Friday, November 23, 2012

The Inca Trail, Peru

Sorry for the long absence here. We’re currently holed up in an apartment in Buenos Aires, pitted against each other in the viral olympics in such categories as:  Most Mucus, Productive Coughing, and Feverish Sweats.  We’re also killing it in the Nap Relay.
Anyway. When last we posted here, we were on the eve of the most challenging of hikes, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Four days of hiking, camping, remote Inca ruin visiting, and an unexpected bit of cold virus exposure. 
We were as ready as we could be, having spent the previous two months on a road trip, much of which was at sea level, and a boat, all of which was at sea level.
Our Gear
We decided to hire someone to carry the sleeping bags and bedrolls that we rented, as well as a few things we wouldn’t need during the day, like changes of clothes and minimal toiletries. Most of our stuff we left in storage at our hostel in Cusco.  We rented poles (and I rented hiking boots) at a local shop in Cusco for the week as well.  The poles were an excellent idea. The hiking boots were not (FORESHADOWING).
Along with our meager 6 kilos each worth of stuff, an army of porters would carry everything else needed such as food, tents, camp kitchen (cookstove, dishes, table, campstools, etc.) in order to feed the 15 hikers, one guide and one assistant guide (as well as everything they would eat to have enough energy to carry all this stuff). Each porter is only allowed to carry 20kgs (66 pounds). We were carrying probably 5kg each, including the 1.5-2 liters of water we would need each day. In retrospect we felt like wusses, but at the time, we were glad to have a lightened load. Those packs felt very heavy when we set out.
They picked us up at our hotel around 6am in a bus, and we drove in the dark for about 2 hours. This is what we saw when we stumbled out of the bus at a town called Ollantaytambo for breakfast before setting out:

These are the ruins of another Incan city, carved out of a hillside above the Villcanota (also known as the Urubamba river). 
After breakfast (we had pancakes—carb loading!) we drove for another hour or so to get the trailhead.  We’d been feeling pretty oogey that morning, probably mostly from nerves, but we didn’t want to push it by eating anything that didn’t agree with us. We knew that it was going to be a while (four days, to be precise) before we saw a western toilet.
After checking in, getting our passports stamped, and posing for the obligatory group photo, we were off.
Hope we didn't spoil it for you with that other stampOur motley band of hikers
I read a lot about the toilet situation on the Inca trail, trying to be as informed for what I was going to face on that front. But here’s the real shit no one tells you about the Inca Trail. For the first couple of days, as you’re hiking between several villages that call the Inca Trail their own personal highway, you spend more time dodging mule shit and horse shit and occasionally llama shit than you do taking in the scenery.  It smells. But, as we would learn, not as badly as the toilet at the last campground on the trail.
Along the way for the first two days, villagers sell water, gatorade, snacks, coca leaves (which allegedly help with altitude sickness), and even hats and water bottle holders. The only catch is that the price goes up with the elevation. A bottle of water might be 8 soles at the first village, but it was more like 15-20 at the last stop before the highest climb on day two.
Day one is pretty easy; there is some climbing but nothing extreme.  It was a warm day, which we found more challenging than the altitude or climbing. We got to know our guide and the other hikers, saw some Inca ruins, and generally loosened up now that we were actually doing it.  The butterflies settled down, and we started to enjoy the scenery.
This was our guide, David.  He knew a lot of stuff about the trail, but his knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area was exceptional. Here he’s showing us a plant that mothers give their teenage sons to make them abstinent. He said it tasted like green apples, but I thought it was just bitter.  David didn’t try it, for some reason.
After five hours of introductory level hiking (with a stop for lunch along the way), we made it to camp in the field above the town of Wayllabamba (another trudge up a hillside littered with mule shit!) a little before 5 pm to find our tents set up and ready for us.20121107_151701_310HS_IMG_219820121107_155332_7D_IMG_13387Home sweet home for the next 3 nightsThe view from our tent
We ate dinner in the dark, and everyone went to bed shortly thereafter. It had been an early morning (we got up around 4:20) and we were beat, more from nervousness than physical exhaustion. We were finally underway, and excited. Well, once I realized our tent was on a slope, and I’d be rolling across it all night, I was a little less excited. But still. Excited.