When we arrived back in Cusco, we joined up at a hotel with our group for major adventure #2: the Inca Trail. We had decided to book the trail through Intrepid, since I had enjoyed my tours with the company in Africa and Nepal.
Unfortunately, trouble was brewing in town. Starting the next day, there was going to be a 48-hour strike in Cusco in response to government plans to privatize historic sites. This meant that the entire city would be paralyzed. No transportation would be allowed in or out, including taxis and tourist shuttles. Our guide told us that any scabs would be in danger of being pelted with rocks or molotov cocktails. Yikes!
Sure enough, the following morning, there was no traffic at all. We were originally supposed to visit Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, but that proved to be impossible. Instead, we wandered as a group around Cusco, taking in the action. The city had turned into a giant pedestrian zone (which it probably should be anyway, with its ridiculously narrow streets and tiny slivers of sidewalk!) We saw one local guy try to manoeuvre his motorcycle around some rocks set up as a roadblock, and he got screamed at by the protesters.
From the top of the city, we had a nice view of the protesters in the Plaza de Armas.
We went down into the Plaza to have a closer look.
We had lunch at a lovely restaurant off the main square. At this point I learned how important it was to always tell waiters in Peru that I wanted my food cilantro (coriander)-free. I innocently ordered a bowl of Alpaca spaghetti, and was utterly dismayed when it arrived garnished with cilantro, or as I like to call it, “The Weed that Grows in the Depths of Hell.” It has that annoying habit of making otherwise delicious food taste like putrid dish soap, and in Peru they seemed to use it on EVERYTHING. Such a tragedy 😦
The protests died down a bit in the afternoon, so we headed over to the Inca Museum (and were let in by a security guard). My favourite part was seeing the mummies curled up in the fetal position and the elongated skulls. I may have a bit of a morbid streak!
We were supposed to spend that night at the hotel and drive to the Inca Trail early the next morning, but that was no longer an option because of the strike. A limited amount of traffic was allowed at night, so after dinner we piled into a van with all our gear and drove to Kilometre 82, the start of the trail.
The journey was completely insane, from start to finish. Since I am extremely prone to motion sickness, I sat right behind the driver. I watched him constantly swerve around lines of rocks that had been set up on the highway. Instead of taking the main road, we took mostly back roads, and we spent about two hours navigating slowly and painstakingly through a rock quarry. At one point, we tried to venture back onto the highway, but we had to reverse onto another road because the driver saw protesters up ahead. As a result of all the swerving and my anxiety over the situation, I started feeling sicker and sicker. We were almost at our destination when we encountered a gigantic car-sized rock blocking the road, and we all had to climb out of the van. The guys busied themselves with digging a path so that we could drive around the rock, and I busied myself with retching on the side of the road. Fun times!
We finally arrived at Kilometre 82 at about 1:00 a.m. I was exhausted and still quite nauseous, but completely thrilled to have made it. We met another group of trekkers who had spent eight hours that day walking down from Machu Picchu, since no buses or trains were running. They were smuggled back to Cusco in our van. It was all very cloak and dagger!
The guides and porters set up our campsite in about ten minutes, and we passed out for the night. I was jolted awake at about 3:00 a.m. by the sound of someone shouting angrily, and my half-awake brain was convinced that some protesters had found us and were mad at us for breaking through the strike! It turns out that it was just another group arriving, although I still have no idea what the yelling was about.
We woke up the next morning to this magnificent view:
The start of the trek was right across the road from our campsite, so we didn’t have to experience another dodgy van ride.
Our group for the trek included two Canadians (us), one Brit and nine Aussies, which is a fairly typical ratio for an Intrepid tour. We had a truly five-star camping experience. The 12 of us had a crew of 18 to transport all our gear, set up our tents and cook for us. All we had to carry was our day packs. The food was incredible, considering that it had to be carried in by porters and prepared in a tent at high altitude. We had amazing soups with tons of vegetables, meat dishes, bread, popcorn and even a cake on the last night.
