October 1, 2008: The Inca Trail

Day 1: 12 km, altitude gain of 250 m
Day 2: 13 km, altitude gain of 800 m
Day 3: 15 km, altitude loss of 1200 m
Day 4: 6 km, altitude loss of 250 m

02:46 – I wake up, gasping. I take several deep breaths, drawing much needed oxygen into my lungs. Am I having an asthma attack? Why am I gasping for air? I need oxygen! Then I remember where I am – Cusco, Peru, 3310m above sea level. All my life, I have lived close to sea level and I have never really appreciated all the lovely oxygen found at lower altitudes. Now, I am really missing that abundance of life giving O2. Up here, on the Altiplano of the Andes, the air is much thinner and oxygen levels are lower than low altitude dwellers are used to. This can lead to many problems, such as headaches, lethargy, nausea, listlessness and, as I can now attest to, sleeplessness. Just walking down one of the cobbled streets of Cusco has me gasping for air and this has me worried – how on earth am I going to hike the Inca Trail if I can barely make down the street to buy some water?
Joe, my husband, and I flew into Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, over a week before we were due to start the Inca Trail. We knew about the perils of altitude and had worked out a plan to kill two birds with one stone. We would spend a week in Cusco to allow our bodies’ time to acclimatise to the altitude and we would go to Spanish school so that we would be able to communicate our wants and needs to the locals. I am not sure that the plan worked so well for me – my Spanish is, at best, still minimal and I was still suffering from shortness of breath and sleeplessness. On top of that, I managed to pick up some kind of bug a couple of days before we were due to start the trail. This purged my system of all its contents and left me feeling rather weak even before we started the hike. This post is therefore a testament to the strength, endurance, stamina and resilience of the human body rather than all the pretty flowers or the Inca ruins seen on the hike.

Day 1:  12 km, altitude gain of 250 m

No problem there, I can easily manage 250m of elevation gain. We started hiking through the dry and dusty valley running alongside Rio Cusichca, aka the “Happy River”. Well, we were all happy at this point. The trail was flat and the hiking was easy.
Debbie Wheeler (UFV Biology dept.) and husband Joe
alongside Rio Cusichca.

We passed small settlements complete with chickens, dogs and donkeys and hiked alongside prickly pear cactus and other desert flora. Then the trail started to ascend. Our guide kept telling us that it was just a short, slight incline, but I soon learnt not to trust a word he said. OK, so compared to what lay ahead, it was a short, relatively easy incline, but I was still knackered by lunch. And I was starting to get this very uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. No, it wasn’t something that I ate or the effects of altitude. I was worried. The first day was supposed to be the easy day, and I was already struggling. How on earth was I going to get through the second day? Still, after lunch, we ascended further up onto a plateau overlooking the river and enjoyed views of our first Inca ruins – Willkaraqay and Patallacta.
Willkaraqay and Patallacta: Inca ruins.

We then continued on to our first campsite. As I was closing the flaps of our tent, I gazed out at the towering mountains that surrounded us and saw a large, black bird glide effortlessly down the valley. Was it a condor, the majestic bird of the Andes, the ancient messenger of the Incas? It may well have just been a vulture, but I went to sleep with a smile on my face, imagining floating down the valley on the wings of the condor...........
The majestic Andes.

Day 2:  13 km, altitude gain of 800 m

The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, along with the altitude kept me awake most of the night. Today is the day we go “over the top.” If you look at the stats for the day, they really don’t sound so bad, do they? But what they don’t tell you is that there is a ruddy great big peak between the first camp and the second camp and that you have to go over this. It is known as the “Dead Woman’s Pass” and this is not making me feel any better. I am a little concerned that they will soon have to rename it the “Dead Women’s Pass.” It is the highest point on the Inca Trail, topping out at 4215m. Things do not get off to a good start. Joe also has an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Unfortunately, this is due to something he ate, and after about 1 hour of struggling up the trail he has to admit that he is now suffering from full-blown food poisoning and that he cannot continue. After a brief and tearful goodbye, he descended back the way we had come and I continued trudging on up and up, on my own, wondering if I would ever make it. The only thing that kept me amused were the hundreds of butterflies that fluttered and drifted through the trees, catching the light and my eye as they briefly alighted on the path before floating off back into the trees.

As I struggled up the path, I passed a large group of Japanese hikers. This gave me a little hope, since this meant that I was actually not the slowest person hiking the Inca Trail. I trudged on. I passed from the desert of the lower trail, through cloud forest and on up into the alpine zone of the high mountain pass. The pass could be seen, just ahead, but it never seemed to get any closer. It was a matter of just getting one foot in front of the other, climbing up one more set of stairs, getting from one bend in the path to the next. I tried to amuse myself by counting the stairs in Spanish. This was great for getting to around 20, but then I would have to stop and have a rest. Still, even managing only 20 steps at a time, eventually one will reach the top. And I did. Once there, I collapsed, threw up and then admired the view. You see, there are advantages to being one of the slowest hikers on the trail. I looked back down the valley, picked out the trail winding down its side; I could even make out a mixed herd of sheep, mules and llamas down in the valley bottom. But what I couldn’t see were any people. It was as if I were the only person on the trail, the only one admiring the magnificent view. My solitude was complete and I was elated. I had made the top of the pass and I was still alive!
Elated (and very alive) at Dead Woman’s Pass

