Saturday, October 18, 2008

Walking the Inca Trail

DAY ONE – Piscacucho to Huayllabamba

It is easy enough to write about walking the Inca Trail. Actually doing it proved to be a hard, if ultimately satisfying, endeavor.

After much soul-searching and online reading, I booked myself on a four-day Inca trek with an outfit in Peru called Puma Adventures. What would have been an unthinkably difficult task ten or twenty years ago needed only a few minutes on the Internet. I booked and paid for my Inca Trail entry permit and my entire hotel, travel, and trek reservations completely online.

On the 8th of January 2008, I bade good-bye to the M/V Pacific Princess in Callao, the port of Lima, and flew to Cuzco on a TACA plane. I spent four days acclimatizing myself to the high altitude (Cuzco was 3400 meters above sea level). On the fourth day, Delsie, one of the trek guides, fetched me at six in the morning from Samay Wasi (Place of Refuge), the hostel where I was staying. She led me to a bus parked at Cuzco’s main square, Plaza de Armas. Other trekkers were already in the bus, catching up on sleep. After picking up our porters, the bus drove us to the Sacred Valley and stopped briefly at Ollantaytambo. I was familiar with Ollantaytambo, having visited its impressive stronghold two days earlier. It was the site of the last stand by the Incas, who were led by a chief called Ollanta, against Pizarro. The bus then followed a glorified dirt road that ran along the Urubamba River until we reached a booth that guarded the Inca Trail park entrance. The place where the trail started was called Piscacucho (Highway 88). Park officials manned the booth. You cannot enter the trail if you did not reserve and pay for a permit to hike on this particular day. I went in the low season (rainy January), so I was able to book with barely two weeks notice. To walk in the summer, the high season, you would have to secure your hiking permit months in advance. After the formalities, we crossed over to the trailhead via a hanging bridge made of steel. This was a modern replacement of the Inca original that was woven from vines. Now it would have been exciting to cross that old rickety bridge!

It was late morning. The sun shone hot and brilliant

Until this trip, I used to believe that there was only one Inca trail. Actually there were many trails that the Inca used over the centuries. These trails ran not just the length of Peru, but all over the kingdom inhabited and ruled by the Incas, which included parts of modern-day Ecuador and Colombia. The most famous trail, designated a Unesco site, is the one that connects Cuzco and various Inca settlements in the Sacred Valley to the city of Macchu Picchu. This is the trail that Hiram Bingham uncovered during his years of exploration and excavation in the Andes. This is the famous Inca Trail.

Don't be fooled by the smile: I was dreading walking up that steep trail!
The trail is not a continuously paved highway. At its most basic it is a mere hiking path that follows the contours of mountain ridges, saddles and gullies. Parts of it are just earth and gravel. At some points, steps were cut into mountainsides and paved with stone. Where necessary, it was carved out directly from the sides of granite cliffs, and in one instance, from a cave. Sometimes it followed the beds of streams or waterfalls. Near settlements, the Incas built retaining walls to prevent erosion. In some sections of the trail, the steps are so steep that the only practicable way to reach the top is to crawl up like a spider. It is suitable only for foot traffic. Surprisingly, the Incas managed to keep the existence of this trail a secret to the Spaniards. At any rate, the trail, which is well maintained today, would have been well hidden then by jungle vegetation.

It is roughly 45 kilometers from the start of the trail in Piscacucho to Macchu Picchu. It might not seem such a long distance, but factor in the precipitous, oftentimes dangerous, terrain and the thin air in the high altitudes, and the three and a half days given to traverse it is about as reasonable and charitable as they get.

A note about my companions: there were four young French-Argentinian students (a boy and three girls) , three American men sporting jaded, a.k.a. been-there-done-that, looks, three Danes who said they were factory workers, a Brazilian family of four who spoke no English and me. All in all we were fifteen trekkers, not counting our two guides. The porters numbered nine or so.

     It soon became evident that I did not have the strength to keep up with the rest of the trekkers. Delsie, our comely guide, brought up the rear and kept me company as I panted up steep inclines. The guidebook described this half-day’s walk as easy. For me, it was anything but. After much huffing and puffing I managed to catch up with the rest of the gang as Ronnie was starting to explain the picturesque ruins of Llactapata in the valley below.

