By Derek Green
If you were expecting this to be the re-telling of an ancient Incan legend with some kind of wise, yet strangely impossible to adopt moral message, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. Now that’s out of the way nice and early, I can forge ahead and tell you a modern tale of the tortoise and hare, set to the backdrop of the breath-taking Andes, featuring one of the world’s most popular ‘bucket list’ items – the Inca Trail.
Thousands of people undertake this trek each year, with the ‘classic’ trail involving a 45 km hike over four days, arriving at the impressive ancient citadel of Machu Picchu on the final morning. Recently I was one of them as part of group featuring eleven trekkers, two local guides, two chefs, and a team of fifteen porters.
Day one: What’s so hard about this?
The team meets at 5am in the Plaza Regocijo in Cusco, the historical capital of the Incan Empire and most common launching point for an Inca Trail mission. We sluggishly board the ‘Oxygen Bus’, which is exactly what it sounds like, a bus with drop-down oxygen masks for anyone who might be struggling with their own ‘airbags’. Cusco is above 11,000 feet, and I wonder how anyone who feels the need to suck in some O2 already is going to cope when we’re exerting ourselves at 14,000 feet. Needless to say we all view the masks with a mixture of amusement and barely contained contempt, and focus on the 3 hour bus trip to our starting point – Kilometre 82. It’s also a chance for me to assess and label the rest of the team My Kitchen Rules style; there’s the Adelaide newly-weds, the might-be-wed-one-day-if-he-ever-pulls-his-finger-out couple from Manchester, the American sisters, the ‘besties’ from London, and the American uncle and niece, travelling with the sisters who are also family. I’m clearly the odd one out, but hey, doing the math I’d say the chances of me getting my own tent are looking ‘sweet as’.
Finally we arrive at the gateway to the trail, assess our gear, have our papers checked and we’re away, the hares setting the pace. With the exception of ‘Uncle Mark’, I’m giving everyone a 20 year minimum head start, so I resolve to swallow my pride and pace myself; after all it’s not a race. The majority of the morning’s path is what the locals call ‘Inca Flat’ which translates as ‘bloody hard for anyone who hasn’t spent their whole life in the Andes’. The Cusichaca Valley parts as we gradually rise, and we’re rewarded with views of snow-capped peaks from the Incan site of Llactapata. I hadn’t realised we would come across other ruins on our way to the “City in the Sky’, and it starts to dawn on us how sophisticated and organised this ancient society was. A myriad of trails traverse the Andes to the tune of 40,000 kms across an area of 2 million kilometres ruled by the Incan Empire for much of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries as the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.
As the slopes steepen, I can see above me that the hares are in their element, and the tortoise (me) is lagging behind. I have to say I’ve never been obsessive, or even particularly keen about physical activity; I know I’m fit enough and quite capable of doing this, but the ‘doing’ part is the problem. No matter how fit you are you still need to drag yourself step by step, switch-back by switch-back up each mountain pass. There’s no landing on a magic paver and ‘advancing to go’ whilst collecting two million Peruvian Sol, you just have to slowly grind it out. Did I mention it’s not a race?
Our red-shirted porters, affectionately known as ‘The Red Army’ by our trekking company, the superb Llama Path, pass us at speed, a mighty feat considering they are carrying all of the supplies and equipment, including gas bottles, water, tents, complete kitchen facilities and food. There are no towns or shops up here, so they must carry everything we might need over the four days. According to Silvio our head guide, once they even carried a young boy! The reality is there are (mostly) well regulated weight limits for porters, and Llama Path’s reputation for treatment of its staff is legendary.
You never know what to expect on a trip like this when it comes to food and facilities, it has little bearing on the decision to commit to the trek – it’s the trauma you’ll be putting your body through that’s foremost in your mind – and our first thoughts start to turn in this direction as we head towards an impressive lunch tent expertly set up by the porters. Outside there’s a flurry of activity, as a distinguished porter in a tall chef’s hat directs traffic around a couple of large steaming pots.
