Thursday, 29 January 2009

Conquering The Inca Trail - Middle-aged Mom Style

So... Did I make it?


I will give you the details below, but the bare bones are:

+/- 45 km

Day 1: 11 km, start of trail 8528 ft, camp at 9840 ft.
Day 2: 14 km, 1st pass 13776 ft, camp at 11480 ft.
Day 3: 16 km, 2nd pass 12792 ft, 3rd pass 11972 ft, camp at 8692ft.
Day 4: 4 km, Machu Picchu 7872 ft.

You may want to get a cup of tea and get comfortable for a while, for the details are many!

Day 1:

We gather in the main square, 4 intrepid hikers waiting for our adventure to begin. At exactly 6:00 am, up pulls a mini van and our guide, Enrique. We pour in and head out, picking up our porters on the way.

As we drive out of the city I reflect on the red brick houses, doors painted blue for luck, and the poverty I see. We stop briefly in a small town for lunch and a pee break... toilet paper provided. We continue along a very narrow road that follows the roiling Urubamba River, backing up every once and a while to allow oncoming traffic through.

There is a line to check in at the official post at the starting point known as km 82. Get requisite stamp in passport, cross a bridge over the river and we are on our way.  I have been told that day 1 is relatively easy and enjoy the sights of prickly pear cactus and (what I think are) high mountains.  Light brown and packed hard by the hundreds of people that tread it daily, the path unfolds in front of us in this scrub filled mountainous terrain. 

As we start a relatively easy ascent, we allow the porters to pass on the right.  Only fair considering they are carrying loads of up to 30kg on their backs, and are on their way to set up our camp for lunch.  Let me just say this about the porters... WOW.  They are small of stature, wiry, incredibly strong, and head over the mountains with their loads wearing only sandals. the size of their calves serving testament to the rigors ahead.

Huff, puff, up we go, interesting ruins.  Huff, puff, up our first really steep climb. Then down sandy steps to lunch in a beautiful valley. So far it is sunny and we keep our fingers crossed that the afternoon rains do not materialize. Sunscreen & hats necessary.

I am already very relieved that I have a porter carrying my backpack... my small daypack is more than enough.

Little communities, lots and lots of corn, not so much "native dress", lots of donkeys, and a few travelers passing us in the opposite direction on donkeys looking pretty ill. Hmmm.

Up, up, up... the guide takes my daypack for the last half hour or so because I am stuggling up the beginning of what would become hundreds and hundreds of stairs. (if not thousands, who has the breath to count?)  The porters (bless them) have our camp set up, hot water waiting and food cooking before we get there. They have already become our heroes.

It is at this point I find out that the sleeping bag I rented is smelly and damp... it went on top of the tent to air out until dark. Tent closed against mosquitoes, toes clean and dry, 2 Robaxacet in.  3100 meters, bit of sunburn, bit of swelling in my hands and face, and quite an attack of the dizzies after lunch, which slows me down considerably.  Sit for a talk with Enrique about proceeding on to day 2, considered to be the most difficult.  Is decided that Enrique will carry my daypack tomorrow, and I will continue on with just my poles and water.

Day 2:

Can't sleep, another casualty of altitude sickness.  In the darkness I  doze on and off to the beautiful and haunting sound of the wind blowing through the mountains. A midnight search for  the loo (a ceramic hole in the ground, really), and I make it back to the tent just before the heavens open up for a good pour. Long before the Porters rise I am being serenaded by the Roosters and Dogs of the village below us in the valley, and the chickens pecking the ground around the tent.

Quinoa oatmeal for breakfast... that is all I can manage. I am tired, dizzy and determined.

Up, up, up. Rain, rain, rain.  Walking through cloud forest now, it is lush with bromilaids, fushia, fern, and moss.  Lovely twisting trees.  Black birds with red foreheads and little brown birds with rooster-like foreheads. We travel in the clouds, and above the clouds.  Beautiful.   Pretty farms at 3500 mtrs. Alpacas and Llamas pass us upwards carrying packs of good to be sold to the long line of trekkers at the next rest point.  Lots of little Llama/Alpaca poop balls on the trail. Snack break is at 3700 meters, and I am super dizzy.  A bottle of orange soda brings incredible relief. We left at 6:00 am, and I have taken 4.5 hours to travel this 3 hour segment.  I soldier on.