     We were on top of a grassy plateau, surrounded by mountains. I was expecting Julie Andrews to come swirling out on the meadow à la “The Sound of Music”. On the valley floor the ruins of stone houses and terraces spread out amidst green fields. They glowed pale gold in the afternoon sun. White specks that moved from time to time turned out to be grazing llamas. The Urubamba River wound round the flanks of the mountains. I once thought that another river, the Vilcanota, flowed in this valley. Actually, the Urubamba and the Vilcanota were one and the same river. I couldn’t work out exactly why or where the names changed. In the far distance, the train that brought tourists to and from Aguas Calientes, the modern town at the base of Macchu Picchu, momentarily chugged into view and then disappeared behind trees, its plaintive whistle echoing through the valley. Most tourists took the train, a ride of just a few hours. The more adventurous, and that included me, took the long, four-day hike.

The view of Llactapata was well worth the climb. It would have been nice to go down and explore the site a bit, but we were too high up the mountain and our timetable did not allow for deviations from our route. In any other country Llactapata would have been a prime tourist attraction. Here, it was only a minor archaeological site, the first among the several splendid ruins awaiting us. The hard climb to the plateau was also a warning of the rigors of the trail ahead.

Early on, Ronnie, the chief guide, observing the difficulty with which I negotiated this relatively easy section of the trail, started hinting that I might be better off turning back and taking the train instead to Macchu Picchu. Giving up the trail was no big deal, he said. People do it all the time.

     People unsure of their stamina. People daunted by their dreams. Foolish fat people who should have stayed at home watching television, living sedentary lives.
     I had already made it past the first ruin. I had already spent a good amount of money preparing for this walk. I was tantalized by accounts of other Inca sites that were accessible only to those who hiked the trail. Above all, I visualized gazing down from the vantage point of Inti Punku, the Gate of Sun, at the fabled city of Macchu Picchu just as the morning sun was touching it. It was a vision too seductive to resist. I told my guides I’ll take everything one day at a time. I was not ready to surrender just yet.

     And so I continued on the trail with Delsie, the rest of the pack having gone well ahead of me. I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed at being left behind.

“If I rushed and tried to keep up with the others,” I told Delsie,” I will die.”

She agreed with me.

So it was one step at a time. Every few steps or so, I’d stop to rest and re-compose myself. The air was thin, my lungs gasped for precious oxygen, the trail went up and down, and sometimes just remained up for minutes on end. But I paced my breathing. I would express profuse apologies to Delsie for my slowness, and, then, having recovered my breath, press on.

I recited mantras to keep myself motivated.

Poco a poco se va lejos. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The first step you take is the first step to a hundred miles. Ooooooooommmmmmmmm….

I fell into a kind of rhythm. I inhaled when bringing up one foot and exhaled when putting down the other. In and out, up and down, right and left.

I guess I was bent on denying the limitations of my physique. I told myself over and over again that this was not a competition between the others and me, but between the passive me and the active me. It was a contest between my yin and yang.

Besides, something else helped me regain my vigor whenever I faltered.

My team leaders had advised me to drink lots of water and chew coca leaves. Local Indians chewed these leaves to deaden the pain of hunger and the aches of fatigue. You can buy them repacked in plastic sachets from any convenience store in Cuzco.

I did as I was told. The effects were instantaneous and unmistakable. Every time I chewed a batch of coca leaves and absorbed the juice, my lungs revived, my circulatory system acquired a new expansiveness and my limbs became temporarily inured to pain. On hindsight, I now realize that I couldn’t have finished the trail without those masticated coca leaves. On the other hand, months later I would lose a molar because the acid from those same leaves had eaten into my tooth, necessitating its extraction. But this was all in the future.

The coca plant is an integral part of the culture of the Andean peoples. Dried coca leaves are used for brewing a tea called maté. Maté tastes like green tea with an undertone of guava and an aftertaste of seaweed. It sounds vile, but it is actually quite relaxing and refreshing. Drunk and chewed, coca is not addictive or illegal. The type of coca that the law has a problem with is the infamous extract called cocaine. Cocaine is produced by the introduction of an alkaloid substance such as acetone into quantities of leaves mashed and fermenting in vats (presumably in the jungle and guarded by gun-toting guerillas). I was told that chewing coca with a carbon substance, such as wood ash, can produce the same effects as ingesting cocaine. I never tried this combination.

