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Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (3)
The third day -- downhill, thank god!
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-05 18:27 (KST)   

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Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail
Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (2)
Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (4)

The old Inca town of Sayacmarca
©2005 D.Weber
"Above all, there is the fascination of finding here and there under the swaying vines, or perched on top of a beetling crag, the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who ages ago sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by Nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently give expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty."
-- Hiram Bingham on the ruins along the way to Machu Picchu.

©2005 D.Weber
The third day was a far easier hike. Most of it was either level or downhill. The mountains were once again our friends. The third day's hike offered more panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. We could see far and wide and the views were simply staggering. We weary hikers suddenly felt the long climb had been worth the wait.

Enjoying some Marte de Coca Tea in the morning
©2005 D.Weber
The morning was cold and our stiff muscles and blisters protested our efforts to move again. We needed a few cups of hot Coca de Marte tea to get us warm and get us moving again. We started the day visiting Sayacmarca, the ruins that -- due to our exhaustion -- did not impress us the day before. We clambered about the aged stones admiring the spectacular views. The ruins reminded me of pictures I had seen on the cliff-dwelling cities of the Anasazi Indians of the southwestern United States.

A view from a window of Sayacmarca
©2005 D.Weber
We hiked about three hours to the next pass. Along the way, the path practically became a ledge with a steep drop-off on the left side. This didn't help my fear of heights at all. I hugged the right side of the path like an an obsessive lover with dependency issues.

Standing a little too close to the edge of the ledge for my comfort
©2005 D.Weber
A little further along we came across a tunnel which the Incas had constructed. The tunnel had been chiseled so finely that it seemed more natural than man-made. The tunnel led to the gentle rise of the third pass.

The third pass
©2005 D.Weber
Feeling stronger today, I was able to hike at my normal pace which friends and family often gripe at me to slow down. For a while I walked with the porters: the supermen of the Inca Trail. They trudge up and down the trail countless times a year lugging tents, cooking gear, food and sometimes hikers' baggage. While hikers often shell out big bucks for the latest in hiking gear and boots, the porters hike the trail wearing only sandals stuffed with straw. As for myself, I was hiking in a beat-up pair of tennis shoes that were loaners from a friend back home -- a friend who had no idea I would take them to Peru and subsequently on the Inca Trail. Despite my improper footwear, I didn't get any blisters unlike a few of the hikers in their expensive boots.

Our two porters carried our tents, cooking equipment and food. Our tents were small and so not heavy to carry, unlike some groups who had such huge tents they would have been better placed at the base camp of Mt. Everest. I was actually glad that I had to carry my own pack. I dislike servitude of any form even if I'm paying for it. The tents and food were communal for all to use - porters included -- but I would have felt guilty if someone had to haul my bundle of dirty socks all over the Andes.

Inca Trail Preservation
Responsible Tourism

Katja climbing up into our camp
When I hiked the Inca Trail, I was able to sign up at the last moment -- literally the day before. No longer is this possible under the new management of the Trail. In the past, though I was fortunate not to experience this, the Trail was often overcrowded, strewned with garbage and suffering from erosion in certain spots.

Another negative aspect of past management or lack of management was that certain previous Trail outfitters treated their porters poorly with low wages and bad working conditions.

However according to writer Tim Leffel of Transitions Abroad, steps have been taken to reduce traffic and give porters better working conditions.

"In January 2001 the government began to regulate the trail and to require permits. Of the 93 tour operators that had sold Inca Trail packages at the time, half were denied permission to continue operating. To meet the new requirements tour operators must use only assigned camp sites with proper toilet facilities; carry all garbage with them; use only propane for fuel (no open fires); provide two guides for groups of more than seven tourists; and limit the amount porters carry to 25 kilos." -- Tim Leffel

Still it is up to would-be hikers to make sure they don't leave a mess and that they sign up with a responsible agency that looks after the needs of their porters and is concerned with preservation of the Inca Trail. / David M Weber

Inca Roads

"...the roads of the Incas were among the most useful and stupendous works ever executed by man." -- William H. Prescott - History of the Conquest of Peru (1847)

A tunnel carved by the Incas
©2005 D.Weber
The Inca Trail really was just a backcountry road in the Incas' heyday. Their greatest accomplishment in road building was a long highway that stretched more than 3,000 miles along the Andes with side paths running down to the coast linking the mountains to the desert.

