The evening before heading into the Sacred Valley, we walked to the G Adventures office for our initial briefing and to meet the group we would be taking on this challenge with. The briefing was really helpful but really did put the fear of god in me and lead me to question whether I was cut out to do something like this…. was I fit enough and was I mentally tough enough??
Did I still have the opportunity to change my mind and take the easy option, the train?…
You have to remember we had just been exposed to altitude (leading to a lovely combination of sick tummies, headaches, severe tiredness) and you hear nightmare stories of people not being able to complete the trail and you also know you have to climb to an elevation of 4300m at a significant gradient in unknown weather conditions.
The following morning we hopped in our bus, all the same, and drove deeper into the Andes mountains through the Sacred Valley to our staging post of Ollantaytambo at an elevation of 2,792m. Strangely, you actually go down in elevation from Cusco to start the trail.
Along the way we got our first glimpse of the huge Inca terraces – an incredible sight. The varying terrace heights actually created little micro climates for growing different sorts of food. Today the terraces are not used for agriculture to help preserve them.
We also visited the Ccaccaccollo Community Weaving Co-op which is supported by G Adventures’ charity (Planeterra) to support local indigenous woman and giving them an alternative to working in agriculture in the countryside. You must understand up until recently only men were allowed an education giving woman few opportunities. These women shared with us the process of spinning alpaca wool, dying the wool and then weaving it. It’s fascinating to see how they mix natural ingredients to get the different colours. It was cool to see all the woman in traditional dress but it did feel a bit touristy at times.
In the village, we also got a look to see some of their livestock including some alpacas, llamas and gigantic guinea pigs which of course are a delicacy in Peru.
Our final stop before lunch was a pottery project showing us how locals make bricks and local pottery. We loved this stop as, we managed to sneak in a few homemade veggie empanadas: delicious!
The next day after as much coca tea as I could possibly consume (the locals recommend it for managing altitude sickness), we left Ollantaytambo and took the short bus trip to the starting point of the Inca trail. Here we passed through the checkpoint where we had our passports checked and tickets stamped allowing us to start day one’s 12km. From travellers we had met along the way, we were expecting day one to be easy…
The first few minutes of the track are quite steep and straight away I was was puffing. We caught a glimpse of the train heading up to Machu Picchu and I questioned why we had done it this way – why was Rich putting me through this ? (Rich’s note: I wasn’t responsible for this at all!)
The trail was gravel and went up and down in elevation through the rolling hills beside the river, Rio Cusichaca. We also passed our first Inca site Llactapata. Just before we got to it, our guide, Rudy, lined us all up holding hands and with our eyes closed. He had us take a number of steps forward towards a cliff(!) and gradually shuffled us all forward before letting us open our eyes. It was spectacular to suddenly be able to see the whole of the Inca site when we opened our eyes!
The whole day was a blistering hot day which made the walk a lot more challenging than we were expecting. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself but every now and again a porter would pass through. These guys were each carrying a 25kg bag – carting gas cylinders, food, tents, sleeping bags, rubbish or our night bags – I found this quickly changed my attitude! They really were our motivation and inspiration along the trek. Some of these guys are in there 50s and 60s and Peruvians are generally quite small so the bags were often half the size of some of them. For our group of 15 tourists, there were 30 porters, a chef, an assistant chef, 2 assistant guides and the head guide, Rudy. I was carrying maybe 10kg but the porters were always ahead and nearly always running up (or down) the hills.
Throughout the day, we got to know our group and they really were a fab bunch of people. Rudy our leader was great and was really passionate about giving us lots of information on the Incas. He also had a trick for altitude which involved giving us what he called condor pee (I don’t think/hope it wasn’t actually that). He would give us a few drops on our hands, tell us to clap our hands three times and inhale the fumes from our hands. It was so strong that when I inhaled I couldn’t stop coughing, but it didn’t stop me going back for a second or third whiff. It became our go to for a little pickup, and it really woke you up and cleared your senses.
After bracing myself for as long as I could, I finally had to use the bathrooms ($1 to use), this would be my first experience of the squat toilets before the Inca toilet (aka nature, aka a bush!) became a better option. Some of these toilets really did have an obnoxious scent.
After over five hours walking on the trek, we were finally greeted by the porters lined up at the campsite, clapping us in – we had made it though day one. Rich and I felt pretty embarrassed by the clapping as the porters has got there quicker, set up our tents, had bowls of hot water ready for us to freshen up, had the main tent ready for happy hour (tea and snacks before diner), set up a camp kitchen and also had a three course dinner ready for us! The food on the Inca trail really is amazing – what the chefs manage to make with limited resource is super impressive. It’s quite interesting that all the chefs are given the same provisions and ingredients for each trip but they each get creative and develop their own four day menu.
After dinner we headed to bed much earlier than we had expected but a blessed relief before taking on the toughest day of the Inca Trail in the morning.
To be continued…