Inca Trail Day 1: The Trek Begins

After a restless night of sleep, the alarm went off at 4:30 am. I got up and went into the bathroom, and as soon as I flicked the light switch I knew the day was starting off crazy. There was no power. I tested the light in the bedroom as well, just to verify – we had no electricity. I woke up Dave to let him know, then went downstairs and woke up Javier, the guy at the hostel who keeps everything going. I told him there was no electricity and he started testing a bunch of things. Finally he told me that there was no electricity in the whole hostel, other than the doorway (which was apparently on a different circuit).

I asked him what we should do. After a few minutes of activity and craziness, he told me that there was one room in the hostel that had a shower that ran on gas, rather than electricity. Unfortunately there was no light, but we were welcome to use that shower to bathe in the dark. I went and got my headlamp out of my backpack and gathered my things for the shower.

It was the hottest shower I had the entire time we were in Peru. It was lovely.

After I was done, I showed Dave where the shower was, and then proceeded to get everything ready using my headlamp as my only light. Fortunately we had almost completely packed the night before, so we just had to get dressed, pack a last few things, and then we were ready to go.

Fortunately the electricity problems didn’t put a dent in our schedule, and we were out the door with our backpacks on around 5:30 am as planned.

We walked the 5-6 blocks to the SAS office at Plaza de Armas and waited. There were two groups of hikers: ours had 13 people and the other had around 6. Most of the members of the group were already there, but none of the guides were, and there was also no bus. Finally our guide got there and started asking some questions, and made some phone calls. It turned out that the bus wasn’t coming to this plaza, so the whole group had to march quickly over to the next plaza (only about two blocks) to meet the bus. It got there right as we were walking up, and we handed over our packs to be put on the top of the bus, and we all piled in.

The bus drove out of Cusco, and Dave and I got a glimpse of the non-touristy areas of the town. On the way we stopped and picked up three more group members, who hadn’t been at the orientation the evening before. Then we went on our way, and most people on the bus had a nice solid nap.

After nearly an hour of driving, the bus suddenly got stopped by a taxi. The bus opened the door and let the taxi passenger on – it was the guide for the other group! Apparently he’d run into some personal issues that morning and missed the bus. It would probably be an understatement to say that the hikers in his group were glad to see him.

OllantaytamboThe bus drove along the foothills of the Andes, through various villages, and around some valleys of farmland. (Check out some of Dave’s photos from the bus ride.) This part of the bus trip was probably an hour and a half.

We finally arrived at Ollantaytambo for breakfast. The place was crazy – there were many buses full of other trek groups, and there scores of vendors trying to sell the tourists various things – rain ponchos, walking sticks, candy, hats – you name it. We made our way through the melee toward the little restaurant where we were to have breakfast. They gave us sandwiches, fruit, and hot drinks. We were only there for about half an hour before we had to squeeze through the vendors again and pile back onto the bus.

Tight bus passingThe bus headed out of Ollantaytambo and remained on the highway for just a short while longer, before exiting onto a one-lane dirt road that went along the railroad tracks. We were on this road for another 30-45 minutes, which took longer than it should have because we kept having to try to pass other buses coming the other direction. Toward the end we actually forced an oncoming bus to back up for what was probably at least a half mile, because there was no way to pass and for some reason we apparently had the right-of-way. We were amazed.

As we traveled slowly on this dirt road, we saw a lot of interesting things about how the people live in these little villages along the way. There were a couple of requisite soccer fields, of course, but that was the only sign of recreation. There were farmers plowing their fields with oxen hitched with a wooden yoke and a wooden plow in the ground. For me, growing up in John Deere country, it was amazing to think that there are many places in the world where people still farm this way. There were also lots of chickens poking around courtyards and pigs resting in the sun beside some of the houses. Some of the homes actually had very nice carved balconies or outside staircases; others looked like they had been falling down for a long time.

Trek group at beginning of Inca TrailFinally we arrived at the drop-off point at Kilometer 82, and we all got off the bus and proceeded to collect our packs. Quite a few of the members of our group had chosen to carry day packs only while hiking, so they had hired porters to carry their stuff (clothes, sleeping bags, etc). They had been given duffel bags the night before, into which they packed their things. However, it was at this point that these duffel bags were weighed, to make sure that the porters were carrying only the allowed amount and not more. Some of the duffel bags were too heavy (they were supposed to be either 9 kg or 18 kg), so some people had to go through and get rid of some of the things they had packed. They left the items on the bus and hopefully they got the items back when they returned from the trek.

Beginning of Inca Trail - Pisacucho Km 82Once we had all our stuff together, we crossed the train tracks and headed over to the ranger station checkpoint. This was where they checked our permits and stamped our passports. While we were waiting in line we had an opportunity to start to get to know some of the members of our group. We introduced ourselves to Ron (from San Francisco) and Rich (from Austin), two friends who went to high school together in the Bay Area.

The check-in process didn’t take long, and then we had to cross a hanging bridge across the Urubamba River. We gathered on the other side and finally started hiking around 20 minutes to 10 am. The trail went up for a bit, but not too steep, and then was flat for a good long time. Our guide, Leo, would stop us every so often to teach us something – either about the native plants, or about the view below, or about the surrounding mountain peaks. His English was very good and he was very animated, and he was a good teacher.

First leg of Inca TrailThe trail headed upwards a bit, and then we stopped for a break around 10 minutes to noon. They had given us snack packs at the beginning of the trail, containing tangerines, oreos, and other minor snacks. There was also a bathroom at this stop, which I took advantage of (though it required a bit of extra hiking to reach it).

