Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

8 November 2010

The Inca Trek

Day 1: The first part of every tour is always an interesting time in terms of sussing out who you will get along with and who you won’t. At first glance, we have an American couple with a son, Chris (26) and daughter, Casey (22) who are travelling with an English couple and their ten year old son, Eric. Yep a ten year old doing the Inca Trek!

In our group of 16 there are eight other backpackers and a lovely Indian couple on holiday for two weeks. Chris is wearing a t-shirt suggesting that he is a beer drinker so we guess he might be our first ally. And sure enough at our first morning tea break when Geezer decides to try a glass of Chi-cha, the local Peruvian brew, we are met with 13 pairs of concerned eyes except for Chris’ who asks what it tastes like. Even our guide suggests that we may want to get a little further along the hike before drinking beer. But trying the local brew gets us onside with the 26 porters who are carrying most of our gear, food and camping equipment and they laugh when I point at Geezer and say ‘Borracho’ (which means booze hound in Spanish). They think it’s hilarious.

Meg and Hunter are doing the Inca Trek with a different tour group but we bump into them at the first checkpoint. Then we see them at morning tea, then at lunch and pretty much every stop for the next four days.

The first part of the hike is up and down hill to the Willkarakay ruins and we spot them on top of the next hill listening to their guide but looking extremely bored. After lunch and a two hour hike later we spot them hiking through a pass ahead of us and we yell to them ‘we have wine!’ (we’ve snuck in a box of wine at the last stop). Even if Meg and Hunter, Geezer and I had wanted to ditch each other, it seems impossible because when we arrive at our first camp, their tent is about three feet away from ours. Close enough to sneak a pre-dinner wine in between our tents where we give each other the run down on the other’s group. They are decidedly unhappy with theirs who complain a lot and are proving to be difficult people.

We make small talk with our group over a delicious dinner and then huddle in our tent because it is absolutely freezing.

Day 2: We are woken at dawn by our delightful porters who offer us coca tea in bed! They serve us porridge made out of quinoa (a local grain) which is absolutely scrumptious. Geezer takes one look at breakfast and says ‘I’m not eating that muck’. (Geezer is not a morning person.)

Before setting off, our guide introduces us to each of the porters (minus the ones that left at 5am to secure a good spot at the next camp site). They shyly tell us their name, age, where they are from and how many children they have.
I am quietly dreading today. A three and a half hour high altitude hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass (4200m) then an hour and a half of knee-breakingly steep downhill, another ascent to 3950m and back down to our second camp.
But I must be doing alright because the hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass only takes two hours and we wait for our group with Meg and Hunter, knocking back packets of Snickers bars (minus the guilt).

We wait for over an hour concerned about the two people struggling in our group – Mary (Chris’ mum) who had last night talked of turning back, and ten year old Eric.

Eventually our group is split into two and some of us start heading towards the lunch stop. Mary and Eric arrive as we are finishing our lunch and are cheered in by the group and porters. But it has taken its toll. They are exhausted and are still only half way through their hiking day.

As we head towards the highest point of our next ascent, passing some ruins along the way, the temperature drops significantly. I stop to watch a mist that's rolling in over the lush green mountains that are dotted with ruins and then I hear a noise that makes me sigh. Near the top of the pass is the brother of Eddy, our guide, who begins to play the most beautiful melody on the pan pipes – distracting us from the pain of the steepest part of our hike. No one says a word and we slow our pace so that we can listen to the music. How truly Peruvian, I think to myself!

We finally arrive at the last ruins of the day Sayaqmarka, which are 25 minutes away from our second camp. The camp is set on a cliff top overlooking the mountains with these stunning ruins in the distance and I marvel at our porters who certainly know how to pick a good camp spot.

When it gets dark, we are even more concerned for Mary and Eric who have not yet arrived. But then Mary gets carried in by a porter with an exhausted but proud looking Eric and the entire camp erupts. It is Mary’s husband’s 50th birthday and it has been his dream to do this trek. It is definitely not Mary’s idea of fun.

As dinner is being prepared we discover that Chris and Eric’s dad (also Chris!) have stashed bottles of rum and sambucca in their packs. So we have a little bonding session with the group and end up singing ‘American Pie’ to the whole camp – until we get to verse six because no one can remember any more. Argun, the Indian, is quite distraught that he can’t remember any more and confesses the next morning that it has kept him awake most of the night, which I find highly amusing.

Day 3: Supposedly an easier hiking day today but for some reason I find it more difficult than yesterday. Perhaps I’d only psyched myself up for the previous day. But there is a third pass through 4000m and I'm tired. The altitude is disturbing me.

