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Cusco and the Inca Trail
by Robin Esrock
Jim the dentist from Oregon had just split his head in two, but the bigger concern was just how much blood, if any, had spilled into our sixth Cuba Libre - a far more fetching name for a loaded rum and Coke. Although I had been advised against heavy drinking in altitude (and at 3300m above sea level Cusco is very definitely up there) the drinks flowed effortlessly into my thinning blood. Jim's blood, meanwhile, dripped down the stairs after he jumped up a little too enthusiastically in the upper balcony of the Blueberry Lounge, but he took it like sport, or rather, a dentist with a passion for travel. "If this wasn't Cusco, Peru, I'd probably look into stitches," he said, promptly ordering another round.
Bring out the panpipes and blankets; the city of Cusco is very definitely the image you have of Peru. As the historic and tourist capital of Peru, the streets are paved with hundreds of tour operators, hostels, restaurants and the subtle fragrance of fresh urine. Here be tourists in their droves, soaking up the Peru of lore, readying for the rite of passage, namely the 45km Inca Trail. When I arrived in Cusco I felt much like Bruce Lee did in Game of Death. A foreigner, arriving in a foreign land, surrounded by other foreigners, ready to challenge myself to the extreme. Only, instead of butterfly-kicking a butt ugly Chuck Norris, I'll be getting high on coca leaves while traipsing through the Andes. In theory. Of course, Peru and theory go hand in hand like nunchakas and spit-roasted bananas.
When I booked to do the Inca Trail, most likely under the influence, I was told to arrive in Cusco a few days early to acclimatize. Born and raised in Johannesburg, some 2000m above sea level, I was counting on my body remembering life at altitude, kicking into old patterns on some kind of molecular level. Biology was never my strong suit. Three days later, I am still chasing breath, my hands lightly trembling, and the good news is I get to enjoy a strenuous four-day hike that rises another 1000m into the surrounding mountains. It's not that bad this altitude business, not unlike being constantly excited. Some girls I met deeply regretted taking altitude-sickness pills in Cusco and claimed it made them far more ill. After a few days, in theory, your body learns how to breath air with limited oxygen, although I feel like I've been chain smoking cigars, forgetting not to inhale.
Another backpacker called Charlotte and I have quite a lot in common so we naturally join forces to discover this brave, gringo-infested land. We discover Los Toldos Chicken on San Amalgro which serves up the biggest, juiciest BBQ'd chicken I've had the privilege to devour. We call it Nandos, and it's difficult to eat anywhere else, especially at $3 a meal. It takes exactly 24 hours before I know my way around, with all the action centered on the Plaza des Armas, the town square surrounded by classic 17th century cathedrals. This is the land of the Inca, once a powerful, advanced nation now relegated to selling alpaca jerseys to German tourists. The church did a great job wiping out the Inca, converting them to the worst kind of fire-and-brimstone Catholicism, as evidenced by the Cusco Art Gallery. Famous Inca artists paint with bright reds and blues, slowly turning black and dark as their culture dies. Our 70 year-old guide, machine-gunning the worst kind of Spanglish, constantly points out the contrast in beauty between art of the Spanish conquerors ("blaaaaaaack!!") and the Inca artists ("goooooooold!!"). The bars, on the other hand, are fully decked out for the Lonely Planeters. Modern downtempo drifts in the air, bouncing off plush cushions, low lighting, and urban décor. At the laid back Blueberry Lounge, I could be in London, but I'm not, which is why Jim isn't getting stitches. I was warned in Lima about local girls fleecing gringo's with the aid of Rohypnol, but with the effect of altitude they can save their pharmacy visits. Slammed, I head to Mama Africa's across the Plaza to dance and drink into the early morning with my new friends. "Tomorrow, my schedule is hectic," I say, Manu Chao blaring. "I have to spend the day acclimatizing!" Which is why I wake up at 3pm, not sure whether I have a hangover, or altitude sickness. Probably both.
