Inca Trail Day 3: Of Ruins and Rainforests

Our trek guide LeoThis morning our wake up call and mate de coca visit was at 5:30 am, though I had been awake for some time wondering what time it was. We drank our mate and then rushed to get our stuff all packed up. Breakfast was at 6 am (no quinoa this time) and we started walking around 6:30 am.

For about 45 minutes the path went up yet another series of steps, taking us to the ruins of Runkuracay. As usual the group was waiting for me to arrive, and then Leo proceeded to give us the history of this site. The smallish site may have doubled as a guard post and a waystation for messengers.

Another 45 minutes of uphill walking brought us past two small lakes to the second pass, called Runkuracay Pass, at an altitude of 3950 meters or just shy of 13,000 feet. Here, groups are encouraged to leave little stacks of rocks, whether as an offering to the gods of the mountains or as a “we were here” sign.

Then the trail took us down for about two hours. I did a better job of keeping up with the group for the most part, but after about an hour I Found myself hanging back with Dave and Jose again. At various points Jose would ask me how to say certain things in English. When we passed a bird preserve, he asked me how to say the word “tranquilo”. I explained to him all the things it could mean, but in this particular situation, the best word to apply was “peaceful”. It was indeed peaceful, being the only three nearby humans enjoying the scene.

SayacmarcaWe caught up to Jenn, Chris, and Julie just before arriving at the next archaeological site, called Sayacmarca. Unfortunately it involved climbing a staircase to the top of it, so the three girls decided to skip the ruin and press on to the lunch site. Dave and I figured we were never going to have this opportunity again, so we made it up to the top just as Leo started his lecture. He shared more about how the Incas incorporated astronomy into their religion. According to Leo, the site was used both as a military outpost as well as for some astrological purposes.

He gave the group some time to wander around the site for a bit, and in the process I got involved in a pretty interesting conversation with Inge about cross-cultural issues, which continued as we hiked down the trail to the lunch spot. (Unfortunately we were so engrossed in the conversation that we were slowing down, and Leo made me give my backpack to one of the porters to make us go faster.)

It was maybe 11:30 or 12 when we got to the lunch site. By this time we were prepared for the quality and quantity of the food, but we couldn’t stop marveling. We were given soup, then heaping platters of chicken (aka “baby condor”, rice, and pasta salad. It was amazing.

Jenn + backpack in rain gearWe had 20-30 minutes to rest before recommencing our hike at 1:30 pm. Actually we started about five minutes later than that, because just as we started to get our packs on, it started raining. Everyone pulled out their rain ponchos and donned them. Unfortunately we looked all over for Dave’s and couldn’t find it, so we had to carry on. He got a bit wet, but it turned out fine. After spending all that money at REI on water-resistant clothing, we needed a chance to test it out. It actually dried out rather quickly once the rain stopped, which is more than I can say for the plastic ponchos.

Inca Trail granite stairsIt rained for about 45 minutes as the trail descended. There were a few scary moments when the path was nothing but descending (slippery) granite stairs, but other than that, the path wasn’t too bad. Even after the rainfall stopped, the weather remained cloudy for the rest of the day, and we got to truly experience the phrase “cloud forest”. It was delightful, actually – although we missed out on some of the spectacular vistas because the valleys and snowcaps were obscured by fog, the colors of the trees and especially the tiny orchids really stood out more against the grey weather. Plus, we kept hearing all kinds of birds whistling and tweeting to each other from within the foliage – but we could never quite manage to see them.

PhuyupatamarcaThe trail then ascended to the third (and final) pass, at Phuyupatamarca. The group stopped at the top, and Jose had the opportunity to be the professor for once. He was very nervous, but he did a good job of explaining the role that the Incan priests had at this astrologically important location, and the ritual fountains that made their way down the hill to the ruins that were built into the hillside. From this vantage point we could also see many agricultural terraces on the opposite hillside.

