On the Inca Trail, Peru
By Kym Rusch
Day 1 – Inca Trail
At 5:30 a.m., our tour group, Andean Life rang our doorbell at the Ninos Hotel. Two porters arrived at our doorstep and took our bags as my Dad and I walked up the stone covered alleyway at dusk. At the top of the street the bus was waiting to take us on our once in a lifetime journey on the Inca Trail. We were the first to get picked up and we drove around the darkened streets of Cusco to pick up the other members of the group. There was a nervous anticipation in the bus, as the other group members (all women!) loaded into the bus. There were lots of tired faces on the 2 ½ hour ride through the Sacred Valley to the beginning of the tour.
When we arrived in the town of Ollantaytambo, we were met by persuasive sales people trying to sell us water, walking sticks, water holders and hats. It was a comical sight as 8 other tour buses arrived on their way to the Inca Trail. This small town catered to all the needs of these loco touristos. We had 30 minutes in the town to get breakfast and anything else we might need. It was a mad scramble to figure out all the necessities for this 4-day journey. Everyone was trying to pull us into their shop or restaurant! With 30 minutes to do everything, and nervous anticipation, we hurriedly ate breakfast, purchased walking sticks, water holders and water. It was official…we were really going to walk the Inca Trail! We had struggled with the decision of whether we should walk the 4 day trail, or take it easy and do the 2 day trail. We were both hoping we made the right choice! We made a pact to let the other know if the trip was too brutal and if one of us needed to turn around.
We loaded back into the bus for another 15-20 minute ride down a bumpy, dirt road to start of the Inca Trail. The Inca trail is suppose to start at kilometer 82, but because of road problems, we had to get out at kilometer 77 and walk the rest of the way. Oh no…5 more kilometers to the Inca Trail! It was a bit chaotic as we filed out of the bus and scrambled to get our things together. We really didn’t know what we would need for the trip. Our concerns were water, keeping warm and our feet. Of course, in the end, we brought way too much! If I were to do it again, the essential items, the must haves for this trip would be: water (of course!), toilet paper (essential!), headlamp and flashlight, rain jacket, thick socks, 2 pairs of comfortable walking shoes (worn in!), moist towelettes, warm sleeping clothes, 2 or 3 lightweight shirts that wick away moisture, 2 pairs of zip off pants (not cotton), a comfortable, sturdy backpack, a good water holder to strap around your waist, snacks, medicine in case of sickness, blister block, camera/film, 45 sunscreen and a hat. I had brought entirely too much because I was thinking that I was going to freeze to death or be soaked with rain.
|First Glimpse of Machu Picchu|
Andean Life provided lunch for us in a tent and the group of women and my dad gathered around a small table with little blue chairs. I felt like I was at an International Sorority House with 4 women from Santa Monica, 1 from Austria, 2 from Ireland and 2 from Norway. I was a little concerned when I saw the cooks cleaning the vegetables with water from a stream and I wondered how that would be okay to eat, when we were told that we would have to purify stream water. I’m already an overly cautious eater while I travel, and I knew this trip was going to put me to the test. But, it was a pretty impressive production watching the cook and all his helpers prepare a meal along this sacred trail. Lunch was a surprisingly good tasting trout, soup and potatoes. The famous coca tea was served with every meal. They say the tea helps with sorochis (high altitude sickness) and stomach problems. I’m not sure if it really helps or not, but my dad and I indulged in the tea at every chance.
After lunch, we continued to walk the up and down trail and felt some pangs of panic and worry, realizing the seriousness of our situation…that once we got into the hike, the only way out was to turn back or go forward on our own power. My dad was struggling with some of the hills and I was definitely concerned that we could be in trouble. But, luckily I felt strong and I was determined to do what I could to get us both through the trip in one piece. It was hard to pay great detail to the surroundings, as our minds were swirling around with doubts, worries and excited anticipation. At about 4:30, we arrived to our campsite with our tent all set up and popcorn and cookies waiting for us in the tent. We were relieved that we made it through the first day. After a 4-course meal, we headed back to our tent, completely exhausted! We lay on an uncomfortable angle in our tent as the night set in. The rain began to pour outside and we were thankful that we were in our tent nice and dry. We completed the first 12 kilometers of the Inca Trail with 5 kilometers added on. Day 1 was harder then we thought! Since we were having some trouble with the uphill portion of the trail, we decided to hire a porter to carry one of our heavy packs for the difficult day 2 ahead.
