Inca Trail – Our SAS Family

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.

Most houses had a very large ad painted on the side of them declaring their choice of the 19 candidates running for president.
Most houses had a very large ad painted on the side of them declaring their choice of the 19 candidates running for president.

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.

A local Quechua man standing in the town square in Ollataytambo.
A local Quechua man standing in the town square in Ollataytambo.
Our first ruins above the town.
Our first ruins above the town.
They have tuk-tuks here too!
They have tuk-tuks here too!
The little girl talking Aldo into letting her perform for us.
The little girl talking Aldo into letting her perform for us.

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.

Arrived at the trailhead and getting our things together. The guys in blue will be our porters, carrying tents, food, etc.
Arrived at the trailhead and getting our things together. The guys in blue will be our porters, carrying tents, food, etc.

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 gang excited and ready to go.
The gang excited and ready to go.
Our tickets to the trail.
Our tickets to the trail.
Me standing on the bridge at the start of the trail.
Me standing on the bridge at the start of the trail.
There they go, each fully loaded with 25 kg of stuff for us. It makes us feel a bit weird having them carry all of that.
There they go, each fully loaded with 25 kg of stuff for us. It makes us feel a bit weird having them carry all of that.

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.

Aldo demonstrating how some tiny bugs can be used to make textile dyes. You can see the dye on his hand.
Aldo demonstrating how some tiny bugs can be used to make textile dyes. You can see the dye on his hand.
It's these little bugs that live on prickly pears. You can make 17 different colors from them depending on what they are mixed with.
It’s these little bugs that live on prickly pears. You can make 17 different colors from them depending on what they are mixed with.
There were adorable puppies everywhere. In fact all over the whole of Peru.
There were adorable puppies everywhere. In fact all over the whole of Peru.
Some ruins from across the river.
Some ruins from across the river.
Posing in the valley as a team of donkeys rolls by. Donkey trains are how villages along the trail stock food and supplies.
Posing in the valley as a team of donkeys rolls by. Donkey trains are how villages along the trail stock food and supplies.

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.

Ruins of the farming community below us. They really were masters of terracing.
Ruins of the farming community below us. They really were masters of terracing.
There were some horses playing nearby as Aldo explained the ruins.
There were some horses playing nearby as Aldo explained the ruins.
Aldoing "making to us an explanation".
Aldoing “making to us an explanation”.
Lynn getting down and dirty in some ruins.
Lynn getting down and dirty in some ruins.
Most of the stones had been marked during an extensive restoration process a few years ago.
Most of the stones had been marked during an extensive restoration process a few years ago.
Storage huts used for produce grown in the town below.
Storage huts used for produce grown in the town below.
Say what you will about the rainy season but it certainly sets an eerie mood.
Say what you will about the rainy season but it certainly sets an eerie mood.
In the distance you can see a glacier capped mountain that I know forget the name of.
In the distance you can see a glacier capped mountain that I know forget the name of.

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.

Chaskis are just finishing setting up the tents as we came into camp.
Chaskis are just finishing setting up the tents as we came into camp.
View from our tent door. Not a bad way to spend the night.
View from our tent door. Not a bad way to spend the night.
Doug unbundling his bag.
Doug unbundling his bag.
And diligently taking notes for the blog.
And diligently taking notes for the blog.
We were given warm water at the beginning and end of every day for washing up. A kitten has decided to drink mine before I could get to it.
We were given warm water at the beginning and end of every day for washing up. A kitten has decided to drink mine before I could get to it.
Liz drinking some corn beer (Chicha).
Liz drinking some corn beer (Chicha).

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.

Dinner the first night.
Dinner the first night.
The chaskis introducing themselves.
The chaskis introducing themselves.
Our SAS family, as Ronnie liked to call us.
Our SAS family, as Ronnie liked to call us.

Daily Walking Mileage: 14 kilometers

Vertical Climb: 2500 feet

Fun Facts:

  • 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.

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