Trip Report: Inca Trail (Day 2)

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I promise you, nothing is more amazing than waking up to a rooster’s crow. I mean that in the most sarcastic way possible. If you think roosters only crow at daybreak, you are sadly mistaken. A rooster took up position right outside our tent around 2AM and cockadoodle-doo’d like clockwork until 5AM when the Quechua came to bring us our coca tea. They also brought a small tub of hot water so we could wash our faces. That’s a nice touch.

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Ugh.

I’m here to tell you that coca tea is the wrong answer. I am not a fan of tea at all. I tolerate green tea when ill, but other than that I have not found a single tea that I can drink. Coca tea smells like weed, and then I was concerned that it would make me fail a piss test. I know someone who knows all the ins and outs of drug testing, and he told me not to take the risk. Well, you ain’t got to worry about it because that shit was terrible.

Daybreak in the Andes is something you will never forget. You are surrounded on all sides by the mountains. There is a slight mist, like something out of a film. The sun winks at you from behind a mountain peak. It’s all so intriguing. There is something out there, and you don’t know what it is but you’re about to set off on an amazing expedition to find out.

Ruben reminded us how difficult this day would be. He advised us not to try to overdo it. You don’t have to worry about me overdoing anything. Slow and steady wins the race. Ruben pointed out to us exactly where we would be going: Dead Woman’s Pass.

Dead.

Woman.

That could be me.

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Dead Woman’s Pass is 13828 feet above sea level

Forward, march! One step at a time, like a Hobbit bound for Mordor, I took off. Within seconds I was behind everyone. That first upward climb was not a joke. I was gasping for breath and had to take a break already. Geez. You really are going straight up, and then it’s not just packed earth. It’s the rocks. It’s the stairs. Inca, why do you like stairs so much? I would have been in favour of some sort of primitive lift.

One step at a time.

Such beautiful scenery though. The first part is through a jungle-like forest. I saw interesting birds and curious insects. Something that Ruben told us really helped me. “Instead of looking up at how far you have to go, look back to see how far you have come.”

I had to stop often, and I would look back. I was rewarded with amazing views. This gave me motivation to keep going. There were many times when I thought to myself, “Why are you here! You could be at the spa, three glasses deep in some champagne.”

Don’t give up.

I made it to the first rest area and I was pleased to find that I was not significantly behind everyone. This location is also the last place you can buy stuff. Be prepared for the serious upcharge. An almond Snickers bar set me back 10 soles. Basically, that is the same price you’d pay at a movie theater for a candy bar.

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This is where it really gets serious. I’m so glad that I took the time to buy proper footwear. I usually do hikes in my military boots, but I was advised against this. A week before the trip, I went to REI and tried on about eight different pair of boots. I was just so happy that my feet were not a major issue on this trek. Thank you, REI guy, even though I couldn’t afford your expensive boots and had to buy them on Amazon for $100 cheaper. (Seriously, my boots were $170 at REI, but only $93 on Amazon!)

For me, the climb was slow and arduous. The altitude didn’t bother me at all. I just don’t have the aerobic capacity to move at the same pace as everyone else. I also bonked. If you do any long distance running, you know what that means. You have depleted your calories and have no more energy. I was STARVING. This is where I make my only true complaint: breakfast.

Look, I’m a fat American girl, and I need a fat American girl breakfast. These dainty European breakfasts do not work for me. For breakfast I was given some granola (what the fuck is granola… ugh), watery porridge and precisely one pancake. There was fruit and toast, but I did not feel satiated. Where are the eggs?! Delicious non-pork sausages and bacon? I am not the type of girl who has a toast and a coffee for breakfast. Okay, granted, that might be why I’m fat but seriously, I needs to eat!

I think the worse part of the climb is that last little 15 minutes where you can see and hear everybody who got to the summit before you, but you’re not there yet. It’s like one more step, and then one more step, and then ONE MORE STEP and you finally get there. The view is absolutely amazing. This is a great place to stop and contemplate how far you’ve come.

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Smilin’ like I did something!

I felt rather proud of myself at that point. All reports stated the upward climb was the worst part of the whole trek. Reaching the summit meant the worst was behind me. It’s all downhill from here, right?

