After much deliberation, I don’t think I can summarize the Inca Trail in 4 easy points. I can, however, reminisce on the craziness that became our group dynamic, and recall the awesomeness of the hike. Behold my nutty bullet points….
* “Sorry Jesus”
* Ordering good weather (most of the time)
* Andy’s snoring and the debacle that was the Andy & Stu tent
* Inca Trail Toilets vs. Panoramic Toilets
* Eating guinea pig (aka. Cuy)
* Israel lied to us! That was up, not rolling!
* Non-waterproof tents
* Railway People
* The Swiss, Bloody Brits, The Scaussies (aka. Scottish Aussies), King Phil, and Janet
* “There they go, taking over their position at the front of the queue”
* “Assume your position” – So Andy could use our brightly colors attire as a guide
* The debate between garbage, trash, rubbish, and refuse
* Americans are “language killers”
* Red plastic bags on tree branches are indicators of local bars along the trail
* “Everytime someone from the Inca Trail walks by, I can smell it”
* While the porters were awesome, every last one of them smelled like homeless people
* Waiting for 55 minutes in the cold for the gate to open to finish the trail
* Walking sticks = life savers
* Monkey steps
* Stray dogs everywhere
* WE MADE IT!!!
* No jumping or handstanding anywhere at Machu Picchu
* 6 hour train delays due to landslides when all you want to do is shower after 4 days
* And last but not least… the views were astounding
After more deliberation, I can potentially break the Inca Trail down into locations and/or things (this gets harder the more I type): THE GROUP, CUSCO & OLLANTAYTAMBO, THE HIKE, THE PROPOSAL, THE PORTERS, THE TRAIN. My goal is to mention all of the points above. Here goes nothing…
The Swiss… two 20 something newlyweds on their month-long honeymoon. They were quiet, a bit awkward, and not nearly as goofy as the rest of us. They tended to keep to themselves and lead the pack.
The Bloody Brits… Stu and Andy hailed from the UK (obviously). Just as crazy and slow as us.
The Scaussies… aka. the Scottish Aussies, Donna and Daniel, were from Australia, but Donna was originally from Scotland.
King Phil… as my counterpart came to call him, was the 73 year old that kept up with the Swiss throughout the hike. Quite impressive.
Janet… Miami attorney that hit 40 on the final day of the hike.
Israel… our guide throughout this endeavor.
Alex… our other guide during the trek.
After playing with spiders and roaming around the jungle, we flew to Cusco… a much larger city than we were expecting, sitting at about 11K feet in elevation. When you’ve been taking cold showers while staying in cabins without real windows and instead mesh screen, realizing your next hotel (Hotel Prisma), which includes not only actual glass windows, but HOT showers, you get REALLY excited. After taking HOT showers and cleaning the 98.11% deet spray that had been melting our skin off of our bodies, we set out on our next chore.
Our first night in Cusco we tried to hunt down what those of us from the States are very accustomed to seeing… do-it-yourself laundromats. After a damp 4 days in the Amazon, our clothing was in dire need of washing. Alas, we opted for pawning our wretched attire off on the hotel staff to send off to their cleaners.
Shortly after, we met up with our next tour group… the eclectic crew that would eventually make for a hilarious and unforgettable next week. Our group leader, Israel, walked us through what the trail would be like, with a PowerPoint presentation. This was also our introduction to the atrocious bathrooms we had to look forward to, along with the alternative, panoramic toilets, as Israel so lovingly called them.
Post-PowerPoint presentation, we wandered back to Hotel Prisma to the hotel restaurant, where we met up with Janet, a then 39 year old Miami attorney, and Emily, an Australian who was doing the Lares trek. Janet and I came to discover our birthdays sandwiched the hike itself – mine falling on day one, and her’s falling on the final day.
The next day, after another glorious hot shower, we decided what we needed on the trail and what we didn’t. Let me explain… since the porters are limited on what they can carry now, we were provided G Adventures duffels. Those duffels were to be filled to a MAX of 6 kg, to include sleeping bags, mats and clothing. The remainder of our belongings were locked away at Hotel Prisma until we returned, hopefully in one piece, from the hike. Anything else we wanted to take, was crammed in our daypacks to be carried by us.
