Emily and I don’t have kids yet, but I’m assuming that we can relate to a few similar parenthood moments of pure bliss. For instance, even when we wake up before dawn in a tent in the middle of a Peruvian jungle and haven’t taken a shower in 3 days, when we wake up before dawn in a tent in the middle of a Peruvian jungle and none of our dogs or cat are around to jump on us repeatedly in order to wake us up to feed them before we feed ourselves. Sure there are special things about living on both sides of the coin, but us getting up independently in the tent of our own energy the day after we surpassed a mountaintop called “Dead Woman’s Pass” (or “Abra de Warmi wañusca”) felt really satisfying.
I’m not going to bore you with the details of every step of our journey or what everyone had for breakfast every morning. I do have to mention that this breakfast of the trip was highlighted, in my story, by Maggie coming to the tent later than the rest of us. Doshi picked out one of the tea bags, and it was the wrong tea. It was the asi tea (the kind they said puts you to sleep), and Maggie didn’t want it. She asked why he had picked that one, and it was only because of the green label. He thought she wanted green tea, more or less. It gave me the thought that he needs to make all of those types of mistakes while they are still dating. When you get married, you are supposed to know all of the little and big things and everything in between. Point being, for me, single life is the time to get to know yourself. Dating is the time to get to know one another. And marriage is pretty much a lifetime of sharing and seeing how what you thought you knew about yourself and the other person living with you constantly changes into whatever you both make it. Anyways, that was my thought for this morning, with the help of green tea.
We packed up camp and took up another mountain. Note to self- once you reach one summit, there’s always another mountain to top just around the corner. Our calves were still burning from the day before. Lucky for us, everyone in tent city departed camp around the same time. Did you know you can have rush hour traffic walking up a mountain in the morning? No rest areas, no cell phones, and no horns anywhere in sight or sound. Surrounded by rain falling, misty clouds, and people yelling “Porter” every 5 minutes or so, the pace was about 1-2mph. It was slow and steady.
The morning hike was hilly and chilly, but it wasn’t long before our group stopped at the first Inca ruin spot on the path of the day. The site, if you’re taking note, was Runkurakay. From above, it looks like a perfect circular shape built into the mountain. William and Odon told us about how and why it was built. It was mainly used as a rest stop for the messengers that ran important messages from sacred city to city. The typical leg of each runner was around 8 miles a part, and it was a very reliable system that worked with secrets, supplies, and anything that needed to be carried for a very long distance in a short period of time. I immediately wondered what would happen, since they didn’t use writing during their time, if the messenger ever got exhausted and forgot what they were supposed to relay once they arrived. I made Odon laugh by suggesting what if one of the runners forgot to mention that the Spanish were coming!
Jokes aside, the relay system for the Royal Inca Trail was quite impressive. More impressive than the original game of telephone, way before the invention of the actual telephone, I was particularly impressed with the history lesson behind the modern-day story about the discovery of Machu Picchu. All you need to know, and what you’ve probably already heard, is that Hiram Bingham did not discover Machu Picchu any more than Christopher Columbus discovered North America. The locals in Peru had written books and still today know more of the folk stories about Machu Picchu and the lost cities of the Incas than Hiram and his Yale University sponsored treks and other historians could every claim to write and publish. It really comes down to just another chance for those with the most money and worldly power to influence how everyone else views and remembers history.
The rain falling and the fog floating, we managed to top the mornings mini-mountain within an hour. At the top, we were instantly passed by handfuls of porters, dressed with sandals and ponchos, running down the steep steps and mountainside as if they were flying (the tarps waving in the wind as they descended didn’t hurt the Batman imagery). Our group of 12 plus guides took our time and stuck together.
We got to the second Inca site, Sayaqmarka, shortly after, but nobody wanted to climb/hike up on the side trail with me. I admit that I hesitated a second because Odon said the full fog would not make the dangerous, steep, narrow staircase worth it, but I figured I’d only be here once. Everyone else walked towards our tent, lunch, and bathrooms about an hour further down the road, but my wife and Odon waited at the steps for me to go up and explore. Walking, pole by pole, in a very careful, slow pace, I took my time. It didn’t take much time to get to the top with few to no people going up and down the 2 foot wide staircase. At this time, I must try to relay just how dangerous these steps, and most of the steps of the trail in the mountains, were. The pictures I tried to take never really gave justice to the extreme levels of danger present at all times if not careful. The paths were quite narrow, but, more importantly, the sides of the trail marked a complete drop-off that went straight down into nothingness. I walked up the steps, alone, and all I could imagine was the following imagery of me falling into the great unseen – like General Zod and his gang – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUORL-bvwA0
I didn’t fall, obviously, but it was very dream-like and eery at the same time to stand on top of an empty castle, surrounded by perfectly secure fortress in the clouds, and not being able to see 5 feet beyond the stoned walls and fog in any direction. I walked back down to Odon and Emily even slower than I had managed to move on the way up the first time. Note to self- it’s always more fun and easy to climb up than to come back down.
