick repack with our porters in a soccer field we start walking at the Kilometre 82 checkpoint (2600m altitude). Here's where we get our tickets and it would also be where our porters’ packs are weighed. There’s a porter’s union that they all belong to which regulates the maximum pack weights that the porters can carry. Before the union was introduced, the working conditions for the porters were quite bad. They would be carrying almost twice the weight that they carry now. That’s nearly 40kgs on their back, up and down mountains. Many would say that carrying 20kgs on your back is still bad so 40kgs would be hell, even for these supermen.

After the formalities at the checkpoint, we start walking and got to our lunch spot a little early for our porters. They eventually catch up and set up lunch camp for us. After a lunch fit for an Inca King we set off for our campsite at Wallybamba, but just carrying our daypacks wasn’t enough for one of our party. James decides that after lunch, he would have a go at carrying a porter’s pack. So he swapps his daypack for the head porter’s pack and did the rest of the day’s trekking with some 20kgs on his back. The porters had quite a laugh at a gringo carrying such big pack but the terrain was nowhere near as bad as it would be in the coming days. To James’ credit, he made it to camp without falling behind, but he was a few litres lighter after having lost the weight to sweat. James sweating up a storm on day one of the hike with no showers in sight couldn’t bode well for us in the coming days. We made good time and got to the camp well before dark so we chilled out for a bit. The porters bring us some warm water to have a towel wash then James and I went with one of the porters and our guide to search for tarantula spiders in the dark. Fortunately for us, we didn’t see any. In hindsight, it's not one of my brightest moments. Turning over boulders, looking for tarantulas, in the dark, at a campsite on the Inca Trail, miles from civilisation, let alone a hospital. But as my buddy James was fond of saying, “That’s why it’s called an adventure Colin.” To James’ credit, that saying always preceeded loads of fun and plenty of laughter (normally at his expense) so I’m glad I went along with his crazy ideas. That would also be his reasoning for such activities like, "Let's climb on the truck", "Do you think I could sneak a sword into the UK" and "I might just ditch the tent and sleep in a hammock tonight".

Anyway, day one in the bag, 12kms of walking down and we ended 400m higher than where we started (3000m altitude). Tomorrow would be a big day as we hit the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass.

Day 2

We leave the camp at 7.15am after having some breakfast and pass through another checkpoint. We stop for a bit and I eat a second breakfast with the locals at a trailside diner (I use the term diner very loosely). That consists of a lady selling some rice, goat and a great salsa-like salad on the side. Our guides Smithy and Armando give me a wry smile as if to say, “We expect to see that food coming back up in an hour or so”. They obviously don’t know me very well.

We head for the first big pass of the trail which wis called Warmi Wanuska, also known as Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s called that because one side of the pass looks like a dead woman in profile. This is the pass that everyone talks about on the Inca Trail. It’s the highest point on the entire trek and today we would be walking from 3000m up to 4200m then back down to our camp site at 3500m. Our guide gave everyone free reign to get to the top on our own, making our own pace. I grit my teeth, set a good place and got to the top in 44 minutes. Number one baby! The only benefit of getting there first is that no one can take pictures of me as I hit the peak, looking like the Grim Reaper is tapping me on the shoulder. Nic wasn’t far behind at 56 minutes and the last person in our group hit the pass in 70 minutes. Not bad for a walk that was scheduled to take us 4 hours. The hardest thing about Dead Woman’s Pass is the slope on the path that is constant and unyielding. The path rises up, up and up with no respite at all. People around us were walking 10 steps and stopping for a breath then starting again. Add that to the altitude and shortness of oxygen at that level and you’ve got a serious walk on your hands. I chew some coca leaves (just to say that I did) but I’m not used to the wad of leaves on the side of my mouth and spit it out. I keep pace with the same couple of porters on my way to the top and they are the lucky beneficiaries of my unused bag of leaves.

We then start down to our campsite and Nic and I find it easier to run down the rest of the way with less shock on our knees. We go to camp at 12.30pm which surprised our porters again. They usually leave plenty of time on this day because they just don’t know how the altitude and steep climb will affect people. We’ve heard stories of people coming in after dark and porters having to go looking for them to give them a head torch and some encouragement late into the night. Some porters have even had to tag team carrying people on their backs to get them into camp. The rest of the afternoon was spent resting and drinking rum, playing cards and eating lots of food prepared by Isaac, our head cook. Some star gazing after dinner then we were off to bed for another big day of walking tomorrow.

Day 3

The trekking on day 3 was mostly level with not much elevation change involved. Some ups, some downs but we headed through some cloud forests which was not what I was expecting on the Inca Trail. We saw a few more ruins along the way that indicated little settlements where the local governors of the time would have lived. With those towns were storage facilities that the Incas built, on the sides of mountains or in valleys where the constant air flow meant that their grains and meat could be kept cold and dry and they lasted for a very long time. Think nature’s refrigerator. For most of the day, we walk on the original Inca Trail which still works and is in awesome condition. The stone work that they undertook for this highway was immense and the quality simply stunning. You try building a path on the side of a super steep mountain out of stones that lasts for a centuries. We also see the remnants of small stone houses every 5kms or so that housed the Inca runners. This was the royal messenger service and the sole purpose of them was to carry small packages or messages at pace to the rest of the Inca Empire by relaying from running house to running house. It was said that the Inca king could order fish in Cusco and get it from the sea 36 hours later. Without a car or plane that is some serious foot speed (and a serious love for fish). Though 36 hours without a fridge and on the back of a messenger and that fish could result in the King hugging his porcelain throne for the rest of the night.