Day 2 – Inca Trail
At 6:30 a.m. we were awoken by a porter, who served us coca tea in our tent. My dad and I looked at each other and hoped we would make it through day 2! To avoid embarrassment we secretly made a pact that if we couldn’t make it and had to turn around, we would still tell our family and friends that we did it anyway. We knew in reality that we would probably make it through and our pact was just a little joke to help us through! After breakfast of pancakes and toast, we began the trail, knowing that soon, we would be at Dead Woman’s Pass! The trail went up and up and up, with steep crooked steps, then down slanted awkward and uncomfortable steps. Being 5 foot tall, each time my leg hit the steps going down, I could feel my whole body being jarred. The trail was 5 ½ hours of almost a complete uphill haul. My dad was out of breath, so we set up a system of picking out places to stop after every 5 minutes…I would say to my dad…”Okay dad, pick your spot”, then he would name a rock or a ledge or a tree ahead and we stopped for a minute so he could catch his breath. Together, I knew we would make it, one rock, step and ledge at a time!
I was really strong on the uphill, so I decided to take our shared backpack to give my dad a better chance of getting through the day. Step by step and hour by hour, steeply and steadily we continued to pick our stopping spots. Our guide, Freddie told us that we would complete the whole walk before stopping for lunch. The spot they used to stop at was killing off the animals that were native to the area. So, we trudged along on our own pace. Jenny, an Irish girl from our group was struggling with the walk too. So, we played leapfrog, passing her, then she passing us, as we tried to encourage each other along the way.
We didn’t get a clear explanation of where the top was or where Dead Woman’s Pass began, so, we were skeptical as we climbed an extremely steep and difficult up hill step way and a jovial and enthusiastic German tourist told us that we were nearing the top. He kept saying, you are on Dead Woman’s Pass and you are making it to the top! We kept thinking that Dead Woman’s Pass was yet to come. Since I didn’t realize I was actually on Dead Woman’s Pass, psychologically, I continued to hype myself up that I would be able to handle the brutal pass that I had heard so much about. Little did I know, I was on the pass, and maybe it worked out better to think I wasn’t! I was able to carry the heavy pack, inch by inch and step by step with the encouragement of our German cheerleader. He would say “You are almost at the top!” and my dad would say, skeptically, “I don’t think so!” We could clearly see a group of people standing on a ledge above us, but in our minds, we didn’t think it was the top! On our last few steps, as we approached the group above us, we saw a dining tent from Andean Life with popcorn and tea. Alas, we actually were at the top. So exhausted, we collapsed on the ground for a rest. Our porter saw my dad lying there and said, “Papa, take this mat,” and my dad and I stretched out on a mat at the top of the world, we were in the clouds. Dead Woman’s Pass over there was no stopping us!
After the steep and severe up; we were told it was going to be 1 ½-2 hours of going down and down it was, giant step by giant awkward step. After 5 hours of carrying the backpack, I gave up the heavy beast to my dad. But, the top of Dead Woman’s Pass was the last I saw of my trusty walking stick, I lost it! While up hill was my strength, the downhill was my weakness. I don’t know what these Incas were thinking with these giant down hill steps, weren’t they fairly small people? These steps were built for giants. Actually, our guide Freddie told us that the Incas purposely made the trail difficult as a spiritual purification, a way to strengthen their body, mind and spirit. What I realized after completing the hardest part of day 2 was that I was stronger then I knew and that with mind over matter, I was going to make it through, even if it took all day. The downhill was a punishing 2 hours, but as we got in the zone, we made it to our campsite early, at 2:00 p.m. for lunch and a much-deserved relaxation for the rest of the day!
We grabbed one of the available tents up one more steep, muddy hill and my dad laid down on the hard ground for a rest. The view from the campsite was spectacular! We were up high in the clouds and there were lush, green mountains surrounding us on all sides. Several other groups of campers were nearby. Groups of hikers, all with their own rolls of toilet paper in hand lined up down by the bathrooms, which although not clean, were better then expected. It felt like quite an achievement to be finished with the second day. We relaxed during the afternoon, as the chilling evening descended upon us. We had another 4-course dinner in the crowded tent with the international sorority girls and my dad.
