Interviewer: Now that you’ve climbed four days on the Inca Trail, what are you thinking?
Me: Where’s the shitter?
But before I can explain that, we need to back up almost two weeks. On 9-15-2012 (or 15-9-2012 as other countries put it), Monica and I left for a two week trek through Peru. We wanted to experience all that the country had to offer, so we had large, medium, and small cities on the agenda, along with the Amazon River Basin, the Inca Trail, and Machu Picchu. It was really multiple trips in one … and I can honestly say that I miss it already.
So let’s take a non-chronoloigcal tour of what we experienced and who we experienced it with.
Our trip was through a company called Gap Adventures, and along with us were 14 other folks whom we had never met. Ranging in age from 25 to (at least) 65, and originating from Scotland, the UK, Canada, and the States. At first, we were a hesitant bunch, seemingly so different. But by the end, I can honestly say we were closer to family. This was the first trip I have taken with strangers, and without a doubt, the trip was enriched by the clan. I miss my friends already.
Tale of Three Cities
Before I begin, I must first apologize to a new friend. One who hails from one of the places I am about to describe. I did love your hometown, but compared to everything else your country offered, I have to say it wasn’t on top. Nor even very exciting. So please take no offense.
OK, what did I mean by that? Well … Lima. Capital of Peru. It’s a large city. And that’s about all I can say about it. Then again, I say the same thing about all major cities. London, Athens, Cincinnati … they each have something interesting, but you can “do” them in a day or two. Other than that, they’re just a large place where a lot of people live in close proximity, and restaurants abound.
Lima was the largest place we visited, and it was the start of the trip. It was actually dreary. It’s a desert on the coastline, and rarely rains. But it’s almost always 100% cloudy and gray. The air seems to condensate at all times, and it can feel a tad depressing. But the people are extremely friendly, and the coastline is beautiful. We enjoyed watching the surfers attack the waves, and the food was absolutely awesome. And we even managed to stay alive, despite the Drivers of Peru.
I learned a new word starting in Lima. Pare. It translates literally in English to stop. They have it painted on smaller roads where they intersect with larger roads and even have it on those octangular signs on the corners. But it really means something else to Peruvians. I think something like “Hey, how are ya”. Or maybe “Hey, did you catch the game?”. It certainly didn’t mean one should alter the speed of the car. Oh no, not at all. And painted lines on the streets that might normally align and contain the flow of traffic. Pffft. Yet it all somehow worked. I think it had something to do with horns. Everyone honks, and no one seems to care. No road rage, just a constant chatter of horns. “I’m here”, “Coming through”, “How are the wife and kids?” seems to be the message. No one takes offense, but everyone gets where they want to go when they want to. Yet for all of this, they are absolutely obedient when it comes to obeying traffic lights and parking. I was in multiple vehicles that ran stop signs at speed, turned two lanes into five, and tore through traffic at the speed of light … only to take an extra five minutes to make sure their car was parked completely off the road and to leave as much room as possible for fellow drivers to place their vehicles. Very strange.
So, Lima was a big city. Period. Glad I saw it, but that was about it. The cuy was good too.
The other two were Cusco and Puerto Maldonado. And the three places couldn’t be more different.
Cusco was high up in the mountains. Around 11,000′ to be exact. And I loved that town. Very colonial, it was the original Capital of the Inca Empire (which only lasted 300 years, BTW). The “tourist” portions of town were absolutely beautiful, and even the “off the beaten path” parts of the city were extremely compelling. Both here and in Lima, the residents obviously took pride and trash/graffiti/etc were noticeably minimized. Everywhere you looked, it seems something was being fixed or built. I felt completely at home in Cusco … except for maybe the sharks.
The only bad part of the tourist area in Cusco was the never-ending onslaught of barkers, hawkers, and walking merchants. Every ten feet, someone wanted to sell you something. I honestly wanted to get a tattoo on my forehead that read “No, Gracias”, and simply keep a finger pointing to it. (you guess which finger). It was endless. Which maybe pushed me into exploring other parts of the city. And I’m glad I did. There was something about Cusco that just spoke to me. I didn’t want to leave it.
OK, down sides. I had a lot of trouble with the altitude. We used Cusco to acclimatize, but I never really felt like I could ever catch my breath. I always seemed to be laboring just a bit. I never once felt any real altitude sickness, even at greater heights on the trail, but I also never felt comfortable. Maybe by the end, it was a bit better. Not sure. But travel tip number one is to realize that this isn’t sea level, and a quick physical transition may not be in your cards.