Riiight.

Phase III: The Downhill

You would think the downhill would be easy. I’m here to tell you that it is not. I was smart enough to take an Ibuprofen before I began the downhill. The last time I did a serious downhill like this was Koko Head in Hawaii. I don’t really have knee issues, but when I finished Koko Head my knees were sore. I ain’t no doctor, but I do know how to take care of my own body.

The knees weren’t the issue for me; it was the feet. Literally, every ounce of my body weight, plus my day pack slammed down into my feet with each step down. And there were so many steps. It seems like it would be easy, and maybe for many it was easy. Martin said it took him 30 minutes to come down. He ran the whole way.

“I like running downhill,” he said with a little laugh.

Whatever, bitch.

For me, this was the absolute worst part of the whole trek. The uneven terrain with the stairs was jarring. I felt like my teeth were coming out of my head. Under my breath, I cursed every person that passed me. I was particularly vile to the Quechua who flew down the mountain with fleet feet and 100 pound packs, that weren’t even packs but haphazard sacks full of crap. Some of those dudes were in well-worn sandals.

I was my loneliest on the downhill. I am not a person who generally experiences such feelings as loneliness and despair. I am very comfortable with myself and there are times when I can go days without talking to anyone. I am okay with that. I have never been the type who needs to be surrounded by people and stuff, but coming down the mountain I felt like the only human on the planet. I felt like the only person in the world who had ever suffered. I am ashamed to admit this sort of self-pity. I just really wanted to quit. I spent an hour wondering how to quit. There didn’t seem to be anybody behind me, and all my fellow hikers were probably already at the camp. Then I was thinking I might have to climb back up to quit, and then that meant coming down the other side. Oh, no. Just, no. At some point I reckoned that I was at that cruel point where it’s easier to keep going than to quit.

What do you do then? Well, for me, I relied on my faith. I won’t get all preachy but when the going gets tough, you just got to pray a little and exalt in whatever you believe in. How best to exalt? Why, through song, of course.

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…. or whatever

I was in the choir from sixth grade until I failed out of college. I had a fair voice back then; nowadays, not so much, but if you’re out there by yourself, who’s to hear you? Being a person who absolutely adores all things Christmas, I decided to go with carols. All the best ones are prayerful so I busted out with every Christmas carol I could think of. Being in a choir during Christmastime affords you mystical knowledge that laypersons don’t have access to. Like, there are three verses to “O Holy Night,” three verses to “Joy the World,” SIX verses to “The First Noel.” A choir singer even knows such obscure carols like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” Spanish, French, Latin, English, that Welsh one I couldn’t remember all the lyrics to, whatever… I belted out every carol I could think of as something to do to keep me going.

I never realized Ruben was behind me. Just as I was almost to the camp, he popped up out of nowhere and scared the crap out of me. I guess he’d been listening to my solo recital the whole time, every sad, flat note of it, gasping for breath when I tried to hit the Mariah Carey version of O Holy Night. Geez.

Awkward.

He said he would carry my day pack but I refused. The day pack did not bother me, and it wounded my pride a little. I can’t be seen as a person who can’t carry her own crap (even though I did hire a Quechua to carry the other stuff). When he saw I wouldn’t budge on that, he instead asked me about what I’d been singing. I told him Christmas carols and this sparked a discussion on Christmas traditions.

Ruben said that Christmas was a sad time in the Andes because of the economic state of the families. City kids get new bikes, new soccer balls and new clothes but Andes children don’t usually get much, if anything at all. Families also don’t have money to waste on a fancy dinner. This bothered me significantly because it is the same everywhere. People with money can afford to “celebrate,” while the people without have to make do with whatever they have, which is, of course, not what the Season is supposed to be about.

I thought it would be a great idea to donate bikes and soccer balls to the porters’ village but I did not know how to go about doing this. Plus, you never know how different cultures react to what you consider charity. I don’t want to be seen as the rich American girl who can save everybody with money. And I think their problems are greater than a soccer ball. I’m just not smart enough to figure out stuff like this. I don’t really know what makes a difference, but I thought about it the rest of the trip.

