A “Peru Treks” bus picked us up at our hotel very early in the morning, it was dark and the streets of Cusco were quiet. It’s apparently trash day which the local stray dogs have gotten up early for too. They are nosing around garbage bags and a few have been torn open. A garbage man is scooping up loose trash with a broom and dustpan and some of the shop owners are headed for work. We aren’t the first to be picked up but aren’t the last either so we get a little tour of some of the other Cusco hotels in the wee hours. I’m too excited to be sleepy and a bit nervous. We pass by another bus that is advertising that it is “oxygenated” to reduce the altitude symptoms. Come on….you’ve gotta get used to the altitude at some point! Seems to just delay the misery. We’ve been in Cusco almost 5 days and while we aren’t fully acclimated, each day was better than the last.
The bus is loaded – our 16 person group, all of our backpacks and duffel bags plus the guides and several of our chasquis are on board. We make a swing by a local market where the chasquis hop off the bus to purchase some of our fresh food we will be having on the trail. They return with a few very large bags of provisions and we head out of Cusco. The drive is almost 3 hours so a bathroom break is permitted and a hot breakfast gulped – hopefully not everybody gulped theirs too fast, I found a squirming maggot/worm on top of Daniel’s breakfast sandwich as he was almost halfway through eating it…extra protein!? Daniel just took off the top of his sandwich and kept going, the bus was leaving in 10 minutes. Just in case the manager ought to check the rest of his bread stores I presented the wriggling creature and the bread to him and though he spoke no English he was clearly upset, definitely more upset than we were. Daniel assured me he’s gotten enough to eat even though his sandwich was reduced mid-meal and runs to the convenience store downstairs to purchase last-minute coca leaves and I get in line to pay for breakfast. The manager pulls me out of line and through my broken Spanish and hand gestures figure out that he’s waiving our bill and thrusts a bag in my hand before shooing me out the door to catch our bus. I peek inside – two fresh hot egg sandwiches, without extra protein – now we have sandwiches to share!
We eventually get to Ollantaytambo and pull into an area where many busses are dropping off travel groups and our chasqui’s start laying out all our gear on a tarp. After getting our packs on we are given some instructions and a pep-talk from our leader – “Papa Freddy”. We are deemed “family” now and follow “Papa Freddy” like little ducklings to the next gathering point. As we descend some steps and get closer to the Urubamba River we get a glimpse of the rest of our support crew – there are 16 backpackers and 22 support personnel, including the chasqui’s, cooks and guides. The chasqui’s are carrying massive backpacks that must weigh an incredible amount but we are assured that they have weight limits and follow them. If I remember right, their limit was 60 pounds, which is still quite a lot! They are carrying all of our tents plus the dining tent, all the food, utensils and cooking equipment, a duffel bag with 25 pounds of our personal gear (each), their own sleeping mats and provisions plus who knows what else. I’m already in awe, some of these men are wearing regular jeans and sandals! We learn from Papa Freddy that while in English they may be called “porters” or in the Himalayas “sherpa’s”, in Quechua, “chasqui” means “messenger or courier”. This is because the chasqui’s of the Incan Empire were very fit and athletic men who formed a network all throughout the Empire. They could carry a message, either written or verbal, 250 miles in one day! They did this in a relay system similar to how the Pony Express delivered mail in the US – except the Chasqui’s did it on foot. A messenger would run his portion of the route and the next chasqui would see him coming and begin to run alongside him to either memorize the message or take the handoff and continue to the next relay point. While our Chasqui’s weren’t delivering messages, they were in charge of delivering our provisions and effectively delivering us to Machu Picchu. The Chasqui’s role may have changed over time but these men are strong and very hard-working and they have pride in their part of continuing the tradition of travelling the Inca Trail.
We wave at the “lazy people” who are taking the train to Machu Picchu and watch as the last chance to take the easy way to Machu Picchu chugs away. Then, we took our first group photo – which took a while since of course everybody was handing over their cell phone or go-pro or point-and-shoot. We then got our first passport stamp at the official checkpoint and crossed the Urubamba River on a slightly shaky foot bridge. By the time we got to the top of the first little hill I was seriously questioning my life choices. This was the first time I’d carried my pack up any incline in the relative altitude and we were only around 9,000 feet! So much for being “acclimated” in Cusco at 11,000 feet….and too late to start taking Diamox. Suck it up! No turning back allowed! It’s a good thing the train has gone or else I may have been tempted.
Today’s hike is about 7.5 miles and we take several stops to admire the scenery and to get a history lesson at the first ruins on the trail. The Llactapata ruins was an Incan settlement that was essentially a large farm that supplied the Inca with food and also as a station for Incan soldiers to stay. We sat in the grass to listen to Papa Freddy’s history lesson and took our photo’s then continued on our way. This part of the trail isn’t officially the Inca Trail, it’s more hard-packed dirt and people still live in villages along this route so we pass locals on horseback and places where shockingly you can buy Gatorade, soda’s and other snacks. You can also pay to use the toilet if you need to! Papa Freddy stops at a cactus to show us how the Inca used to produce red dye and paints. There is a little bug that lives on some of the cactus that when you crush it, it turns this deep red color. Papa Freddy then took a wisp of straw, mashed these bugs up in his hand and painted our faces and hands with Incan figures. I didn’t like the thought of adding mashed bug guts to my already sweaty face and/or hands, I figured we’d be grimy enough by the end of it so I preferred to just watch the others. By the time we got the designated lunch spot, the chasqui’s had already set up the dining tent, tables and chairs and were nearly ready to serve us a hot meal. We were not only grateful but stunned at the amazing meal that was prepared from a tent! We had some hot tea and got to stretch a little before continuing on to camp.
The farther along we got the more trouble I had, although our total elevation gain was only about 1300 feet, it felt like much much more because of the altitude. Camp was near a village called Wayllabamba, around 9800 feet. I was having doubts about making through the rest of the hike already and wondering if the Diamox I didn’t take would have made a difference. I’d say I was having low-grade altitude sickness with nausea and lethargy but also I think I was dehydrated. It’s hard to keep up water intake when trying to just get in enough oxygen! I think we were the last ones in to camp (blush) that night but not by much and boy was it a wonderful sight to see our tents set up! We chose one next to our friends and laid down to rest for a bit before dinner. After changing into clean clothes, we began to really mingle with the others in the group and started to get to know each other better. The camaraderie continued through (a spectacular) dinner and since we were all basically sitting hip to hip, and knee to knee and the meals were served “family style” as in – large plates of food passed around to take helpings off of, I really started feeling like we were a kind of family.
It’s amazing how quickly I became grateful for little pleasures. The hot tea after dinner, the sunset from our tent overlooking a snow-capped mountain and the chance to close my eyes…it will be morning before we know it!