Now all I had to do was get down the other side. When you are struggling up a hill, you always long for the downhill. However, once you start on that steep, never ending set of stairs leading down into the next valley, you almost wish for some uphill again. Note, I said almost! As I was making my weary way down, I met a porter coming back up the trail. He had a kettle and mugs and we sat down to enjoy a cup of mate de coca, a tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. This is all very legal in Peru, as long as you are just making tea and not trying to make or export anything else! It is said to help with altitude sickness and settle the stomach and it was one of the few things that I could keep down on the whole of the Inca trail. The porter then took my backpack and we descended that last few hundred metres into the camp. I fell into my tent and was asleep within minutes.

Day 3:  15 km, altitude loss of 1200 m 

This is the day that I stopped listening to the guide completely. I had done the high pass, it was all downhill from here, right? Look at the stats for the day, an elevation loss of more than 1000m. Yes, we had further to go, but the trail was all level or downhill, right? As the dawn broke and I looked down the valley, I could see a trail winding off up the side of the valley. Yes, that is right, up the valley. Well, obviously that wasn’t our trial, was it? We were heading down today, weren’t we? Well, apparently, not yet. First we had to ascend and conquer a second pass, nearly as high as Dead Woman’s Pass. As I was ascending this pass, I did briefly consider naming it “Dead Guide’s Pass”, but he was ahead of me and I was never going to catch him up and then have the energy left to kill him. So, I trudged on and up once again, finally reaching the pass at 3950m. Surely it must all be downhill from here? Well, apparently not, since the Incas seem to have a hard time building a level trail. Oh yes, they were great at building steps and staircases, going up and downhill, but there is very little flat Inca trail. According to Wikipedia, at one point the trail descends approximately 1000m, with one irregular staircase of 1300-1500 steps. Now, since I can only count to 20 in Spanish, I shall have to take their word for it, although it did seem like a lot more steps to me! As we descended the second pass, we entered cloud forest once again, and, despite the fact that I spent most of my time looking at my feet, I did look up enough to see the unique vegetation that is found at these altitudes. There were trees dripping with mosses and lichens, adorned with bromeliads and ferns. There were tree ferns and cycads and many colourful, intricate and delicate orchids.

Trees dripping with mosses and lichens,
adorned with bromeliads and ferns

And out of this misty, magical forest would loom Inca ruins that had been enshrouded in the clouds and vegetation for centuries before being rediscovered and revealed. I just wish that I had been a little less tired and had a bit more time to stop and explore this wonderful ecosystem, its flora, fauna and history. But, I had 15km to cover before dark and I had to keep moving........ 

Inca ruins

Day 4:  6 km, altitude loss of 250 m

The last day of hiking, the day I have looked forward to for a long, long time. It is the day we reach Intipunco – The Sun Gate – and I gaze down onto the greatest Inca ruins discovered, the Lost City of Machu Picchu. At least, that is how I always imagined it. However, the reality was quite different from my mental image. We were up at four, at the last checkpoint at five, where we had to wait in line with all the other eager trekkers to pass through the check point. It was then a forced march to the Sun Gate, with the goal of getting there just at sunrise, before all the tourists heading up to the site via bus, without shedding a bead of sweat or working a single muscle. Something is not right there........Luckily, the trail at this point was actually quite flat, and so I kept up with the pace for the most part. There were a couple of very nasty, very steep staircases to climb, but they were fairly short and I only needed a couple of breaks. One was to take a photo of one of the showiest orchids along the trail. What was most amazing about this orchid was not its size or its colour, but its abundance along the trail and around Machu Picchu. You could hardly miss these beauties! As we drew nearer the Sun Gate, my heart began to sink, We had been lucky with the weather up to this point, but now the clouds were drawing in and, no matter how much I told myself it was just heavy mist, I could no longer deny that fact that it was starting to rain.

As passed through the Sun Gate, I shed a little tear. All that work, all that pain and for what? A sheer expanse of whiteness, of nothingness. A man standing next to me stated that “It is the journey, not the destination that matters.” This bought about two reactions from me. One was to shed another tear, since I knew that that was exactly what my husband would have said had he been there with me. The other reaction was a little more extreme. I wanted to reach into the man’s throat and rip out his entire intestinal tract and then strangle him with it. After resisting this urge, I picked up my pack and wended my very weary way down the stone path and into the heart of Machu Picchu. There was only one thing that was going to lift my spirits now and put a smile on my face. I have never been so happy to see that balding spot on the back of my husband’s head. I picked up as much speed as I could muster down those last few steps and threw myself at him. “I made it, honey, I made it!”

At this point, I really did not care about how Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu or why it was abandoned so many years ago. My body had pulled through and had achieved what it needed to, on very little sleep and even less food and now it was done. All I wanted to do was to lie down and never look at another step or staircase in my life, even if that meant moving to the Netherlands and living in a bungalow. Shame we were on the second floor of the hotel........aarrgghhhh.
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