I was very pleased with myself when I made it to the second campsite. Whatever despair I had been feeling had fled me somewhere during the seventh verse of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (there are 10 total, you know). The discussion with Ruben helped to distract me that final half hour to the campsite. It is amazing what you can do when you stop wallowing in your own self-pity and think about others.

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She hasn’t even been to Patagonia.  What a loser.

That night at supper, we began to reveal our true colours to one another. Gina scoffed at 47 and I because we bought our stuff from Amazon. She said it was a bad company that put mom-and-pop places out of business. She was even more horrified to find that I had items purchased from Wal-Mart. My mom worked at Wal-Mart for 17 years. I don’t need some skank to tell me what a bad company it is. I already know.

The two married couples bragged about how much money they spent at their local outdoor store. They wore brand new everything. Jessica said they spent $3000 just in preparation for the trip. The only money I spent was for proper boots and the day pack. I hiked in jogging leggings I bought from Wal-Mart and long sleeved Old Navy t-shirts, the ones you get three for $10. My Darth Vader tuque came from Big Lots. 47 and I began to get annoyed with their comments. It almost seemed like high school where people make fun of you because you don’t have cool clothes.

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Actual footage of their argument

It also became clear that Chris and Katie were not happy. They argued under their breath. She was upset that he kept leaving her and he was annoyed that she wasn’t walking fast enough. Apparently, this was his dream trip and she was just there to support him. She also complained about everything. She was like, “Oh, there’s too much food.”  What?  No, there is never too much food.  Okay?  I thought she was stank to the Quechua. She demanded that someone escort her to “the proper toilets.” We had this shitty camp toilet.  It was bad but it wasn’t that bad but I guess she wouldn’t use it.  She asked Ruben to tell one of the Quechua to show her how to get the bathrooms in the campgrounds because it was very dark out. She had this whiny little voice, “I just feel like, cuz it’s so dark…”

Bitch, didn’t they tell you to bring a headlamp or flashlight?

Ruben told her the men were eating their own suppers. I mean, after running up and down a damn mountain all day and fixing us food and carrying all our crap and putting up our tents and doing everything for us, can they eat too? He ended up escorting her since she was on the verge of a breakdown.

When 47 and I retired to our tents, we tried to make light of the day. We started cracking jokes and then we played the “What If” game, like: “What if we did this hike with our boss from the second deployment?” or “What if we did this hike with the one chick everybody hated from the first deployment?” It became quite hysterical for us because we were like, “What if we did this hike with our mothers?” but Chris and Katie told us to shut up. Well, actually, Chris said in this snotty voice, “Can you guys please be quiet? We’re trying to sleep.”

Okay, it was like 730 in the evening. You shut up! 47 said that it was probably Katie complaining again.

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Trip Report: Inca Trail (Day 1)

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Andes farmland on the way to Ollaytatambo

We spent three days partying in Lima before arriving in Cusco. Truth be told, a good idea would have been to cut out one of those partying days to come to Cusco earlier. An even better idea would have been to come to Cusco first and did the partying afterward. This would have been better for us physically. All that drinking…. Oy.

The way we did it, we only had 1.5 days to adjust to the altitude. I did not have any significant issues, just slight fatigue, but 47 had trouble breathing. She also had a nuisance headache. Our hotel was awesome but we were on the third floor.  Even with just backpacks I felt like we were climbing mountains. We would come up to the room and collapse into bed like we’d just been on a marathon.

Arriving earlier would have given us more time to explore Cusco. We just did not do the place justice. Because 47 was feeling poorly, she stayed in the room while I went out. I was a history major and a religious studies minor, so I could have spent a lifetime combing through the churches and museums dedicated to faithful nuns and priests. We just didn’t give ourselves enough time.

The day before the hike began, we met with our tour guide Ruben at the Wayki Trek office. We also met with two of our fellow hikers: Gina, a Peace Corps volunteer from Eastern Europe and Martin, a graphic designer on sabbatical from some French territory.