The last “city”, and I use the term very loosely, was Puerto Maldonado. It was the launching point for our Jungle adventure, and the only way to describe it would be “third world”. Yet it was somehow compelling to me as well. Yes, it was crumbling, dirty, and even dangerous feeling. Filled with old motorcycles, dirt roads, and scores of folks who looked more like survivors than residents, I was still intrigued by the place. It felt alive, just in a very different way. Peru seems to have less of a middle class than we’re used to here in the states. And the bands of wealth below the average are quite a bit larger. And in Puerto Maldonado, that difference is very apparent. But it’s also the kind of place where I could see myself traveling though if I were to ride the continent on a motorcycle. Cities often don’t tell the full truth about a people and a country, yet places like this do. It distills down the essence of a culture. And even through the clutter and hardship, I could still see the pride and the courage of the people.
Welcome to the Jungle
The Amazon River Basin was interesting. And hot. And remote. How remote? Well, it took an hour van ride from Puerto Maldonado, down the most gnarliest dirt road I’ve ever seen, to a boat, which took two hours to travel down the Tambopata River to get to the lodge. It was out in the middle of nowhere. And it was hot. Did I mention that part?
This was an “Eco Lodge”, which meant while we had walls and rooms, we didn’t have luxury. No A/C. The toilets flushed with river water. The only power came from a generator, and that was limited from 6-10 at night. And we had bugs. Lots of bugs. So much so that we had to sleep under a mosquito net, which didn’t help the heat. First night was 90 degrees with 90% humidity. Under a net. LOL!
The jungle was both noisier and quieter than I imagined. At 5am, it sprang to life. Birds, animals, everything just turned up to volume 10. And again at 5pm, it changed again. For the things that can really hurt you come out at night, and they are very tiny. Insects and spiders replace the mammals. We took a night hike and found things that I wouldn’t want to see elsewhere. Bullet ants, named for the pain they inflict with a single bite. Giant spiders. And lots of other things that make it sensible to stay away from the trails after dusk.
We did get to see a number of critters, ranging from large rodents, to their version of raccoons, to Caimans (alligators), to piranhas, to tropical birds, to … well, you get the idea.
I liked the jungle. I thought it was neat indeed. But it was a quick way stop for me. I did enjoy the solitude of the river, and was impressed/surprised by how hard life is to maintain in so lush a place. Jungle life is by no means easy. But overall, it wasn’t quite the destination or experience that was going to make the trip. That was to come next.
Odds and Ends
There were many parts of the trip that just didn’t seem to fit into the other categories, like food for instance. Peruvian cuisine is a “fusion”, as I was often told. But what that really meant was that they seem to love their carbs. Multiple, at every meal. It wasn’t unusual to have rice, french fries, corn, and yucca, all on the same plate. I was actually overpowered by all the starch. But there were some dishes that I really enjoyed. The most memorable was the Cuy. Not much meat, but extremely tasty. Especially with the sauce I had it with in Lima. There’s a picture in the Lima 2012 album. What is Cuy, you ask? Look it up! LOL!
OK, this is the real reason why we were here. And it needs quite a bit of explanation. First of all, the trip was four days long, but each day was so unique, that each must be expressed in capitals, like “Day Two” for instance. The Inca Trail we hiked is 42 kilometers long, (26 miles to Americans), and has altitudes from 9k to 17k feet above sea level. It’s mostly “paved” in uneven rocks and rock steps. And it was by far the hardest physical and mental task I have ever accomplished. So let’s take each day, dissect it, and try to make sense of my feelings as the trek progressed.
Day One was labeled by our guide as Inca Flat. Which meant it undulated. Which doesn’t quite describe it. To me, undulate means a slight rise and fall. In Peruvian terms, it meant walking along a roller coaster. We started in Cusco and had a long bus ride to the trail head at KM82. All of us were fairly nervous, as no one really knew what we were in for. And the first part of the trip was a fairly steep incline up into the mountains. A bit of a shock to my oxygen starved system, I honestly felt real apprehension just within the first 1/4 mile. And then to see the porters rushing by you was even worse.
Actually, I need to give that bit its own paragraph. The entire trip was spent with the word “porter” being yelled from behind you, and you dutifully stepped to the mountain side of the trail and let them by. They carried enormous packs with our tents, personal belongings, food, water, gas, chairs, lights, and everything else we needed. 20 porters in all for our little group of 14. And they hauled ass. While we were sucking wind, struggling to walk with our little day packs, these guys were double-timing it up and down the mountains. Without a doubt, they have my highest respect and admiration for what they can and do accomplish. A stronger group of guys I will probably never meet. And I am so glad they helped us.