I have not hiked more than 3 hours in the last five years, and the Inca Trail leaps into my mind like a bungee jump, full of nerves and excitement. 45km, high altitude, four days. "The second day is like the Grouse Grind times ten," says Kyla from Vancouver. But this is what it's all about, especially in Cusco. I could take a train to visit the magnificent ruins of Macchu Picchu, but that just wouldn't be gonzo now, would it? The bus picks me up in four hours, at 5:30am. My heart is a techno track.
Four Days Later
I?m back in Cusco, knee resting, deep breaths. Did I really spend the last four days trekking in the Andes? Did I really take those gorgeous pictures of the sun rising through the flint sharp mountains? Did I really take my corduroy jacket? It seems a bit hazy, but that's because I'm writing this in bed, relishing the soft mattress as my legs recover from the pounding I've put them through. If anyone says the Inca Trail isn't hardcore, they've been chewing too many coca leaves.
My group consisted of nine trekkers, two guides and thirteen porters. While some lunatics wish to do this alone, government regulations insist you trek with reputable guides, and Cusco is lined with companies offering one, two and four days trips to the ultimate destination, Macchu Piccu. www.greentoadbus.com offers Peru treks online through a great website. The group of nine consisted of Dave and Nicola from Dublin, Michelle and Chris from Newcastle, Jo from Manchester, Hillary from just about everywhere, Shannon and Jamie from BC and me the idiot with corduroy. Picked up early, we met our guides Oscar and Juvenal and over the next four days we'd come to know each other pretty well, over pineapple chicken, summer rice and tin cups of mate, the indigenous coca tea that helps with the altitude. Lo, in the beginning, there was passport control, a gradual hike through the valleys, a certain apprehension about Day Two known as ?The Challenge?.
Six hours up rocky steps to 4200m elevation is not everybody's hot chocolate, especially those of us who consider walking a shopping mall a good day's hike. I had packed as light as I could, but it didn't take long for my daypack to weigh heavy on my shoulders, as if the shoelaces holding the sleeping bag and mattress together were guilty of some heinous crime. But hope was immediate, in both the humour of the group and the first lunch, as delicious as any I'd had since arriving in Peru. Unlike the porters in Nepal who are not regulated and can carry as much as 50kg on the backs, Inca Trail porters have a union and strict guidelines as to how much they carry and how hard they go. Ranging from 17 to 39 years old in our group, the porters carry tents, food, gas, equipment, water, and are responsible for our three meals plus tea a day, and also allow us to arrive exhausted into camp with tents set up, tea ready to be served. God bless them. Especially Apu, the chef, who managed to cook outrageous dishes, lord knows how, well into the trek without refrigeration and with only a tent for a kitchen. Good food always translates into good morale, and it couldn't get any better.
Day One is easy, supposedly to break you into the hike, which Day Two literally elevates into something far more challenging. Oscar, usually with a smile, would walk at the front, Juvenal at the back, and our pace was steady. Along the way, Oscar would whip out his blue folder and talk about the flora, fauna, and history of the Andes with genuine enthusiasm. There was always time to catch breath, always time to be inspired by the porters who would leave later and arrive earlier, passing on the right with unnerving pace and rock hard calves.
An uneasy, sleepless night finally brought in Day Two, which is, regrettably, every bit as challenging as they say. The rock path ascends to the highest point, Dead Woman's Pass, at 4200 meters, by which stage each step requires intense motivation and energy. We shared the trail with several other groups, some of whom were hiking in trainers and clearly not prepared for the endeavor. I learnt the importance of slow and steady, and finally we peaked, battered, legs on fire. High fives, a scream of exhilaration, some chocolate, back dripping with sweat, cooling fast. Now the descent, an uneven path designed specifically to tear knee joints to shreds. Thank you, bamboo stick, which Oscar rightly predicted would become my best friend. Reaching camp on Day Two was like winning a marathon, only to find you'd have to race again tomorrow. But we're all in this together, and Hillary is older than my mother and outpacing porters, and the conversation helps, as does the sweet coca tea, and Jamie's deck of Uno. Better sleep that night, knowing the worst is behind and my bum knee somehow survived the hardest day of hiking in my life.
