Okay. We’ve talked about my arrival in Peru, we’ve talked about night busses, and we’ve talked about the various stops and shenanigans my tour made. Now let’s get to the main event… the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
(Sidenote… apparently you’re pronouncing that wrong. When you read it just then, you pronounced it wrong in your head. It’s “Machu Pik-chu,” which translates to “Old Mountain,” not “Machu Pee-chu,” which translates to “Old Penis.” Or so our guide Evert claimed. Our guides were known to stretch the truth from time to time.)
On day one, we arose in Ollataytambo, grabbed the complimentary hotel breakfast… which, let me just say, there’s a lot to recommend about the places we stayed, but not the complimentary breakfasts. They made “continental breakfasts,” a term I have long equated with “minimal effort,” look like glamourous buffets. Anyway. Maria left for her tour, while Amy, Kate, Tayla and I met our new companions. Evert called us the Pumas, or “Puma Family.”
He said “family” a lot, greeting the group or calling for attention by calling us “family,” “dear family,” or “Puma family.” I would make a joke here. I’d invent something called the “Dominic Toretto line,” claiming that if you say “Family” more often than Vin Diesel does in a Fast and Furious movie it begins to lose meaning, but damned if it didn’t work. We did become a kind of family those four days.
There were Steven, Leigha, and Will from Texas, two brothers and Will’s wife who were all med students on spring break. Heidi and Berjldot (who said we could call her “B,” as she didn’t love the odds of us pronouncing it right) from Norway. A third, unconnected woman from Norway whose name I don’t recall because I waited too long to write this and she’s not on Facebook and why was I born a fool who “roomed” with Tayla. Rusty from Florida (though now living in North Carolina part time), the only member of the Pumas older than me, and his sons Josh and Brian. Robbie from Devon and Alex from Bristol, who hadn’t known each other prior but formed “Team UK” in later debates with the Americans. I’ll get to that.
This is a big enough part of the experience it needs its own section.
I believe I mentioned that you don’t have to carry all of your equipment on the trail. Our group of 15 came with three guides, two cooks, and twentyish porters who carried our personal tents, the meal tent, the chairs, the food, the cooking supplies, and all of our 6 kilo duffel bags. And while carrying all of that, they still do the hike twice as fast as any of us. In sandals. They break camp, dart along the trail, and set up either the lunch break or camp site while you’re hiking, then applaud you as you arrive at camp, and not even sarcastically. They are rock stars, served some of the best meals we had the whole trip, and make the entire hike a far better experience.
Every time a porter comes up behind you, there is a call of “Porters!” and everyone moves to the side. Like pulling over for an ambulance. This… happens a lot. Like, a lot. There are many groups on the trail at any given time, each with their own troupe of porters, meaning there are over a hundred porters that will pass you at some point during each day of the hike. Twice on days one and three. Never all at once. It can get old. But you don’t complain, because look at all that shit they’re carrying and they don’t even get to come to Machu Picchu.
Day One: The Warm-up
Together, we bussed down to Kilometer 82, a common starting point for the Inca Trail. When Evert said “Inca Trail,” which as our primary guide he did frequently, his accent could make it sound like he was saying “Inca Trial.” Which… was not an unfair assessment, all things considered. The beginning was simple. A fair amount of up, sure, but jovial chatter among we Pumas, and a ceremony asking for blessings from Pachamama, Mother Earth, who the Incas worshipped. That is, I’m told, the reason that the Inca Trail weaves its way up and down the mountain rather than following the river… to truly savour the views along the way. Which, sure, were impressive. There were plateaus, old Inca ruins, it was definitely a hike but not an arduous one at the beginning. The sort of hike that boosts your confidence for the days to come, even if those Australians from the horseback ride have hammered the notion of being sent home back into your head and now on every hill you find yourself thinking “Not yet, flesh body, we can’t get tired yet, so far to go…”
I’m sure everyone thought that. Feels universal to me.
There was also a lot of dung on the trail, because this section is dotted with villages that sell supplies to hikers, and they transport said supplies via horse and donkey. Hence dung. But complaining about feces must not be super Pachamama-friendly, as I seemed to be the only one who noticed or minded. So, whatevs, I guess.
