Peru Part VII: In the Inca’s footsteps

Four days to Macchu Picchu

Christmas morning arrives without any presents, trees or snow. Instead it brings me something much better: our guide David, with a bus to take us to the start of the Inca Trail. As we step into the car, I’m shocked by the amount of porters we’re bringing with us. Eight men sit in the back to carry our tents, our food and cooking gear. Are my parents really that lazy and colonial, to make eight people carry their stuff for them? Not exactly. The Peruvian government has actually made it mandatory for tourists to have so many porters, thus creating more jobs for Peruvian people in the Andes. They also set a limit to the amount of tourists entering the trail on one day, thereby conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the route. Back in the day, David explains, there were practically no rules. Porters carried up to 40 kg on their backs, people camped between the ancient ruins and littered without giving it a second thought. Things are better now. A porter can carry a maximum of 25 kg and his bag is weighed multiple times throughout the trail. My parents let their bags with clothes and sleeping bags be carried by these Peruvian heroes; I refuse to let go of my burden.
The start of the trail is pure chaos. In a small overshadowed spot, hundreds of people crowd together to make their final preparations: applying sunscreen, changing clothes, spraying bug repellent. Some groups have even set up a long folding table, where they’re having a festive breakfast. Funnily enough, a little order is created by the shirts the porters are wearing. Every team has their own colour, and ‘our’ men are easily recognized by their orange outfit. Coincidence? Nope, the company is owned by a Dutch couple. We finish our final preparations and take a picture in front of the famous ‘KM 82′ sign that marks the official beginning of the trail. David’s incredible negotiation allows us to skip right to the front of the line for the control point… and off we go.
On the first day, the pace is slow, with many stops that I deem unnecessary. When we pause for lunch, I realize why the porters have such a weight on their backs: together with tables, chairs and a dozen sets of cutlery they take out an entire extra tent for eating and even a table cloth. Everything is set up in a designated spot and the chef (whose name is also David) starts cooking. He’s in a hurry; usually, tourists arrive a long time after the porters. Sorry, but not these tourists.
I don’t know how David achieves culinary excellence in a tent at 3000 meters, but he makes it happen. After an extensive lunch and a small siesta, we continue to our first base camp: a small field in a local family’s garden. We have this spot reserved just for us, so the only noise comes from the family’s Christmas lights that play a continuous loop of the 8-bit rendition of ‘Feliz Navidad’. It seems that soccer breaks all language barriers, as minutes later I’m fanatically kicking away with my dad and three young kids. As night falls, the temperature drops and we retreat back in our tents.

Alex, the youngest of the porters, wakes me up at 5:30 with a hot cup of tea. That’s a very welcome luxury: the second day is famous for being the toughest. After a hearty breakfast and a mouth full of coca we begin our 1100 meter ascend. I’m the first to arrive at our meeting point, having passed tourists and porters alike. The view is amazing: the snow-capped peak of mount Veronica rises 5800 meters high, while the steps I use to climb are surrounded by a lush green environment. Spanish moss and bromeliads dominate the plant life around me. Llama’s and alpaca’s graze in the distance. However, it’s nowhere near quiet at this midway plateau. Hordes of hikers gather to buy supplies from the last shop on the trail. Porters and guides enjoy a glass of chicha, low-alcoholic corn beer that’s traditionally made by chewing the corn and mixing it with saliva. When we’re all gathered, we begin our final ascend of the day: the Dead Woman’s Pass. Although this sounds very intimidating, it’s simply named after the shape of the mountain ridge, which indeed resembles a female figure lying on her back. 45 minutes later, I’m standing at the Inca Trail’s highest point: 4215 meters. As I’m waiting for my parents, the phenomenal panorama is sporadically obscured my thick clouds. I’m cold from the strong wind when they arrive for a much needed picture moment.
From here to the basecamp, it’s only downwards. Quickly walking down the slippery slopes is difficult to master, although I see porters literally running down the mountain. The cloud forest down below encourages me to pick up the pace. The vegetation has returned when I arrive at the large base camp at 3800 meters. To my surprise, no one from our party has made it there yet. When the porters arrive, they’re quite astonished to find me already sitting in the grass. When my parents and David come down, I’ve helped with setting up the tents and already started organizing my own. After lunch, we won’t be hiking any further. I decide to explore the base camp and its surrounding a bit. The place is booming with activity. Many people are arriving just now, or have given up and are being escorted back to the trail’s beginning. The few squatting toilets present are not the best; taking it to the bushes seems like a better idea. I notice the different levels of comfort in which people make their journey. Apparently, we’re on the low tier. I see special toilet tents with chemical disposals underneath -imagine being the porter that has to carry that- and gigantic dining places and sleeping tents. The most ridiculous thing I find are groups that brought a masseuse with them, including a special massaging tent. I stroll around the site and take a few pictures of the plants and streams. After dinner, we call it an early night and wrap up in our sleeping bags.