I continued to walk on, by degrees, by steps.

The fleet-footed Indian porters cheered me on as they passed me by with their immense loads. I took no offense when, from to time, I’d hear the word “Gordo” thrown at me cheerfully, without meanness. They kept encouraging me to hurry on (“Vamos! Vamos!”). I sensed that I had become a kind of mascot to them, the ONE WHO IS ALWAYS LAST IN THE PACK.

I must say a word about the Quechua porters. Descendants of the Inca, they are an astonishing people. Their stamina is phenomenal They carried loads (tents, chairs, pots, pans, food, gas, everything) up and down the trail at full stride. On the trail everyone else must stand aside to let them pass. They had to set up tents and prepare meals before everybody else arrived in the camp. Most of them were farmers from various parts of Peru who took up portering to supplement, or even supplant, their income from agriculture. They were friendly and cheerful and, because they spoke the Quechua language, virtually incomprehensible.

I caught up with my companions as our party paused for tea.

The porters set up a tent at the base of a cliff beneath a rocky overhang. Tiny crimson orchids sprang from clefts in the rocks. The Peruvians call this orchid “winaywayna”, meaning “Forever Young”. I recognized it as the familiar epidendrum. There were also trumpet-like flowers called qantuta, Peru’s national flower. Trees sported beards of light, silvery moss. Wild ginger, birds-of-paradise and heliconia thrust up from between swordlike leaves. White narcissi lined the road. I heard parrots. A clear, fast-running brook ran nearby. Huge, weathered rocks the size of cars reared up around the campground.

We drank maté and ate pancakes. The chef wore a government-mandated apron and hat to indicate that he was a licensed cook. Times past the porters received a pittance and were left to fend for themselves. No more. The porters received a required minimum daily fee and had their own tent. It was still hard work for them, and I didn’t think they were getting a lot of money for their efforts.

After tea, the porters took down the tent and the trek resumed. Ronnie said that we had to be in the first campsite at five because darkness came early in the mountains. This campsite’s name was Huayllabamba - Quechua for Place of Good Pasture. He was still hoping that I wouldn’t continue with the trek. I smiled and said nothing.

It was six when I made it to Huayllabamba. There was still light enough to see the ground. Wood smoke curled up from other camps and from the huts of the Indians who lived on the fringes of the park. Ours was the furthest up the mountainside, nearest the head of the trail for the second day’s journey.

A light rain started to fall. We were in a narrow valley. Gloom had already enveloped this valley, but light from a hidden sunset lingered in the sky behind dark mountains, the same mountains that we would have to scale the next day.

That night, in the mess tent, we had beer and poached trout and listened to Andean music from my ipod. We swapped tales by gas lamp. There was laughter and the occasional awkward silence. We were strangers forced into familiarity in a tent, and to the end we would remain so.

I talked with the Danes. They seemed to be in their late twenties. They were lean and fit and looked like members of a Jacques Costeau scuba-diving team. They said they were factory workers from Denmark. After the Inca trail, they were going to Ecuador and stay for a week with an Indian tribe in the Amazon. Nice country, Denmark, that can enable factory workers to take off, do the Inca trail and live among primitive tribesmen.

The Argentinean students preferred to talk among themselves, in French. They were somewhat snobbish, but then, they were young and had the world at their feet. One girl, Clementine, looked like a very young Sandrine Bonaire. Another, Leslie, was serious-looking and had just completed a working jaunt around Australia and New Zealand. She had flown in directly to Cuzco and joined us without a day or two to adjust to the altitude. The one guy in the group, Andrew, studied jazz and played the saxophone. The third girl, Ines, hung around with him most of the time. I learned that, actually, they finished school in Paris, and were now sojourning in Argentina courtesy of a French government grant. They used Argentine passports. Their surnames indicated they were of Middle-Eastern extraction. Go figure.

The Americans let out that they had been trekking in South America, and so were well conditioned for the trail. One was from San Diego, but that was all I got from him. They were living in an impenetrable comfort zone of their own, friendly but standoffish.