Again, we had some downhill sections where we ran down with the porters and kept up with them. Not as bad as you think. You just have to be very sure of where you’re stepping, hesitation here will result in you eating a faceful of Inca Trail. Of course we only had daypacks on our backs, they had 20kgs and a kitchen sink on theirs. Just before getting into camp, we visited Inti Pata (Sun Terrace) where we sat and rested in some beautiful fan shaped terraces that were used by the Incas for agriculture. It was one of those special moments when we were able to sit back, relax and enjoy the surroundings. It’s hard to explain. It’s a moment when you don’t have anything else on your mind but the pure enjoyment of what’s around you. The people you're with, the views, the Snickers bar in your hand. It’s the this-is-why-we-travel moment.

We made it into camp which was at Winay Wayna where there was a nearby ruin that was supremely special. For many, the last thing they want to do after a full day’s walking is to see another ruin, but a few of us made the short walk and were stunned at the ruins that we saw. As we rounded the corner, it opened up into terraces and ruins that were right below us, cut into the steepest of mountainsides. The best part was that we had the place to ourselves. Everyone else was happy to spend time at the bar and listen to the atrocious music they had going on (I still had a couple of beers, but had them on the way back to camp after the ruins without having to listen to Aqua’s Greatest Hits). Winya Wayna would rate right up there as one of the special ruins that we visited, right up there with Machu Picchu because of the peace, quiet and solitude that we had there. The complex itself was stunning with breathtaking views overlooking the mountains across, sun kissed by the afternoon light. It was then back to camp for dinner and some much needed sleep as we would be up early to make it to the Sun Gate entrance for the sunrise. We had a little ceremony where we tipped our porters, took a few pictures in absolute darkness (kinda pointless but an exercise in social grace nonetheless) and they wished us well on the rest of our trip. Their job was done for us as tomorrow we would be at Machu Picchu and they would be heading back to Ollantaytambo or Cusco on the train with the other porters. Ready to repeat it all for anther bunch of gringos.

Day 4

Up at 3am. That’s right, 3am. I’m not sure if I can say that I actually woke up because I can’t say for certain that I even went to sleep. Nic assured me that my snoring is evidence that I got some shut eye. Trying to sleep peacefully when you know you have to be up early the next morning (or risk making the whole group late to the checkpoint) is a tough ask. We groggily packed up and went from moments of tiredness to moments of excitement. We threw down some breakfast and started for the checkpoint where we wanted to be in pole position so we could get to the Sun Gate firt. Our guide thought that our group walked quickly (he swears he wasn’t saying that to flatter us) and he didn’t want us stuck behind slower groups where overtaking was not possible. We were pretty happy to have made it to the checkpoint first and got comfortable because we had to wait over an hour for the entrance to be opened at 5.20am. While others chatted quietly amongst themselves, I found a shelf that I used as a makeshift bed.

5.20am rollls around and I was told to get off the shelf by the ranger. I was about to protest when I realised that he wanted my arse off the shelf so he could use it to stamp our tickets and get us through the gate. I can only hope that my lingering body warmth on that wooden shelf was a good start to the day for him and the hikers that followed.

The race was on to the Sun Gate! What was the Sun Gate? I didn’t really know at the time, I just knew that I wanted us to be first to get there. We walked like demons possessed partly because we were an in form group of walkers, but mostly because we didn’t want to let anyone else pass. Right before the Sun Gate we have a final climb up some stairs called the Gringo Killers (50+ hardcore stairs, each step about 40-50cms). Think of the iconic scene in Rocky where he runs up the stairs to the Philly Museum of Art and raises his hands. Except that the steps are way steeper, there was no motivational music pumping and we didn’t have enough breath at the top to raise a finger let alone both arms. OK, so they’re nothing alike. As a reward, we were greeted at the crest with lots of fog and not much else. It was at that point when we were told by our guide “It’s foggy like this most times of the year. On the plus side you’re the first group through.” Feeling slightly let down, I took comfort in watching the faces of the groups behind us ascending the stairs, each face writhing in pain and agony. Shadenfreude anyone?  

We took a few pictures at the Fog Gate and resolved to come back up the hill later on in the day AFTER seeing Machu Picchu. Down we headed to the sacred site, through the fog which didn’t want to clear for an hour or so. When the sun decided to poke its lazy head out, the fog cleared and SHABAM! Behold the wonder that is Machu Picchu.

In the interests of ensuring that the readership of this blog gets some sleep (if you’re reading this late at night) or stays employed (if you’re reading this at work) I might end this blog right here. The next blog will follow very shortly where I go through the amazing complex of Machu Picchu a little more and I accept a challenge to run up Wayna Picchu by our guide. I repeat, RUN UP WAYNA PICCHU. Don’t miss it.
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