A G Adventures bus ferried us to Ollantaytambo from there. First stop… Saqsaywaman. An enormous, white Jesus statue (much like the one in Rio) overlooks Cusco from atop a hill. A photo op, and some explanatory info on the site that my tired mind didn’t retain concluded that stop. Once on the bus, Stu’s height became his enemy as he smacked his head on the roof, shouting, “fuck!” followed by, “Sorry Jesus.” A slogan for the trip was born.
A few quick breaks along the way…
Second detour… a women’s weaving cooperative, Ccaccaccollo (don’t ask me how to properly pronounce it), a village that has benefited from the generosity of G Adventures. The women of the village were gathered in a common area, half of the perimeter of which was filled with tables stacked high with hand woven articles of clothing. Another side was lined with llamas and alpacas. While we huddled in another corner to learn how these hardworking women dye their yarn and weave everything from sweaters to ear warmers. The brightly colored dyes came from natural sources – flowers, other plants, or berries. Quite impressive.
Third stop… Pisac, where we “warmed up” to the altitude on our first Incan site that was over 500 years old. If only we knew that wasn’t even close to what was to come.
Forth break… Parwa for a lunch of stuffed peppers, cuy (guinea pig), other deliciousness and a yummy dessert. It also included an infinite amount of tea, including our first experience with coca tea. After stopping at a small restaurant along the way, the group went in on a roasted guinea pig on a stick. Yes, they’re a thing there. Cuy is pretty much just skin and bones… you aren’t getting a lot of protein from them! But hey, we tried it!
Next, we arrived in Ollantaytambo. After checking into the Paradise Hotel (rolling my eyes thinking about it), we headed out into the town. Quaint little place, stray dogs abound, as usual. But there was a Kwik-E-Mart for your shopping needs, tasty foods, and some Incan ruins to peruse. Plus I was just reminded about the intoxicated older gentleman who decided relieving his bladder against a wall right out in the open was a phenomenal idea. Something I didn’t care to see, but I am having a hard time erasing from my memory banks.
We hiked up some other Incan ruins walking distance from the hotel. These Incan ruins rise above Ollantaytambo, including massive terraces leading up to the top. The quarry used to build the fortress and temple can be seen across the valley, as well as the storehouse, which held produce and other food items. Only one of the visible storehouses is accessible, the pathway and stairway leading to the other has fallen to ruin over time and rendered the storehouse inaccessible.
A beautiful, sunny day led to some great handstand photos!
We spent that night in Ollantaytambo (including another luke warm shower) before heading out to km 82… the beginning of the hike.
Typically ranked as one of the top hikes in the world, this 45km jaunt was quite challenging, and totally worth it. Lasting four days, the hike starts at 8500 ft, reaches it’s peak at 13,800 ft., before concluding at Machu Picchu at approximately 7900 ft. Here goes my summary day by day….
April 1st – DAY ONE: 11km, relatively flat, sunny and warm day (for the most part), tasty lunch stop, campsite at a private farm with a good toilet (good is a low standard with regards to Inca Trail toilets), rained all night.
Our group got even better acquainted this first day. Since we actually had the lung capacity to carry on conversations during this stage of the hike, we chatted and walked. The Swiss took an early lead at the front of the pack, followed by Phil. We usually stayed in step with the Bloody Brits and the Scaussies. Every time any of us shouted out a curse word, the next words out of our mouths quickly became, “sorry Jesus…” Andy joked that he’d ordered good weather, and we really couldn’t have asked for better weather that first day. Our lunch break was our first insight to the awesomeness that we came to know our porters and the food for.
Our first campsite was a local farm. The toilet was great! Again, take that with a grain of salt. It was an actual room with a locking door, complete with toilet paper! Granted, there was no seat on the toilet, but that became common place in Peru.
As mentioned earlier, I hit 33 that first day of the hike. I’ve never cared for birthdays, especially after an incident that occurred last year on my birthday while I was working. At least this year, I was on vacation! And…….
We started off each night before dinner with a “happy hour” (no booze, unfortunately) that involved us huddled around our meal tent, plopped on our stools, chatting. That first night went something like this (at least, in my head… initially)…
Chris stands up to address the group suddenly (**What is this nut doing?**)
Chris’s hands are shaking (**His sugar must be low**)
Chris hands my camera to Israel (**Hey! That’s mine!**)
Chris moves his stool back from the table, out of his way (**What the hell – sorry Jesus – is this kid doing??**)
Chris starts talking about surprising me and making up for my birthday last year (**I’m confused, why is he telling people this?**)
Chris pulls a small jewelry box out of his pocket … “Holy fuck” (that part was out loud)
Chris gets down on one knee (**………………**)
Donna shouts, “Make him sweat!”
