Tuesday, January 10, 2012

South America Adventures - Part 4 (Inca Trail)

We woke up several hours before dawn (this will be a common theme through our hiking trip) and set out for the starting gate of the Inca trail. We were doing the most common hike, which is four days hiking with three days camping out. I’ve run into all sorts of people (mostly my parent’s generation) who all claim to have hiked to Machu Picchu. Well they are all liars. Many take the train to a bus that will drop them off at the doorstep ofMachu Picchu. This hike was a real challenge with 6-10 miles each day combined with high altitudes (some people even had to break out the oxygen tanks…although that was an extreme case with a pair of smokers). Youcould tell when you get to Machu Picchu who did the hiking and who took the train (well you could smell the difference between sweat/exhaustion and someone who actually has showered in the last three days).
Due to conservation efforts, you have to get a permit in order to hike the Incatrail,and they only sell a limited numberof permits each season. This isactually why we did the trip this particular year instead of the previous year (they sold out of permits so we had to wait a YEAR!). After a group picture, we stamped our permit at a guardhouse on one side of the river and crossed over a bridge to the trailhead (whoo hoo, off we go!).
There were many Inca trails all over Peru…kind of their road system. This particular Inca trail ran between Cusco (the capital) and Machu Picchu (a religious retreat area). When the Spaniards came, the Incas started to rip up the roads to A) slow down the enemy, and B) hide/protect their temples & cities. The trail at this part was rough. Many of the stones were missing, and those still in were allskewed so you had to watch your step in order to avoid a sprained ankle.
Another obstacle was the pack of donkeys sharing the trail with us. An Inca site about a ½days hike in (Ilactapata) was under restoration construction, and the donkeys were the only way to transport in supplies like cement mix and lumber. We spent the greater part of the first day looking down in order to avoid twisting an ankle or stepping in various animal shit piles. We joked about people asking us how the Inca trail was only to answer, “I don’t know, I was too busy watching out for donkey poop!”
Thanks to this experience, I can confidently distinguish between horse,donkey, and llama poop (big pile, hamburger patties, and pellets respectively).
The few times I did look up, the view was SPECTACULAR! Mountains and rivers…cliffs and waterfalls…even a few ruins. We took a rest break next to this narrow (narrow is an understatement…more like a sliver of a path) offshoot path that lead up to a cliff overhanging a river. The path
was the raised ridge with shear drop offs on either side. You had
just enough space to walk one foot in front of the other like tightrope walking. At first only a handful of the extra bold hikers climbed up to take in the view and get one-of-a-kind photo opportunities. I am extremely afraid of heights, but I eventually decided to venture up since I likely would never be here again (Dana called it suicidal). I looked over the edge
and it made my heart skip a beat seeing the raging river about 500ft below our small rock outcropping/cliff. Some of the uber bold guys stood on a lower small (foot width) ledge that would prop their heads just above the side. We staged the pictures that looked like they were hanging over the edge of the cliff. Yeah it looked cool but it still made me pee a little.

After a few hours in, it was clear the group of 14 would split into two paces of slow and slower. I considered myself in shape, but the altitude and uphill climbing kicked my ass. Thankfully I was part of the faster group (granted I was the slowest person in that group), and the guide proposed taking this slightly longer but more scenic route to the first campsite. He reasoned that we would get to the campsite at the same time as the slower group since we were taking the long route. Well it became obvious later the guide seldom takes this route because we got lost. At one point we needed to cross this stream (about 10ft wide). The bridge was a clumped grouping of branches and twigs thrown over a tree trunk and a hearty bush. We crossed one at a time, and each crossing would result in the sound of a few branches snapping. It was the second time that day that
I almost peed myself. Thankfully everyone made it across (although there was one big snap and the Puerto Rican quickly crawled across on his belly where we pulled him over when he got within arm’s reach).
We ended up in some farmer’s field. Of course he had freshly manured his field so all my efforts to avoid animal shit that day were wasted.
When we passed his house (or hut), his wife was outside hanging laundry. She saw the group of us and started yelling out (in Quechua) to her husband something that we took to be “get your ass out of our fields…honey there are people on our property”. We high tailed it out of there since there were ample places to hide a body or two (there was zero civilization out there).

