Your Stories ...
– The Inca Trail. 10th March 1998
We arrived in Cusco in the early morning of March 1st straight off the overnight bus from Copacabana.
There was a slight chill in the air as the four of us hoisted up our bags and made our way down one of the hill roads into the main square, it soon warmed a little later into the day, however.
After finding our way to a guesthouse we decided to dump the bags after checking in and explore the town a little.
It appeared we had managed to arrive in town on the eve of yet another saint’s day.
The people were out and about in the streets again, dancing, singing, drinking and generally being merry.
Whole families came out of their houses to join in the revelries and the children appeared to take the “holiday” feeling most to heart.
Seems every town we’ve been to so far we’ve had to indulge the squirts of water pistols and flour bombs which come clattering down from all angles. Much to the delight of the chuckling little faces which giggle all around us. The days festivities carried on way into the night.
The next day or so was spent relaxing, reading and generally taking in the atmosphere of the town, which I must say is very relaxed and extremely friendly.
The town has a strong colonial feel with its large Spanish “Plaza de Armas” and its continental looking Cathedral positioned centrally to the whole town.
Cusco itself was once capital of the great Inca Empire and on viewing the city further it’s easy to see the most enduring achievement of this great civilisation, the architecture. For throughout the main part of the town everything that is viewed from eye level upward has the look of Spanish colony, as I have mentioned already. Below head height, however, the foundation stones are pure Inca. Even the ornate plaza’s cathedral was built directly on top of the base stones of the original temple when the conquistadors made their first appearance here.
The hostel we stayed in was very nice and the family that runs it was friendly. In our dorm Dal and myself were sharing with Jen a pleasant girl from Vancouver whom Frank had met up with further down some other distant road in South America.
Frank and his girlfriend Lynn, who we have been travelling around with for the last couple of weeks, along with Jen, Dal and myself had all decided that we were going to walk the “Inca Trail”. This is a gruelling 3-day hike through the Andes to the lost city of Macchu Picchu.
By Tuesday 3rd it was time to set off and raising at the dark hour of 5.0 am we stored up our bags in the safe deposit and made our way to the plaza where the bus picked us up.
There were about 15-20 people doing the trek in our particular party and as the bus made its way out of Cusco, we all seemed to share the same tired and weary expression.
That was at least until about an hour down the road when we stopped off at a roadside restaurant for some strong coffee. I made the mistake of indulging in a rather sickly sweet doughnut with my beverage and ultimately felt queasy for the remainder of the bus journey.
The scenery was most impressive, as the bus wound its way up hillsides and made it’s way further out into the countryside. We passed a few sleepy villages on route and an old Inca settlement known as Ollantaytambo, which sits alongside the great Urubamba River.
The journey to the railway station
(the starting point for the trail) is known simply as Km88. It took a couple of
hours or so to get there and once arrived it was time for everyone to clamber
off the bus, carrying in tow all of their worldly possessions for the next three
Then commenced a brief discussion from our guide, “Charlie”, about what the trek was going to involve over the next few days. No sooner was that over when we were all herded onto the back of a four-wheeled drive truck, which bumped and jumped its way along a riverside dirt track. All the while the main road, our bus and all signs of comfortable living were rapidly disappearing out of sight.
After about ten minutes the truck halted, we jumped off and Charlie led us across a rickety rope bridge, which led us up against a shear cliff face of forest next to the gushing water of the Urubamba.
As far as the eye could see there was trees and mountain after mountain disappearing off into the horizon.
Then it was time to walk. That’s what we were here for, and that’s what we were going to do.
We made our way through the gap in the trees at the end of the bridge and then wound our way slowly up hill through a Eucalyptus grove.
There was the twenty or so “hikers” that made up our party along with Charlie striding boldly at the front of the line and the five or so Quechua Indians, who acted as porters and cooks, zigzagging in and out between the whole group at high speed.
As we set off walking it was all quite pleasant. We made our way through the shaded covering of the trees and although the sun was shining the air was still quite cool.
The whole of the trail is made from old Inca stones, which form a path of steps right across the mountains to Machu Picchu.