The first day was very easy, with few big ascents. It was extremely hot, so I zipped off the bottom of my hiking pants. This was a huge mistake. Despite the fact that I used copious amount of bug juice, my legs got absolutely devoured by sandflies. I held the record in my group for the most bites. I couldn’t even count them! Luckily, they weren’t as itchy as mosquito bites, so I wasn’t too uncomfortable.
We came across a number of Incan ruins, and the guides explained to us the history of the area. He told us how the Inca used runners to deliver messages, and how they would cover the distance of the Inca Trail in a single day.
We spent the night at a campsite overlooking a valley. In the morning, the porters set out buckets of hot water for washing, so we could at least pretend to be clean. They also served coca tea, which gave us a nice little lift 🙂
From our campsite, we spent the entire morning walking uphill through the forest. I was thrilled that the guides let us hike at our own pace. Since I had already acclimatized in Cusco, there was no need to take things slowly like on my Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro treks. I tended to charge ahead of the rest of the group and arrive at the meeting points half an hour to an hour before everyone else. Sometimes it was out of pure convenience (my legs cramp up and get restless if I’m forced to walk too slowly or take too many breaks), and sometimes it was out of sheer necessity (at one point I was stuck downwind of the porter carrying our infamous bucket toilet!) I didn’t experience any altitude sickness, making the ratio of pain to pleasure much higher in the pleasure category. I have discovered that my body starts to go haywire only after extended periods above 4,000 m. I was safe on this trek, which was mostly below that altitude.
Since I was often separated from my own group, I had a great time getting to know trekkers who were with different companies. I thought our trip to Km 82 had been dramatic, but the other trekkers described harrowing experiences involving direct encounters with protesters, burning tires, and crossing a washed out bridge in the pouring rain. They told me how they paid local kids to remove the rocks from the road, and how the kids would put the rocks back before the next vehicle arrived. Such entrepreneurial spirit!
After lunch, we made our way up to Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4,215 m. The weather was beautiful, and I enjoyed all the magnificent views as I huffed and puffed up the trail.
As I stood at the pass, the clouds were starting to look menacing, so I made my way as quickly as possible down to our campsite. I managed to dive into the tent right before the rain hit hard. So lucky!
That evening, we summoned up the energy to play rousing games of spoons and Jungle Speed (yay!) After dinner, our guide told us some of his craziest stories from his years on the trail. One time, a client came down with pulmonary edema and fell into a coma. He and the porters had to carry her down the trail and wait until morning for her to be transported to the hospital. Thankfully, she woke up in the hospital, and she fully recovered from the ordeal.
The next morning, we hiked up over our second pass. Unfortunately, we were completely engulfed in a cloud, so we didn’t take any interesting pictures. It started to rain again, so we slipped and slid down the path to another neat set of ruins.
The trail took us through a cloud forest, which looked magical in the fog.
The rain finally stopped that afternoon, and we were treated to a fantastic view.
Our final stop before our campsite was my favourite place on the whole trail, the Intipata. Our excitement was mounting, since from there we had out first proper view of Machu Picchu mountain.
We woke up the next morning at early o’clock to wait to enter the last part of the trail. I enjoyed hiking along that morning and seeing all the lovely acquaintances that I had made in the past few days in one concentrated area. I also had fun scrambling up the absurdly steep “monkey steps” right before we reached the sun gate, which marked the end of the trail.
From the sun gate, we could finally see the Machu Picchu ruins below.
As we trudged down the path toward the site, we started encountering other tourists who were visiting Machu Pichhu just for the day. I kept getting whiffs of perfume and shampoo, and I started to feel a bit self conscious. It had been four long, hot and sweaty days since my last shower!
Our guide gave us a tour of the site. We learned that archaeologists still aren’t entirely sure what purpose Machu Picchu served. However, they have many theories, the strongest one being that it was an estate for the emperor Pachacuti.
Since it was very hot and very crowded, we left the site right after our tour. We took the bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes, and we arrived right before another downpour. So lucky again! After a celebratory restaurant lunch, we took a scenic train ride to Ollantaytambo and a van back to Cusco. That night, we had to scramble to do laundry before the shops closed. We desperately needed clean clothes in time for our next adventure, deep in the heart of the jungle …