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Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail
Peru's Inca Trail offers hardship and reward for hikers along the way to Machu Picchu
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-11-21 10:50 (KST)   
Snowcapped Andean Mountains as seen on the first day of the hike
©2005 D.Weber
Exhausted and bruised I stood with anticipation at the ruins of Intipunku (the "Sun Gate") as I watched the rising sun lower its light into the valley that lay before me. In the valley lay my destination, which I had trekked up and down steep mountain paths for several days through the Andes in a pair of worn-out sneakers in order to reach. Along the way, I had suffered stomach problems, leg cramps, the sudden drastic changes in temperature from hot to cold and a vicious bowel movement attack. However, now at the very end of my ordeal all my pain and weariness faded away as I watched the sunrise settle onto the ancient ruined city of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is one of the best-known rediscovered lost cities of the world. It lay unknown to European explorers for centuries until the American Hiram Bingham discovered the city in 1911. It has long remained a mystery exactly when and why the Incas abandoned the city and what function it served.

Inca Trail Advisory
Altitude sickness

One of the ruins along the Inca Trail
D. Weber

For those who want to try the Inca Trail getting acclimatized to the high altitude is one of the most important things to do. People who fly from Lima to Cuzco often get altitude sickness due to the sudden change in elevation. I took the long route to Cuzco by taking night buses. I went from Lima to Nazca then to Arequipa then over the mountains to Lake Titicaca before going to Cuzco thus slowly rising in elevation over a period of 3-4 days. I spent a week in Cuzco hiking around the area to other ruins before I decided to tackle the Inca Trail. / David M Weber
The Incas had possessed the greatest empire of South America. Their empire, which the Incas called Tahuantinsuyo, meaning simply "The Four Corners," once stretched from the borders of Ecuador and Columbia to central Chile and the Andean regions of Bolivia and northern Argentina. They ruled this vast sprawling empire from their high mountain capital, Cuzco. The Incas were master masons that built such sophisticated stone buildings without the aid of any type of cement and yet a knife blade cannot pass between the stones.

Those of us gathered at the Intipunki stood for a long time admiring the sprawling city of fine stone buildings and broad terraces that the growing sunlight slowly revealed to us. We were reluctant to break the spell that held us so enthralled in its trace. Dawn's magic was at last broken with the realization that we had to get down into the valley before the first tour bus from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes arrived. We knew that in a few short hours Machu Picchu would literally be crawling with tourists who had not gone through the trials and troubles that we had. We felt we had gone through a rite of passage and had earned the right to visit the sacred city by the sacrifice we had made of our feet on the long journey of the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail like Machu Picchu is a remnant of the impressive building skills of the Incas. The Trail is a part of the extensive road system that the Incas built long ago to transport their armies and convey messages across their empire. Today it is used for the more mundane task of conducting tourists to Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail extends 33 kilometers with three passes, the highest one being approximately 4,198 meters. Hikers must pay a fee to use the Trail and it's generally not allowed to go alone. Most hikers pay a travel agency in Cuzco to take them and their luggage along the Trail. Agencies offer six-day, four-day and two-day hikes, the most popular one being the four-day hike. The more expensive companies will carry everything from tents, food and hikers' bags. Cheaper companies will carry the tents and food while hikers must carry their own belongings.

The First Day: Car Problems, Wonder Tea and Laughing Llamas

I had originally planned to hike the Trail without a travel agency in the company of a lesbian Canadian I met in Arequipa along with some of her newfound friends. They got too caught up in Cuzco's nightlife of two-hour Happy Hours, pisco sours -- the local drink -- and discos that played the same songs every night, so I eventually had to sign up with an agency myself.

The agency was my kind of agency -- cheap. As I was the last addition to a small group, the company's agent told me not to tell the others how much I paid since they paid almost twice as much as I did. "Great!" I thought. "Nothing like a little dishonesty amongst strangers to start a four-day hike through the wilderness with." Eventually through some light prodding over beers later on the trek I told the others how much I paid and they were able to re-negotiate their payment.

Our travel agency didn't take us to the starting point of the Trail in a nice bus like other agencies. They took us in two small rickety old cars packed in like sardines with hikers and bags. One of the cars had to be push-started before we could get going. We bumped and rattled our way along the Andean highways. The thrifty drivers would cut their engines off whenever they were going down a hill in order to save on gas. One of the hikers offered to pay extra for the gas if they would just keep the engine going so there be less of a chance of losing control and careening down a mountainside like so many buses do occasionally in these parts.

Some slight car problems
©2005 D.Weber
We stopped briefly for breakfast after which we had to push-start one of the cars again. The other car got a flat but the erstwhile driver whipped out a spare and in no time we were back on the road. Then it got another flat. Unbelievably the driver had another spare. Unfortunately the spare did not fit the car and suddenly we were down to only one car which had to carry all of us and our gear.