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I think it’s the Urubamba River

Ruben did a great job of outlining everything that would happen during the trek. Truthfully, I had been having serious misgivings about the whole thing. 47 and I made these plans eight months ago when we were deployed and doing two-a-days at the gym. Everything I had been reading stated that a hiker should be physically fit. I am anything but. Ruben kept going on about how Day 2 was the challenge day but he had never had a client that quit or couldn’t make it. Buoyed by this, I told myself everything would be just fine.

The next morning, I didn’t even want to get out of bed. It’s cold out and my bed is warm; why should I go on a 26 mile hike anywhere? I am a person that can sometimes be blasé about money—which is stupid, because I don’t actually have money to throw away like that. I was thinking to myself, “Who cares about the couple hundred dollars I spent on this trip? I’m sleepy.” Eventually we did get up and get going.

We were the first to be picked up. Then we stopped to pick up two married couples: Sam and Jessica, and Chris and Katie. Gina and Martin opted for the Wayki Experience, so we had to drive out to the porters’ village to pick them up. Once we had everybody we started out for Ollaytatambo.

Hikers getting ready in Ollaytatambo

Hikers getting ready for the trek

After leaving Ollaytatambo, we headed down what can only be described as a Road of Death to the Kilometer 82. Seriously, I’ve been in quite a few foreign countries and driven on some hair-raising roads but this road… it’s like a one lane dirt road and our driver must have thought it was the Indy 500 because he was blazing and then we had to scoot off the edge of the road near the river so another blazing fast truck could pass.

We made it safe enough but maybe that’s an experience I would not care to repeat. At Kilometer 82, we prepared for the hike. Ruben introduced us to the porters, which he kindly asked us to refer to them as Quechua. There were a total of 13, and we couldn’t remember their names except Señor Condor, the senior porter and Señor Alfredo, the head cook.

“Well, I’ll remember Señor Alfredo, because he’s the cook and that’s the most important person because he knows where the food is,” said 47. My thoughts exactly.

My hike was almost over before it even began. It was very windy that day and my entrance paper almost blew into the river. Thankfully someone and their hiking pole saved it from blowing in.

Fresh as a daisy at the start

It’s now or never!

After you take a dozen pictures under the Camino de Inca sign and clear all the formalities, the hike begins.

Right away, I saw this was maybe not a good idea. My friends don’t talk to me into drugs or illegal activities. My friends talk me into feats of physical abilities that are quite beyond my capacity. Three years ago, my so-called friends talked me into doing the Bataan Death March. It was a terrible idea. My friends also talked me into doing a marathon. Also a bad idea, but I have completed two more since. I’m sorry to say the Inca Trail was MY idea.

That first little incline into the trail and I was like, “What are you doing!!” Five minutes later we saw a British woman COMING BACK. The trail is one way, folks, so obviously she was quitting not even fifteen minutes into a four day hike. She said, “Stomach bug.”

Yeah, okay, if that’s what you want to tell yourself.

Within thirty minutes it was clear that I was the weakest person in the group. 47, with her freakishly long legs, is a strapping Polish-Irish girl who can balls her way through anything physical. She Crossfits, so you know, physical torture is a national pastime for such people. Gina and Martin had done such hikes as Patagonia and some wilderness experience in Nepal. Jessica was an Olympian, for heaven’s sake. Seriously, she said she competed in the Olympics and holds several national records in her sport.

The first day was not specifically horrible. I just realized that I should have been in better shape. The up-hills were the worst. It wasn’t the altitude; it just going up that was so bothersome. I’m only 5’1 and my stubby little legs just can’t eat up the terrain like that.

I am so glad that we hired a Quechua to carry our extra gear. So, here’s how that was almost a fatal mistake. When we booked everything we did not initially hire an extra porter. For some reason, I thought I did but I never did. In the months leading up to the hike, I kept having these nagging little feelings like I forgot something. Two weeks before the hike began I was like, “YOU DIDN’T HIRE A PORTER!! IT’S TOO LATE!” I will never delude myself into thinking that I could carry my own shit. I immediately emailed Wayki Treks. I was so scared because I started reading other TA reports about how they wanted a porter at the last minute but couldn’t because the porters are under the same guidelines as the hikers—having to get clearance to enter the trail, same as everybody. In the hour it took for Wayki Treks to respond to my email, I sweated my whole life away. But thankfully, they were able to accommodate us.