OK, back to Day One and Inca Flat. It really wasn’t all that difficult, but the uphills were definitely challenging because of the altitude. The general lay of the land for this day is a slight rise from start to finish, with some pretty wild variances in altitude along the way. But it’s also another day to acclimate and get used to the logistics of camping, eating, hiking, defecating, etc. And it also gave the clan a much better chance to bond together. By the end of Day One, we were all a little tired, but felt we had accomplished something. Like we were real hikers or something. Little did we know that our mindsets would change fairly drastically over the next three days. So with that, we all piled in our tents after dinner and slept, perhaps dreaming of what we had heard was the hardest day of all. The one we were about to wake up to.
Day Two started early, with the guides shaking us awake just after 5am. I had slept pretty well that night, but I was still very apprehensive about what we were about to do. And with good reason. Day Two is a killer. There is no undulate. It’s simply up. A vertical rise of 8,000 feet in just about three miles. Mostly steps that averaged a foot high, and were made of uneven rocks. Brutal doesn’t describe it. In fact, I have no words for what I experienced. I will tell you that of the 14 of us who were hiking the trail, I was dead last to the top of the highest peak on this day. And I was so exhausted that I didn’t care. “Baby Steps” they kept telling me. And my slow shuffling as the hike wore on looked more like a Parkinsons patient than a hiker. As I neared the top of Dead Womans Pass (at 17k feet), I kept wondering how I was going to tell Monica that I wasn’t going to make the hike. I couldn’t breathe. Period. There was no oxygen getting to my lungs. My legs were shot, and my confidence gone. But somehow I trudged along and finally made the peak … and the view was glorious. And not just the scenery. But the trail we just walked up, for you could see it almost in its entirety. And to realize just what you accomplished was almost magical.
So, photos, water, and rest for a few minutes. Then the guides tell us to bundle up because the downhill trip were about to take was very cold at the beginning. Not sure what they meant, we dutifully wrapped up and stepped to the back side of the peak. What did we see? Steps. Very steep steps heading straight down. For about as long a hike as we had going up. They call it Gringo Killer, because your rubber legs now have to take a pounding as you reverse your way down. The steps are not only steep, but are built for eight foot tall humans. Each step just slams your knees. The wind is blowing and it’s misting/raining, so the rocks are slippery. And since you are above the tree line, you have a great view … downward … of the entire steep descent. And all of the huzzahs go out of you. For this is the dangerous part. We had several folks slip and fall … but not me. I fell and injured myself in the shower, just a few days later. But that’s another story.
Finally, after 8-9 hours of constant agony, I made it in last place to the camp site .. which was freaking uphill. Sigh. I fell to the ground in my tent, didn’t even bother to look for a mat or a sleeping bag, and huffed for a solid 15 minutes. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, and was sure I was dying. I have never in my entire life been that drained. I had physically run out of energy hours earlier, and whatever adrenaline I had been using was also gone. I made it to camp by sheer willpower, and honestly, the second I fell into the tent, I couldn’t have walked another foot. Had someone said I needed to go another 50 yards, I would have just laid there and refused to move. I simply couldn’t have gone another step.
Obviously I slept well that night. More like being unconscious. And Day Three promised to be something more than Day One, but far less than Day Two. So the optimistic mindset, that turned into the “please let me die” mentality, had to figure out what it should be on this day. I think we were all relieved that we had passed “the big one”, but we also all realized that there was no turning back. Moving forward was the only option. We were all feeling a little better about ourselves, both individually and as a group. We were accomplishing things that we had not imagined. And we had two more days to go.
Day Three started with a lot of up again, over two separate peaks. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as what we had done. So morale was building, and we were able to look around more. On Day Two, my view was of the 10 feet in front of me. I couldn’t tell you what scenery was around me. I couldn’t afford the energy to look. But on Day Three, look I did. And the views were out of this world. And with every step, I felt more and more like someone who deserved to be there. By the time we stopped for lunch (at 2pm, as this was the longest distance day we were going to have), I was really feeling great about the hike, almost to the point of starting to forget the horrors of the previous day.
And then the sleet and rain came.
You have to realize that we were in the clouds at this point. You know, those fluffy things that you see from the ground? We were in and above them. Ever look down at a cloud without the aid of an airplane? It’s kinda cool. But weather changes fast. And we had another huge downhill in front of us. Even longer and steeper than Day Two. And water was just pouring down. Slippery as hell. The sleet stung like the dickens. And it was the absolute best day I had on the trail. I loved it. I had found my trail feet and just tore down those tall steps. Where I was in dead last the day before, I was in the lead here. It felt like I was flying, and nothing could stop me. I was actually laughing out loud, I was having such a good time. I don’t think everyone else had this same moment in this same place, but for me, it was the absolute best part of the entire two weeks.