Due to their impressive road system, the Incas have been called the Romans of the New World with good reason. The Spaniards, when they weren't too busy pillaging and exploiting the natives, waxed on about the wonders of the Inca roads. They even continued to use the Chasquis messenger system.

Their roads helped the Incas administer their far-flung empire more efficiently. Armies, messengers, and officials could move relatively easily throughout the empire. Waystations stocked with food and provisions were placed all along the roads for official business. Tunnels, steps, and suspension bridges were constructed along the roads to ease travel. Their roads were an admirable accomplishment but they also paved the Incas' downfall as it was these very same roads which allowed the Spanish to reach them all the more quicker.

Downhill -- Not Those Bloody Steps Again!

Beyond the third and final pass of the Inca Trail we came across yet another ruined town called Phuyupatamarka which means "Cloud-Level Town." A broad stone floor sat upon a hilltop with terraces cut into the hillside running below it on three sides. Some of the remaining walls were stout and thick. Phuyupatamarka looks more like the ruins of an ancient fortress rather than a town. There were also ceremonial baths that still had water pouring into them.

The ruined fortress-looking town of Phuyupatamarka
©2005 D.Weber
The descent from Phuyupatamarka was rough. Once again we had to make our way down steep Inca steps. Our knees screamed out in agony. Again I was the last in our group to reach the bottom because my fear of heights reared its ugly head. In my mind's eye I kept seeing myself rolling down those steps and ending up a bloody pulp of broken bones at the bottom. There were over a thousand knee-killing steps to bottom. I thought I would die before the end of them. We had great views of the valley as we descended so at least I would have died surrounded by beauty, provided I didn't land in any llama dung at the bottom.

After the stairs was a steep dirt path that was a bit treacherous. Though I escaped the steps unscathed, I slipped on the path repeatedly and once nearly rode down the entire mountain on my rear-end.

We ended the day's hike in the afternoon at a youth hostel where those of our group tired of sleeping in tents purchased rooms. Here we rested and spent time with other hikers swapping travel stories and drinking much needed beer.

A view from the "Cloud City"
©2005 D.Weber
Not All Guides Are Equal

Two friends of the Swiss couple arrived at the hostel having come on the two-day hike. They did not have the best of guides. His knowledge of the Incas and the surrounding area was not exactly impeccable. Whenever they would come across an obviously modern paved road, their guide would just say: "The Incas built it." Although the Incas were known to be amazing engineers, even the guides' ill-informed customers were bit skeptical of these claims since they had a strong hunch that the Incas did not use asphalt.

In contrast, our guide, Willy, was a fountain of knowledge. He entertained and informed us the whole way through with tidbits of historical facts on the Incas and ecological information of the area. Hearing the problems that the Swiss couple's friends had made us appreciate all the more that we had Willy as our guide. Willy spoke Spanish and English and some Quecha -- the native language of the Andean descendants of the Incas. He also spoke a little German. He had a German girlfriend at the time whom he had met on one of his tour hikes.

A number of the Inca Trail guides are like the Don Juans of the Andes. They have wooed their way up and down the Andes and broken scores of hearts along the way. A tale of the least of their romantic exploits would probably put Casanova to shame and make him seem a prudish librarian in comparison.

Winawayna -- A Lovely Set of Ruins for a Game of Hide and Seek

Near the hostel was another set of ruins, Winawayna or "Forever Young." These ruins were discovered in 1941, 30 years after Machu Picchu. Winawayna is a wonder of engineering as its wide conclave terraces are built on a very steep slope. The farmers of Winawayna must have had the footing of mountain goats to keep from falling off those steep narrow terraces.

Some of us went back there at night to play hide and seek among the ruins. We only got through one round before a guard put an end to our shenanigans. It was just as well since one of us in our quest not to be "it" might have ended up forever hidden at the bottom of the slope. Instead we headed back to the hostel where in the lobby we settled on the less dangerous game of charades.

As the night got old, we headed to bed. Ever the cheapskate, I was one of the few who didn't pay for a room and settled for another night in the tent. Only an hour or so now separated us from our final destination: Machu Picchu.

Steep slope outside of Winawayna's window
©2005 D.Weber
©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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