Prepping and the First Day of the Inca Trail

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>Inca Trail, Peru
By Sue Chang

December 28th, 2005 – Preplanning

Submerging my swelling left ankle under a cool stream
Submerging my swelling left ankle under a cool stream
To our group of six, including me, our guide prepped us for the Inca Trail at a hostel we were all staying at in Cusco. He kept on re-emphasizing that this would be a spiritual journey for each of us. He also reiterated on having a positive attitude to get through the four days.

Truthfully speaking, I didn’t put myself in the mode of trying to imagine what the trail would be like – like picturing how torturous it’s going to be or even if I’ll get spiritually rejuvenated. Spiritual Journey? In this day and age? Maybe for New Agers and potheads, maybe 12+ years ago when I was in tune, but now? Yah right. I could thank my career and reality for stripping that part of me away. The most I expected it to be was quite literal – a four-day hike through various different terrains, with the first day being somewhat hard and the second day being the most difficult physically. Then onto the grand surveyance of Machu Picchu. That’s it.

New Year’s Eve 2005 – Day 01 Inca Trail, Unbelievably Unprepared
At around eight in the morning, a minibus drove the six of us from the small Incan town of Ollantaytambo, the entrance 82 km of the Inca Trail. After purchasing and picking up walking sticks on that crisp, sunny morning, we headed off to the checkpoint to enter through as well as get our passports stamped. With my touristy Machu Picchu logo-ed safari-style hat on my head, new waterproof hiking boots on my feet, walking stick in my hand, light jacket on, and my daypack on my back (crammed with a bottle of water, mittens, meds, binoculars, flashlight, rain poncho, sunglasses, 6-function compass-whistle-magnifying glass-mirror-temperature reader-flashlight, and a bunch of other things), I was ready to roll.

Looking back, Day 01 of the Inca Trail was the hardest day of all for me.

Primarily due to being unprepared. Very unprepared.

Of course, it looks like I had my shit together on the first day – all the necessities one can possibly need for a long 6-7 hours hike. But I didn’t have what I really needed for myself in particular.

Let me explain.

This is what I do in preparation for a hike back at home, which in reality, takes less than half the time and effort than what I did for the Inca Trail:

  1. Map – unless if I know the trail very well or if the trail comes with free maps at the entrance, I almost always bring a map along. I did not bring the Inca Trail map with me and was almost sorry for it.
  2. Sunblock and bug repellant – I stupidly decided not to bring my sport sweat-proof sunblock with me, solely because I planned on wearing my hat the whole time. I also left my 100% DEET bug repellant in a rucksack that was being carried by the porters. As a result, I had to wear my hat the whole time and got a bunch of mosquito bites on my arms when I wasn’t wearing my long-sleeve jacket (got too hot). At home, I always put sunblock on along with insect repellant.
  3. Broken in hiking shoes – I again ignorantly decided to leave my broken-in comfortable hiking shoes back at home. I was planning on just using my street shoes until I noticed that my soles were wearing down. In addition, I found out that I would be hiking the Inca Trail during the wet season (in fact, we landed in Cusco during a cold downpour), which means muddy trails and slippery rocks. Doi yoi yoi. However, I was lucky enough to find some decent high-top hiking shoes with good traction for around $30 USD (my first high-tops ever, btw). But they weren’t broken in enough for the long hike.
  4. Lightweight zip-off pants or shorts – I wear only either of these while hiking, even in rainy weather. Instead, since I kept on hearing how cold the Inca Trail will be, I decided to put on my heavy cotton pants. At the moment, I was thinking that if I trip and fall on rocks or gravel, it won’t hurt as bad, and I would be very warm. Duh, I don’t even do this at home. As a result, my legs were sweating bullets after the first 20-30 minutes of hiking. And this was in slightly cold temperatures.
  5. No walking stick – I have never used one back at home. God does know why I used one here (more on this later). In the beginning, I wanted to chuck the walking stick into the Rio Urubamba. I didn’t (and for a good reason), but most of the time I carried the stick as a balancing stick in both hands.
  6. No daypack – I usually don’t carry a daypack at home, unless if it’s a long hike that can go into sunset. When I do carry a daypack, I don’t usually bring as much stuff as I packed for the Inca Trail. I overpacked this time.
  7. No hat – I almost never wear a hat, but usually layer on the suncreen and wear a pair of sunglasses. I don’t wear hats while hiking because it constricts the heat to my head, which makes me sweaty and dizzy. Not a good combination in addition to the higher altitude on the Inca Trail. I wore a hat this time because #1 – so I won’t get sunburned and #2 – heard it was super cold. #1 could have been easily replaced with sunblock and sunglasses. #2 was bullshit.
  8. Don’t eat before – I never eat before I do any strenuous activity. Probably from early childhood memories, none of which I can remember, my mom always reiterated to me to not do anything active after I eat. When I do that, I usually puke it all up afterwards. I think I stopped listening by the time I was around eight years old, since my earliest recollection was around that age. I had a bunch of Domino’s pizza at a friend’s birthday party, and a half an hour afterwards, I was doing flips and dives off the diving board. Then I puked it all up on the side of the pool. Gross. What a sight. I tested this theory twice earlier this year, too (actually I wasn’t thinking, again). Had some Golden Crisp cereal with milk before a planned bike ride. After half an hour of riding to the top of the hill, I stopped for a breather, got dizzy and queasy, and then I hurled a sticky cereal mush, missing a few bikers whizzing by. Quite embarassing. Another time, I got so hungry after a one-tank scuba dive, that I had a sandwich before the next dive. I almost hurled into my friend’s new inflatable boat on the ride back from the second dive spot. This time, I really had no idea what I was thinking when I had a pretty big breakfast of some fruit, a pancake, some Peruvian-style Golden Crisp and two glasses of juice, right before the first hike.