Chris asks the question – “Will you marry me?” (**………………..**)
Chris still down on one knee … “I suppose” … nervous laughter … “Yes”
Hey, I didn’t say “NO” or “ARE YOU SURE?” – those were the two responses I’ve previously been informed I wasn’t allowed to provide. Making him sweat and “I suppose” were NOT on the list. There is a video…
Well, there you have it… I flew to Peru “single” and came back engaged. Biggest surprise I never expected. How I never found the ring prior, I have no idea. Anyway, that was followed by dinner (deliciousness again), and a birthday cake made by a Peruvian porter/chef in a pot using a propane tank in the Andes that even had my name on it (the cake, not the propane tank). Unforgettable day.
Followed by a completely rainy night in tents we quickly discovered were NOT waterproof. Fail, G Adventures.
April 2nd – DAY TWO: 12km, mostly uphill, highest elevation, repulsive toilets, dry hike with rain starting at dinner but drying off for the night (thank you Andy, for ‘ordering’ proper weather).
A damp start to the day after a night of rain. At least the hike was dry! Today, we all discovered the wonders of walking sticks! Those little fuckers will save your legs on this hike – totally worth the 15 soles to rent. Especially when you are climbing from 9800 ft to 13,800 ft. The following day I would thank them even more as we descended 3300 ft.
Throughout the multiple breaks along this hike, Andy and Stu commented on our vibrant attire – both Miller and I had donned brightly colored shirts during the trek. They had apparently been using our luminous shirts as a guide to know they were keeping a decent pace! At the conclusion of one such break, Andy stated, “Assume your position,” motioning for us to start hiking in front of them. Glad to be of service!
Fun fact: A red plastic bag adorning the top of a stick protruding from a building indicates a local bar. Israel procured a cup of the locally made brew, chicha, for us to try. Due to the high alcohol content, a few cups of this will apparently knock you on your ass.
The highest point on the trail is known as Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s called that because the silhouette of the mountain peaks resembles a woman in a supine position. The pass is at almost 14,000 feet, and provides fantastic views of the surrounding area. While hiking, we went from sweating, removing layers, and just being plain hot to donning jackets, gloves and headwear to keep us warm.
Our campsite on day two left a lot to be desired, especially compared to the night before. Our farm campsite was quiet and secluded, while this one was noisy and packed. The toilets were the worst of any on the trail. Toilets may even be a pushing it… I’m not sure those things classify as toilets. Holes in the ground, is a more applicable description – a hole that may or may not “flush” with stall doors that don’t really stay closed. “Flushing” meant you pulled the string and water swirled through the entire stall, washing the unmentionable nastiness all over the floor. Many people opted for the panoramic toilets, as they provided about the same in privacy, but smelled far better and were much cleaner. One note: If the door is closed, while all the other stall doors are open, that probably means someone is inside! Do not wrench the door open while someone is using a hole! Bitch.
April 3rd – DAY THREE: 16km, steep uphill to begin, followed mix of up and some down, before the steep downhill portion, precariously perched campsite, rained for part of the hike and lunch, dry by end of evening.
Israel, you lied to us. The beginning of day three was only about 45 minutes up, followed by rolling, according to Israel. Dammit, there was nothing rolling about that! It was mostly up, and steep to add to it! And it lasted way longer than 45 minutes. Jerk.
Anyway, once we made it through the up, the steep down portion began. Dearest walking sticks, I will love you forever. You saved my knees and probably kept my legs from becoming even more jello-like than they already were.
The rain started partway through the hike. REI, you do not make high quality rain covers for packs… they are NOT waterproof. I had thankfully purchased a cheap poncho to go over me and my pack, keeping our electronics dry as the rain pelted me in the face. I stayed dry though!
Day three of the hike was longer, and much different from the days before. It reminded me of Ireland – moss covered rocks, stone ruins, and damp. While wet, this part of the hike was gorgeous. The path hugged the side of the mountain, nothing but clouds off to the left, similar to our first day at the Grand Canyon – we had no idea what lay out there. Portions of the path had recently been washed away in landslides, and temporary paths wound up and over the wreckage. We wandered through a few other Incan ruins along the way, played with some aloof alpacas, and enjoyed some drier conditions on the second half of the day.
