Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Day One

I suppose anxiety works much the same for any life event. After spending the last two days courting Peru, traveling, sightseeing, and adjusting, disliking some aspects while loving others, we were nervous … no amount of book reading or advice really determines your final packing (or … whatever). This night before the start of the trail, we walked the short distance into town for odds and ends.

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Everything our travel agent said about exchanging money was spot-on. I thought I had US $20s in pretty good shape, but when I temporarily forgot the pin for the card I was carrying and went to exchange bills instead, I came to understand the threshold of “near perfect” when half mine were rejected. The cash man was more choosey than some of the most finicky snack machines. I’m not sure ironing them would have changed anything, maybe pushing a $20 or two into the acceptable range. Regardless, I had enough for the short term, but needed some smaller change. If I was going to buy something I didn’t need, a couple bottles of beer would at least help my packing effort.

Packing = overthinking. Our porters would carry tents, sleeping pads, and food/utensils (all provided through the travel agency), plus a duffel that we could pack 11 lbs of personal gear (stuff we wouldn’t need throughout the day … sleeping bag, change of clothes, camp wear). For *low maintenance* campers, this doesn’t leave much you need to carry yourself … but it’s amazing how much you can toil over it anyway. I had everything I needed for the trail, but knowing I had a night at the end in a hotel at Aguas Calientes before being reunited with my luggage, I started thinking about extra stuff … for cleaning up, recharging, and maybe a soak in the hot springs. I finally packed a minimalist daypack and threw everything else I could possibly want into a large ziplock bag, weighed it, then shuffled my “Camelbak All Clear Bottle” (knowing the porters would filter and boil water on the trail), swimsuit, and a few other things into stay-behind luggage, satisfied any more repacking would be diminishing returns. Heavy blankets and a cold hotel room beckoned a deep slumber.

After a hearty breakfast, our party of six juggled bags and watched as unknown stuff was stashed on the roof of the van. We loaded into the first two passenger rows, and scattered our packs across the remaining two … until we realized a short ride later that our porters and chef were joining us for this final leg to the trailhead. We immediately grabbed our stuff, to not feel like such space hogs, and watched as nine weathered men of varying ages seamlessly squeezed into the back two rows of seats. Then we set off down an increasingly austere road towards Piscacucho at Km 82, where we would start the trail.

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Observing more feats of driving prowess, this time on a one-car-width dirt road with no shoulders, we watched another world go by … school children, farm animals, dogs … sometimes in reverse as much as a football field at time until we reached a spot where the bank was flat enough to accommodate a vehicle passing in the opposite direction. Interspersed between political propaganda painted on the side of buildings were faded Coca Cola advertisements, starkly opposite to those in the movie Blade Runner. Apparently no place or time is immune to product placement, at least when it comes to the Coca-Cola company.

Piscacucho in some ways reminded me of the start gate for a marathon, probably mostly from the atmosphere of anticipation, the hurry-up-and-wait, the constant nervous adjustments to shoe chips and safety pins, or, in this case, to boots and backpacks, and the unrelenting gravitational pull of the bathroom. Our porters were a perfectly harmonized machine as they unloaded everything from the van roof, shuffled tents, equipment, duffel bags, buckets of fresh vegetables, cartons of eggs and other foodstuffs, and efficiently distributed weight and bulk between porter packs. These packs looked almost heavier than the men who would carry them. Meanwhile, a persistent swarm of salespeople circled us with a variety of hats, bandanas, and other colorful amenities. I briefly wondered if they’d respect the van as a “No Gracias” zone, but then we were moving again.

Just across the railroad tracks on the way to the passport entry point was the standard group picture spot. I wish I’d kept back my camera, since everyone in our group has a near identical (and easily sharable) picture, and nobody got one of “Juan the Camera Tree” juggling at least 4 cameras and 2 iPhones. This modernized iconic scene, from across the railroad tracks, with a very “western” looking backdrop, should have captured the moment where he “holstered” the iPhones and resumed shooting with the remaining cameras. It’s left completely to word pictures. At the same time there was an older lady in traditional clothing with a fairly complex-looking camera, seeming to take our picture, in theory to sell it to us at Aguas Calientes. She didn’t inspire much confidence she knew how to use the camera, or that we’d ever see her picture(s) … so I’m kind of curious what target audience makes her effort worthwhile.

Group Photo - There are many like it, but this one is mine!

Group Photo – There are many like it, but this one is mine!

We passed through the checkpoint, our last real threshold to the trail, stamped our passports, and crossed the bridge over the Urabamba River to, at last, start the trail at an easy stroll.

Trail-Start

Our porters passed us immediately. Some of the older men wore sandals. Apparently there’s a requirement they possess hiking boots, but they won’t wear them, so they leave them with friends shortly beyond the checkpoint. They were rugged, and obviously quite stubborn.

A moment to reflect on chance. Around the world we are all very similar people, but with widely varying opportunities as our nations, communities, and families rise and decline. On trips like this, our planes intersect. Seeing children walk several miles to/from primary school, possibly their only education opportunity, makes me feel very fortunate for what I have … especially when I look back just two generations to where my grandparents started. Now I’m able to travel (sparingly) around the world, and I know it isn’t entirely my own doing. I cue “O Fortuna” and count my blessings, and hope fortune doesn’t leave as rapidly as it came.

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I think these ruins are Qhanamarca or Qhanabamba, but any details on them were lost in the excitement of starting the trail.

I think these ruins are Qhanamarca or Qhanabamba, but any details were lost in the excitement of starting the trail.