Climbing this is no fun on a sprained ankle (look closely at the ascending trail on the side of the mountain)
Climbing this is no fun on a sprained ankle (look closely at the ascending trail on the side of the mountain)
So the hike actually started off pretty pleasant, with our guide leading the way and showing us different plants and their uses. I was trying to get into the zone, although I was feeling a bit queasy the whole entire time. I also was quite tired, having gone through a sleepless night in damp and stinky gym-socks smelling blankets the night before in a cold room in Ollantaytambo. I tried to focus on the hike rather than the growing queasiness in my stomach and my lack of rest. I just shrugged it off as probably an altitude-related symptom, and that the altitude sickness pills I started taking the day before should take care of it. The hike then started to climb a bit, with my group pushing fast and furiously forward. At this point I was getting a bit hot, and so I took off my jacket and wrapped it around my waist since I couldn’t stuff it in my overstuffed daypack. When we finally reached a cluster of local houses with the trail running through them, our guide stopped us for a snack break. I was quite thankful at this point, and pulled out my snacks and water. Without thinking, I ate a banana, four Peruvian-Oreo cookies, and three chocolate wafers. Then we were off again.

My group pushed even more faster and more furiously ahead than before, while I felt myself getting hotter and dizzier by the second. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I thought I was totally prepared for the hike – followed the recommended regiment for the Inca Trail. And there I was, panting and lagging behind, watching the two marathon runner girls in the front behind our guide, and the other three following closely behind. I didn’t get it – even the two smokers in the group weren’t having the problems I was having. Also, I thought we all were in some kind of agreement that we’d all hike together as a group, and that it wouldn’t be some kind of competitive race.

Then I twisted my left ankle and cursed something not too pleasant.

Then I felt really dizzy and lightheaded, while holding my left ankle and trying to keep the tears from falling from my eyes.

Then I vomited part of my breakfast and my snacks onto the side of trail.

Then I had the cold-sweaty feeling that you never want to have – I was done for in terms of completing the Inca Trail and reaching Machu Picchu. I also thought, “Stupid H., why couldn’t he do this with me?? Stupid bronchitis picked up from Beijing.”

I moved to the side of the trail (away from the vomit of course), clutching my left ankle and biting my lip. One of the porters passing by saw this and asked if I was all right in Spanish. I didn’t say anything because I was trying to stop the pain from making me scream. I think he then went off to find our guide. A few of my group members stopped and turned around to see if I was okay and one of them also went to get our guide. I calmed myself down and tried to dissuade the pain as much as I could. The guide came back and helped me up. I was too glad that I didn’t chuck my walking stick into the river next to the trail. With Sueno Azul (my walking stick), I slowly hobbled with the guide to a small cold stream that crossed the trail. He told me to submerge my left ankle for a few minutes to reduce the swelling. And I did. And that began a weird deja vu moment in my head at that scene. Could it have been the altitude? Who knows.