We’re seated on long benches, and then it comes in waves – soup, chicken and rice, steamed vegetables, pasta, roast potatoes (huh?), rolls of cheese and baked trout, avocado and spicy salsa. It’s like we’re being served via an invisible conveyor belt connected to the back of some 5 star restaurant hidden among the bushes. Every meal either starts or ends with coca tea, an Incan favourite and apparent stimulant which helps alleviate the symptoms some of us are already experiencing at this altitude. For camp food, it’s unbelievable, and it just gets better over the next few days.
Somehow the porters have managed to pack up lunch, over-take us, and set up camp in the two and a quarter hour climb after lunch. The Red Army are more like team Ferrari. We arrive to a picture perfect scene at the quiet Ayapata campground, our tents in a neat row facing a magical mountain vista opposite.
Day two: Yes, I actually paid to do this
The rumours about “Day Two” have circulated backpackers and internet forums for years. With overly optimistic eyes fixed on the greater goal beyond, I simply assumed these rumours were true and then promptly chose to ignore them.
Ignoring truths makes no difference to the day two morning call – it still sounds at 5am. We start the day with four hours straight up. It’s a slog, even for the hares ahead (probably), and we trudge up the large stone steps until finally the mountains open up and ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ comes into view. I’m too exhausted to ask what happened to her, and keep pumping the legs, assuming whatever it was, it wasn’t something good. We’re at the highest point of the trek and my enthusiasm for the scenery evaporates like oxygen trying to reach my lungs. Seriously I’m sucking in so hard, trying to access their every spare corner, I can literally feel every single lung sponge in there doing its best for me. What wouldn’t I pay for that stupid bus to be here right now! I’m at the stage where I’m stopping to rest every 50 metres or so. Each rise above looks like it could be the final one, but the trail cruelly turns to the left or right, presenting another rise a similar distance away. And so it goes until finally, there are no more rises and I can see the hares waiting ahead in the bowl of the mountain pass. I’m close enough to hear their encouragement as it drifts with the wind; “Not far to go”, “You’re almost there” and “Come on, lunch is getting cold!” My new Mancunian friend Dave is the quickest hare of the bunch, and has a wit to match. In my current weakened state I’ve got no comeback, but it’s OK, he’s British, and over the long game he’ll be toast for a sharp tongued Australian with an exceptional knowledge of sporting history. Besides, it’s not a race.
I finally crawl the last ten metres to the sound of Gen-Y applause, and only lunch and a two hour section of downhill slopes stand between me and a wonderfully long lie down in my private tent. Except of course for my first serious visit to ‘La Baños’ – the bathroom. Cue music from Psycho…
I knew before I embarked on this trip that my mental approach would be as much a part of its success as the physical. What I didn’t realise was how much of that mental energy would be taken up negotiating the toilets of the Andes National Park service. To say that I had to ‘psych myself’ is an understatement.
To an Australian, bush toilets seem like a pretty simple concept. You build a little hut just far enough away from your camp area, dig a big hole and drop in a small throne with a wooden seat, right? Wrong. In Peru, the squat is the favoured approach, and it’s an experience you won’t forget. My first time will live with me forever, it reminded me of one of those corporate flowcharts. Once you get past the whole “why did they do it like this?” question, it’s already too late as you realise that’s not mud you’re standing in. Too bad if you decided to wear thongs. Next, establish your true requirements and commitment level. One or two? If it’s a two, can you hang on another 3 days? Yes? Then get the hell out. No? Then you’ve got to find something sturdy to grab – a piece of wet rope, a rusty pipe – whatever’s available – hope you’re not wearing your best pants. Now make sure your balance is spot on, then finally, hold your breath and hope for the best. If you make it out unscathed, you’ll eat that 2,000 foot climb waiting in the morning for breakfast.
Day three: The case of the missing underpants
With the exception of quality footwear, I don’t need all the fancy gear when I head out into the great outdoors, but at the advice of some experienced mountaineers, I did buy three pairs of polyester/elastane underpants. OK I admit it; I splurged on some very expensive fast-drying, fancy-arsed jocks. Now on the Inca Trail, unless you’re either super-human or foolhardy, the porters carry all of your personal gear, with the exception of whatever you’ll need during the day. It’s all collected each morning, divided between the crew, and delivered with a smile to your tent door at the end of the day – an amazing service.