I couldn’t make much headway with the Brazilians who neither spoke nor understood English, worse than the Quechua. But they lighted up when I started singing snippets of Brazilian songs (Girl from Ipanema, etc) and played them on the ipod. I thought they said they were from Minas Gerais.

My guides still had their doubts about me. Ronnie told me next day’s climb was very difficult, and continued pressing me to consider giving up the trail. I told him I’ll decide the next morning.

A mist had drifted up the mountainside, obscuring the stars.

I had my own tent, and as I lapsed into a fitful sleep, my limbs uncoiling from a fatiguing day, a heavy rain fell.


Warmiwanusca or Dead Woman's Pass: the hardest climb of all!
I woke up to the tattoo of raindrops against the roof of my tent. I heard the three American guys giggling in the tent next to me. I had been snoring the whole night, and I must have kept them awake, despite the rain. There was nothing I could do about it.

A drab, cloudy dawn greeted us. The rain had slowed to a steady drizzle and then stopped altogether. I went to join the slowly assembling trekkers in the breakfast hut. We had eggs, porridge, coffee and of course, maté.

Trekkers from other groups were starting to ascend the trail past our camp. There was another control gate that we had to pass through. In a way, this was the real beginning of the trail.

I sat beside the three Danish factory workers and told them I had doubts about proceeding with the trek. One guy remarked:” Didn’t you say your dream was to walk the Inca trail?”

I pondered this question and made up my mind.

I went up to my guides and told them I was continuing with the trek. I knew that they had hoped that I wouldn’t go, but having gone this far, I asked myself why I shouldn’t go through with the whole thing. I had already spent a lot of money preparing for the trek. I had told friends and family I was going. It would be bad form, a loss of face, and most of all, a betrayal of my life’s dream, to have to turn back for no good reason than that I was scared off by discouraging comments. It was Macchu Picchu, then, or bust. Ronnie had to accede to my wish, and assigned Delsie to accompany me.

Everyone who has walked it talked or wrote about THE SECOND DAY OF THE TRAIL as if they’ve met God or experienced something spectacularly arduous. The internet is full of accounts of the hardships posed even to the fittest walker by this segment of the trail. I was soon to find out that these reports were not exaggerated.

From seven in the morning till one in the afternoon, I walked as I had never walked before in my life– upwards, constantly. At first the trail was just a dirt road but pretty soon, rocky steps started to appear, and always in the up direction. Except for a brief stopover at a camp, we had to follow this ever ascending, seemingly endless, road. To compound the difficulty, such stones as were laid out on the trail were rough, oftentimes slippery and hard on the feet.

Today’s goal was to reach the ominously named Dead Woman’s Pass (Warmiwañusca) at roughly noontime, and thence down to the next camp by five in the afternoon.

Why was this section of the trail difficult to negotiate?

Many of the trekkers were young and strong so they had no problems going up the trail. But some of them did eventually turn back because they were defeated, not by the trail itself, but the lack of oxygen that attacks anybody, however lithe he was, who tackles the trail without pacing himself. The air became thinner as the climb progressed to roughly 13,000 feet. Acclimatizing to the changing atmosphere was even more important than making it to some destination on schedule. Disrespect the heights, and your middle name could be soróche– high altitude sickness. Symptoms of soróche included blurred vision, a racing heartbeat, splitting headaches, nausea, vomiting, and unconsciousness. Death was an ever-present possibility. Ronnie had intimated direly that the team carried just a little oxygen in case anybody got sick. He was actually concerned for me.

Although I did get a minor bout of altitude sickness back on my first day in Cuzco, here in the even higher altitudes of the Andes, I never experienced soróche. The wisdom of spending a few days in Cuzco before tackling the trail finally became evident.

The trick was to take it easy, to let the body adapt to the changing altitude slowly, surely, without strain or overexertion. I muttered words of encouragement to myself.

Just take it nice and easy/ Relax and don’t you worry….
Let your mind rule over matter.
Choose caution over recklessness, patience over impulsiveness.
Look around at your surroundings and rejoice.
Give thanks for being alive and hiking in the Andes mountains.
Life is good.
God is good.