So I walk for a large part of the morning with ten year old Eric and he hints that he’d gotten a bit upset while climbing Dead Woman’s Pass. He wasn’t sure he’d make it to the top. So I tell him that I’d had a meltdown while hiking through the Colca Canyon and that I’d sat on a rock and cried. Really??? he asks me. Yep - bawled my eyes out, I reply. Yeah so did I, he confesses. And we have a good laugh. I tell him how brave I think he is and how few ten year olds can say they’ve done the Inca Trek. He puffs his chest out, puts a skip in his step and we change the topic to the World Cup.

The Intipata ruins are visible from early on in the day but it seems to take forever to get there. The path is mostly stairs and my knees take an absolute pummelling. Geezer steams along, still in his converse shoes, which have stood the test of several arduous hikes.

When we arrive at Intipata, the view down the valley, over Machu Picchu mountain and the surrounding mountains is jaw dropping. We sit with our legs swinging over the side of a terrace for an age. I don’t want to leave, the view is so amazing.

But eventually the prospect of cold beer and a shower gets us moving to our third camp which is only ten minutes away.

After a few beers, we make our way to the Winay Wayna ruins for sunset. It’s not much of a sunset but sitting in the ruins as the light changes is pretty cool. We sit there until well after dark.

Out of nowhere, Argun bursts into song suddenly remembering the seventh verse of ‘American Pie’. So we all sing from where we left off and get shunted along by one of the porters who is probably frightened that our bad singing will bring the ruins down.

The night ends with a thank you ceremony for our porters and we present them with their tips and cheers. Geezer then disappears into the bar and buys a crate of beers – one for each of the 26 porters – and they look absolutely chuffed. ‘Salud!’ we all say.

Day 4: We are woken at 4am by the porters to make our way to the sungate for sunrise. The sungate will give us our first view of Machu Picchu and we are aiming to get there before all the tourists come in via the train from Cusco.

But the walk takes more like three hours and is all uphill which I’m not expecting and find difficult.

When we eventually arrive at the sungate, there sits Machu Picchu in all its glory in the not too far distance. I find my own spot on a rock and stare at one of the wonders of the world. What a beautiful place. Hidden away for centuries covered in jungle on top of a mountain. The only thing spoiling it is the number of tourists which suddenly appear out of nowhere.

We head down towards the ruins and take a million photos because one doesn’t do the place justice. We take many photos from the postcard spot and then have to head down to the front gate to check in with the authorities. Geezer is asked to take a photo of a family, loses sight of our group and ends up following a guy with the same t-shirt as our tour leader. He then realises that we are nowhere around and thinks ‘bollocks to the group. I’m hanging around here until they come back’.

When I realise he has gone, our guide climbs back up into the ruins to find him. Ten year old Eric quips that he knows where Geezer is. ‘He’s MIA. Missing In Alcohol!’. Everyone laughs.

When Geezer is found, everyone cheers and we are moved back up to the ruins for a two hour tour. We then have some free time and try to get tickets to climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain behind the ruins. But the 400 available tickets have all gone for the day. So we vow to get up early and come back the next day.

Sometime in the afternoon we meet up with our group in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain. It doesn’t seem enough time in the ruins and we are disappointed that we have missed out on climbing Wayna Picchu.

We go to buy our tickets for the next day for Machu Picchu but the only ATM in town is out of order and they don’t accept credit card. So we are forced back to Cusco, a five hour train ride away just so that we can get some cash.

When we finally make it back to Machu Picchu, we are up at 4am so that we can line up early for the tickets to climb Wayna Picchu. By the time we get to the bus stop in Aguas Calientes there is a massive queue and the tickets have already sold out to climb Wayna Picchu. I’m gutted.

But we don’t give up. We spend the morning walking around the ruins and at 11am we line up at the entrance to Wayna Picchu. We have heard that if people haven’t used their tickets by 11am, then they release the tickets.

We are in the queue when a French guy says that he has a ticket but his girfriend has missed out. So he is giving his away. We hope that we have better powers of persuasion than the French so we wait in the line. When we get to the front, we present our ticket to the guard who says... sorry, you need two. I give him a devastated look and say that this is the third time I’ve attempted to climb Wayna Picchu and he puts his back to the line and says ‘OK go on.. quick!’. We practically knock the guy over as we run through the gate before he changes his mind.

It is a 45 minute extremely steep climb up Wayna Picchu. But the reward is a bird’s eye view of the ruins and a different perspective. The steps are so tiny that I have to go up sideways. The Inca’s must have been tiny!

We take more pictures up there, see a couple get engaged (and can’t decide whether the bride is pleased or not) before heading back down to Aguas Calientes and then on to Cusco. We can now definitely tick Machu Picchu off the bucket list!

On our way to Machu Picchu

We board a bus back to Arequipa, leaving the Canyon de Conquered behind. The bus is a local one and is so stuffed with people that there are actually two people standing between Geezer who is in the aisle seat and the seat in front. One of them constantly scratches his head, flicking dandruff all over Geezer who shakes it off in disgust with a ‘ugh!’ and glares at the scratcher.