Day Three I reach trekking zen, walking along the original Inca path, recovered from the high jungle and smoothed with stones. The Incas, it appears, knew better how to make paths than those that centuries later restored them. More level now, the authentic jungle giving me an authentic buzz, large hummingbirds zipping around, Oscar pointing out priceless orchids. We eat lunch atop a pass, exhausted, elevated, truly elated. This is wet season, but the rain has held back, and we all wonder how on earth anyone could do this when the trail is wet, as hard as it is when it's dry. A few minutes later, we find out. Although there are only a few drops, Oscar is hurrying, telling us to reach for the waterproof ponchos. He knows the clouds are about to burst, and sure enough, it comes down hard, dampening the spirits, quickening the need to move. It's downhill to the final camp, steep, uneven, but I find myself running, chasing Oscar down the mountain, turning two hours into one. The adrenaline is pumping, one fall and this could turn ugly, but I'm not thinking about my knees, hell I can barely feel them. Finally the rain subsides and I feel like a conquering hero. A few minutes later my knees catch up to remind me about my accident two years ago. Ouch.
I walk with Hillary, surely a mountain goat in her former life, and we soon reach final camp and the joys of our first warm shower, beer, and painkillers. It occurs to me I can barely move, and there is still one more day. Our final night together, and we party with the porters. We thank and tip them individually, Oscar buzzing and initiating ribald songs, creating hysterics. We struggle to sing, Dave making a gallant effort, the porters wanting something African. Silently praying to the knee god, I toyi-toyi, the South African chant and dance that just might have brought down Apartheid. Lizards take up arms against their parrot oppressors, the words Amandla! echo through the Andes, and I've terrified just about everybody, including myself. The porters dance with Jo and Hillary, the beers, gratefully now available at the campsite, flow free. For the first night of the trek, I manage to sleep, but not much, because we are awoken at 4am to pack up one last time for the two-hour walk to Machu Picchu.
Arriving at Sun Gate, just after sunrise, we can see the lost city in the distance. Discovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, nobody is quite sure who lived here, why they lived here, or why they disappeared without telling anybody. Theories abound; it was home to high priests and witches; it was home to royals who abandoned it hoping to return after the Spanish invasion. It was not until Bingham, a creepy looking fella, hacked his way through the jungle that the city was rediscovered, faithfully restored into one of the world's most beautiful and mysterious ancient cities. Tourists can catch buses and trains from Cusco and make it a day trip, but as the destination after three hard days trekking, Machu Picchu delivers its famous spectacle. You truly feel you have arrived some place extraordinary.
It is only 9am, and the tour continues. The Sun Temple, the amazing craftsmanship, terraces, surroundings. We are fully exhausted, somewhat put off by the droves of camera-snappy tourists, clean and smelling good. Filthy, tired, wrecked and stretched, we amble through ruins, play with the alpacas (who tasted delicious just a few nights ago thanks to Apu), eat a horrifically overpriced sandwich. Dave, Chris and Jamie climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu and is seen in all the postcards. I pop another ibuprofen and pass - my knees breathing a sigh of relief. Finally, we catch the bus down the snake-coiling road to the town of Aguas Calientes, a final meal with the group before a long, four-hour, Uno-intensive train ride back to Cusco. Hard to imagine the sunrise at 6am that morning, the feeling of walking into Machu Picchu having somehow earned the right to. By the time I arrive back at the hostel, every inch of my body does the salsa for a hot shower and a warm bed. By morning, the entire experience has drifted into memory like the dissolving clouds beneath the peaks of the Andes.