The final campsite was in a large campground with separate sites. Ours was precariously perched – if you stumbled exiting the small tent, it meant a 10 foot drop to a pathway below. I can only imagine what would have happened had any of us been drinking!
This final night concluded in us saying goodbye to our wonderful porters. We went around sharing a thought and thanking them, Janet translating to Spanish on our behalf. This was the last we would really see of them, as the next wake up call was at 0300, so the porters could hurriedly pack up the campsite, departing early enough to make the 0545 train from Aquinas Calientas. These helpful Peruvians are only permitted on that one train – they are not allowed to ride back to civilization with the hikers. Not fair to us or the porters.
April 4th – DAY FOUR: 6km, up at 0300 in order to wait for 55 minutes in the checkpoint line, easier and dry hike, ending at the Sungate and Machu Picchu.
0300 came FAR too early. Sleep deprived and groggy, we awoke to cold temperatures. We frantically packed up our tents and headed to our last meal on the hike. Shortly after, the porters quickly packed the campsite and departed. Goodbye gentlemen!
Lied to by Israel again, He led us to believe the weather would comfortable and warm that day. Alas, at 0400 it was cold, and we had not planned for it. And we had to wait in line for 55 minutes for the checkpoint gate to open, so we could finish the hike to Machu Picchu. I may have danced around in the line as a means of keeping warm. The porters had my warmer clothing.
Fifty-five minutes standing in a line when you are sleep-deprived, cold, physically tired, and probably a little delirious is a REALLY long time. My counterpart and I hung out with the Bloody Brits and the Schaussies. It seemed the 6 of us were the most sarcastic and nutty. Initially, we were in front for our group, but obviously that changed. Thanks, Donna for providing this long fit of laughter that kept me warm… “There they go, taking over their position at the front of the queue.” As the the Swiss the Phil squeezed passed us to be at the front of the line.
This much shorter portion of the hike was flatter and easier. Watching the sun rise over the Andes was amazing. It slowly crept over the mountains, illuminating the clouds that lay below us in the valley. It slowly warmed our cold muscles as we slowly hiked. The trail was far more crowded since we all started at the same time in the same place.
Still early in the morning, we reached the sun gate. A part of the trail known as the Monkey Steps serves as the last obstacle before you reach the gate. Israel said we should hold our beloved walking sticks in one hand, so the second hand was free to assist with the ascent upward. He was not kidding. Those steps are not to code, geez Incas…
But the view once you reach the top… AMAZING. I laid eyes upon Machu Picchu shortly after sunrise. A view most people will never see.
Like I’d said, Janet and I have birthdays that sandwiched the hike… me the first day, she the last. We all gathered at the sun gate to sing Janet happy 40th birthday. Thanks for spending that day with us Janet!
We still had 45 minutes to the site itself, but WE MADE IT!!!
During that final 45, we passed many people. People we referred to as railway people. That group of people spend a comfortable night in a hotel, before showering and taking a train to Aquinas Calientas, where an air conditioned coach ferried them the remaining portion uphill to the main entrance to Machu Picchu. Lazy bums.
You could distinctly tell the difference between those of us that had hiked the Inca Trail and those that took the train. A few of those distinctions may be…
- Railway people smell better
- Railway people don’t look disheveled
- Railway people don’t have walking sticks
- Hikers look angry and tired
- Railway people don’t have much in the way of packs
- Railway people try to force hikers off the trail as they walk four abreast instead of letting others pass (we learned to let porters by)
- Railway people look confused about why they are waking uphill (enjoy the view, we’ve already seen it) and (try hiking to 14K feet before talking to me)
Finally, we entered Machu Picchu. Shockingly, only 75% of the ruins are original. Due to vegetation, the ruins had to be carefully cleared and rebuilt. 40% of the site is still in shambles, clearing the vegetation too risky to embark upon. Bucket list item completed.
Besides the aforementioned Machu Picchu facts, I learned one other fun insight… there is no jumping or handstanding on the grounds. I may have gotten lectured for both. This next handstand got me yelled at in Spanish. I thought I had made damn sure (Sorry, Jesus) there were no guard-like people in sight, but apparently I missed one. The little spotter dude hunted me down and motioned that no handstands were allowed. He then said “delete”… uhh, what? Thankfully, I had two photos. I made a show of cleaning off my hands, and distracted him with my pretty, new ring long enough to stroll through to the first of the poor handstands. I clearly only deleted the bad one while he watched.