After climbing over a few fences, we finally hit the campsite…two hours
after the slower group. I was exhausted and wanted to pass out right there even though it was just past four o’clock. As an effort to pack light, everyone basically carried one set of clothes and wore another with enough changes in underwear to get us through 4 days. Once we were in the camp, everyone stripped off their sweaty clothes (or in my case sweaty shirt since I only brought the one pair of hiking pants) and strung them on makeshift clotheslines strung inside our tents. Everyone then just collapsed and caught up on personal stuff while we waited the hour before dinner. Dana was reading a book and suddenly declared, “its easier for me to read laying down”. I couldn’t help but add, “its easier for me to sleep laying down” which got a few exhausted chuckles.
The hour passed and we were ushered into the “group tent” which had just enough space to fit the 14 of us along with tiny little camping chairs and table.
For being in the middle of nowhere with humans physically trafficking in our food, we sure ate well. Yes most of
the meals were soup based since it was easy
to carry packets of ramen spices, some rice, and a big pot that you could just fill it up with water found in some stream. Okay it was the same pot they used to sterilize the drinking water and bathing water (I use the term bathing liberally since you basically dipped a washcloth in a tub of ice cold water and gave your armpits a onceover).
During dinner, our guide gave us some pointers for our first night. He told us all to relieve ourselves (i.e. pee) while it was still light out since we are in the middle of the wilderness and a nighttime wandering could result in us disrupting a snake, varmit, or worse a puma on the prowl. He also instructed us to stay calm if we heard “noises” (yes he even said it with the quotation marks…made me wonder what was out there). The last gem of advice he gave us was to ALWAYS keep our tents zipped up because many animals like to find nice dry, warm (well when we are in there) place to crawl into. All of our jaws dropped because every tent was open in order to help dry off our sweaty clothes. We begged the porters to go check the tents for critters for us... thankfully Dana & my tent was empty but another pairing had two tarantula spiders escorted out of their tent.

Speaking of the porters, we got to meet all of them. They ranged in age from mid 20’s up to 60’s. They aged beyond their years as everyone looked double their actual age (the 31 year old looked no younger than 50). Many wore rubber tire sandals and carried up to 60kg of gear on their backs (some with the tied
blanket method). Over half of the group spoke only Quechua, an indigenous language similar to what was spoken by the Incans. Not only did they carry practically all of our gear, food, and lodging, but they would practically sprint on the trail in order to beat us to the next camp. Granted most of the men hail from nearby mountain villages, so they were familiar with high altitudes and mountain terrain hiking (but man we were majorly schooled each day).

Okay now here comes my favorite story of the entire trip. I am so excited to write about this that I am sure a few too many exclamation points will populate the paragraph (yay!!!). Our camp was on a few stepped terraces on the side of a mountain. Each terrace level was stepped about 5ft down from the next, and we were able to fit four two-man tents along the length of a terrace level. During the middle of the night, I heard these heavy footsteps of some wild beast roaming around outside. At one point the THING fell off one terrace level onto another. It sounded HUGE! It came over and started to rip fistfuls of sod out of the ground RIGHT NEXT TO OUR TENT! The whole time it was deeply breathing these heavy breaths out its nose…it sounded like a dragon. As you could imagine, I was practically shitting myself. However out of courtesy I tried to be absolutely silent as to not wake Dana. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, Dana was doing her damnedest to be still and quiet as well. I was convinced it was a puma…until it relieved itself on the other side of our tent. Yes, when it peed, it let out a bray of relief and I realized we had been terrorized the last 20minutes by a DONKEY. The rouge donkey stumbled around the rest of the camp waking up
everyone else (yet everyone was quiet as our tents were practically on top of each other). At one point, we heard the still of the night disturbed by the sound of canvas ripping and a man going “ah ah AAAAAAHHHHH!”. The entire camp burst out laughing. Apparently the donkey tripped on one of the tent guide wires and fell into the occupied tent. Simon (British guy) was fast asleep and the next thing he knew, a giant hairy body was coming towards him. Yeah I would scream too.

The night molestation wasn’t over yet. I was woken up (again) by some scratching right NEXT TO MY HEAD! It sounded like something was burying something under my head. Thankfully it sounded small so it was more of an annoyance instead of a fear for my life. The critter must have woken up the girl in the next tent over because she attempted to shoo it off. Unfortunately it was a skunk and it let out a little stink in its flight.
The next morning we were greeted with piles of donkey poop (hamburger patties…I should know) all over the camp! We found the culprit donkey about 100ft up on the trail. There may be a few pictures of us making obscene hand gestures to it out of spite.

Check out these kids who played around our campsite during lunch. The great debate is if kid knew what was really on his hat.

Another humorous story...we saw this horse up on the side of the mountain. We asked a local how the horse got up there. The local replied in all seriousness, "It walked". Ah ha ha ha


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