Friday, August 29, 2014

Adventures in Peru - First Day On the Inca Trail

Adventures in Peru – 6/10/14 – Beginning the Inca Trail – KM 82 to Wayllabamba – 13 Km

Alarm, alarm, 4:30 a.m., pick-up at 5:00 a.m.  Final do-I-take-this-or-leave-this and we are climbing into the van of our outfitter, Xtreme Tourbulencia.  A couple of streets away we pick up four more sleepy people.  The sun rises as we drive out of town and begin creeping up over the mountains. 

At the little town of Ollantaytambo we stop for a simple buffet breakfast, a little small talk with our new companions whose common language is Spanish.  We are still all shy and hesitant, wondering just whether we want to do this thing or not.  I am so nervous, it’s hard to eat.  Be sure to use that bathroom, don’t know when the next one is coming or what it will be like. 

Another hour in the van, lurching to and fro on a narrow unpaved road squeezing past the occasional vehicle and people leading cows, and we arrive at the Beginning, known locally as Kilometer 82 (8,500 feet elevation).  Here we receive our sleeping pads and strap them onto our backpacks.  Local women are selling trinkets, bandanas and Gatorade.  Are we ready?  Will we ever really be ready?

Our guide is Washington, a 28-year-old Peruvian man (his mom named him after a soccer player).  He has a soft, modulated voice and a brilliant smile and tells us that we are now a family and will rely on each other.  We play a game of introducing ourselves around the circle.  Maria and Sergi are a young couple from Barcelona, Spain, and 18-year-old Cami and her mother, Francine, are from Switzerland.  Andy, Chris, Cathy and I are on our best behavior so as not to fulfill the stereotype of obnoxious Americans.  Alas, we only know one language, while our new European relatives are multi-lingual (Cami has us all beat at 5 languages).  Washington repeats everything in English and Spanish.

Vamos!  A phrase we will hear many times over the next four days.  Walking beside the Urabamba River towards the first checkpoint to show our permits and get our passports stamped.  The porters go through a separate checkpoint where their loaded packs are weighed to ensure that they are not carrying more than their limit, strictly enforced. 

Our first family photo at the check- point:  from left, Andy, Chris, Cathy, me, Cami, Francine, Maria and Sergi

The rules of the trail:  I especially like “Don’t fire” and Don’t’s Smoking”

We cross the Urabamba River on a wide footbridge that seems to burn behind me, no turning back.  I try to keep a lid on my emotions as they swing in a wide pendulum arc between despair and determination.  The sky is a vivid blue and the air is warm but tolerable (remember, we are from North/South Carolina, we know what humidity is and this ain’t it.)  Washington tells us how many hours we’ll be hiking between points and reluctantly, when pressed, tells kilometers and meters of elevation gain, so I practice my conversion skills to determine miles and feet.  In retrospect, this day is only moderately demanding, 13 kilometers (8 miles) and modest elevation gain of about 2,000 feet (but more than half of that in the last 4 km).  Otherwise my main job is to drink water, look for a place to pee, breathe, put one foot in front of the other and try to look around at the scenery.

A cemetery beside the trail, kinda like walking in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

There goes our trail

Looking down the valley at Mount Veronica:  inspiration

The Inca Trail is strictly regulated, about 500 start permits per day, including guides, porters, cooks and paying customers.  Our group of 8 trekkers is supported by one cook, one guide, and 7 porters that carry our sleeping tents, dining tent, food and cooking gear, including an enormous metal tea kettle for boiling all our water.   Each group is distinguished by its team color so it’s easy to find ours at camp at the end of the day, as well as cheering the porters along as they pass us hauling their unbelievably large loads.  Our team color is yellow and because we are half-English, half-Spanish speaking, we nickname ourselves the Spanglish Team (yet another nickname surfaced later).  There is also a red team, a purple team and a Green Machine team.  Some teams are twice or even three times larger than ours; we much prefer our small “family.”

Our cook, 26 years old, has been supporting Inca trekkers for 7 years

Our Spanglish Team porters, ranging in age from 18 to 59.  Most of them are farmers, working a couple of weeks each month as porters and then rotating back to take care of their farms.  So much respect for their smiles, their work ethic and their tender loving care.

The first five hours still feels like civilization, passing the local livestock grazing along the trail with the Urabamba flowing energetically alongside.  Washington leads our group as we stay together, stopping often to describe the native flowers and history of the area, distracting us from the gentle climb.  He encourages us to find a small stone to carry to the high point of the trek tomorrow, Dead Woman’s Pass, at 13,900 feet.

Stopping at local “stores” where we can purchase bottled water, sports drinks and snacks.  At some stops the toilet is free but the toilet paper costs one sol.  Good thing I brought my own!