Near the bottom of the trail on this day, you come to a fork. Right takes you directly to camp, maybe 15 minutes away. Left takes you 30 minutes longer. I went left, and am so happy I did. For the best ruins of the trail are here. Inipata. Smaller than Machu Picchu, they are nonetheless magnificent. As soon as I rounded the corner to see them, I was stopped in my tracks. I actually probably took a full hour longer to reach camp, because every two steps brought the place into a different focus and I had no choice but to stop and stare. And best of all — I had it all to myself. It was exactly what I had come for.
Day Four. The shortest day. And we wanted to be first. So up we were at 3am to eat a cold breakfast of bread and water, just to get in line at the gates of the check point before everyone else. They open the gates at 5:30 and let groups through in a staggered way. I guess they realize it’s a race at that point. But we were indeed first in line, so after two hours of freezing our cajones off, we had the opportunity to get there before anyone else.
The final hike was only two hours long, but it went by in a flash. Fairly flat, and the weather was cooperating. And then came the Monkey Stairs. Or as our guide called them, the “Oh God” stairs. You turn the corner, just near the end of the trail, and see a wall in front of you, maybe 30′ tall. Then you realize it’s not a wall. It’s steps. Extremely steep steps. Steps you don’t walk up because the rocks have no depth. You put aside your poles and climb them on all fours. And laugh all the way. Because at this point, there is nothing more the trail can do to you. You feel invincible, and this final insult just needs to be batted away.
After that, it’s just a short walk to the Sun Gate and the postcard view of Machu Picchu. We had made it!
OK, some additional thoughts on the trail. Besides exhaustion, we as a group concerned ourselves with three things. Food, water, and toilets. The food was excellent, as we had two cooks along with us. The water was also mostly available, and safe to drink. But the toilets! You have to realize that we were off the polite grid of society. All dignity and modesty was gone after Day One. And the facilities we had available were beyond nasty. Squat toilets, with nary a maid in sight to clean them. I had never used them before, and after a day of hiking, the last thing your thighs want to do is squat. It seems silly and childish, but as a group, we spent a lot of time discussing toilets. Other topics too, of course. But toilets and bodily functions seemed to hold a high place on our collective topic lists. You need to remember that as we start discussing the remainder of the final day, later in this report.
We also became far closer to each other as the trek progressed. Small talk ceased, and we became as family. Words of encouragement were freely passed, and I felt that the group dynamic was just a constant feedback loop. As individuals, we needed the group, and the group grew stronger as the individuals poured more of themselves into it. I knew everyone’s strengths and weaknesses as well as they knew mine. And we all knew how to support each other and celebrate ourselves. By the time Day Four started, I had 12 new people in my life that I completely trusted and cared for.
So, why didn’t I include this in the “Tale of the Trail”? Because it was a completely, shockingly, different beast. And one I didn’t like. Not at all. As I was walking down from the Sun Gate into the lost city, it was all I could do not to turn around and walk back. But they had a flush toilet, and that was something we were all obsessed with, so down we went. I actually kept my “MP Time” to a minimum, just walking though the crowds, waiting for it to be over.
Why was I so distressed with Machu Picchu? The train people. The place was packed with tourists who smelled washed and anointed with fragrance. People who had on clean clothes, shiny backpacks, and walking poles that were purely for show. And I felt immersed in fakeness. Like I earned something special, only to be shoved into a swarm of folks who took the cheap way to the same goal. These folks would go home and say “I did Machu Picchu”, just like me. But their only hardship was to … well, hell … they didn’t have any hardship. Don’t get me wrong, MP was impressive as all get-out. How they built something like that is beyond me. It was awe inspiring. Yet the smaller ruins I saw along the trail were more precious to me. After four days, essentially alone with your small clan, the mind-jarring re-entry into the crowds was more than I could easily absorb.
But the toilets! Ahhh! Every single one of us was talking about them all the previous night. On the trail, it’s the simple things that take up your thoughts and conversations. Food. Shelter. And shitters. And four days of open-air bowel expulsions and squat toilets left us all dreaming about thrones of porcelain, with seats!, and the power of flushing water. We planned on how we would enjoy the simple pleasure and shared openly our thoughts. And together, we paid our fee to enter the johns, and thus our trek was complete. Four days of hiking in the Andes to the most wonderful of conclusions. 🙂
It’s a Wrap
So, what am I thinking about as I sit here and try to document the trip? Well, that I am 100% glad I did it. On the way up, on Day Two of the hike, I told Monica that this was one of those adventures that was absolutely miserable while it’s happening, but one which we would talk about and remember with joy forever afterward. And that’s already happened. Yes, the trail was hard. The jungle was hot and humid. The cities were crowded. And I loved every single second of it.