We awoke at 5.00 am to begin our Inca Trail journey. We were still very exhausted and a bit slow moving and Liz came to our room just before our scheduled pickup to make sure we were awake and alive and hurry us along. In all the rush I left my headlamp somewhere in the hostel which would prove unfortunate for the next three nights.
Our bus pickup arrived bright and early at 5.30 and we loaded up with our daypacks stuffed to the brim and both tried to fall back asleep for a bit more sleep as we picked up the rest of what would become known as our SAS Family. After about an hour we gave up on trying to sleep and instead watched the Peruvian countryside roll by. It was incredibly beautiful even on a grey and rainy day, with bright green fields and mountains in the background. Farm houses dotted the landscape, constructed with mud bricks and painted with political ads in bright colors for the upcoming presidential election.
We stopped at one of these houses for breakfast and to pick up any forgotten supplies. We all made use of the restroom and noticed a pen of guinea pigs at the back of the house and were reminded that Cuy is a delicacy in Peru. Luckily our breakfast was only eggs and toast and did not feature any former pets.
After breakfast we climbed back aboard the bus and drove to Ollantaytambo, a small frontier town at the head of the Sacred Valley that serves as a jumping off point for Macchu Picchu. We stopped in the town square for a little bit where we took some pictures and admired the very brightly colored textiles for sales at the shops around the perimeter. Aldo, our guide for the next four days, took some of us through back alleys to an overlook of our first Incan ruins. Ollantaytambo had been an Incan stronghold back in the day and the ruins of the old town were still very well preserved across the valley from us. It was here as well that a local girl performed a Quechua song and dance for us to wish the farms a good harvest. It was pretty awful but we all gave her a Sol (30 cents) for her trouble.
After our brief stop in Ollantaytambo, we got back out of the rain and onto the bus to finish the drive to the trailhead. It took us along a terrifying one lane dirt road next to a raging, muddy river. More than once we had to back up to facilitate the two way traffic on this one lane road, but our driver had truly impressive skills, leading Jon to comment that driving in Peru is just like football, “a game of inches.”
Finally at the trail head, we were issued our sleeping bags and foam mattresses. Both were absolutely massive and very heavy and Lynn and I were very concerned how this was going to attach to our already overstuffed daypacks. While we played with some string trying to get them attached I got increasingly frustrated at our lack of foresight in planning how we would carry all of this stuff. The frustration was not helped by the local women who were very insistent that I buy the straps they were selling or the rain that had started falling again, getting everything all wet. I had to make Lynn get the women away from me before my “no gracias” turned into something a bit less polite. Eventually, with some help from our guides, Aldo and Ronnie, we managed to strap everything together and tie our cheap plastic ponchos around it for some measure of waterproofness.
Ready to go, or at least as ready as we could be, we paused for some pictures by the starting sign and then checked in with the park officials before we began. Only 500 people are allowed to start the Inca Trail per day and a ranger was keeping track as we crossed the bridge to start the trail. Of that 500, about 300 are porters, or Chaskis as they like to be called, who carry tents, food, and supplies between campsites for the tourists. We would learn over the next four days that Chaskis are basically superhumans who run up the mountainsides in sandals while carrying 25 kg packs. Aldo told us that there used to not be a limit to how much they would carry and some loaded their packs with over 50 kgs and would also run with tanks of kerosene for the camp stoves before they switched to propane and had mandatory 25 kg limits imposed in 2000.
The first bit of the hike was nice and slow as we eased into the trail and adjusted to our packs. About half of our SAS family had elected to hire a Chaski to carry their stuff and walked unburdened along the trail. Lynn and I began to regret more and more our decision to not spend the $75 on our own Chaski as we hiked along. As we went, Aldo would stop us and point out interesting plants and he had an incredible knowledge of everything Inca Trail related. In fact over the next four days there was not a question he did not know the answer to, even down to how many species of Orchid grew in the park. We would later learn that this was his over 500th Inca Trail group he has led. While all of his knowledge was interesting, we both were a bit uncomfortable with our bags and just honestly wanted to keep moving. At least the rain had stopped and the clouds were keeping it cool so it wasn’t all bad.
Eventually we came upon our first stop, where the Chaskis had already run ahead and setup our two large blue tents for lunch. We sat down to a wobbly table inside the tent and had the first of what would be as much of a culinary journey as a hiking one. Almost every meal was delicious and would start with soup and hot tea before plate after plate of family style fresh vegetables, beans, rice, and meat would come out. It was always more food than we could eat and was always (except for the very last dinner when it was clearly leftovers night) way better than any of us expected. After the meal we were often surprised by dessert, or at the very least some herbal tea to settle our tummies.
After lunch we always had a 30 minutes “siesta” while the Chaskis would pack up camp and start off ahead of us again. This first day, Lynn and I used it to readjust our packs which thankfully made for a much more comfortable rest of the trail. It helped that as we went along we were slowly emptying our camel backs, reducing the bulge into our backs and lightening our loads.
The first afternoon took us among our first ruins. A small farming town had once existed at a fork in the river and from our vantage point on the hillside up above it, Aldo explained Incan life and how they farmed on these steep mountainsides with terraces. He had an interesting speaking cadence when he was lecturing us, and would go from his normal conversational voice into something that sounded more like a minister delivering a sermon with soft spoken words, rhetorical checks for understanding, and long pauses for reflection. After his sermon, we had a chance to explore the watchtower ruins above the hillside before continuing on. Both of us were bit underwhelmed by the ruins so far, they were just stone walls, and younger than most anything you can see in Europe but we explored nonetheless and it was hard to not be blown away by the stunning scenery.
We wrapped up our first day’s hike, arriving at camp, and claiming brand new tents for ourselves already setup in a locals backyard along the trail. Before Macchu Picchu was designated a national park plenty of locals built houses along the trail and they are now grandfathered in to their land and still continue to provide campsites and sell water, Gatorade, and corn beer (which tastes like Miller Lite mixed with sour beer and corn meal) to hikers.
After another delicious dinner we had introductions with the 12 Chaskis and the cook who were also a part of what Ronnie liked to call our SAS Family. They ranged in age from 20 years old to over 50 and all were in way better shape than I can ever hope to be. We then introduced ourselves, some in very bad spanish (Matt introduced himself with the very unusual “Mi amor es Matt” instead of the much more traditional “Mi llamo es Matt.”)
It was through this too that we really met the rest of the trekkers in our group. There was Allessandro, a 30 year old from near Venice who with curly black hair and some rather unusual facial hair looked like the person you would cast in the role of “The Italian” in a movie. Michael was an Australian from Perth who had taken a year off medical school to travel the world and was easily our favorite of the non-Austinites. Matt and Joe were both from England but preferred to answer “So where are you from” with the very douchey response of “Can’t you tell?” Matt was a self-employed videographer traveling South America filming for fun and Joe was his college buddy who somehow got four month of paid vacation to travel with him.
After introductions it was straight to bed since we had to wake up at 5.30 the next morning to continue on our trek.
Daily Walking Mileage: 14 kilometers
Vertical Climb: 2500 feet
- To prevent altitude sickness, all the locals swear by chewing coca leaves. They taste awful and don’t seem to make you feel any different. Perhaps its a placebo effect, though I guess none of us have altitude sickness yet.
- There are descendants of the Incas who still live in the mountains and practice their way of life. They are called Quechuas.
- The Inca trail goes from Cusco to Macchu Picchu and was originally done in 5 days. We do just 49 of the 131 kilometers in 4 days.