Nearing the end of the Inca TrailAfter this stop, there were no more official stops until the campsite. For almost two hours we walked down, down, down. Leo and Jose walked at the end of the group for quite a long time, but once the trail flattened out a bit, Leo started running off to the front of the group to get to the campsite. Even after the trail got a bit flatter, it was another hour until we reached a fork in the road, where several guides and porters were waiting to make sure we took the fork to the right toward the campsite. At this point Dave and I were no longer the lonely ones at the rear – we had the company of Julie, Jenn, Chris, and Rich, as well as our faithful assistant guide Jose. However, after getting passed by a bunch of porters running down the hill for the last half mile of the trail, first Jenn, and then Rich, decided to convert to Peruvians and started running down the trail themselves. We caught up to them about 10 minutes later.

We finally arrived to Winaywayna campsite around 5:15 pm, and Julie and I headed straight for the bathroom. Then we joined up with everyone else at our group’s campsite, where we enjoyed a teatime with pancakes and popcorn.

WinaywaynaAfter giving us a few minutes to rest, Jose announced a mini-trek over to the Winaywayna ruins. Dave and I were so tired, and really wanted to take our shoes off, so we almost decided to give it a miss. But Leo promised us that it was only 5-10 minutes on a flat path, and that it would be worth it.

About half of our group went along, and we got to the ruins just before the sunlight completely disappeared. Jose told us a bit about the ruins, which are named after an orchid that grows on the site. The walls were remarkably well built and straight, and we took a good look at the fountains that cascade down the hillside. There were several levels of agricultural terraces, and I wished I could see what they looked like planted with the various crops and flowers the Incas had used them for.

It was completely dark as the group made its way back to the campsite. Dave and I went into our tent and were happy to take off our hiking boots and take some ibuprofen. We set up our sleeping gear inside our tent and rested for a while.

Dinner was at about 7 pm, and was the most remarkable yet – chicken, cole slaw, pasta, and stuffed chili peppers. Not only was all of the food delicious and plentiful, but the cook and his assistant really went the extra mile to make the presentation beautiful. I made some comment about the cook being like Martha Stewart, and Julie (from New Zealand, remember) asked who Martha Stewart was. I was impressed that there could possibly be someone from the civilized world who had no idea who Martha Stewart was. Even Leo had heard of her, although really only from other groups of trekkers who made the same comment I had made. It was challenging to try to explain to Julie who Martha Stewart was.

Jenn presents group's thanks to the portersAs we finished up dinner, Leo organized us to chip in money to give a tip to the porters and to the cook. He nominated me to be the one to give a little speech of appreciation to the porters, and Simon (as the second-most proficient Spanish-speaker, despite only having had 1 week of actual Spanish lessons) was nominated to give a speech for the cook. We put together the tip, and then Leo came back and guided us to a terrace where the porters were all waiting for us.

Considering I had five minutes to prepare, I think my 2-minute speech to the porters pretty much summed up what we had all been saying during the entire trek. I told them that what we had gathered together as a gift for them couldn’t come close to thanking them for all their help; that we had been impressed with their speed, efficiency, and strength; and that we felt a lot of gratitude for all their hard work. Then Simon said a few words about how delicious and plentiful the food was and thanked the cook for his hard work. We all gave the porters several rounds of applause, and also had a chance to have them introduce themselves for the first time. We were most impressed with one porter who was 55 years old! I know that when I reach that age, I will not be running up and down mountains with 50 pounds on my back.

Winaywayna campsite restaurant and barBy this time it was about 8:30 pm. A few people hung out for a while drinking beer (at the Winaywayna campsite there was actually a restaurant with a bar), and Dave bought Jose a beer for being such a good guardian angel for us. Although I didn’t have any drinks – because it would have put me right to sleep on that patio – I sat with Dave, Rich, Ron, Jose, and Leo and hung out talking. Leo told us stories about some of the other groups he has guided – some of the stories were actually very sad. It was good to see Leo and Jose start to relax a bit – after being in charge of all of us for three days, their job was almost over.

We didn’t stay up for too long, and were in bed by 10 pm. We had to get some rest for an early wake up call….

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