My hip hurts - not good.  My breath is short - not good.    I pop another coco toffee and ten minutes later we head into the nest layer of higher cloud cover and cold. Thank god I bought the coco candies.

It is at this point I decide 2 things... I am not going to look up at the trail to come and I am going to the top as slowly as necessary. The only person I am now competing with is me.  The clouds shift and the view down and out was stunning.  I am shocked at how high I have climbed.  I settled into a pace of 40 steps, stop and rest until my heart rate settles and I can catch my breath, then repeat.  Keeping my guide entertained as best I can, considering he is spending a lot of time in pause mode with me.

I am struck by the fact that each time I stop I find something beautiful to admire.  Small green orchid like blooms, purple and white lupin, red bumblebees, little blue birds hopping up the path behind me, yellow cosmos, pretty brown butterflies with gold spots on their wings. Like little messages of encouragement along the way.

The valley seems to become more beautiful the higher I manage to climb. (oxygen deprivation perhaps?)  We are well above the cloud line now, and I am dizzy and nauseated. Keeping to the sides of the path if it allows me to avoid the actual act of climbing a stair.  People pass me, but not so quickly now, and most are huffing and puffing like me.

I refuse to look up, not wanting to see the enormity of the task ahead of me.  My guide stops, and suddenly I am at there.  I made it.  Dead woman´s pass, and I am standing here alive. Smiles, jubilation and pictures to attest to the feat.  No rest for the absolutely exhausted though as my guide commands me to head onwards down the mountain.  Time is getting on, and the less of it I spend at such a high altitude the better... I have a 2 hour climb down... on huge, uneven, stone stairs pretty much the entire way.

Down, down, down. Jelly legs. Campsite is but a dot in the valley far below.  The distant view of an incredible waterfall rewards my progress.

3 hour ascent took 6

2 hour descent took 2!

I get a standing ovation when I enter the camp.  Exhausted happy dance.

Drop onto sleeping mat to rest before dinner.  I am feeling sick to my stomach and exhausted. Can not eat dinner.  A few bites of rice and I pack it in.  Play cards with the gang for a few minutes while drinking celery tea, the cooks remedy for funny tummy.  Tylenol & Imodium, a long long walk to the toilets.  Manage to sleep a couple of hours.  In the middle of the night I wake up and have to pee, but it is pouring, and there is no way I can find my way to the toilets in the pitch black of a remote mountain campground. (as mom says, oh well.)

Day 3:

I am up at first light to find the loo, and gratefully the cook has coco tea waiting for me when I get back.  I eat breakfast, pack up my stuff and start out on my own early.  It is a very long day today and I do not want to again end up far behind everyone.

Up, up, up. Stairs all the way up to the second pass.  The group easily passes me. They stop for a rest a an Incan ruin site, but I keep going.

Porters RUN past me.

Up, up, up.  Great big uneven stone stairs.  The downpour last night has created a small stream flowing over the stones.  Thank god rough granite is not slippery.  I take a few minutes to appreciate the beauty of the fresh snowfall on the pass I crossed yesterday.  Pass number 2, and I make it before the group!

A very brief stop, and a magical moment as I encounter a deer at the beginning of the descent.  My gentle coaxing has it to come within a few feet of me and we stare at each other for a few moments before another hiker comes around the corner and scares it off.

I sit on a boulder at the side of the pass, enjoying the solitude.   There is a niggle at the back of my neck and I look up to see a man approaching.  Looks like a porter but has no pack.  Strange.  He steps up and asks to see my camera and I hesitantly show him.  I am extremely uncomfortable and I remember reading about bad things happening to women alone on the trail.  As he reaches out a group of trekkers rounds the corner and he quickly moves on.  

OK, so I am slightly shaken and greatly relieved.

