Friday, April 13, 2012

April 3, 2012 - Inca Trail Day 1

We began our Inca Trail adventure bright and early, with a 5 a.m. bus pickup, which felt very early since we’d been up late braiding our hair, in matching pigtails  (obviously). We were told we could sleep on the bus ride to Ollantaytambo but I was too busy snapping photos of the sunrise shining off the snowy mountaintops we could see off in the distance the entire way. We stopped for a quick breakfast where we got to know our fellow trekmates. In addition to Ceri and Pete, who we had already met, there was Steph and Erin, also from London. Kristy and I joked that maybe we’d pick up British accents on the trip (which we did find ourselves doing!).

Then we continued on, past Ollantaytambo and down a windy dirt road that did not seem like the main thoroughfare to a major tourist destination. Finally we arrived at a large parking lot where a few other buses where offloading trekkers. We prepared our bags for the porters, hit our last clean bathroom for several days, and then started off to the checkpoint to officially enter the trail.

Our first steps were crossing a gushing Urubamba River. Then we started a gradual uphill, enjoying the gorgeous scenery around us. For the next few hours we hiked, stopping every 20 minutes or so for a break, a snack, sometimes a bathroom. At one “trailside” stand we enjoyed a fresh prickly pear, right off the cactus. Along the way, our guide Erik shared information about the plants we were passing, the history of the trail, and other cultural notes. When we saw the Perurail train chugging by he introduced us to the concept of train riders as cheaters!

We also got our first glimpse at how hard the porters work. They started after us and no more than an hour or so in they were running past us, all carrying 25 kilos on their backs. Apparently there is a porters race from mile 82 until the finish of the trail and the record is 3 hours 30 minutes. Considering the trail distance is just a bit longer than a marathon that might now seem so fast, but that’s without accounting for the rough trail conditions, steep hills, and high altitude. With those in mind, it is truly an amazing feat!

At one point we stopped to examine a cactus and Erik explained how the white fungus-looking stuff on the cacti was actually bugs, which the local people use to make dyes and lipstick. This was the same thing we had learned in Chinchero. Erik explained that many local plants are exported to other countries used for natural products.

The hike was quite relaxing until we began a steep uphill, which Erik told us was a prelude to Dead Women’s Pass the next day. But this hill was short, and we easily reached the top a little out of breath but no worse for the wear. Then we stopped at another trailside stand where women were selling chicha, the fermented corn drink. Erik enjoyed one, as were many of the porters who had stopped along the way, and shared a sip with us. We also saw donkeys nuzzling each other in the field – so cute. It is surprising how many horses, cows, and donkeys you see along steep hillsides around the trail. It seems like they come out of nowhere, but Erik explained that there are villages all around, hidden by the mountains and the trees.

Later that day we passed through several villages along the trail. It was fascinating to see people walking past us with donkeys carrying goods like pasta, rice, and potatoes. Can you imagine if to get to the market each day you had to hike on a trail that other people do for recreation? At one stop we had a good laugh as two tiny black dogs harassed a passing donkey. Ironically the bigger, older dog stayed out of the fray, too wise – or maybe lazy – to be bothered. At a nearby stop there was a full-scale convenience store and bar, right on the trail.

The end of the day seemed to drag on as we faced a gradual but long uphill to our first campsite. We arrived huffing and puffing, but looking back nothing compared to how tired we were the following days. Our porter team greeted us with applause, again ironic because they had it made it there before us and already set up the tents and started dinner. But it was a sweet gesture. At this point Erik introduced us to the team and we took a group picture. It was nice to have a sense of comraderie with the team, like we were all in it together for these four days.

Then we had our first nightly happy hour, which consisted of popcorn, cookies, and tea. Luckily Steph and Erin had brought cards so we enjoyed several games of Shithead, a game I had learned from Josh and thoroughly enjoy. In subsequent nights our card games also included Spoons and Bullshit (me and Kristy’s recommendations which were big hits), Rummy, which was a little rough because the Brits follow different rules, and even Egyptian Ratscrew, which we taught Erik on the last night.

After that we had a delicious dinner. I can’t actually remember what we had each night, but it was all wonderful. Then we went to bed, exhausted from a full day of hiking.

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