The other handstand photo from the hike…
Another fun fact about Peru, to include Machu Picchu… there are stray dogs EVERYWHERE. Even on rooftops. Sad realization from a dog person: They aren’t friendly like we’re used to in the States. They really just don’t care about people, and I wanted to pet and play with them so badly!
After spending a few hours in the ruins, and taking a snack break, we took a bus down the winding road to Aquinas Calientas for lunch.
On to Aquinas Calientas…
These fantastic gentlemen will put you to shame around every corner. Our group was from a town I swear I wrote down somewhere, so I’d remember it, but of course I can’t find it now. Oh well… their ages varied from 53 to 18 (for some reason that part I remember), and years of experience on the trail varied from 8 to 2. They are no longer permitted to carry the 50-60 kgs of gear they did 2003 and before. Regulations now stipulate they can each only bear 25 kg, which is still no small feat considering the trail. Each porter is designated what load they’ll be carrying by the Jefe Porter (yes, he even has a shirt with that title). The nutty Peruvians bear this large load and run passed the out of breath hikers like it’s nothing. You will feel bad about yourself. Coming from the line of work I do, ALL of the porters maintained a particular characteristic I encounter regularly at work… they smell of homeless men. However, there is a very real chance we smelled similarly by the end of the trek.
Thank you porters and cooks for making this hike possible, cooking some delicious food us, and for making me a birthday cake in a pot!
Alas, our journey was coming to an end. We boarded a train to return to Cusco. Not what we expected. Prior to boarding that God forbidden railway, we had planned to all meet for dinner and drinks to celebrate birthdays and engagements as a final hoorah as a group. Mother Nature had other plans. A landslide was blocking the tracks. The train became our home for the next 6 hours.
We even considered walking back, Israel informing us he had made that trek before, and it takes 9 hours. Alas, we stayed on board the train… impatiently waiting for the rocks to be pulverized with explosives.
It didn’t take long for the “Every time someone from the Inca Trail walks by, I can smell it” comment to occur. We admitted it… we hadn’t showered in 4 days. We did a lot of hiking. We were not the freshest smelling individuals. But identifying a fellow hiker was easy – we shared many characteristics. Such as: We looked disheveled with dark circles under our eyes from getting up at zero dark thirty, we had a special odor, we looked longingly at the clean hair of the railway people, all of our belongings were with us, and the wonderful people that decide seats had placed us all in one area of the train (jerks).
One particular hiker had some especially foul smelling footwear. She made the mistake of taking her shoes off, which caused four of our counterparts across the aisle to cringe, perhaps cry a little, and cover their mouths and noses due to the absolutely atrocious odor. Once she realized her error, the look of extreme embarrassment was plastered on her face. Thank you Jesus, for providing our side with windows that opened… that apparently pushed the aroma to the opposite side of the train!
After the stench subsided, the conversation started. The Brits and us started debating pronunciation of words. Andy deemed us Americans, “language killers,” as he denounced our enunciation of words and phrases. The debate between garbage, trash, rubbish, and refuse commenced. While we in the States typically refer to our discarded items as trash, the Bloody Brits call it rubbish. Additional options were entered in, but we Americans obviously say everything incorrectly! I can’t argue on many fronts, but I put up a good fight.
After some time sitting on a train, many people drinking booze and eating… the toilets became popular. Our little group occupied the closest seats to the toilets. Damn you train seat-pickers! Eventually, the toilet not only began to stink, but also stop flushing. Even our open window didn’t spare us from that malodor. We very nicely composed an instructive (and dual-lingual) sign instructing people to KEEP THE DOOR CLOSED. Too bad drunk people don’t read signs.
The Swiss opened up a lot (after getting stuck in seats facing our’s for 6 hours, they didn’t have much choice). Between the two of them, and the 4 others across the aisle… we passed our 6 hours on the trains chatting, making hilarious jokes, people watching was our favorite pastime, playing cards, and eating.
Alas, we finally received word the train MIGHT be moving soon. We were apparently first in line (thankfully). But by the time we start moving, we all knew it was far too late for our planned dinner and drinks once we got back, and showered of course.
My counterpart and I got back at about 0100. We took much needed hot showers, and then frantically packed for our stupendously early bus ride to Puno. I was regretting the 0800 departure time of our coach. But thanks Cruz del Sur for ferrying us the many hours from Cusco to Puno.
Hasta luego, Cusco and the Inca Trail. You, and our fantastic group, provided for an unbelievable excursion.