Dinner always started with soup, some type of entrée, dessert and ending with tea. The girls in our group were ravished with hunger and ate everything that was served, including fruit, lettuce and other sketchy items; and then they acted surprised when three of them felt ill with diarrhea and other stomach ailments. Exhausted, we went to the tent early, as rain began to pour. We had been so lucky that all the rain came at night. It would have been miserable to be walking on the trail cold and soaked. The weather was great! I put on my military style long underwear and tried to get comfortable in my sleeping bag, with the sound of heavy rain hitting our tent. It was a night of tossing and turning trying to get comfortable, as waves of chills ran through my spine from the frigid air. I was cold and uncomfortable! My dad was shivering beside me in the tent. By 6:00 a.m. when we were awoken with coca tea in our tent, I was so happy to get out of the tent just to get my circulation going.
Day 3 – Inca Trail
I did have to keep my eyes on the trail though, because there were so many opportunities for missed footing, sprained ankles, broken legs and more. I didn’t want to be pessimistic amongst all the beauty, but I did wonder…how many people actually get injured or worse, die on this mystical trail of the Incas. As the trail continued, I began to get into the spiritual vibe of what the trail was meant to be. There was something about being so high, up in the clouds, on top of a mountain of such magnitude, it really did take your breathe away both in reality and metaphorically. We took a break for lunch, high up on a mountain ridge and our guides pointed out our campsite and the Machu Picchu mountain was within view. We couldn’t believe we were getting there. Andean Life went all out for lunch on day 3 with quite an assortment of food, arranged perfectly on a buffet style platter. After lunch I found the bathroom at the bottom of a hill, that consisted of a board with a hole in the middle.
The rest of day 3 consisted mainly of a downhill, toe jamming, and knee jarring experience. My toes were literally pressed into the top of my shoes. Luckily, my dad had given me a blister block that I put on one of my sore toes. We were told that there would be a hostel at the end of day 3, so I was eager to have a cold Cusquena Beer at the end of our walk. We saw a guy from Santa Monica struggling to make it down the trail. He had a bad case of altitude sickness and he said that he was dizzy and had to stop every few minutes. Then I noticed a porter limping his way down the trail. In my best Spanish, I tried to ask him what was wrong and he pointed to his calves and he had seemed to have pulled a muscle. It broke my heart to see this poor guy hobbling down the path. I had some medicated pads in my backpack that I gave him and wished the best for him. It’s amazing how much the porters carry on their backs, and even some of them take the trail running. But, what I noticed was that they almost always had a smile on their face when you greeted them with a “Buenos Dias”.
After saying goodbye to our struggling friends on the trail, it was just me and my dad alone in the lush jungle. We probably walked for over an hour without seeing anyone else. We walked through dug out caves, emerald green forests, orchids and green, misty moss covered trees…down, down, down we went. Our minds began to wonder? When will we make it to the campsite? And where were all the other hikers? When we could hardly take another down hill step, we finally saw one of our guides, Raina, standing at the bottom of the hill and she pointed the way to our campsite. I was so happy to see her that I greeted her with a big hug! She said there was 30 minutes to go…we knew we were going to complete the Inca Trail! We had risen to the occasion. I told people before the trip, that although I thought the Inca Trail would be hard, I knew I could rise to the occasion…and I did or at least, I was about to! The last 30 minutes was another steep downhill journey and without my trusty walking stick, I was nearly on my hands and knees trudging down the slippery steep slope.
After every turn, I looked down below attempting to see our beloved campsite. When we finally arrived, after almost 8 hours of hiking, we grabbed our tent, as the evening was already approaching. My dad was thoroughly wiped out, so he rested in the tent, but I was ready for that cold beer and interested in checking out the hostel. I had never walked 3 days to a bar before and the cerveza was well deserved! Of course, like everything else, the hill from our tent to the hostel was rugged, steep and muddy. The hostel was an amazing oasis after the days of remote living…finally civilization! Dirty, sweaty backpackers filled the bar, playing cards, laughing and talking. Cusquena beers filled every table and there was a celebratory atmosphere in this international establishment. I brought a cold coke back to my dad in the tent and motivated him to get up and check out the bar. We saw our German cheerleader from Dead Woman’s Pass at the bar, so we bought him a beer and sat at the table with his tour group. There was a lady in the group from Argentina, who was 66 years old, so it looked like her and my dad at 64 were the oldest ones on the trail on this trip. Mostly, the room was filled with twenty-something hippie backpackers and an interesting assortment of rag tag travelers. No doubt, we were all extremely happy to be there! The weather was warmer at this campsite and I was comfortably able to sleep with a T-shirt without freezing my ass off. Wake up time would be at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at Machu Picchu by sunrise.
