Danny in the Andes: The Old Mountain

When last we left our hero… well, when we last left me, anyway, maybe you think the hero of this story was Amy the whole time… day two of the Inca Trail started in hardship and ended in fellowship over rum tea.

We proceed.

Day Three: The Long Walk

Day three started much better than day two. I had improved my makeshift pillow by wrapping my hoodie around my book instead of my shaving kit. More comfortable and fewer toothpaste explosions. Also, it had the benefit of taking two items I’d brought for, as it turns out, no reason, and forming them into one item of actual use. Plus two Gravol helped ensure that I got some actual sleep that night.

When 5:30 rolled around, the porter made his rounds, with gentle wake-up calls and coca tea. A simple breakfast later, it was time to pack up and hit the trail. While day two is the hardest day of the hike, day three is the longest. Over 13 kilometres from Pacaymayo to Wiñaywayna.

Camp for night two was nestled in a valley between two peaks, 600 metres downhill from Dead Woman’s Pass, 360 metres uphill to the next peak. Which meant that day three opened with a quick refresher on the worst parts of day two. Which meant, once again, hiking alone.

This happened a lot. I was with a good crew, good people, and I enjoyed our times in the meal tent, even when long hours of hiking with a heavy pack made me question how long I could deal with the less-than-comfortable stool. And we had good chats in the times when we were hiking near each other. I just wish I’d been able to spend more time with them while hiking, rather than the voice in my head saying “You didn’t train. You said you were going to train, then you didn’t, and now this is happening. Are you happy with your choices?”

Some groups ended day two with this second surge of seemingly endless staircase. I’m glad ours didn’t. There’s a relief in knowing that the hardest part of your day is behind you. Also, once you clear that next peak, things get interesting. You’re back into Incan ruins and, in theory, great views.

In theory.

Because here’s the thing about day three. Day three it rained. And when you’re on a mountain, 3600 metres above sea level, and it’s raining, you are in the rain cloud. This meant that instead of appreciating the beauty of the Andes, we were more stuck in a bank of Doom Mist.

Doom's a-coming...
Doom’s a-coming…

Still. We did gather at one fort, up a set of stairs from the day’s first big downhill stretch. Which made for a cool group rest stop.

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On other days, you can see the path behind you and the path in front of you. On this day, we saw the fort.

There was a second fort down the hill from there, but I gave it a miss. It was rainy, kind of cold, and unlike everyone else I lacked a plastic poncho, so I and my day bag were getting soaked through. More than that, I thought this might be a chance to not be in the back of the group for the first time since day one.

The hike from there was pretty good, actually. Sure, there were a lot of vistas where I’d stop and think “Bet this is a great view when the mist isn’t in the way.” But the terrain wasn’t too hard, and I thought I was, actually, in the middle of the pack. After all, Kate was nearby, chatting with Evert about life and love, two topics I really didn’t want to weigh in on but enjoyed listening to well enough. Then after a short burst of uphill, the illusion was shattered, as we reached the lunch site, to be greeted by a clearly large group of people cheering us from inside the meal tent. Turns out I hadn’t been making better time, Kate had just been enjoying a leisurely stoll with Evert.

But that’s okay, because this was the best meal we’d bee served yet. Huge trays of beef, chicken, potatoes, salad, and quina… plus an eggplant cut to look like a condor, but which ended up looking like a pengiun.

Which is clearly great.
Best use of an eggplant I’ve seen.

And to top it all off, the chefs baked us a cake. On a mountain.

And a tasty cake it was.
And a tasty cake it was.

There were only two downsides to this lunch. First, it was a little cold. Quite cold for some. Even the Norwegians, so let’s not be casting aspersions at the Texans. The hot water kettle ended up finding uses beyond making teas and whatnot.

B and Kate snuggle with a kettle for warmth.
Bergljot and Kate snuggle with a kettle for warmth.

On that note… it was around this point that I noticed I’d been overdoing the hot beverages. Or maybe just doing them wrong. Drinking coca tea or hot chocolate was starting to hurt, burning all the way down.