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That road less travelled

That first day was a little warm, but not uncomfortable. It did not rain at all. I arrived last to the campsite, but I wasn’t horribly far behind everyone. No one made me feel like a loser for being in the back, and it wasn’t that big a deal. Seriously, the slow walking gave me ample opportunity to take in the scenery. Isn’t that the reason you’re out there, to enjoy nature at its finest?

I have never been camping before—at least, camping that wasn’t military, and it was a good experience for me. It is something that I would definitely do again. The other hikers laughed at me because they decided that this was not camping, when someone pitches your tent and cooks for you. They all started going into stories about trying to set up tents in the middle of a storm and then having to cook when you’re starving, and blah blah blah. You know what, that’s awesome you do those things, but it doesn’t sound fun to me. There’s shit that a person MUST do (like work, take care of their kids, etc), and there are things that a person WANTS to do. Things you WANT to do are usually fun. Setting up a tent in rainstorm doesn’t sound like fun, but if that’s what you like to do, more power to you!

This seemed to set the tone for the rest of our trip. Gina and Martin started going into all these awesome, rugged experiences they had. Actually, it was really annoying. It’s one thing to talk about an awesome trip you went on; it’s quite another to brag about it and then lord it around like you’re the shit. It was also super obvious they hooked up, even though they just met. Hey, more power to them. Wish I could have had a holiday boo.

It also became apparent the type of money the two married couples had. They met each other at the wedding of a mutual friend. Chris and Katie had been on a riverboat cruise on the Zambezi. I think Sam and Jessica went diving with great white sharks, or some shit. Basically, they went on all these trips that sounded horribly expensive.

47 and I seemed to be the only regular working class people without a wealth of exotic experiences, but you know how I don’t really give a fuck. When Gina, Jessica and Katie started up a yoga session before dinner, that is when I realized that I was on some other hipster planet. Yes, I know some yoga moves. I got an app for that, but they seemed to take it way too seriously. Me and 47 were like… whatever.

Señor Alfredo was not playing games.

Food was pretty good

The one thing I worried about was the food. If it’s not soy sauce, teriyaki sauce or drowned in some kind of spicy chile I don’t really want it. The food wasn’t bad at all. Señor Alfredo really surprised me. I mean, they’re cooking shit in a tent, with what? I don’t even know. I tried to peek in one time to see how they did it but there were like 10 dudes in the tent and I couldn’t really see. They do feed you a lot.

Gina, who claimed to have gone on all these amazing expeditions, freaked out about the water. I guess she felt like she was gonna get diphtheria, or something.  She insisted on buying bottled water and dragging it around everywhere she went. She carried it and didn’t complain, so that’s her issue. First, the water is coming out of a pipe from an actual glacier. It don’t get no purer than that. Then they boil it. Problem solved. I was worried about the taste, but it tastes like the same crap you get out of an Evian bottle (actually better, Evian water is gross). You won’t get salmonella dysentery, I promise. It’s not even a real thing anyway.

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An Inca ruin, one of many you see on the trail

Sam bought a bottle of pisco from the locals that live around the campsite. I have to say that Sam really helped to liven our sad little crew. He had a great sense of humour and cracked jokes the whole time. It’s really great to have someone like that whose spirits can never be dampened. His wife, Jessica, was also pleasant. Chris and Katie, not so much. In fact, I don’t even know how these two couples are friends. Katie was a straight up bitch. I feel sorry for dudes who have clingy ass wives. He seemed like he could have been cool but his wife was uptight and annoying. 47 and I predicted their marriage wouldn’t last long. Petty, I know, but whatever.

Anyway, I thought the camp was nice. Yeah, so what it’s not real camping, but as Katie said, “This is my standard.” 47 and I shared a tent, which they claimed was for three people. If they had shoved a third person in that tent they would have been shoved right back out. Two people, yes; three people, hell no. We had a dining tent where we ate our meals, and a tent with a toilet in it. It’s not the best toilet, but it’s better than fumbling around in the bushes or trying to look for the campground toilets in the dark. I thought the whole setup was decent.

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Where the earth meets the sky