The longest day starts early. When I crawl out of my tent, the porters take turns in weighing my backpack. I get nods of approval from all of them. We start hiking up the next mountain pass and I look back at the Dead Woman’s Pass from yesterday. Our first stop, Runkuraqay, was once a resting place for chasquis, the running men of the Incas who used this trail to deliver important messages to and from Macchu Picchu. The clouds roll in as I arrive at the top and start making my way down the tall stony steps. I wait for David and my parents at the foot of Sayamarca, another ancient Inca settlement. The fog that obscured my view before now disappears and reveals an ocean of green beneath me: the cloud forest. The prospect of walking through the jungle again excites me. David gives us a short tour of the town and tells us about the sacrifices the Incas made to their gods. Llamas, corn and potatoes would be taken by a priest to the glacier and buried beneath the snow; almost as if they were feeding the mountain spirit. The next part of the trail is absolutely stunning. The pathway is one hundred percent original, and it takes us along steep cliffs and through humid caves. The amount of green around me increases every step and the millions of trees from the cloud forest stream from the mountain flanks. Since I’m walking alone, it is completely silent except for the wind and the birds. We have lunch at Phuyupatamarca, looking out over the still functioning fountains of the city. Even after decades of being a guide, David is still passionate about the route, especially this segment. We spend the afternoon walking down through forest that grows increasingly dense. David tells me he often spots snakes crawling over the path, but I can only find a shy lizard that quickly scurries away. Suddenly, the trees make way and reveal a stunning view of agricultural terraces and the valley below, where Aguas Calientes is split in two by the Urubamba river. We silently sit at this spot for a while, taking in the natural beauty of the scene. It’s only a short walk down to our final basecamp, where we arrive around 5 pm. This camp is even more crowded than the last one, as this is the final camp for every single group: there is no place to sleep beyond this. Tourists, porters and guides roam everywhere, and the place fills up as the evening falls. For our last dinner, David the cook prepares a feast. I don’t know how one makes a warm apple pie without an oven, but he achieves the impossible. This evening is our opportunity to say goodbye to the porters, as they will not be joining us tomorrow. I thank them all in English and David translates it, both in Spanish and Quechua. After the ceremony is over, we settle in for a very short night.

It is 3:30 when I wake up in my tent with hot tea for the last time. After a very quick breakfast and another goodbye to the porters, we walk to the line before the gate to Macchu Picchu. It’s as crowded as can be. At 5:30 exactly, the last control post opens and we rapidly pass through. The steep and slippery path is full of people, many of which try to walk as quickly as possible to be the first in Macchu Picchu. A few of them slip and make some nasty falls. Fortunately, the path is beautiful and the sky is clear as we make our way through the final stage of the journey. At last, we climb the steps to the cloud gate, and there it is: Macchu Picchu.

The ecstasy of reaching the top of the Dead Woman’s Pass.
Our amazingly funny and knowledgeable guide David.
Chewing coca keeps me going.
The orange team.
The view can’t have been much different hundreds of years ago.
The trail slowly descends into the cloud forest.
Small fruit growing around our second basecamp.
A beautiful flower at an altitude of 3200 meters.
I could hear this stream from my tent at the second basecamp.
Two fathers, two sons.
The view of the Urubamba valley, coming out of the cloud forest.

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