A highlight of the day is really a double feature, the Inca fort called Huillca Raccay and the Inca site called LLactapata or Patallacta (8,700 feet).  There is some confusion around the name of the latter.  On many maps it is labeled as Llactapata, the first “stop” along the Inca Trail after KM 82, but deeper research calls this place Patallacta and there is a sign at the site that says the same.  If you Google Llactapata you will see conflicting information and photos of differing sites, including the one pictured below.  It was first noted by Hiram Bingham shortly after his discovery of Machu Picchu but he didn’t spend any time exploring it.   Let me know when you finish your dissertation and final conclusion.  Anyway…

Patallacta is believed to be a stopping point for Incas making their way to the ancient city of Machu Picchu, a crossroads of trails at the head of the valley, possibly an agricultural station used to supply other Inca sites in the region, perhaps including Machu Picchu. The settlement includes over one hundred buildings, houses for the workers and soldiers, including five baths.  The site’s stepped terraces molded around the hillside are breathtaking from our viewpoint at Huillca Raccay, a fort built by the Incas which affords a commanding view up and down the Urabamba Valley and also controlled the entrance to the Cusichaca Valley.

If only I had a tape recorder to capture all of the information Washington imparted over our four days together.  Most of the time I was so tired that I couldn’t absorb the facts and details, but I do remember his passion for his country’s history.

Huillca Raccay

Huillca Raccay

Past Patallacta the Inca Trail turns away from the Urabamba River, crosses the Cusichaca River, and begins climbing.  Before we can get too fatigued we see Nestor, one of our yellow team porters, grinning widely and waving a yellow bandana.  He is flagging us down for our first meal on the trek.  The dining tent is set up and inviting us to rest and eat.

I’d heard about the food on these Inca Trail adventures and I can add to the testimony:  it is elaborate, fresh, delicious and plentiful.  Napkins and cutlery are laid out as place settings.  Our lunch begins with a slice of avocado topped with grated cheese and finely chopped green pepper and onion.  Following is asparagus soup, boiled chicken legs, a slice of cooked sweet potato and julienned vegetables in a lemony broth.  We pass small tin plates and cups around the table and serve each other from big platters.  I am a bit disconcerted when I realize the water is warm, and Washington explains that warm water is absorbed into the body much more quickly than cold water.  Before we eat our soup, Washington explains that it is customary to pour a small spoonful of soup on the ground to thank the earth for its generosity in providing food.  (By the end of the trip, we were all doing this.)  Despite the inviting sights and smells, I find it hard to eat more than a couple of bites of each dish.  All the meds I’m taking, plus the altitude, are having a major effect on my appetite, a problem I struggle with all through the trek.

A nap after lunch, right?  Sorry.  Now the hard work begins.  The group spreads out as the trail gets steeper and I slow down, pacing myself to a steady crawl.  I like the separation, alone with my thoughts, and I remember climbing Mount Whitney with reliable slow, short steps.  I notice that Francine is a little slower than me.  Do I take comfort in this?  At least I am not last?  The hiking order of any group gets set pretty quickly and then doesn’t change much.  I am okay with my next-to-last spot.  Over the remaining two hours of the day we gain about 1,500 feet in elevation. 

Nestor is waiting again with his yellow bandana at the side trail to our campsite and I cross the last bridge. 

At Camp Wayllabamba (10,130 feet) our sleeping tents are set up in a cozy row and other groups of tents are nearby.  As we dump our backpacks, the porters bring bowls of warm water and paper towels so we can freshen up before our meal.

Nearby is a bath house with flushing toilets… fortunately I had been forewarned by a friend who had done the trek.  One picture is worth a thousand words.  This is how much of the world works, friends.  Today it wasn’t so bad, but after the tough climbs and descents of subsequent days, my thighs were so sore that squatting over the toilets is a super- human feat.  Too much information?  Better to know before you go...

More pleasant things:  supper!  The evening meal is very calming, a sigh of contentment knowing that after eating I can lie down in my tent.  The menu features vegetable soup, fried local trout, cooked potato (did you know that Peru produces over 3,000 varieties of potato?), white rice in a tomato vegetable sauce, poached apple, and a special tea to help us sleep.  Cami is vegetarian and there are some alternative foods to accommodate her. 

During supper Washington answers questions and gives a description of tomorrow’s hike.  The distance will be 15 kilometers and includes two high passes, the first one called Warmiwanuska or Dead Woman’s Pass (13,900 feet) followed by a steep descent, and the second one called Runkurakay (13,100 feet).  Very intimidating, and my stomach begins churning. The first few kilometers are in the cloud forest, then breaking out above tree line into hot sun as we approach the first pass.  Washington explains that each person will walk at his or her own pace and he will walk behind us.  There will be many hikers tomorrow making their own pilgrimages up the mountain.

One surprising and welcome development:  we can pay extra to have porters carry some of our gear tomorrow.  In a flash the eight of us pool our resources to hire two porters to carry about 5 pounds for each person.  I could unload my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, my book (what made me think I was going to read anything?) and my bathing suit.  Most important is the psychological weight reduction.

Because we are close to the equator, sundown is near 6:00 p.m. and sunrise is near 6:00 a.m. and our wake-up call for the “big day” is for 5:00 a.m.  Yes, we will be getting up in the dark - again.  Cathy and I are sharing a tent.  We both struggle to get our gear organized to be ready on time in the morning.  I feel a little disoriented and have trouble deciding where to put things.  Will I need this before morning?  How cold will it get tonight and what should I sleep in? 

A cold and clear night. I think there are stars, but it is hard to see them with my eyes closed.

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

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