The bus is also boarded by a tout selling a cure for everything and Geezer tells me to button it when he approaches us and I start to tell him that he is ripping off poor people.

Six hellish hours later we arrive back in Arequipa – Meg minus her camera which has disappeared on the bus and has all her canyon photos on it. We go to the police station and there are two tourists there who have lost a passport. The policeman tells them it will be about two hundred dollars to file a police report and we are about to leave in disgust, throwing in a comment about corruption when he pulls Meg and I back to say that it will cost less than a dollar. He had suspected the other tourists of insurance fraud. So with our tails between our legs we flick through the television guides he gives us to read and wait until he has filled out the report.

Geezer and I then find out that our appeal to the Peruvian government to do the Inca Trail has been successful and we are to start the trail the same day as Meg and Hunter.

So we all make our way to Cusco where Meg and I decide a girl’s night out is in order and we boogie the night away at a great little underground reggae bar.

Feeling lazy after our four day canyon mission but determined to see the fabulous Inca ruins surrounding Cusco, we hire a driver to take us around Pisac, Ollyantambo and Chincara. By the end of the day, I’m completely Inca ruined out despite four days of more Inca ruins coming up on the Inca Trail. We have little time to pack and sleep because we are picked up at 5am the next morning to start our next adventure – the Inca Trek!

Camping in the Colca Canyon

Kitted out with camping gear, enough food for four days and some booze to celebrate our hard slog each day, we board a six hour local bus to Cabanaconde. Once there, we quickly find ourselves a great little hostel with staff who provide us with maps for our hike and some basic drawings of landmarks to watch out for. We stuff ourselves with sensational pizza and have an early night – completely unaware of the battering our bodies are about to take.

Day 1: We rise early and quickly make tracks. The first part of the hike is within walking distance of the town and we are delighted when, in the first half hour, we come across a breathtaking lookout over the canyon. The canyon is so deep and we are literally peering over the edge of it. In the distance we can see where our track leads and our destination for day two. It looks like torture.

Tonight’s camping spot, Lluhuar, is at the very bottom of the canyon and out of sight but it has hot springs. The thought of those hot springs keep me going when the hike becomes difficult, which we know it will.

The canyon colours are magnificent – hues of pink, orange, yellow and brown – and the Andean peaks in the distance add another dimension of awe to the view. A condor soars above us which I see as a sign of luck remembering that the Incas worshipped the condors. We come across a friendly local herding cattle, donning a cowboy hat and looking like he belongs on a ranch. He points us in the right direction and we reluctantly leave our stunning view because today is a long hike, it is stinking hot and my pack is back-breakingly heavy.

The first few hours are so horrendously steep and gravelly that every few steps I skid further than I can step. After an hour, I’m a bit over it – saying some pretty choice words to Pachamama. I already have blisters, and as the elder of the group, I lag behind. It has its advantages. Several times I stop to sit on a rock with a view and poetically think about how good life is before my pack unbalances me and topples me over.

After several hours we find a tiny patch of shade and stop to make some tuna rolls for lunch. On a high, we feel so proud of our efforts so far that we crack open some wine - perhaps not the most sensible thing to do given we are only half way down the canyon and, unbeknownst to us, it is steeper yet. When we eventually get going again, I feel like I’d be better equipped with skis than hiking boots.

Finally we reach the bottom and all agree that it was a tricky start to the trek. We arrive at the river which is ice cold and I’m so hot it is tempting to jump in. We cross a suspension bridge and a short hike later we arrive at our first night’s destination – a restaurant, camping ground with lush grass and hot springs.

The only down side is that the beer is warm but the owner advises us that if we leave them in the river for an hour, they’ll be cold enough. So we quickly set up our camp next to the river and head down to the hot springs which are everything we hoped for. Piping hot and set in the most stunning surroundings – right next to a raging river and canyon walls so high that you have to crane your neck to see the top. The sun is setting and we have the place to ourselves.

Reluctantly we leave the hot springs, boil some noodles for dinner and Hunter gets a cracker fire going. As the fire dies down, the stars emerge and we make a team decision to walk back to the suspension bridge with our torches and a bottle of wine.

The hours speed past as we sit in the middle of a huge bridge suspended from one side of the canyon to the other with candles and wine, star gazing. A case of the munchies sends us back to camp.

Day 2: We wake at 10:30am and quickly decide that there is no point trekking today. It is too late and hot, we feel a little dusty and, to our horror, realise that we’ve managed to eat our way through most of our food.

I’m not disappointed. The camp spot is absolutely beautiful and spending a day here to bathe my sore feet in the hot springs is fine by me.

But our joy at camping there is short lived when a large school group of scatty teenagers descends upon the campsite and literally puts about 20 tents up within an inch of ours. The leader gives us a sympathetic look before attempting to shoo them up to the restaurant to give us some peace.