Except for the moment when I realise I’m two pairs of undies short. Yes, my BNWT (brand-new-with-tags) fluoro underwear is missing. Not wanting to cause a scene, I enquire around the tents to see if anyone has accidentally been allocated some undies which aren’t theirs. There’s plenty of mirth, but no luck. Reluctantly I escalate the situation to our guides. What was I thinking? Suddenly the quiet morning routine is shaken by a flurry of activity, and everyone now knows we have a potential undie thief in our midst. Except for the porters it seems. Their English is about as good as my Spanish – ‘inexistente’ – and I’m not sure they really understand what they’re looking for, but their effort and concern suggests they think it’s either a diamond ring or a small child, as no stone is left unturned.
With the camp ransacked and then hastily packed away, the path to Winay Wayna can’t wait any longer. The loss of my precious undies is not quite as painful as the series of barbs delivered by Dave, but soon the hares are too far ahead for me to hear anyway. Whatever mate, it’s not a race. I am however now left alone to lament the fact that I’m way short in the smalls department. Will my one remaining pair of awesome undies dry in time?
We descend into the cloud forest, and the terrain changes dramatically. Open mountain trails are replaced by lush tunnels of greenery, and sweet, earthy air is welcomed by parched lungs.
The ruins of Phuyupatamarca are the most impressive yet, and before we know it we’ve reached the campsite for our final night, just in time for lunch. It’s a long one as the group gleefully treads over the same dining-tent topics – Trump, Brexit, One Nation and the current state of right and left wing policy throughout the world. As a team we’re like-minded, but the conversations are still both stimulating and enlightening.
The final afternoon whizzes by as we alternate between exploring the nearby site of Winay Wayna and preparing for our early morning departure. This campsite is full as it’s the closest overnight area from which to approach Machu Picchu, packed to the brim with dozens of trekking companies and teams from all over the world, all of whom are highly motivated to be the first to arrive at the famous Sun Gate in the morning.
Day four: Glory road
We’re up at 3am. The adrenalin in the air is thicker than the forest mist. Torches out, we rush down to the national park gate like teams in the Amazing Race, knowing that we must wait until 5.30am before the checkpoint opens, the rangers stamp our tickets and let us pour through. The gate finally swings, and the hares have a real challenge on their hands as hundreds of pushy trekkers stretch their legs, swing their arms (and walking poles) and aggressively protect their space. It’s like the start of some kind of multi-national marathon as colours, flags and testosterone compete with common sense and manners. I let the mayhem subside before I up the tempo and find my stride. Knowing that this is mostly a gentle undulating grade, I’m able to breathe in this final stretch of the Inca Trail, feel the beating heart of the forest and absorb the sight of an endless sea of mountains beyond. There are hares ahead and behind, but I’m in my own zone, ambling along too fast for the slower hares, whilst in no danger of catching the faster ones. I have the trail to myself for the first time and it’s a glorious hour or so until finally I reach the Sun Gate and prepare myself for the first glimpse of the lost city itself. The magnificence of Machu Picchu unfolds across the valley below as intermittent fog obscures our view and ensures we don’t pause too long.
The team descends the final couple of kilometres and the rest of the morning is a wonderful blur, the emerald green surrounds are offset by limestone buildings, thatched roofs and human traffic jams wherever we turn. We congratulate each other, take in as much as we can and before we know it, it’s time to find the bus to the service town of Aguas Calientes for our rendezvous with the rest of the team and guides, to say our goodbyes, and sit in what turns out to be silent reflection for most of us on the train trip back to Ollantaytambo and ultimately Cusco, from where we’ll all depart; heading on, heading home, or starting fresh adventures. Drifting off as I stare out into the gloom as the train whirls by another small, barely lit town, I swear I see a man with what looks like bright blue underwear on his head, waving excitedly as we pass. Wait, was that Dave? I blink twice and look again, but he’s gone, if he ever was there. And they say you’re only meant to leave footprints behind.
So many of us had set out on this journey imagining that the glorious sight of Machu Picchu would be the crowning moment of the four days, the pinnacle of our Peruvian escapade, yet with every painful step, torturous breath, and unhappy visit to La Baños, it became clear that the journey itself was the highlight, and not the destination as we’d all assumed.
And what did become of the tortoise among all those hares? Well, it doesn’t really matter now, after all, it was never a race…