My duffel bag carried shirts, socks, and underpants for three days, plus pajama pants and a hoodie that I was told I would need. I wanted to say “Dude, I’m Canadian, I’ll be fine” but they seemed insistent, so I brought it anyway. In my day bag, which was starting to tear open, but that’s neither here nor there, I had a wool hat (didn’t need), five litres of water (did need), my shaving kit with pills and minimal toiletries, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, a book (for real, Past Dan?), my new scarf (again, from Canada, why did I think I’d need that), a bag of popcorn from our homestay (which was already stale, why did I wait until after the hike to bin it), tour-provided snacks, and my jacket (when I wasn’t wearing it). Not present? A flashlight (didn’t think to pack one) and one of those plastic ponchos everyone else bought at the start of the hike. “Bag’s too full,” I said. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s not like it can fold up even more than it is, being made out of thin plastic,” I said.
Why do I make these decisions.
Anyway, the point is that my bag was pretty damn heavy. But I managed it.
After some gorgeous plateaus, we descended to the river for our lunch break, being applauded into camp by our faithful porters, which was a good feeling every time it happened. After a lunch/washroom break, we were back out on the trail… realizing my concern from the previous hour. See, there was a long stretch of downhill right before lunch, which was fun and easy (spoiler alert: not something we’d be able to say about all downhill stretches), but I knew what elevation we were aiming for. Camp at Wayllabamba would be at 3000 km, over three hundred kilometers above where we’d started. So every metre we went downhill would be a metre we’d have to make back up. Which we did. After lunch.
Evert said the terrain would be “undulating,” implying a series of ups and downs. As I said before… sometimes Evert lies. It was up. All up. The first big challenge… though only a taste of what was to come.
Once again applauded into camp by the porters, we found our tents and settled in. Dinner would be a few hours later, but first, 5:00 happy hour. We gathered in the meal tent for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and popcorn. We bonded as a travel family, and eventually dinner happened. We ended night one with a ceremony introducing us to our porters. There were a lot to get through, so the intros were limited to name, age, and number of children/marital status, for both them and us. Our porters were all locals to the hills, most speaking Quechua, not Spanish. The sun vanished during dinner, and after a full day of hiking, no one found it that tricky to head to bed. Well, okay, after a half hour of tentmate chatting. If you had a tentmate. Which I did not.
I also learned that flashlights were not provided, and I would have to use my phone to have any light. My phone was on airplane mode from the moment we left Ollataytambo, so this turned out to be a minor issue, but suffice to say flashlight duty burned through more of my phone battery than anything else during the trek. I guess since “Everything else” amounted to “Being on but not used,” that’s not surprising.
Day Two: The Ordeal
This was it. The day I’d been dreading. The day generally known to be the most challenging of the entire hike. And it did not… it did not get off to the best start.
I barely slept the night before. Like, night bus-level bad sleep, where I only had the vague sensation that I must have been asleep at some point, but rarely seemed aware of it. Dogs were barking. My makeshift pillow, which involved wrapping my hoodie around my shaving kit and shoving it under the air mattress, was not super comfortable. Also I guess I’d overdone the coca tea, because in the middle of the night I really had to pee. I was, however, unwilling to deal with the effort of getting my boots on, finding my glasses, and getting my phone out, so I just walked in my socks to the bushes I knew to be nearby.
Those socks remained damp for the next three to four days. So, as decisions go, I give it B, B-.
When “morning” came (said it before and I’ll say it again, if the sun is not up, it is still night), things did not super improve. I discovered that my makeshift pillow solution had caused my toothpaste to explode, getting toothpaste all over my tent, sleeping bag, and pants. I admit this made it easier to find my tent on subsequent days, but overall, I wasn’t thrilled with this turn of events. Also, when I attempted to put my contacts in, one of them fell out. A falling contact violates the laws of physics. It never manages to land, like, directly underneath where it was. I can be leaning over the sink, and the dropped contact will end up behind where I was standing. As such, I never saw that contact lens again. It belongs to Pachamama now. It was glasses from thereon out.
So, you know, doing great on the start of day two. If you’re about to embark on the most physically demanding day of your hike-slash-vacation-slash-adult life, possibly, the last thing you want is to be well-rested. And if you can have a wave of annoyances on top of being tired, even better.
A brief and simple breakfast later, it was time to begin. Camp at Wayllabamba was on an Inca terrace partway up the trail to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest elevation of the trail, and a full 1,000 metres up from camp. Hence being the toughest day… it’s four to five hours of constant climbing, and it only. Gets. Steeper.
Day two was also the loneliest day of the hike. We all went at our own paces, because of course we did, meeting up at the pre-planned break points and meal stops, but day two is when my pace and the rest of the group’s pace really began to noticeably differ. I found myself in the back of the pack both soon and often, so for long stretches I hiked alone. Well, with occasional visits with whichever guide was assigned to taking up the rear, which on day two was Daniel. So he was the main person I saw on my way to the pass.