We managed to trudge through the mud and rain at an easy pace. The morning rush hour had cleared, and the fog felt like somewhat of a security blanket. Sure, we weren’t able to see all of the wonderful vistas that nearly every other blog had mentioned the 3rd day being the most beautiful. But, it gave us time to focus on just how extremely well the trail had been built and maintained. Emily and I both took this opportunity to talk to Odon about our “porter guilt.” We both felt bad for having all of the porters carry our equipment and extra baggage that we were sure we could help with while on the trail. He, being a porter in the past, could speak for everyone as far as we were concerned. He told us not to worry and, although he was appreciative that we were certainly concerned and capable of helping, if we did carry our entire loads then we would be taking away a job from a porter that desperately needed it for a living. We accepted his reasoning, and we again felt grateful that we were literally born into the situations that we had been into the United States. It was a very eye-and soul-opening moment.
We arrived at the tent for lunch, and we had an extra long lunch. Odon and William ate with us for a pleasant change, and we all let them tell us more about the history of their culture and people. They are both descendants of the Quispes, not the Incas, and it was pretty interesting for everyone to go around the table and talk about their namesakes; where they call descended from back in the day. At one point, the tent caved in on us from the rain, but we lifted it back up together and kept dry for a little longer than first expected. We weren’t missing anything but the rain and that was okay with everyone in the party.
Eventually, we got moving. No afternoon rush hour traffic around, we set our own pace again and we loved it. Steady as the sprinkles, we walked up mountainsides, down wicked curves, and into and through random caves on the trail. Several group pictures later, we met up one final time as a complete group for the day at Phuyupatamarka. We had one more chance to hear talks about how the terraces were made for both agriculture and erosion prevention purposes. The fog still took out the option for grand photo ops, but we were then set free to walk at our own pace again until we’d regroup at a fork in the forest. William and the youngsters took off in front again. Everyone took off in the front again, except Odon and our foursome. We wanted to play a little on the ruins. Okay, I wanted to play more on the ruins.
Another old porter ran by us about that time. Odon pointed out that that particular porter was 64 years old. We stood still with jaws open because he might have been the fastest one we’d seen all morning. Emily tried to take a video of him to show her mom what kids her age were doing down south. He was out of sight before she could get the camera out.
Along the way to the forest and the fork, we casually took our time as Odon spilled more personal trail history and fun facts that fell on open ears with our group. We were only planning on doing this trail once in our lives so it only made sense to soak up as much as there was to experience. Odon told us of an older hiker that fell off the side of the trail but was saved by falling smack dab into some trees alongside the edge, missing the cliff by a few feet. When the rain stopped and the fog lifted, Odon showed us the city of Aguas Calientes from afar. With coca leaves in his mouth, which I tried for a little bit and the flavor lasted as long as Big League Chew, he mentioned that the river below was a chocolate river. It made the girls smile, but it, along with the constant tempo of steps and poles forward, made me start to sing the Oompa Loompa song in my head. Most of the trail, and most of the days for that matter, is a repetitive movement of steps, poles, and constantly keeping your body, mind, and soul on the right path forward.
Before we knew it, we hit the fork in the forest, with William waiting for us. He told us we had two choices:
1-Walk to the right of the electric tower and get back to the camp site for the night in less than 30 minutes.
2-Walk to the left of the electric tower, pass along the site of Intipata, and get back to the camp site for the night in about 45 to an hour.
Jayne and Graham were at the fork as well, and they already knew which path I was gonna take. Doshi asked out loud which path we were going to take, and Emily confirmed that we were going to take the longer road. I was happy that she had researched that it was totally worth it (Do yourself a favor and Google all of these sites I’ve mentioned) to visit Intipata. Everyone agreed to go longer. I said, “I always choose the longer road. When I don’t, it always chooses me. So why fight it?” Everyone agreed.
