Sunday, November 25, 2012

Inca Trail, Peru: Day 3, a/k/a “The Gringo Killer”

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To recap, by the end of Day 2 we were both totally soaked from rain, and Lana was battered up and down her right side, from eyebrow to shin. The night had been freezing cold, and we were at the bottom of another steep valley.  However, after a fitful night of sleep, in which eventually hats and jackets were pulled on in sleeping bags, we were ready to get some blood flowing by hiking up that hill.  The skies had cleared by morning, and we could see that it was going to be a beautiful day. Our guide David was emphatic that the only way the clouds could clear was for the rain to empty them. At breakfast, he was hopeful that the weather would be nice until at least afternoon. 
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We were happy about the morning of climbing, since we’d done quite well with the previous climbs, but were a little nervous about the afternoon, which was all descent, mostly in the form of more than 2000 stone steps, charmingly referred to as the ‘gringo killers.’  As expected, the climb up to the second pass, peaking at 3950 m, or 12,916 feet, went very well.  Lana’s banged-up knee was working great.  We had a sharp descent afterwards to lunch, and once again fell to the rear of the group.  After lunch, we were free to walk at our own pace, to meet again at the third pass on the trail.  We left early, thinking we might need the time, but we had nothing to worry about.  The afternoon hike was mostly gentle climbing and rolling hills, all well paved in the original stonework.  This section offered some of the most amazing views and plant life of the entire trail, and for most of it, we were completely alone.
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Well, mostly alone.
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There were several tunnels along the way, which required some careful maneuvering. At times, it felt like we were walking in a very quiet section of an Indiana Jones movie set (there are some reasonable arguments that Hiram Bingham, the ‘re-discoverer’ of Machu Picchu, was the inspiration behind that character).  The jungle was hairy and thick, but the stone path carved though it, sometimes becoming a shelf road, with mortar-less rock walls disappearing in the jungle 20 or 30 feet below the surface of the path.  The Inca Trail does not follow the easiest or most direct route to Machu Picchu, and some suggest that it was designed to be challenging for the people who would have originally come this way, given that most of the Quechua people (the Incas’ subjects) were not over five feet tall.
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20121109_114855_310HS_IMG_2256By the time we got to the third pass (and the end of all climbing for the day), we’d relaxed a bit into the downhills, having had some practice with them throughout the day.  Lana’s knee was still giving her problems with lateral movement, however.  At the pass, we stopped to talk with another hiker we’d seen a few times during the afternoon, and after mentioning Lana’s knee, she gave us some K-tape (there was some runner lingo talk here, which went over David’s head), which was very kind, and it really helped to stabilize the joint.  Once the rest of our group arrived, we began the serious descent: 1000 meters (3280 feet), mostly in very steep stairs.  The poles and the tape helped a lot, but also the weather was kind, and we were lucky to have dry stairs, not rain-slicked ones.  We took our time, and generally appreciated the scenery and flowers, including orchids, fuchsia, and cantuta.
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As we walked, mostly by ourselves but occasionally joining other hikers at tunnels or tricky stairs, or just at some bit of beautiful scenery, you could feel that the mood had changed: people were looking around them at the view, or the flowers, laughing and chatting. We all felt like we’d bonded a bit—many people we’d seen or chatted with over the last couple of days would reappear, and we’d recognize them and wave or chat a minute. We might catch someone in our group, or they might breeze past, but it was ok. It really wasn’t a race today. This was to be our last real day on the trail. Tomorrow morning we’d get up very, very early, and hike for a couple of hours to the Sun Gate, and then we would be there.  We weren’t that close to finishing, but we could see it in our mind’s eye already. At one point we came upon a couple and a guide, who we had passed on an uphill a day or two before. They were standing looking at something, and so we asked what they saw.  “Just that,” the woman said, waving her hand at the mountain (the same mountain Lana tumbled down) in the distance, once again clearing out of the clouds.  Oh yes, that, we nodded.
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We fell in with her as we headed down another slope, chatting about where we were from, and where they were from (Australia), and a little bit about our year and our journey.  We told her we would be heading for Australia, and she told us a little about where they lived and where we should visit.  As we caught up with her husband and their guide, she caught her husband up on our conversation and poked him in the ribs. “They should come and stay with us. Give them your card.”  We got their card, and chatted some more with The Moons (their last name) and then moved on to catch up with our guide.  They were lovely folks, and I do hope we see them again when we’re in Australia.  A free place to stay wouldn’t be so bad, either.

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We headed down, down and more down. At a certain point in the trail we could either branch off to a set of terraces, which would take us about another hour, or we could just head down to camp.  When you’ve come this far, it seems unreasonable not to see everything you can, even if it takes you a bit longer. So we headed off to see the terraces with our guide in tow.  We were, as anticipated, bringing up the rear, but we really didn’t care. We realized that it made no sense to rush down.  We knew what we would have missed if we did.  Along the way we chatted about tourism in Peru, and how none of the companies that run the treks are owned by Peruvians—they are all owned by foreigners or foreign companies.  Lana shared her brilliant idea with him about importing energy bars and electrolyte drinks (there were a few granola bars and a lot of candy bars, but no Clif bars. No Luna bars. No Balance bars.  We saw people who had brought those, and sport chews with them from home. Now if you’re going to bring something all the way from home, you should be able to buy it in Cusco or on the trail. He didn’t seem too enthusiastic about my idea, but I know someone could make a killing.

Anyway we chatted the whole way down, and Lana finally was able to just walk and talk, without having to pause and think about where to put her foot, or if her knee was going to give out. Yes, we were last to camp, but the last camp is a crowded place, with lots of noise and some fairly rank-smelling toilets, so spending less time there, and more time out on the trail with beautiful orchids and interesting plants, was a much better day.

After dinner, the camp cook revealed a large cake, with “Buen Viaje” iced on it.  We don’t know if they carried the cake the entire way, or somehow baked it at camp, but it was very good—a tremendous surprise.
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Each tour group has some kind of grand finale on the last night, and we could hear the sounds of those from other nearby camps.  In ours, we were supposed to sing a song (in Spanish) to our group of 19 chaskis, and in turn, they would sing one to us.  Our un-official team leader, Orlando (pictured above, cutting the cake), is a Puerto Rican economics professor with a wonderful sense of humor.  He led us in the refrain portion of “Guantanamera” which I think he picked specifically because we only needed to remember two Spanish lyrics for it.  He carried the rest, along with our guide, David.  The chaskis sang first in Quechua, and then translated in Spanish, a song about a woman tricking a lover.  It’s hard to describe 19 tough-as-nails farmers, who take a week every month to earn some extra money hauling massive loads on the trail softly singing together, but they clearly enjoy singing, and are very good at it.
We went to bed even earlier than normal.  Tomorrow we rise at 3:20.  Our guide David explained it wasn’t so much so that we could be “first” at the sun gate, but more because we needed to give the chaskis time to get everything packed up so they could hike down the hill and catch the train back to their villages.  Out of respect for them, we should be up and out of their way so they could break everything down quickly.  It was our last night in a tent. We were ready to go to bed to be done with tents.
Here are the rest of our pictures from Day 3, which was without a doubt the most photogenic day. Well, except for Day 4. Machu Picchu is pretty photogenic too.