At the first break, it began to sink in… I hadn’t seen Rusty all day. Or his sons. Not at breakfast, not on the trail, not with the group at the break point. This caused a wave of panic and a touch of despair. Had it happened? Had Rusty been sent back? The hike was already hard, but going back still seemed unthinkable. Turning back was failure. But if Rusty was gone… was I next?
At the next break point I found out that Rusty had not turned back. Knowing that he had the slowest pace of any of us (even me), Rusty had decided to get up and leave an hour before the rest of us. Josh and Brian, dutiful sons, went with him. This was a relief, and knowing this, I pushed on, up and up the increasingly steep stone steps. Pausing when I had to, sitting to drink water when I had to, just trying to get up the next section.
There is a long stretch where you can see Dead Woman’s pass in the distance. And it doesn’t look that far away. But this, ultimately, doesn’t help. The endless staircase of day two constantly curves its way along the mountain, but it never seems to be curving towards the pass. Every time you round a corner you see another stretch of stairs that is not leading where you want it to be. Which is not encouraging.
Nor is it encouraging when two people come up and just stand behind you, glaring, while you pull yourself up the next step. Yes, fine, Beardy McGlower, I am taking my sweet time right now, and yes, we all were encouraged to aim for the lowest part of the next step, but that isn’t mandatory. Go around me if you’re in such a god damned hurry. Bad enough I was pulling over for porters every ten minutes.
There were times when I felt like I honestly didn’t have the strength for another step up, let alone another flight. I was as tired as I could remember being, depleted… but through force of will and plenty of water, I pushed on. And eventually, the pass was ahead. Encouraging calls from Kate, Amy, and Tayla rang down from above. Each step was a struggle, had been for a half hour at least, but the end was truly in sight. I pulled myself to the top, dropped by bag, and rested, triumphant. And then filmed the second segment of a video I’d decided to make.
I passed Rusty on the way down. As always, he had a big smile on his face, was a delight to talk to. Turns out he did okay on the uphill sections, but climbing down the same stone stairs after the peak was far harder. I see his point. The stairs were easier on the way down, but not easy. They were hard on the knees, and it was easier to roll your ankle a little stepping down. The walking sticks were still a big help.
I’m pretty sure that’s the area where I slipped and fell off the path. A combination of fatigue and a misstep sent me, somewhat gradually, off the steps and into the tall grass. This was not one of the sections where I hiked alone, as it turns out. Heidi and B were there. Possibly Leigha. So I felt a call of “I’m good, nothing hurt but my pride” was in order.
Around 2:00 I arrived at the campsite, in time for lunch. Yes, for day two, our lunch stop was also our campsite, something we were all grateful for. Others had to hike back up for two hours after lunch. We got to just collapse. And collapse I did, quite literally. Once I found the tent that was smeared with toothpaste, I unzipped it, and flopped face-first onto the air mattress. There I remained until the lunch call, five or ten minutes after.
The hero of the day was Robbie. One of the rest stops on the way to the pass is also the last place to buy supplies. Sure it’s expensive, but it’s your last chance for snacks, water, or, and this is the important part… booze. The Australians had recommended buying beers to share with the porters. Robbie took it one step further, and bought us all a bottle of rum. Happy hour truly was happy hour day two, as Evert took the bottle and whipped up a rum/tea concoction. We played drinking games and fell into spirited arguments over proper language, with Robbie, Alex, and Tayla campaigning for British terms like jelly, jam, and noughts & crosses, while Team USA fought for Jell-o, jelly, and Tic-Tac-Toe. Yes, each side had a jelly. The Brits thought jelly was the gelatin desert we were served after dinner, the Yanks claimed it was the breakfast spread. We in Team Canada were stuck in the middle, while Team Norway got to just laugh at our antics.
Robbie has, on his blog, accused us of not sufficiently having the motherland’s back in these arguments. While I will admit that Noughts and Crosses does make more sense as a name (provided that you call zeroes “noughts”), because what even is a tic or a tac, but I’m sorry, Team UK, Jell-o is a brand name so is technically correct regardless of continent.
Day two was a struggle, for a long while. Five hours of increasingly difficult climb. Moments of doubt, times when I had to fight through the urge to just stop. But if there hadn’t been hardship, there couldn’t be triumph. And there was triumph. And in the end, fellowship. Laughter and good times, buoyed by Robbie’s rum.
Wow this got long. Next time, Doom Mist and the Old Mountain.