The foursome, plus Odon, William, Jayne, and Graham marched towards Intipata. Knowing that Maggie was a sucker for orchids, Odon pointed out some of the cool flowers along the way. He pointed out the “forever young orchid” that felt like it was forever young. He pointed out “lady slipper orchids” that looked like lady slippers. He pointed out “pineapple orchids” that looked like pineapples too! All of that, combined with the chocolate river memories, really got me humming Willy Wanka tunes.
At Intipata, the beauty hits you in the face at once, as you turn the corner of the forest. Like most of the locations on the trail, the Incas made them in a manner that were hidden from attack but majestic to those who found them. Every corner, every moment, has the ultimate chance to take your breath away.
I found a staircase, and although Emily’s knee was really hampering her enjoyment of the afternoon, she and the rest of the foursome followed. Maggie walked through the legendary “curtain of leaves” and we all took solace at the top. I repeatedly wished that I could somehow visualize the old Incas building the sites and doing everyday activities while we were standing in the middle of their homes. Instead, we opted for making another video for Emily’s link below. Before heading out, Emily realized that one of her walking poles was a lot shorter than the other one, probably causing her knee to feel funky all day long. We fixed it and walked on.
We found Odon and the others. Odon, walking behind me on the trail for a minute, noticed that my pant legs were too long for my legs. The extra long, same pants that I wore the entire time on the trail were battle/weather tested. He said I was pounding the path so hard that my legs were shrinking. I told him I had a few feet more to shrink before fulfilling my quest of becoming the first gringo porter on the Inca Trail.
Walking in sight of the camping site for the night, I noticed 2 great things:
1- On the only level portion of land beside the trail, beside the mountain, a group of about 20 porters were playing a game of soccer, goals and all! Not only did they have enough energy to carry a small city’s worth of supplies up and down a mountain with ease, but they had enough power in their legs to run and dance after a goal instead of simply falling head first into their sleeping bags!
2- With each campground set up on a winding path down a hill that overlooked one another, Emily and Maggie were moving along in front of me. I looked up and saw two porters around our age looking down at Maggie and Emily. I saw and heard one of them say, “Mira a las chicas bonitas!” I waited until we were at our tents, a few sites away, and told them what that meant (“Look at those pretty girls!”). Emily and Maggie, much like the porters playing soccer, dropped their bags and started doing their own little dances to celebrate the fact that after 3 days of baby wipe showers and hiking the Inca Trail they were being called pretty by strangers. “We’ll take that!”, they cheered.
Outside of the tents, Cliff, Graham, and I tried to spot out which trail we would be taking the next morning on whatever of the 3 mountains in front of us we pointed at. We were clueless and going with the flow, but I liked what Cliff said from his take on all of the world travelers doing the Inca Trail. He said, “It seems like most people are just doing this trail for bragging rights to tell their friends, eh, but our group is really taking in the experience, eh.” I agreed. I agreed, and then got everyone in our group to write down their email addresses and internet connections so I could share this, pictures, and Emily’s video later.
At dinner, besides the cook making an art sculpture of a bird made from eggplant on rice, Odon and William had all of the porters and cooks introduce themselves to us around the table. It was a tight fit, but the rain made it necessary to do it then and there because the majority of the porters were leaving after dinner to catch the last train back to the beginning of the trail to start the entire cycle over again the next morning with another group. It was another reality slap in our faces again too. The best thing about meeting these people and being able to outwardly show appreciation to the fullest to them for all of their help, and also give them proper tips for their help, we were able to give money to the little kid that was helping our group too. The boy, David, a son of one of the other porters, came on the trip to help dad and see what his dad does. He wasn’t on salary, but we were able to give him a monetary tip to show that his help was not unnoticed. We got our orders to go to sleep so we’d be ready at 3:30 am for the wake-up call and final stretch to Machu Picchu. Nobody objected.
Speaking of nobody objecting, one of the head porters, before we all left the tent, brought in an artistic, hand-made tablecloth that he had made himself back at his village to see if anyone of us wanted to buy it. Doshi bought it without even hearing the description of the colors dyed from vegetables and other cool facts. It probably didn’t hurt that Maggie elbowed him at that time, but it was a pretty cool moment- especially when Doshi made the comment that he didn’t even ask how much or know what he was buying at the moment of purchase.
We moseyed our way back to the tents, calling it a night.