Mt Veronica overlooks our progress

Mt Veronica overlooks our progress

Coca leaves may provide a boost on the trail, as caffeine and a vasodilator (opening up the blood vessels helps compensate for the lack of oxygen at these elevations). Traditionally, the first leaves of the day are preceded by a small ritual, a sort of offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Three pristine leaves are selected, to represent the heavens (condor), the plane we live in (puma), and the underworld (snake). They are held up as if in a toast, accompanied by a breath to all directions and an unsaid wish/blessing. Having shown proper respect to their provider, the leaves may then be rolled together and chewed.

coca-leaves

When we think about mountains, majestic expansive scenes immediately come to mind. We experience a humbling awe while walking in their midst, tiny and insignificant, immersed in their wondrous biodiversity. Trails let us sample these ever-changing panoramas and microclimates at our own pace. Climb a little in elevation and come around a bend, you’re in a different world, as amazing as the one you just left behind. Pause and take it in. Try as we might, it’s too full of natural richness to ever fully absorb. Alas, these are but moments in time, enriching our souls as we pass through, existing beyond as faded imprints in our memory. For the photographer or poet trying to capture them for eternity, they’re both a dream and a curse.

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biodiversity

As the Inca Trail winds toward Machu Picchu, it passes incredible ruins. These sites peacefully complement the landscape, their terraces sometimes flowing around or through large boulders, embracing some of nature’s placement, and adjusting other natural elements into each grand design. They aesthetically balance entropy with order, evoking the same feel as Zen gardens. From any distance, some of them blend so well with the hillside they’re effectively camouflaged.

Llactapata or Patallacta

Llactapata or Patallacta

Llactapata or Patallacta, or any other Romanized spelling and combination that translates to “hillside city” or “city on a hillside” (there are many). Supposedly, this site (and many others) were conceived and developed by the ninth Inca, Patchacuti. I envision him as somewhat of a Jefferson, entranced by knowledge, dipping into a little bit of everything and either becoming good at it or good at claiming credit for it … probably a little of both.

Not too far from it, and more immediately in our path, was Willkarakay … at least I think it’s its name. So many of these sites, uncovered by treasure hunters and archeologists, have been given several different names in English, Spanish, and/or Quechua, based on guesses or legends about their purposes, or observations of the natural phenomena of their settings. It’s not like the name of the site is written in the only stonework that survives. It makes for interesting conjecture.

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We stopped for a brief history lesson. I think Robin felt a little bored and tortured, as history really isn’t her thing … but we probably all had our moments. Even my little sponge (that loves history) was occasionally full, and distracted by birds fluttering (it can’t be described as anything near floating) in awkward spots that didn’t seem “natural”.

Onward to our lunch stop!! We passed though Huayllabamba or Wayllabamba, the last “village” on the trail. A red bag hanging from a stick flagged the bar, or at least the chicha beer. I had read about the “traditional” method of making it (picture women chewing kernels of corn and spitting into a vessel to start the process), but the modern methods aren’t so unappetizing. I really wanted to try some, but since I wasn’t ready to test myself for the probable effects while on the trail (my system hasn’t been exposed to a yeast or fungus used in the process), I deferred.

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I sincerely wish I had the talent to channel George R.R. Martin to describe our food on the trail. I know our travel agent told us to expect greatness, but for lunch, I was expecting a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Who unpacks everything and preps a 3-course meal for a lunch stop? Our chef and porters. I don’t normally take pictures of my food (I think I’m in the wrong generation to do so), but I did here. They served a creamy guacamole dip and chips, flavorful quinoa soap, and a spicy chicken dish with rice. Then they packed up everything after we left, and rushed past us to the evening’s campsite.

food

This was a brief tangent at another checkpoint. The tree behind Juan is either the passion fruit tree (?) or one of its immediate relatives, I’m not quite sure. When grown in a household, it may be a harbinger for or attractor of spirits … spirits that may be more like Jinn. World religions pique my interest, so I latched on. I’m not sure I understand the genesis or revelation of this particular belief, but got that it is very Andean, and that youthful doubts were assuaged when the family dogs started going crazy each night around the tree, until it was vacated.

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As we cleared the checkpoint, we looked ahead to our camp for the night, and on to the next morning, when we would traverse “Dead Woman Pass”. We could already see it. Juan politely pointed to a shape that “looked like cake”. Since I’m somewhat blunt … I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think it takes too much imagination to see what part of the “woman” is visible here …

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When we got to our camp, at Yuncachimpa (11,000 ft), the porter team was already setting up camp and prepping dinner. We grabbed our duffel bags and changed into dry camp clothes. Finally at a good point to do introductions, we met our chef and porters, ranging from young 20s to mid 50s, one with his son on the team, others with young babies at home … all with different aspirations.

Porters

The checkpoint we passed a few miles earlier was a cutoff for llamas and donkeys. From there on up, everything was packed in by people. This wonderful lady packed in cervaza at what I regard as very minimal markup for her effort. I was thankful for my small bills, and maybe wish I’d been less selfish and given her a large bill and bought some to share.

cerveza

After an amazing meal of fried bananas, vegetable soup, yuca, some kind of stuffed chicken that reminded me of a thin cordon blue, and mango in some kind of sauce, I naturally ended up on the “clean your plate” side of the table. With full bellies and tired bodies, we briefly talked about constellations and the near full moon hiding behind the mountain, made a few jokes about Robin’s leopard print camp pajamas in contexts of “the puma” and “the cougar”, and nestled in to our comfy bags. If this site was haunted (as we heard the night after), I don’t think I noticed. Any of my mild disturbances came from neighboring tents as we neared the next morning.

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