Being over five hundred years old, parts of the trail aren’t in as good condition as others and in some areas the stones became uneven or appeared to have completely deteriorated or disappeared from the path altogether, leaving just a dirt trail behind.
For the first kilometre or so the group began to spread out a little, as everyone seemed to find their own walking pace, with the die-hards at the front and the “not so die-hards” bringing up the rear.
Yours truly was about half way between both of these groups, along with Dal, Frank and Lynn.
It was quite enjoyable taking in the surroundings as we continued our way along the east bank of the river and we even found the time to chat and crack the odd joke as we walked along. I can remember thinking to myself that this “wasn’t too bad” and begun to ridicule the comments I had previously heard about how tough the trek was.
After a few hours we stopped for a lunch and then carried on up the first major hillside that we were to encounter. It was then that the heavens opened and a torrent of rain began to gush down on us.
Everyone put on his or her waterproofs, as there was no stopping on this hike, and so the walking carried on. As did the rain, which kept coming down in buckets as the hillside gradually grew steeper.
As we made our way up the slope the rain turned our pathway to sticky mud which made the last stint of the hill all the more difficult to navigate.
At one point I made a wrong footing and slid backwards down the path on my belly for about ten feet before grabbing onto a branch to stabilise myself.
Once at the top of the hill it was peaks and troughs all the way. Some of the peaks being very steep, reminding some of the muscles in my legs that they’d been in retirement for quite some time now. Some good photo opportunities came up as the rain had dispersed giving way to some nice sunshine.
night we camped out on the large flat area of ground next to a small village
that was wedged between the various hills we had just climbed and the huge
summit we were about to face next day.
The following day after a hearty breakfast we made our way up onto the trail again, and began to climb steeply up the hillside, crossing over a place called Rio Llullucha and then for the next few hours or so passing some impressive cloud forest. The air began to feel quite moist and humid.
Then it was on to the part of the trek that I’d had heard much painful talk of.
A stretch called “Dead woman’s Pass” at just under 5000 metres above sea level is the highest point of the trek.
Suddenly I had the feeling of everything around me becoming still and then slowly and gradually beginning speed up and pass me by.
It was no illusion, Dal and Frank had long disappeared from sight up ahead as the altitude began to take its toll on me and more and more people seemed to pass me by.
Over the next hour or so I managed to go from relatively near the front of the group to being one of the last four people hanging on at the rear. There was myself, Lynn, an Australian girl called Veronica, and a guy from Chile’, the four of us competing for the loudest wheezes. The two to three hour climb seemed to last for an eternity as the pass itself, which ran along the edge of a cliff face looking out onto a deep open valley, seemed endless.
As I staggered along putting one foot in front of the other to lift it onto the next step in front of me I gazed out across the lush valley.
A few alpacas were grazing off in the distance.
For a few moments I contemplated how nice it would if I were one of these creatures and not have to suffer this agony I was putting myself through. Us humans do some pretty daft things at times, it must be said.
After an hour or so I met Charlie coming back down the path towards me.
He had already reached the summit and was coming back down the hillside to check if the rest of the party was okay. This surely meant that he had to make his way back up the pass again afterwards.
Why anyway would want to go through this pain more than once must surely proved insanity, I thought to myself.
Charlie had a walkie-talkie with him and giggling away held it up to my ear so I could listen.
On the other end of the line was an American guy from our party who had already reached the top.
“Hey..how y’all doin’ down there?” came the voice from the gadget “what’s taking you guys so long?” This was not the inspiration I required at that particular moment in time and after a wheezy “over and out” I carried on making my way up, leaving Charlie behind me to check on the rest of the party.
“Dead woman’s pass”, took me the best part of three to four hours to complete and by the time I reached the summit, I had never before in my life enjoyed laying down on the ground and drinking a bottle of water more so than at that precise moment.
As with most great challenges in life, there was an enormous sense of achievement when I had scaled the summit but an even bigger sense of relief that the whole thing was over.
We set up camp that evening and the cooks dished up a wholesome meal of noodles and vegetables.