Anyhoo, lunch over, we began our trek down the mountain to Wiñaywayna. I thought it would be eaiser to keep up with people on the way down, but the steepness was hard on the knees, and I prefered a more cautious pace, having already taken a tumble earlier. So, yeah, I got passed, just more gradually this time.

Some groups had stopped at the lunch break. Worn down by the cold and the rain, they pitched tents and called it a day. Those people were going to have to get up two hours earlier the next day, at a time no rational person would call “morning,” so I stand by our choice to push on, especially since the rain stopped and the clouds parted, and we finally had views again.

Our last stop before camp was at another Incan site, full of terracing and llamas. Always loved a good llama sighting.

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Llama!
Llama!
Worth a jump for joy from Kate and Amy.
Worth a jump for joy from Kate and Amy.

This stretch of the hike became more of a treat than a burden. I wasn’t the last person to reach camp, as Rusty had a harder time going downhill than I did, but I was still pretty far back, meaning I got to find camp alone.

See, it was at this point that it became really clear just how many groups are on the trail. Because we all shared one large camp site at Wiñaywayna, and G-Adventures, our group, had secured the spot at the far, far end. They did this so that we wouldn’t have other groups walking through our camp the next morning, which makes sense, but that was a lot of other groups to pass through trying to figure out which was mine. (It wasn’t that hard, mine would be the one with porters applauding for me.)

As it turns out, it was this night that Team US and Team UK got into a fight over Jelly/Jell-o and Tic-Tac-Toe/Knots and Crosses. Really thought that argument would have required the rum from night two, but Robbie’s blog (which was far more punctual, despite that fact that he’s still on the road and I’m not) informs me that it was night three. Oops. Also, during happy hour, I gave up on the hot beverages. They hurt too much on every sip.

Following dinner, we held a thank you ceremony for the porters, in which we presented them with a tip and thanked them for their help. And after three days of hauling our stuff, and one mountain-baked cake, that was well earned.

One last thing from night three. I made my way to the washroom before heading to my tent for the night, to find a few people from the neighbouring camp clustered around the two stalls. The stall on the left was open, but no one was going in, because apparently there was a giant bug just inside the doorway, and nobody wanted to deal with it. I chose not to get a look at the bug myself (you had to go into the stall to see it), and just waited for a turn in the stall on the right… only to find a giant-ass bug lurking on the wall.

Which nobody was talking about.

Which begged the question… how big was the other bug? If the monster bug I saw didn’t even warrant a discussion, how the hell big was the other bug no one was willing to share a bathroom with?

No, I didn’t get a picture. My phone was my only light source, so night time photos were problematic.

Only one day to go…

Day four: The Arrival

Day two was the hardest (unless you’re Rusty, who preferred a lot of up to a lot of down). Day three was the longest. Day four is the earliest. The porters came to wake us at 3:30 AM. Which wasn’t, like, super easy, especially since my tent was next the porters, who were up playing music and chatting after we’d turned in. And I’m like, “Aren’t you getting up at the same 3:00 we are? Earlier, even?”

“But it’s worth it, right?” people ask. Well. Sort of. Though not really. You’re not up at three in the morning to catch the sun rising over Machu Picchu. We got up at 3:30 then walked for a half hour to the check-in point, which wouldn’t be open until 5:00. Because you aren’t getting up at 3 AM for you. You’re getting up at 3 AM because the porters have to make a 5 AM train, and before they do that, they need to break camp, pack it up, and haul everything to the train station. And for them to do that, you can’t still be in the camp.

The wait at the checkpoint would have been a good time to chat and bond with the group, since we’d be parting ways sooner than I liked to think, but… fun fact about me. I am not a morning person. To the point that I do not socialize well before, say, 11:00. 4 AM is, in fact, a good deal of time before 11:00. So instead of chatting with the others, I pulled out my iPod and watched some vintage Doctor Who.

See, I feel sad because I have trouble connecting with people in group settings, then when I’m in a group setting, I do stuff like this. My own worst enemy some days, I’m telling you.

