Day 4: Kilometer 82
Waking up this morning felt a lot like starting a new trip altogether. The tourist portion of the vacation was over and now it was time to start the heavy lifting and conquer the vast Andes. Machu Picchu was waiting for us at the end, but we were going to have to earn it.
Another light breakfast came before finalizing the packing and heading downstairs to meet Marilu and board the bus to take us off to the trailhead. We said goodbye to Barbara and Bev who would spend the next few days in Cusco and the Sacred Valley before meeting up with us at Machu Picchu and loaded up the gear. On the bus we met the other people who would be with our hiking group on the trail. There were three people from Calgary who had been trekking around South America for six months and a Brazillian couple who spoke pretty much only Portuguese. The Calgarians were carrying huge packs, but the Brazillians didn’t seem to have anything at all, so I guess we balanced out very nicely.
Ready as we'll ever be
The bus headed through the hills and down into a majestic mountain valley where we stopped at the town of Ollantaytambo. This city is best described as “yellow” since every building is painted that color. Water runs through the streets in little aqueducts, and the mountain air and rustic feel give this place a very different ambience than Cusco. We were also moving further into the rural mountain areas where the way of life is significantly different, even from that in Cusco.
Driving down into the moutain valley
Simon wandering Ollantaytambo
A quaint mountain home
We picked up some walking sticks for the trail from local vendors who had taken bamboo and woven interesting handgrips on the end. We would form very tight bonds with our walking sticks over the next four days. After wandering the streets and taking pictures of some of the cows that were running through the alleyways, we boarded the bus again and continued on to the trail.
Selling their wares
Water in the streets
The mountains await
We headed deeper into the mountains and through several small villages built from mud bricks. The sky was starting to look like rain, so the colors of the flowers in the fields against the green mountainsides became more vibrant. The dirt road was very narrow and we often had to pull aside to let oncoming traffic pass. This continued for a while until we came to a steamroller in the middle of the road. There was clearly no way we were going to make it past him, so the driver had to get out and plead for him to get out of the way. Ten minutes later he agreed, and ten minutes after that he had finally pulled off the road. Crisis averted.
Bright flowers in the rain
That was until we came to another village and a rope with a flag attached had been tied across the road. Some men were fixing the railway tracks on the side and had closed off all traffic while they worked. Half an hour later we managed to get past again and continued. Then we had to stop a third time for another crew pulling apart the road. These people, however, had ripped out the passage to pour concrete and now we were finally screwed. We were going to start the trek a little early today.
No, that's ok. We'll walk.
As we donned our daypacks for the first time it started to spit rain. Fortunately, we all had more Gore-Tex than any person could ever dream of. Greg always teases Dad that REI is going to name a building for him after the incredible business he’s given them. Hope to see you all at the dedication next March!
Dad and me in enough Gore-Tex to wick away a river
We walked for about twenty minutes until we came to a small community called Piscacucho. We stopped here to have lunch and get oriented before crossing the gate onto the trail. The porters set up a tent and we ate lunch at a fully set table. The setting and the meal of soup, meat and rice seemed luxurious given that we were now roughing it. Presumably the food was prepared to give us the best balance of protein and carbohydrates so we could make it down the trail. They can’t airlift you out if you are unable go on so the porters have to carry you on their back. It’s probably in their best interests to keep everyone healthy.
"According to this GPS, I don't know where the heck we are"
Afterwards we packed up the camp and prepared to journey on. We met up with our other guide Bruno and at Marilu’s recommendation I picked up a couple packs of coca leaves to help with the trek. Mixed with a compound called llipta, which is some sort of ash extraction, the leaves are supposed to keep you from getting sore and give you energy. She also taught me how to use the leaves to make cocaine. Let’s just say it’s a very arduous and expensive proposition.
The Fellowship of the Hike 4 ALS banner: Greg, Shannon, Helen, Ian, Cam, Owen, Simon
At long last we arrived at Kilometer 82, the official start of the Inca Trail. We grabbed our duffel bags and snuck them through the control point as we had arranged the night before. After crossing a shaky suspension bridge over the rushing Urubamba river, we stashed everything behind a tree and once Bruno and the porters came by to pick it up, we were off again.
