Inca Trail - Day 1
At 5:00 AM it was still dark outside when the hotel's buzzer sounded, letting us know that our van was ready for us. We had learned the day before in the meeting, that the large bus would be picking us all up and then heading out towards the trail head at Piskacucho or "Kilometer 82", the starting point of the famous Inca Trail. As we drove out of Cusco the sun came slowly up and we stopped at a high point to see the beautiful snow covered mountain summits in the morning haze. Breakfast took place on route, in a small town that was already preparing itself for the hoards of tourists that would stumble through it. Locals were eagerly selling socks, Gatorade powder, coca leaves and other necessities for the trail. Freddie, our guide, showed me to the local market, where I purchased a pair of wool pants or "long johns", that really came in handy along the way. We also got some very light weight rain ponchos (just in case, as we were told that weather is unpredictable on the trail - we ended having luck with sunshine everyday). We spent breakfast getting to know each other and mentally preparing ourselves for the physical journey of the next few days.
After breakfast at KM 82, we were given our sleeping bags and mats, that needed to be added to our red Llama Path designated packs. I watched in wonderment as some of the others added these bulky items to their already large packs, that they would carry themselves. Patrick and I had opted for an extra porter, between the two of us, to carry our essentials, plus the few personal items we had brought with us. (The rest of our luggage, hard-drives, airline tickets and clothes were stored back at our hotel - we packed only what we needed for the few days.)
After one last pee break, a coca leaf packet shoved into the cheek (this was a local remedy for altitude sickness) and some sunscreen, we enthusiastically walked to the gateway of the trail where we showed entrance tickets and passports. Waiting for our group to sign in, we respectfully had to step aside as the first troupe of porters raced by us, in barely acceptable shoes, carrying each 25 kilos on their backs. Their endurance and ability would continue to baffle us in the next few days.
We crossed the Vilcanota River and turned right on the other side and so it began. The terrain on this first day was fairly flat, giving us the confidence to keep walking and prepare our bodies for the coming days. We watched the trains coming back and forth on the banks and felt proud to be walking, one step at a time. We saw the first Inca Fortress (‘Huillca Raccay') and the Inca site ‘Llactapata' (officially called ‘Patallacta'). This first day brought views of the Urubamba mountain range that divides the jungle from the Andes and the beautiful snow-capped peak of 'W'akay Willca' (Veronica) (5860m/19225ft). At one point, we stepped to the side of the trail to let our own troupe of porters pass - a sight we would learn to love in the next few days. The red of their matching shirts and hats and the red of the Llama Path (name of our tour company) sacks was a sight we could see far off in the distance, as our porters walked in step with each other, never faster than the slowest one could walk. (As the days went on, it was evident which companies treated their porters with respect and humane working conditions - the extra money you pay for a reputable tour company makes ALL the difference.) While our porters had good gear to carry the goods, we saw (more often then not) porters carrying the load in plastic bags, some how strapped to their backs (in the most uncomfortable looking manner).
Though the terrain was flat (and despite the training session we took in the Sacred Valley 2 days before), the constant walking at the high altitude was an activity our bodies needed to get used to. Our first campsite was near the small village of Wayllabamba (3000m/9842ft) in the Wayllabamba Vallley. As we rounded the corner, our eyes met the bright blue of our tents, that were set up and perfect. Within minutes of claiming our pack and choosing a tent, we were welcomed with a bowl of scalding hot water and soap. What was even more miraculous was the feast of food that appeared an hour later - complete with soup, main course and dessert. We crawled into our sleeping bags full and pleasantly exhausted.
Inca Trail - Day 2
We knew today would be a day of reckoning, for it would be the hardest walking day of all. The 12 hours of walking over two passes, was compounded by the fact that on the first day we didn't reach the day's goal and had to add that part to the second day. The most challenging part was that from our campsite you could actually see "Dead Woman's Pass" and it seemed really high and really far away. (This English translation of Abra de Huarmihuañusca comes not from the feeling you get from reaching it - which feels like death - but the fact that a woman's remains was found in the rock, presumably a virgin who may have been sacrificed). Our 6am wake-up and breakfast were followed by a round of introductions from Freddie, the porters and all of us in the group. Most of the porters spoke only Quechua, but tried to string together a few words in Spanish. Those of us who could string our own info into Spanish did so, while the rest Freddie translated with joy and full respect. I new my pace was slow, so when all was packed, I grabbed my walking pole and put one foot in front of the other.
The climb to 4200m/13779ft had moments of joy and fierce determination. The first part was hiking steeply uphill through a nice forested area, where a gurrgeling stream accompanied us for most of the time. Later Patrick walked ahead and I had other walking buddies at times, and at other times people found their own pace. Patrick and the English chaps were often in the lead, stopping when the diminishing air got to even their lungs. At one point a local man and his two llamas kept me company - my mind focused on speaking Spanish instead of walking, it was a great distraction. He told me that he does this hike every day, sometimes twice - it is profound and outstanding to learn how others live.
At the half way mark, we were greeted with local vendors selling Gatorade and Twix bars - sugar boosts that hit the spot. This was the last place to buy goods for the rest of the trail. (The vendors had schlepped these items up the mountain themselves.) They all knew Freddie - and we felt quite proud to have the liveliest guide on the trail. His energy was infectious and his excitement regarding the Incas and their knowledge made us hang on to his every word. Regardless, he was an instrumental part in making our experience superb.
The ascent after this break was tough, but you just had to remember to go one step at a time. Every step hurt and required its breath. Patrick, had reached the top early and came down to me to walk the last stretch with me. (He offered to carry my backpack but I refused saying "I want to make it all the way"). Reaching Dead Woman's Pass was a triumph. Our other chaperone, guide-in-training Elvis, patiently and kindly walked with some of the slower members in our group at the end of the group, taking their day packs so that they too could feel the triumph of getting to the top. The chilling wind and dropping temperature reminded us of how high we really were and the views from the top were indeed majestic. By the time reached the top, our porters were already well on their way again to the spot of our lunch break. The triumphant feeling quickly faded when we realized that our well deserved descent would followed by another ascent, this time up another 1200m/3936ft. Not as high as the first, but our bodies and lungs did not seem to know the difference. But first we would walk into the valley for our lunch break and amazingly when we arrived (this time I was one of the first) everything was set-up (incl. our tent with the dinner tables inside) for a nourishing lunch meal. The break was short and we knew that we had to climb yet another pass (with many stairs). Slow and steady we walked up the mountain trail and got rewarded by the ruins of an Inca watchpost that allowed us to see the Dead Woman's Pass (we had just hiked) and the valley below. It was breath taking.
The good news from here the hike to the top wasn't to far anymore. We passed a lake and reached the second highest point on the trail (Runkurakay pass – 4000m/13123ft), with views of the mountains and surrounding wilderness. On the top a fellow hiker pulled out some gummi bears and shared with the group. Those were probably the best tasting gummi bears we have ever had. Then we began the steep descent from the pass leading to the Inca site ‘Sayacmarca’. We stopped at the Inca fortress ‘Sayacmarca’ (the main fortress protecting the Inca empire from the jungle below) and Freddie gave us -yet again- one of his high energy talks about the Incas. He was really proud of the Incas and one could feel that in almost every word. After a rest here, we descended to the campsite at Pacamayu (3550m/11646ft) and were greeted with cheers and clapping from our porters. (They greeted us this way every time we returned to camp, no matter how long it took.) That night Patrick learned a new card game from Freddie and some others traveling with us.