I stopped to look at the transcendent scenery around me. I drank in every snowy peak, followed every fog-bound mountainside, tried to identify every flower and lichen, and listened to the soughing of the wind and the melodious rush of clear, mountain water. I remarked on the strange, contorted red limbs of trees that grew only in these mountains, and felt the coolness of the forest as it became more dense and mossy. Catching on, Delsie started pointing out flowers, insects, the occasional hummingbird and those eagle-like birds, the caracara. I put on my ipod, opting for Mahler, because like this trail, his symphonies went on forever. The music eventually proved distracting. I needed to concentrate on my breathing and pay attention to my heartbeat. I lent my ipod to Delsie.

Taking a (very) short break
The path opened up to reveal open space. A rest break in another “Sound of Music” locale.

I met several Quechua women who were selling water in this rest area and were starting to pack up thinking there were no longer any trekkers. One of the women saw me take a quick picture of them and addressed me, saying “Propina, propina.” I bought a bottle of water and another one of Gatorade from her, but gave her no tip for the picture.

Delsie and I sat on the grass. We drank water and shared a bar of Toblerone. A clear brook ran through the meadow where we were resting. A little off to one side was a thatched-roofed hut. Nobody was in it at the moment. It was a shelter for people who opted to stay here for the night. Delsie informed me that our batch of trekkers were the last to be allowed to walk the trail before it was closed for maintenance in February.
Delsie, my guide and chaperone. She had legs of steel!

About Delsie: Delsie’s petite frame hid a stamina that had allowed her to walk this trail in two days’ time with some vigorous American hikers. When I told her I worked on a cruise-ship, she expressed a fancy to work on one. Ship’s agencies were based in Lima. She lived in Cuzco. Possible, but difficult. It seemed unthinkable that she would give up the splendors of the Andes for the close quarters of a sailing ship. Others gave up city lives in exchange for these magnificent views. Still, I understood Delsie. Walking the Inca Trail can seem like heaven to tourists, but guides have to go home to towns and cities, pay the rent, buy food, live a normal working life. They do not live in the picturesque but inhospitable heights of the Andes. There is nothing here but wilderness and ghost cities of stone.

Save for the guides, porters and those who lived in this area, I saw no other Peruvians doing the trail, certainly not in my team. For a European or American, the basic fee of $300 to $400 for a fully provisioned four-day trek, porters, transportation and all, may seem ridiculously cheap. To a Peruvian, it was expensive. In fact I heard that the number of Latin Americans doing the trail had dropped dramatically since the increase in fees. Still, that scene in “The Bicycle Diaries” of Chè Guevara visiting Macchu Picchu could have done nothing but stoke the wanderlust of his fellow Argentinians, who were here in droves.

A studious-looking young man ambled up to us. I had noticed him back in the trail. He had talked briefly with Delsie back then. His name was Ivan. He was a guide and was waiting for a couple of Argentinian stragglers. One person had turned back and two others were on their way, he said. It was hard going for those trekkers and he didn’t know if they could make it up the pass. This was the first time I learned that there were still people struggling up the trail! I felt good about myself just then. I thoroughly empathized with my fellow slowpokes.

From where we sat Delsie pointed out the route up Dead Woman’s Pass.

The series of peaks above the pass bore the profile of a reclining woman with large pointy breasts. She also had the nose of an Inca.

Later Ronnie told us a lurid tale that he said may be the actual origin of the pass’s macabre name.

      Many years ago, back in the 60’s, a band of trekkers from Australia (or UK)
     came up on the trail. They camped on the promontory that is now
     called Dead Woman’s Pass. A quarrel broke out between a girl and
     her boyfriend. Reportedly she was flirting with another guy. In a fit
     of rage and jealousy, the boyfriend stabbed the girl to death.

Did it really happen? Did this pass get its name after the incident, or was it always named so? Not even Ronnie could tell us for sure. But, as always, there had to be some truth to this tale. An Inca Trail legend, among many others in this dramatic land.

And the trail went on, steeper, more unforgiving.

I could see the Pass, the partial end of this leg of the journey. The way up looked – was - discouragingly steep, daunting even. For me, there was no turning back.