Guarding the bags
Greg and the Brazillians at the point of no return
Along the trail there were a good number of small villages or lone mud-brick houses where the farmer people of the mountains grow corn and cuy (although you have to wonder how hard you have to try to get cuy to hang out around your house). With the occasional monument or graveyard off the side of the trail, the frequent passers-by and the villages along the way, it seems the trail functions as a main thoroughfare for the local population. What was a huge physical ordeal for us was just a hop on the freeway for them.
A trek for us, a stroll for her
A campesino woman
These rustic mountain people are called “campesinos” and because they are so remote, many still subscribe to the worship of the sun, moon, and “Apus,” or spirits of the mountains, that the ancient Incas did. They also speak mainly Quechua instead of Spanish, another sign that perhaps the Inca ways are not as dead as one might think.
Mighty mountains worthy of worship
We stopped when we came to an archaeological site called Qoriwayrachina. Marilu made it very clear that we were not to call them ruins, but instead archaeological sites or Inca sites – Saqsaywaman was a ruin, but not these. This area was used as a control for travelers along the trail and a place for them to rest on their pilgrimage. It was not an imperial building, however, so they did use mortar and employed a cruder style of putting the stones together. It turns out that only the higher-level buildings are constructed with their amazing mortar-less process.
Marilu regales us with tales of the Incas
Shannon ready to take on the trail
We headed up what seemed to be some serious inclines and came across a larger village where a group of children was sitting on a rock outside their house. They were just too cute so I took a picture. As was expected, they saw me and huddled together in a pose, then came running after me looking for “propinas,” or tips. Since I was done with paying for pictures, I walked away and they followed and yelled after me for a surprisingly long while. No dice kids. You can thank your little friend with the puppy for that one.
More tips? What happened to sweet innocence?
A cat outside a farmer's house
Playing ball on the trail
We climbed on through the valley as the sun set over the mountain tops and came to a beautiful ridge where a man was cutting corn and carrying it on his back down to a clearing. Then like clockwork, a kid with a donkey would come around the corner, load it up, then take off and the process would start again. On the other side of the hill was Llaqtapata, another Inca site which is a town essentially carved into the side of a mountain. There were terraces built below the homes for farming in the mountain terrain, and every building was constructed in the imperial style. Pachaputec was responsible for building this village, as well as the very trail we were hiking.
Getting used to going up
Simon, king of the mountain
On the ridge
Beast of burden
Greg and Marilu above Llaqtapata
We hiked, or trekked, or “hekked” as Greg declared, along the banks of the Urubamba as the sun went down and the sky darkened. Here in the mountains when the sun goes down, it goes straight down. It was pitch black in no time so we interspersed a couple headlamps throughout the group. The rest of us just tried to work on our night vision. The stars were absolutely incredible as the Milky Way was right overhead. There is no light or air pollution, unlike certain places some of us call home, so we could see all kinds of constellations, not the least of which was the rare treat of traveling to the southern hemisphere, the Southern Cross.
We arrived at the camp and the tents were already set up and dinner was nearly ready. The porters must have been going incredibly fast to have had this all laid out just as we were arriving. Because we had the late start earlier in the day, Marilu had worked out with a campesino woman to put us up in the field by her house where we nestled in between the horses and the llamas. It seemed to work out well for her because she wasted no time displaying the array of juice, soda and beer she had for sale. Cinco soles! She had a nice patio with a thatched covering over it where the table was set up, and down the hill were the bathroom facilities. I went to use them after a long day of hearing the call, but the ceramic-lined hole in the ground with a running hose and two little marks for where to put your feet for the squat were a little daunting. On top of all this, the door was of the lovely sliding style, in that you had to physically lift the piece of wood and slide it across the door. I decided to take my chances later down the trail.
Dinner was again a virtual delicacy, all things considered, with fried trout, sweet potatoes, and an assortment of teas. After getting to know the other people we were sharing the trail with and enjoying some warm dessert, we headed off to our first night in sleeping bags and tents amidst the Andes mountains. We had conquered the first day so we knew we could do it. Heck, if we made it past today, we should be able to make it past the rest pretty well, right?
Wrong. Very wrong.