After dipping my foot in the stream, we reached a campsite for lunch. I was quite exhausted and in some pain, and nodded on and off throughout the meal. Luckily, the guide gave us half an hour of rest before we started off again. I tried to take a nap, but sleep didn’t come as fast as it did during the meal.

We set off again on the trail to reach our campsite and final destination for the day. I tried to keep up with the others, but it was painful and I didn’t want to exacerbate the swelling in my left ankle. Plus, a slight incline ensued.

Soon, I was alone on the trail. No site of any of my group members ahead of me nor other hikers nor porters nor our guide anywhere. Some local houses popped up on the trail during the incline. Thinking the trail went between these local houses like it has done a couple of times before, I veered off to the right, completely amiss of the actual trail that layed to the left. As I was passing through, this elderly local woman rattled off to me in Quechua (?), since it didn’t sound like Spanish to me and I couldn’t understand her. I just mosied on over to what looked like a trail behind the local houses to the left. I started on this skinnier trail, and after seeing absolutely no one at all after a bit, I realized I was hobbling off in the wrong direction. I turned around, retraced my steps, passed through the local houses, and started on the other trail on the left. I hoped I was on the right track, as I also realized I carried no map. I was guessing that it was around 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a few hours before sundown.

I fortunately did remember the name of the campsite though (the third campsite from entrance 82 km), and luckily, I saw a few porters coming up behind me. I asked one of them in Spanish where the campsite was, and he confirmed that I was on the right track. Purely on adrenaline, and since I was alone again on the trail (as porters are superfast even with 25 kg on their backs), I hobbled as quickly as I could after my group, trying to ignore the pain in my left ankle. After 20 minutes or so, I came upon three of them that were taking a break, told them how I got lost and was about to start on another trail, and asked politely if they could slow down a bit for me, since I can’t hike as fast as them. I found the other two marathon girls further up on the hill and told them the same story, but didn’t really get any response from them, except for a few mumblings. To be fair, because I didn’t want to pinpoint anyone, I found and told the guide what happened, and his response was, that it was my imagination. Inside, that really ticked me off for the rest of the day. But really, when it comes down to it, people should realize that one can’t go too fast on a badly twisted ankle. Hello??? Our guide then got our group together and told us that we’re pretty close to our final destination, and that there’s only one way there. The two brutish marathon girls cheered and snidely remarked that no one can get lost on the trail towards the campsite. So, they rushed on ahead. The other three group members were nice enough to be in eye-distance for me.

I finally reached the campsite, probably an hour before sundown. The campsite was breathtaking, as it is set upon a cliff surrounded by huge mountains and overlooking a valley below.

A view from my tent
A view from my tent
I felt somewhat estranged from my group and the guide when I arrived, mainly due to my situation. No one spoke to me when I arrived, even looked at me. Actually I felt ostracized because of my sprained left ankle. Like no one wanted to be responsible in terms of looking after me the next day, which is the most hardest part of the 4-day trek, since it goes through two of the three most difficult passes at the highest points of the trail. I ate dinner with the group in a melancholy silence, as the guide and group chatted on about the day’s events, their interests and lives, while ignoring me completely. This I didn’t understand, since I didn’t even burst out and lose my temper in front of them (it takes a lot to provoke me in doing this in public). I just asked them to slow down a bit back there, and even added a ‘please’. Towards the end of the meal, one of the marathon girls finally asked how my ankle was doing. I told her it wasn’t getting any better, and bit my lip from gettting too emotional. From then on, I kept on telling myself that I should stop feeling sorry for myself and that this would be just an insignificant memory in the future. I was exhausted and excused myself from the table for hopefully, a good night’s sleep.

That night, after staring at the Milky Way and a slow-moving satellite for awhile from the open flap of my tent, I prayed darn hard that I wouldn’t die or be carried down by a stretcher the next day. I also didn’t want to hear H. say, “I told you so.”

Again, truthfully speaking, I never believed it. Unbeknownst to me, my solo spiritual journey had only just begun.


Check out the author’s travel blog for more writings.





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