That particular car just happened to be stuck in the middle of stream at that very same moment. We had to push it out of the water first before we crammed ourselves and all of the gear into it. Seven hikers, one guide and two porters squeezed tightly next to each other or sat on each other's lap. Whenever we came across any moderate-sized dip in the road or a small stream, we had to all pile out of the car like a troop of circus clowns in order to let the car drive over the tiny obstacle before piling back in. This comedy routine on wheels went on for nearly two hours. By the time we reached our destination, we were exhausted and we hadn't even started the Trail.

We were on the four-day, three-night trip. The first day's hike was relatively easy and short which was good given our exhausted state. The hike was mainly level with only a few steep parts. The mountains were gentle and friendly at this point. We could see several white cap mountains in the distance all around us.

KM 82: the beginning of the Inca Trail
©2005 D.Weber
There were relatively few hikers on the Trail with us. We had been fortunate to go on an off-day when most tour companies take their groups to another set of ruins, Ollantaytambo, a day before starting the Trail. It was difficult for me to imagine then that such peaceful open countryside could be regularly filled with small armies of hikers as I had read and heard accounts about. The traffic on the Inca Trail has caused some concerns as to the preservation and cleanliness of the Trail. Periodically, clean-up hikes are mounted to remove hikers' rubbish. Again we were fortunate because we were making our hike sometime after one of these clean-up expeditions so we saw very little rubbish along the way.

We ate lunch next to a small mountain stream in a sunny field. Our guide introduced us to the wonders of Mata de Coca tea, which is tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. Coca leaves have been used for ages by people in the Andes to stave off hunger and weariness as they trudge through the mountains. The tea is made by simply pouring boiling water over the leaves and adding a bit of sugar. It helped to give us strength and energy for the arduous hike. After a cup or two, you feel like you could take on 20 Inca Trails. I chewed on one of leaves and the left side of my mouth went numb. This was some good stuff!

Pack llamas pose for a photo
©2005 D.Weber
As I contemplated the street value of my cup of tea, I suddenly heard someone laughing in a cracked, high-pitched voice. I thought perhaps someone had drank a little too much Mata de Coca. I looked around and saw no one laughing. The hikers were busy eating and no one else was around save for a group of pack llamas. As I was taking a picture of them, one of the llamas started laughing at me. Now I thought I had had too much Mata de Coca! Our guide told us llamas make a noise that sounds like laughter so I shouldn't take it personally. Still it was a little disheartening to be mocked by pack animals at the beginning of the journey. The llamas knew what lay ahead while I did not.

Midway through the day's hike, we came across Llactapata, an old ruin of terraces and small buildings. Llactapata was the first in a series of ruins that dot the Inca Trail.

The ruins of Llactapata
©2005 D.Weber
The ruins on Inca Trail are either the remnants of small mountain towns or way stations that were used by Inca messengers. Some of the ruins had only been found after the discovery of Machu Picchu.

That night we camped in a gorge. We got to know each better over steaming cups of Mata de Coca and some beer one of the hikers purchased off of a local. There was a Swiss couple -- one of them formerly a banker, the other an architect -- with their friend Rich from New York who had been the one to offer to pay the thrifty drivers more if they would leave their engines on the whole time.

There were two young brothers from Brazil who were avid soccer fans. This was a World Cup year so they were hoping to reach Machu Picchu in time to see Brazil play in the semi-finals. Our last member was Shereen, a British girl of Indian descent who left a good paying job at a London law firm to travel South America. She once went on a three-month horseback trip in Mongolia where she helped to give vaccinations to nomads. As she was unattached she was hit on by the single members of our group, including our guide, the whole way.

The Swiss couple and the New Yorker were supposed to do the hike alone and they paid more than anyone else. Naturally they were a little upset when they found themselves expectantly saddled with four other people who paid nearly half as much as them. Fortunately our group got along very well. Rich became known as the "Doc" because he carried practically a small pharmacy of medicine with him that he doled out to those of us suffering from stomach problems. He also had a water-filtering device which he claimed could pull good drinking water even out of a mud puddle. I never tried to put that claim to the test.

As we talked a full moon rose over the mountains and illuminated the entire gorge with a ghostly light. It was our first night on the Trail and we didn't want it to end but we were told the second day would be the hardest. We needed our rest so we turned away from the moon's brilliant radiance and curled up in our sleeping bags falling swiftly asleep. We slept so deeply that nothing could disturb our slumber -- not even the frisky dog that wandered through our camp that night to bite a hole in my Alpaca-fur sweater and urinate on the New Yorker's bag.

A map of the Inca Trail
©2005 Enjoyperu.com

Related Articles
Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (2)
Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (3)
Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (4)

©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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