So we vow to be up at dawn so that we can beat them out of the camp and once again have the trail to ourselves.

Day 3: No need to set an alarm clock. We are woken well before dawn by squawking school girls who have no idea how to put dismantle a tent and are grossed out by all the ants surrounding them.

Thankfully they seem to be heading in a different direction and we leave our lovely camp site to head to another site high up on the canyon with waterfalls.

I leave putting my hiking boots back on until the very last minute and apologise to my severely blistered feet for the next battering.

Now that we’ve scaled the canyon from bottom to top, the only way is back up and the first few hours are gruelling. The only advantage of having eaten and drunk our supplies is that our packs are significantly lighter.

But somewhere in the morning we take a wrong turn and end up climbing a goat trail to get where we need to go. We climb higher and higher looking fearfully across the canyon at the track we’d walked down the first day and the track that we must take tomorrow to get us back out. We’re probably two thirds of the way up the other side of the canyon and the track winds round blind corners of mountains. Each time, we desperately hope it will be our last. At least the track is flat for a while.

Eventually we decide that since we only have one oreo biscuit for each of us we should keep going to the ‘oasis’ at the bottom of the canyon... much further than we’d anticipated walking today. When the decision is made, we realise that it means hiking all the way to the very bottom again. But as we round a corner we see the oasis at the bottom and it motivates us to keep going. Giant swimming pools with waterfalls, large lawns of green grass and lovely little huts. Ah bliss, I think.

I slip in to ‘don’t talk to me, I need to get down this damn mountain’ mode and focus on getting down as quickly as possible.

It reaches 2pm. We haven’t eaten all day, the oasis is at least another hour away and I’m well over it. At one point I actually yell out “Over it!!!!” which echoes back to me several times through the canyon.

After one final stack into a pile of horse dung, I reach the oasis to see Geezer, who looks like he has breezed through the hike in converse shoes. Meg and Hunter shortly follow with Meg wearing thongs which are proving to be more comfortable than her hiking boots.

When the inn keeper tells us he only has warm beer and hot soup for lunch, we simultaneously rise off the lawn, pick up our bags and thank him for the warm beer. He refuses to tell us how to get to the next restaurant so we end up having to bush bash from his property to the next which is the last thing I feel like doing. I can’t help but give him a ‘thanks very much for your unhelpfulness’ look.

We then stumble across a campsite that has a massive lawn, a swimming pool and a bored looking Frenchman running the place. All four of us talk to him at once. “Please, mate, we haven’t eaten all day.” “So hungry.” “Can hardly move so hungry.” “Have you got any food besides soup?”

He flies into the kitchen and whips up the most sensational pasta with a side dish of chillies freshly picked off the roof of his kitchen. We hoof into the pasta and chillies like it’s our last supper, not realising how hot the chillies are. After several mouthfuls, we are again begging him for “water please mate” “so thirsty”. Thankfully he takes pity on us.

After lunch, the boys take off to check out other camp sites while Meg and I loll about, relieved that our seven hour traumatic hike is over. Neither of us bring up the hike out of there the next day but the track is right in front of us and it heads skyward.

The boys re-emerge to say they’ve found a wicked site with great views across the canyon so we slowly make our way over and set up our camp.

Dinner is frightfully disappointing – more bloody soup, rice and weird vegetable stuff. Geezer looks completely disgusted with the muck in front of him so we buy some twix bars, settle in to our sleeping bags.

I get woken at 1am by the crinkling of twix bar wrappers and peer over to see Geezer satisfying his sweet tooth.

Day 4: After yesterday’s seven hour mission on an empty stomach we opt for a lie in and swim. But I’m dreading the supposedly three hour walk out of the canyon because it is a vertical hike and my pack is disintegrating with every step.

Before setting off, we stop off at the Frenchman’s camp and beg for more pasta.

Eventually we confront the inevitable. The hike is relentless and the track so gravelly that I feel like I’m taking one step forward and two back. I’m exhausted after 100m. Half way up, with the others well ahead of me, I sit on a rock and have a meltdown. It is the hardest exercise I have ever done and the language coming out of my mouth is fairly vile.

I follow Geezer’s converse shoe footprints which I spot in the gravel. He makes the hike up look easy and every now and again, he peers from above to check that I’m still alive.

When we finally reach the top, it is nearly sunset but I’m too knackered to care. I slump next to a rock and all I can think about is pizza and bed. The others are the same.

As we leave, I take a final look back across the canyon and see where we’ve just walked. It is no mean feat. We have literally hiked down the canyon, up the canyon, across the canyon, down the canyon and up the canyon. And my body feels so battered that I don’t have the energy to feel proud of what we’ve achieved. Most tourists hike down part of the way and back in a day. I think we more than conquered it.