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!

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