We continued hiking and it was flat for a bit, and then suddenly we had to go up a fairly steep hill. We could see the steep part of the trail from across a small ravine, and I couldn’t believe we were about to go up it. Little did I know that this was merely a warmup for the rest of the trip. We made it to the top and from there we had an amazing view of the river valley, as well as some fairly well-preserved ruins below.

PatallactaThe ruins were called Patallacta, and we got a good rest while Leo gave us an extensive lecture about Incan beliefs and what most likely took place at this particular spot. He made extensive use of his trek pole (which in these instances he humorously referred to as his “talking stick”) to draw pictures in the ground. The village that had been at Patallacta most likely was an important stop on both the ceremonial Inca trail (where we were) and the commercial Inca trail (which is flatter and follows the Urubamba river below). There were quite a few farming terraces where the residents would have grown all kinds of produce, and also lots of dwellings where people would have lived and travelers would have stayed.

It had been sunny and warm up until this point, but then it started to become a little bit overcast, without too much loss of warmth. It was a blessing, actually, to not be too overexposed to sunlight.

Cusichaca River, Inca TrailThe trail then headed down for a bit, and we saw a few more ruins and agricultural terraces, and even (from afar) a hole in the side of the mountain where there had been a mummy entombed – long since stolen. We were also following a river at this point (I believe it’s the Cusichaca). When we arrived at our lunch spot around 1 pm, we crossed a narrow part of the river and stopped to enjoy a break.

This was our first experience with the amazing work of the porters. Our group of 13 people, plus 2 guides, had 20 porters assigned to us, plus 1 cook. This remarkable group of men were carrying all of the stuff required to make camp (over 50 lbs each in many cases), as well as the extra things that our group members had paid the porters to carry for them. They would run ahead of us on the trail (so much so that it was protocol to call out “Porter!” and allow them to pass on the non-mountain side of the trail) to set up for us at each stop.

We arrived at our lunch spot to find that they had set up both a cooking tent and a dining tent. The dining tent had a table and 15 stools for us all to sit and eat our lunch. We were amazed that they could possibly be carrying all this. They gave us all juice when we first got off the trail, and then had us all sit down for lunch. They passed out bowls of delicious soup, and we were all quite satisfied and full. Then they brought out the main course! There was curry and avocados and I don’t remember what else – several huge plates of food, in duplicate for both ends of the table. We couldn’t believe there was so much food, and we also couldn’t believe that we had to eat all this and then start hiking again. After that, they brought out dessert! – bananas with caramel sauce drizzled over it. It was too much.

At lunch we started to get to know more of our group, particularly Jenn and Chris, two girls from Jersey, and Julie, a veteran trekker from New Zealand. One of the first things Julie asked me was if I was speaking English – apparently my talking-too-fast-not-enunciating California accent wasn’t too intelligible. I told her it was okay – at that point I was speaking in Spanish half the time anyway.

Fortunately they gave us about 30 minutes to rest, so we all laid against the short wall that was there and tried to work through our food comas. All too soon, Leo was getting us up to start walking again.

Chicken in village along Inca TrailThe path climbed steadily but relatively gently for about an hour. We all stopped for a few minutes at a designated rest stop – actually just an open hut with benches around the edges, in front of some local family’s home. At many of these types of spots were women selling soft drinks, chicha, and candy, and this was no different. At this particular spot there were also all kinds of domestic animals that came to visit us – a rooster, a chicken, and even a turkey. There was a hummingbird perched on top of the hut, but it wasn’t really close enough to get a good view of it.

One couple in our group, Simon and Inge (from the Netherlands), have traveled quite a bit all over the world. They’ve devised a few little pleasantries along the way, which we first discovered at this rest stop. There was a little girl that lived in the house next to the rest stop hut, and Simon got out a balloon and started to play with it with the little girl. He blew it up and gave it to her. We could tell it made her day. Inge explained that they always carry balloons and stickers to give to small children they meet when they go places – they don’t weigh much but they make the children very happy.

It wasn’t long before we started walking again – more uphill. I was starting to get pretty tired at this point, so I was happy to discover, when we stopped again, that we were almost at the camp. We stopped for just a few minutes in the middle of the village of Wallabamba (where everyone in our group was amused to see a sign that said, “We repair any shoes”), and then walked about 5 more minutes to arrive at our camp, right around 4:30 pm.

The porters had already set up all the tents (decent sized dome tents, intended for 2 sleepers each) as well as the dining tent, and were working on getting dinner together. Everyone picked out their tent for the night and spent a bit of time getting things organized inside, using the bathrooms, and basically resting.

Leo announced that if anyone wanted tea, we were welcome to congregate in the dining tent. It turns out that by “tea”, he meant the meal, not just hot drinks. They did indeed serve hot drinks, but also popcorn and cookies. At this time we got a chance to know the rest of our group members – Aisling and Patrick from Dublin, and Helen and Luc (aka Luke) from London. I suppose it was fitting to have afternoon tea with new friends from the British Isles.

It was getting quite dark as we finished our teatime, but we had to vacate the dining tent for a bit so the porters could get things ready for dinner. Dave and I went back to our tent for a while and rested, then went back to the dining tent at 7 pm for dinner.

Just as lunch had been, dinner was unbelievable. I don’t think we had soup this time, but there were heaping plates full of some beef dish (which Leo jokingly insisted was puma), rice, and veggies. We were all full and sleepy by the end of dinner. We came out for a few minutes to admire the stars. The sky was completely clear, and there were millions of stars. Few of us were familiar with the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, however, so once we found the Southern Cross, there was little else to do but go to bed. I was more than happy to take my ibuprofen and climb into my sleeping bag.

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