Inca Trail Day 2: Never-ending Stairs

Inca Trail first night campsiteI slept surprisingly comfortably and warmly in our tent, and didn’t really wake up until sometime early in the morning when I could hear Dave poking around. He got up early and went out to take photos of the mountains in the early light. He came back to the tent around 6 am and we started packing up our things. Wake up call was around 6:15 am, when two porters came to each tent and asked if we wanted some mate de coca. I sipped mine while trying to finish up packing.

Breakfast was at 6:30 am, and wasn’t just cold cereal. They gave us toast and pancakes with jam and butter, and also a local porridge-like dish called quinoa (very yummy).

As we hiked yesterday I quickly realized that I was one of the slowest members of the group. I also realized that Day 2 was supposed to be the hardest, most vertical day, and that if I was having some problems on the relatively flat hike on Day 1, there was no way I could make it through Day 2 with a 25-pound backpack on my back.

Dave and I talked about it, and we decided to take advantage of the option to hire a local porter to carry our packs just for the day (50 soles, or less than $20). It was the smartest decision we made throughout the entire experience.

So we left our packs with the rest of the stuff for the porters, and we all started hiking at 7:15 am. There was a vertical sprint from the campsite to another ranger station, which for some reason we didn’t have to stop at. Then we continued to ascend.

Inca Trail Mt. VeronicaOur campsite at Wallabamba had been at an altitude of 3000 meters, approximately 9800 feet. We hiked steadily up for about an hour to a place where there was an amazing overlook to the valley below, with beautiful views of Mt. Veronica directly across the valley. This spot was at 3200 meters, or nearly 10,500 feet. We rested there for no more than 10 minutes, and then proceeded up an even steeper climb for couple more hours. I believe the place we stopped at for brunch was at 3700 meters, which is over 12,000 feet.

Inca TrailThis part of the hike was quite difficult, but very beautiful. The path was mostly granite steps, up, up, and more up. But the foliage along the path was green and lush, and there was a stream that trickled down along the path. This section of the hike was in a self-contained cloud forest. I was, of course, the last one of our group walking the trail, but it was at times very peaceful to be alone enjoying the sounds and colors of nature.

I also can’t say that I was completely alone. I had sent Dave ahead with the rest of the group, but occasionally I was walking with Jenn, Chris, and Julie, who were just slightly better conditioned for the trail than I was. It was fun to chat with them a while. Eventually, though, they were able to pull ahead, and I took my time walking up the trail. The entire time, though, our guides Leo and Jose were following along behind me. This part of the trail is considered to be the hardest (because it’s the steepest), so both guides stay behind the whole group, like shepherds. Other than this part and one other part, though, they generally had one of them at the front (usually Leo) and one at the back (usually Jose). I enjoyed hanging out with the two of them, because I got to speak with them in Spanish and learn about what their lives are like.

Leo has been a guide for several years, having at this point completed over 300 treks. All guides have to spend 4 years at an institute in order to become guides, and also take a test each February in order to maintain their guide’s license. Leo told me that his mother was at Machu Picchu when she was pregnant with him, so he feels it’s part of his destiny to bring people on treks to Machu Picchu. He spends a lot of time reading about the Incan culture and the Incan religion, and trying to keep up with the latest archaeological findings and research regarding the different ruins both along the trail and in other parts of the region. Leo spends most of his time on the trail: he leads a group for 4 days, then frequently goes back to Cusco and starts another trek the next day. This despite having a girlfriend of 8 years, who he said he hopes to marry in December.

Jose has only been a guide for a couple of years, thus his status as Assistant Guide. He doesn’t get work as often as Leo, which is a blessing and a curse – he gets more opportunities to be at home with his girlfriend, but he doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t work, so sometimes it’s hard to come up with the money to pay all the bills. He has been learning English from the trekkers in his group, and he is able to communicate quite well considering he has no formal training in English.

At around 11 am, we stopped for brunch (which Leo also referred to as “elevensis”, which mystified all of the English speakers, regardless of country of origin), and I was the last to arrive by at least 15 minutes. The group had just started the soup course when I arrived. There was so much food (chicken, rice, etc), but I could barely eat any of it.

Stairway to Dead Woman’s PassThe next leg of the hike was, for me, the worst. It started, as I said earlier, around 3700 meters (over 12,000 feet) and the destination was Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200 meters (nearly 13,800 feet). The path was a never-ending stairway up the side of the mountain, with a valley below. Dave decided that for this part of the hike he would stay with me, which meant that he also had to hike VERY SLOWLY. I didn’t want to push myself too hard because the last thing I wanted to do was pass out and/or have to be given oxygen.

Inca Trail llamaWe started out from lunch with both Leo and Jose in the back. As we climbed the trail from the lunch spot, we saw a group hiking along the valley, which seemed to be to be very out of the way if they were planning to come up the pass later. Leo told us they were Boy Scouts, having lunch at a spot in the middle of the valley. He yelled down to them, “Hey Boy Scouts! Be ready!” We explained to him that the Boy Scout motto in English doesn’t translate quite directly from the Spanish version, and we taught it to him correctly. Then he started yelling down the valley, “Boy Scouts! Be prepared!” Leo’s heckling of the Boy Scouts was hilarious enough, but it got even funnier when he began to heckle the llamas that were grazing peacefully down in the valley. “Hello llamas! You are my concubines!” I can tell you, when you’ve been hiking straight up a mountain all day and are already out of breath from the hiking and the altitude, the last thing you need is someone cracking you up. I was laughing so hard I had to sit down to take a rest.

