This weekend, I survived 25 miles of the Inka Trail with just a few (dozen) bug bites, calves as tight as Inkan masonry, and a sunburnt nose. The trek isn’t exactly conquering Mount Everest, but it was my first true camping experience, and here are some of the details for your entertainment.
After meeting up with a group of fellow sleepwalkers/trekkers at 4:30 AM in Regocijo Square in Cusco, we took off by bus to the town of Ollantaytambo. Accompanying us was the “red army”: a crew of fifteen porters, a chef, and two guides decked out in red and black tracks suits labeled “Llama Path”. While they all slept soundly during the two hour drive (I would later come to realize that these men could sleep through or on anything), I was kept awake by the sunrise and the scenery. We passed small farming towns full of cows, goats, chickens and chicks (it is springtime in this part of the world), puppies and kittens, Quechua women carrying babies on their backs, and men tilling farmland with cattle instead of tractors. By the time we arrived at our starting point, I had decided that the drive had already been worth the price of the whole trek.
After handling some administrative points (like getting our passports examined and taking the requisite group picture), we began our adventure along the Camino Inka. Day one required a 12-kilometer trek over rolling hills, with some steeper climbs later in the afternoon. We paused for a few discussions with our tour guide, Marco, and of course, for lunch.
The path was more challenging that I had anticipated. I was glad to have kept up my fitness in Lima by running pretty regularly (and occasionally dancing till 5 in the morning). The paths are rocky and twisting, requiring both balance and attentiveness to where you place your feet. But every time we turned a corner, we seemed to be in a new micro-climate, with yet another postcard view.
I had a surge of energy in the afternoon, and reached the campsite feeling happy and hyper. Given that I only slept four hours the night before, I wonder if this was some kind of sleep-deprivation-induced loopiness. We feasted on two meals (“Happy Hour”, which consisted of popcorn, hot cocoa, graham crackers, and more, followed by a three-course dinner an hour later) and crashed in our tents around 7:30 PM.
Notorious for being the hardest day of the four-day Inca Trail Trek, my second day began with this view:
It was all uphill from there, very literally. We hiked 16 kilometers, ascending nearly a kilometer vertically, over uneven and rocky steps. My lungs burned and my heart pounded in a kind of over-dramatic fashion, as if to threaten me with total organ failure if I kept going. We slowly climbed Dead Woman’s Pass (some of us on our hands and knees at times), and would have cheered at the 13,800 foot summit if we’d been able to breathe.
After a much-needed lunch break, thick gray clouds and fog rolled in like curtains over the landscapes. Visibility was only about twenty meters, and I expected some Steven King-esque creature to swoop out of the mist and gulp me down for lunch at any minute.
Then the rain began. It was unforgiving. We whipped out our colorful ponchos and layered on more clothing in an attempt to stay warm, with only a little success. We trucked on through the mud and moisture with surprisingly high spirits, and were grateful to finally reach our campsite and take shelter.
Despite being the most physically demanding and high-mileage day of the trek, the general consensus among our group was that it was our favorite day. The work paid off with some incredible vistas, and the rain gave us a taste of how risky it was to chance the trek in highland rainy season. We felt a little more like warriors for having gone to sleep sopping wet and muddy.
The third day of our adventure took us into the cloud rainforests and the edge of the Amazon. I was in a constant state of awe, gaping at ferns and flowers and butterflies in colors and shapes I’d never seen before. The hike was calmer, and our fortunate weather resumed, and we all took the day rather easy.
It was about this time when everyone’s personalities began to emerge, and the incessant laughter began. We sang Ace of Base songs, joked with our guides (and eventually annoyed them into total silence), and shared chocolates and chewy candies. When the trekkers weren’t busy badgering our tour guides, I chatted with them in Spanglish, asking them about their history as guides, for stories of the craziest gringos they’ve ever had to deal with, and “como se dice…” about a hundred different things. Unexpectedly, I experienced a big leap forward in my Spanish speaking and understanding abilities over the course of the trek, and I have the guides and porters to thank for it.
On the evening of our third day, we celebrated our last night with our porters (they’d leave us early the next morning). After a typically awesome Happy Hour and dinner, we presented the crew with a tip and a big thank-you.
I was selected to give the thank-you speech, because my Spanish was the best of the bunch. After bumbling along for a few minutes, second guessing everything I said, and smiling and gesturing to get my points across, I went around and gave each porter a hug and a kiss (on the cheek– don’t worry, Dean). I’m not sure they were exactly accustomed to that kind of friendliness on Day 3 of a showerless trek.
We slept like baby llamas that night, full and happy and tired from laughing. We knew we would need to get up early the next morning (3:00 AM), but we eagerly anticipated the start to our final day, and of course the prize at the end of the race.
Stay tuned to find out if we make it to Macchu Picchu alive in Part 2!