Day 4 – Inca Trail
We were awoken in the dark and we were elated to have made it through the trip, uninjured, happy and healthy. We scrambled to get our stuff together with the light of my headlamp. We got to the breakfast tent for our last breakfast with the group. Poor Sue from Ireland had been throwing up all night and looked completely pale and wiped out. We had pancakes and coffee and were eager to hit the trail. After a bathroom break at the hostel, we strapped on our packs for day 4. I was able to really relax and enjoy the trail, knowing we only had 2 hours to hike before arriving at Machu Picchu! The scenery was lush and green and our guide Freddie pointed out fragrant orchids for us to smell. I was all smiles as I walked along taking in the scenic views! There were some interesting ruins along the trail and then suddenly we reached a vista point were groups of hikers all sat with cameras in hand…although obscured in clouds…Machu Picchu was finally within our vantage point.
With eager anticipation, we waited and waited for the clouds to part. Our guide Freddie was like a Zen master and kept telling our group…”Patience, please have patience”. Some of the groups did not have patience, and left before the clouds parted, but we sat there for 30-40 minutes as our leader advised, and then suddenly just as he said, the clouds lifted, cameras clicked and there straight below us was the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu…magnificent! It truly was a spectacular sight…and to have hiked all that way and to come upon a view like that, it was quite a reward. The struggles, worries and pain of the previous 3 days all seemed to fade away, the reality before me was that I had completed the journey, that I was strong, and that my body could be pushed to more limits then I knew. It was a great feeling!
|Kym on the Trail|
Aquas Caliente was a scenic little town that catered to all the whims and needs of the backpacker tourists that frequented this town. You could immediately tell the tourists who had walked the trail, dirty and sweaty with stick and hand, from the clean and refreshed tourists that had not walked the trail. Every shop and restaurant catered to the tired and weary Incan trail hiker. A gushing river flowed through the city and the city was surrounded by scenic mountains on all sides. There was row upon row of restaurants and tiendas selling all the goods from Peru. First we had to send e-mails letting everyone know that we were alive and well. Then we went to a street side restaurant, just as a Peruvian band set up. We relaxed at the café overlooking the train tracks. We celebrated our victory with an afternoon cocktail. I loved the vibe of the little town of Aguas Caliente and disappointed that we would not be spending the night there. It was bad planning on my part, but I thought we would not have enough time to stay the night there and with a flight from Cusco the next day, it would be impossible to change the plans.
At 4:00 p.m., we said goodbye to Andean Life and jumped on the Peru Rail train back to Cusco. All the girls from our trip were also on the train. We relaxed on the train and took in the scenic views. The train slowly rocked back and forth as it made its way along a raging river and past ancient Incan ruins. Just as I was being lulled to sleep, I noticed the most spectacular, brilliant colored rainbow that stretched both sides of the river. At about 7:15 p.m., the train stopped for a pick up and we looked out the window and saw a sign that said “15 minutes to Cusco by bus, 5 soles”. We looked at each other and laughed, the train still had 1 hour to go. With a split second decision, we grabbed our bags and hopped off the train and onto the bus for a quicker way back to Cusco. We were exhausted and could not wait for a hot shower and a warm bed. My hair was so dirty and my clothes were awful! We arrived at the Plaza de Armas. Our hotel was about a 10-minute walk up hill, but since the hotel was out of the way and with our limited Spanish, we decided to walk it instead of trying to explain it to a taxi driver. My dad took the big bag that the porter had been carrying on the Inca Trail and hauled it on the top of his back and we walked up one more hill to the Ninos Hotel. A hot shower and warm bed was a wonderful treat! As I closed my eyes that night, my mind went through the previous 4 days and what we had accomplished. It felt like a real achievement; I was proud of myself and I was proud of my dad.