Five o’clock came, and we were back on the trail… for the last big challenge of the hike. The Monkey Stairs. The Monkey Stairs are a staircase right before the Sun Gate (not an actual big stone doorway like I thought, but a gap in the mountain that the sun shines through at a certain time of year when watched from Machu Picchu), said to be so steep that you need to climb them on all fours like a monkey. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that path gets steeper and steeper as you approach the Monkey Stairs. But then, at long last… you make it. And in the distance?

Bingo bango.
Bingo bango.

Machu Picchu awaits.

There is a definite feeling of triumph. You’ve made it. Three days and a wake-up of hiking, some very strenuous, three nights of camping, but now you’re here. Just one last stretch of gentle downhill and you’re at a world wonder.

Also flush toilets. And a cafe. And did I mention the flush toilets? With seats and toilet paper? That were regularly cleaned? Because some of us were really looking forward to that.

Upon arriving at Machu Picchu we had some time on the outskirts to get pictures and have a reunion with Ellard and Maria.

SUCCESS!
SUCCESS!

Also to finish a video project I’d been working on.

The ladies enjoyed taking turns hamming it up as models for Brian, who’d call out things like “Now you’re a condor! Flap! Soar majestically! Now you’re a puma!” Sadly I have no photos of the results, because I didn’t think to take any, and harvesting photos off Amy or Kate’s Facebook feels uncool.

Then we had time to relax and snack in the more touristy area outside of the old city (Machu Picchu was like the Hamptons to Cusco’s New York… a place where the rich went to get out of town and relax over the summer). The food wasn’t exactly a blessed relief, because we’d eaten exceptionally well the last few days, but it was still welcome. Lunch at 8:30 is an odd experience, but it worked. What I wish I’d done is grab a beer with Robbie and Tayla instead of getting a Coke. Sure, there’s a chance I would have been having a beer near Robbie and Tayla rather than with them, but Robbie said some great things about that morning beer. Me, I was just happy throwing my bag into the bag check and exploring the area unencumbered.

After a few hours exploring the area, with and without a guided tour from Evert, I grabbed a bus down to the town to meet everyone for a lunch before our train ride back to Ollataytambo, where we’d split back into our original groups for the drive back to Cusco (which Evert, with Peruvian pride, stubbornly pronounces Cosco, as the Incas did). And at lunch, I did grab a beer. And a pizza. And it did feel good.

Not as good as my first shower in three days felt upon returning to Cusco, but good just the same.

That night… yes, amazingly this is still day four… we all met for dinner (save, sadly, for Rusty, who tended to value resting over meal times on the last two days). A final Puma Family meal, all scrubbed up and looking our prettiest. We presented our guides with their tip (there was a lot of this the last few days of the trip) in a ceremony led by Brian, who even threw in a “My dear family” to kick it off. And as a final… I’m going to use the word “treat,” but your mileage may vary… Evert ticked off one more box of the Peruvian Vacation Experience, buying the whole table a guinea pig to share. Which I also appear to have not bothered to get a picture of.

I ate a small piece. Partially because over a dozen of us were sharing one guinea pig, and partially because it turns out coy, as they call it, is really gristly. And I mean, I don’t even order prime rib often because it’s too fatty and gristly for me. So I don’t really regret not ordering coy more often, because it was always the most expensive item, usually by a fair margin, and it turns out to be gristly and organy.

Yes, organy. You eat the organs. You have to, there isn’t that much meat on a guinea pig.

Following dinner, a contingent headed out to a nearby club, as apparently Evert (at a point I’d missed) issued a challege to be up for 24 hours straight. Our day started at 3 AM, and some were determined to end it at 3 AM. Some of us were in extreme pain from the waist down, given how rough the past few days had been on our knees, and elected to go back to the hotel. As did Tayla, for whatever reason.

Sure, on some level I wish I’d stuck it out with everyone else. But in the moment I was sure I’d have a terrible time attempting to club through leg pain. So… choice made. Goodbyes said. And two last days in Cusco remaining.

Next time, a farewell to Peru, before I start ramping up to rant about superhero TV again.

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