As I said, I climbed that mountain VERY SLOWLY. I have no real idea how long it took me to get to the top – probably two hours. I would climb stairs until my chest started to feel constricted – usually about 30 steps – and then stop until it relaxed again. About halfway up, Leo left to run to the head of the group (which at this point was close to reaching the peak), so Jose and Dave were stuck with me. Jose was very patient and at one point told me reassuringly, “You know your body very well.” All I knew was that I didn’t want to pass out, and that I just wanted to make it to the top under my own power. If that meant going slower than a Peruvian snail, so be it.

Our trek group at top of Dead Woman's PassBy the time I made it to the top (around 1:50 pm), the group had probably been waiting for half an hour. I’m guessing they enjoyed the rest for about 10 minutes, but it was pretty windy and chilly at the top, and we hadn’t had sunshine since early that morning. Luckily there was a dog at the top of the pass that kept them entertained (or, shall I say, Leo kept them entertained by referring to the scrawny, medium-sized dog as a puma). By the time I got there, they were all ready to leave, so we quickly took what Leo referred to ask “the typical picture” with the snowcaps in the background, and the group headed down the path to the campsite.

I was happy to sit and rest for a minute and reflect on the fact that I had made it to Dead Woman’s Pass without becoming one myself. But Jose was ready to get moving and get us to camp at a reasonable hour. He mentioned that he was hungry, so I gave him Dave’s snack, which had been in my backpack all day. I started eating mine as well, until I realized that it was basically a bar of birdseed and wasn’t all that good.

View from Dead Woman's PassThe trail from Dead Woman’s Pass to the campsite was, in contrast to the previous 6 hours, almost straight downhill (4200 meters to 3600 meters, or a total of 2000 feet vertically downhill). It was almost impossible not to run down the stairs – if you stopped for a break, your legs felt like jelly and you couldn’t stand still anyway.

For the first time that day, I was making pretty good time and not holding Dave and Jose back quite as badly. We came upon another woman hiking by herself with two trek poles, picking her way down the rocky path. We got passed by a porter just as we were passing her, so we ended up exchanging a few words, and I noticed she was an English-speaker. I started talking to her for a while and it turned out we had quite a bit in common. She was currently living in the San Francisco Bay area, but was a New Yorker who had originally moved to San Diego when she came west. She and I had a fairly lengthy conversation about why it was difficult for easterners to live in San Diego, and why we each had come to the point of leaving San Diego, despite the beautiful weather.

Trail down from Dead Woman's PassAfter about 10 minutes of this chatting, Jose and Dave were stopped waiting for me, and I told them to go along ahead. It was interesting to have someone new to talk to, and she seemed to be all by herself. Some 10-15 minutes later, though, we joined up with the rest of her group, so I bade farewell and zoomed along the rest of the trail (which flattened out a bit, though still headed downhill steadily) toward the campsite. I have to say I had an ulterior motive – I had to use the restroom pretty badly.

After I left the woman and her group behind, I got passed by a young Peruvian man sauntering down the hill. “Hola, que tal,” I greeted him. I asked him if he was just passing by, and he said he was. He passed me, but maintained a relatively short distance in front of me (maybe 25-30 yards). At first I thought nothing of it, but when I realized that he could have easily been far past me very quickly, I started to wonder if he was keeping an eye on me. I had felt completely safe with all the people on the trail, so it didn’t really occur to me that there would be someone on the trail who would be looking to harm me in any way. The only other logical explanation was that he was watching over me.

When I got to the campsite at Pacamayo (around 3:30 pm), Jose and a couple of other guys were waiting at the camp entrance for me. Jose walked toward the campsite with me, and pointed toward the baños, saying I could go there after lunch if I needed to. I said forget it, I’m going there right now.

I came back from the bathroom and everyone had started lunch already. They insisted that they hadn’t been waiting long, but I’m sure they had been there for a good half hour already. I asked Jose and Leo if they had sent that guy to come looking for me. They admitted that they had – he was one of our porters, and they wanted someone out there to make sure I was okay. I told them it was a little creepy that the guy didn’t tell me, when I greeted him, why he was there. But it all worked out fine.

For lunch there was soup (the perfect thing for a windy and chilly afternoon), then chicken (or, according to Leo, “baby condor”), pasta, beets, and tortilla (not the Mexican kind but rather the Spanish kind, with eggs and potatoes). It was delicious but as usual it was way too much food, so I had just a bit of chicken and tortilla.

Dave in our tent, Day 2After lunch, we had a couple of hours to rest, so Dave and I went into our tent, set up our sleeping pads and bags, and laid down for a while. I actually had a rather nice nap.

Everyone seemed to have a nice rest, and we got back together at 6:30 pm for dinner. We had beef, veggies, rice, and mashed potatoes, and jello for dinner. I ate only a little bit, having still not quite recovered from the amount of food from the day before.

Inca Trail Day 2 campsite: Fog rolling inSince we were all feeling relatively rested, the group spent some time after dinner chatting and thinking about what we could do with the rest of the evening. It came to an end fairly early, though, as Leo explained to us that the porters sleep in the dining tent and they needed to come and clean up and get to bed. That left the rest of us no choice but to head into our tents, since it was too chilly to hang out outside. Dave and I stayed up talking for about an hour, then made a quick restroom stop and went to bed by 9 pm.

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