Down, down, down.  Through a stone staircase carved into the rock.  Through a cave.  The feel of the air has changed... much more humid, and a beautiful lake panorama appears below through the clouds and mist.  The area is becoming more tropical as I head further down.  Wooden Inca bridges, 7ft high and wide bladed grasses, mounds of moss hanging off the mass of trees, the sounds of frogs and birds.  Bamboo?  Didn't expect that.  More shades of green than is imaginable.   Pretty little plant - looks like oregano but tastes better.  Should I be tasting plants I don't recognize?  Probably not.

Our guide provides detailed commentary at a fabulous ruin along the trail... solstice worship area, water canals, easily defended.  It is high off the trail, up many high narrow steps...

The area is now saturated with moisture... like a jungle even.  Water dripping off the trees everywhere. Masses of ferns, smelles so fresh, alive & intense.

I am the first to camp for lunch... must have been hungry, no?  Another big congratulations from the Porters.  Lunch camp was in a great site in a valley below the jungle vegetation line, drier and more open.  Sweet grape like juice revives and playing cards in the hot, hot sun relaxes. Sunhat and sunscreen most definately required.  Looking back, clouds now surround the mountains we came from, but there is a sunny sky ahead.   Reeds, flies... mosquitoes to come? Lots of trekkers making lunch camp here and there are sounds of activity all around.

Up up up... pass number 3. Down down down. Hundreds of uneven stone stairs.  My legs are rubber.  Helps if I step down sideways...  We go through tunnels and caves.  Down on hands and knees,  going backwards at one point.  Rain storm opens up as we come to the next set of ruins, and another trekker and I get turned around following a porter...  we get to a 2 meter jumping point just at our guide finds us and turns us around.  Porter short cut apparently.   Beautiful Inca terracing.  Smiling Porters as they RUN downhill carrying their packs.

Camp is once again ready and waiting for us when we arrive.  We play cards and havedinner. Time to thank and tip the porters who will part with us tomorrow after breakfast.

I am sweaty, smelly and dirty... one more day till shower time. Nighty night, and I actually sleep. This is good.

Day 4:

I wake at 3:00 am, and have packed by the time the porters bring me coco tea.  Breakfast at 5:00 am and a quick walk to get into the line to pass through the finishing checkpoint, all by headlamp.   At 5:30 the officers open the gates and we file through for the final push to the Sun Gate to watch the sun rise over Manchu Picchu.  I try to keep up the frantic pace and manage  most of the way until those bloody stone steps reappear, steeper than ever, and the group passes  ahead.  But clouds and mist have closed in and although the view of the sun gate terraces is haunting, there is no hint of the Mystical City.  Time for me to take a few moments to catch my breath before beginning the next round of downhill stairs.

There is plenty of disappointment in the air and on the faces of the trekkers around me - I am just so amazed I made it and am actually here that I feel on top of the world.  I suppose if I had been meant to see the city from the sun gate I would have. I am given a different experience and it is a lovely one.

We enter into the city from above, and the clouds part from time to time to tease us. Officialdom, drop off backpack and get 2nd stamp for passport.  Pinch me.  We have our official tour in the mist and the rain, and it is incredibly impressive even so. The tour takes us... yes, up and down massive flights of stairs.  My legs will never be the same.  Enough steps already!

Our guide Enrique takes his leave at this point and as a group we wander on.  Plenty of close encounters with the small herd of llamas allowed to roam and keep the grass trim.  More rain. Lost Sandra.  Found Sandra. Take refuge in a coffee shop while it pours.   Ridiculous prices.. take my advise and pack your snacks if you can.  We pass an hour chatting till the rain stops. Back into the ruins, the clouds part, the sun comes out and it is magnificent!  The group wants to go back up to the high entrance for pictures, but opt out and make my way to a bench with a view.  Sitting down, enjoying the flowers and ruins, surrounded by llamas, watching the gardeners work at keeping the jungle back from the edges of the ruins.  Listening to the roar of the river below, and the whistle of the trains arriving from Cusco with more tourists.

Feeling very blessed.

The trip back to the school is uneventful, a long train ride, a short bus ride and then... A HOT SHOWER AND A COMFY BED! 

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