We all sat in large a circle in the centre of camp to eat supper. Unfortunately I couldn’t manage to get down more than a couple of mouthfuls, as my appetite had all but gone. Probably another symptom of the altitude.
The next day was an absolute breeze, and probably the most enjoyable of the trek.
After setting off down hill for a good hour or we made our way out of the next valley for a few kilometres and onto some more Inca ruins where we stopped for lunch.
As we ate, I enjoyed a magnificent view. On one side looking east I could see the huge passes we had crossed over the last few days and then to the west the valleys and cloud forest, which were interspersed with foothills and ruined temples as far as the eye could see.
It was through this latter area that we walked for the rest of that day. Firstly going up hillside steps, which were steep, but nowhere near as steep as what had already been, and then down into narrow valleys where the path ran through some densely overgrown forest areas. It made me feel as if I was about to stumble across my own lost city at any minute.
All the time we were walking up into and then back down out of the clouds.
As I made my way along the porters and cooks kept running in and out of everyone and overtaking, as they had been every day since we’d set off.
All the while they’re loaded with the tents, packs, and equipment for the camp strapped to their backs as they raced up the mountain paths.
I have to really admire these Quechua Indians. Considering that they’re relatively small built people, their strength and ease at walking the trail put me to shame after my terrible attempt at mountaineering.
That night we reached the hostel, which served as the final stop off point before Machu Picchu the following day.
As we camped out on the terraces that night, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed down over us. At one point I woke up in the darkness and half imagined the earth under our tent to slide away beneath us at any moment sending us down the mountain on a river of mud.
Charlie woke everyone up before Sunrise and made us a coffee before packing up our things and setting off.
It was still darkness as we made our way down the hillside away from the camp area and along the last remainder of the trail. The rain during the night had turned the whole path to sticky mud and the areas, which on previous days would have been a lot easier to manoeuvre, were quite tricky.
We walked along the edge of a cliff hanging for a few kilometres and then reached a place called the “sun gate” just as dawn was breaking.
This is an old Inca stone arch, which gives a perfect view down onto Machu Picchu.
When we got there, however, a thick, soupy mist obscured our view.
Far from being deterred we made our way down the final stretch of path and after about 40 minutes or so reached Machu Picchu just as the fog was lifting and bright sunshine was coming out.
What an awesome sight it was. A magnificent plateau of old Inca ruins, dropping off into large terraces, which ran down each side of the mountain like giant green steps.
Whole stone walls and parts of a long abandoned city all around us surrounded by magical mist covered mountains. The site itself is all that remains of an Inca city, which was built high in the foothills sometime in the 13th or 14th Centuries. When the Spanish arrived the place was never discovered and lay unknown, albeit for a few local farmers, to the outside world until it was re-discovered in the early part of the 1900’s.
It was certainly a sight for sore eyes and well worth the four-day journey to get there.
Chalie, gave us a tour around the site for a few hours and then let us explore. There were a few llamas and Alpacas roaming around the ruins grazing and this just seemed to add to the whole surreal sight that lay before me.
Then as soon as it had begun, the show was all over and we were to begin making our way back down.
There are two different ways you can complete the trail. One can either walk the final part of the path from Machu Picchu down the mountainside or catch the bus, which takes you to Aguas Calientes the town at the foot of the site.
I opted for the bus, which proved a most rewarding choice as it wound its way round and round descending down the mountain road for about 20 minutes or so.
As the bus made the turn at the end of each hill a young Peruvian boy would come running out of the bushes whooping and chanting loudly with a big grin on his face. Before running into the undergrowth on the opposite side of the road and racing down through the forest as fast as he could, only to appear just in time to meet the bus a few minutes later as it made the next turn down the hillside. This was much to the amusement and applauds of the entire bus.
When we reached Aguas Calientes, a town which reminded me a little of the wild west with its railroad running straight through the middle of the main street, I indulged in a much needed Pepsi, followed by a dip in the natural springs for which the town is famous. Then it was onto the train and back to Cusco nursing some pretty nasty blisters.
Stuart Humphries, UK
Copyright Stuart Humphries. All rights reserved. Story reproduced with kind permission.
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