On the way up, I noticed the vegetation change suddenly from the lush greenery of the lower slopes, with its red-limbed trees and mossy undergrowths, to pampas grass and curious succulents springing out of tall stalks. The mountainsides sprang steeper, rockier, more wind blasted. In Alaska, this would be Dall sheep country. I could easily picture bear denning down in caves on distant rocky outcrops. Indeed a rare, indigenous bear lived in these parts, the spectacled bear. I had not heard of any trekker who has seen this bear, much less its spectacles, so my chances of encountering it were absolutely nil.

Off to the side of the mountain flanking the trail, I sensed movement, heard voices among the grass. Somewhere down below, there were people there, a man, a woman, I guessed. Delsie told me they worked for the park service, studying plants. Maybe picking up trash.

Delsie said she was going ahead of me up to the pass and was going to wait for me there.

I progressed slowly behind her, eyes following her red sweater up the trail till it rounded a bend and was lost from view.

Plants and brushes here were short, stunted, clung to the ground. Blue forget-me-nots peeped from mosses. White amaryllis and blue lupine. Alpine flowers.

I caught the sound of hooves tramping down the trail. I saw them as they came down from the top of the pass: llamas! I pressed myself back into the mountainside.

One after the other they stamped down, halting briefly in alarm when they saw me by the side of the trail. They regarded me silently, watchfully from the corner of their doe-like eyes. They were larger, healthier, had creamier fur than the sorry ones I saw being led around in Cuzco by Indian women. I did not know if they were wild or domesticated. I like to think they were wild. A couple of gallops, a flurry of dust, and they were gone.

The last few meters up the pass were the hardest and steepest part of this climb. In the end it was sheer willpower that enabled me to haul myself off the last step onto the top. I knew then that having attained this height I would make it to Macchu Picchu. Delsie and Ivan congratulated me. The hardest part of the trek was over. Or so I thought.
The marker says: 4215 meters (13000+ feet) above sea level!

Posing with Delsie

A porter had been sent by Ronnie to bring us mate and bread. I saw the Argentinian stragglers inching painfully up the pass. We did not wait for them to make it up, but continued walking down the other side of the pass because a mist had settled in and there was still a long way to go. The fog hid the peak of Salkantay. However I could see the glacier on the mountain opposite me. The mountain was called Veronica’s Peak.

Going down the other side of the mountain brought a new kind of pain to completely different parts of my body. Where the ascent belabored my calves and hamstrings, the descent tortured my hamstrings, knees and pelvis! The entire trail down the mountainside was paved with roughly chipped stones, testimony to the industry of the Incas. The steps were hard, uneven and irregular in height. Each step had to be dealt with in its own way. At the beginning of this journey, we were advised to bring along a walking stick. Now I knew the reason why. Without a stick to support you and give you purchase as you negotiated your way down, you could lose your balance and fall down. Oftentimes, the best strategy was to walk down sideways. Although the descent and the thickening air were proving easier on my lungs, my knees seemed constantly in danger of popping out of their joints and my hips to shatter with every jolt down the steps.

I met a Quechua porter wearing a yellow shirt.

He was carrying a plastic bag.

He stopped beside a large rocky outcropping.

“Hola!” I hailed him.

“Hola!” he replied.

“Que tienes?”


“Para mi?” I asked.

“Si,” he said, with a hint of uncertainty.

He neither spoke nor understood any English, and his Spanish was severely limited, but the sign language for food was universal.

So Ronnie had sent me more food. How thoughtful of him! Thank you, Ronnie.

As I was about to dive into whatever he had in his goody bag, started asking me about something. He wanted to know what my trek outfit was.

“Puma,” I said. “Puma”.

“No, no!” he blurted, merrily snatching the bag away from me. Turned out he was from another group and he had been sent to bring food not to me, but to others who hadn’t made it up to the pass yet, the Brazilians.

My stomach growled in disappointment as the porter hurried up the pass with his goodies.

Delsie, who lagged behind me, stopped walking.

She excitedly pointed at something up the mountainside.

A thought flitted across my mind. A spectacled bear?

I looked up and saw nothing.

"Venado!" she exclaimed. Deer. She said they had ambled through the open hillside and then quickly disappeared behind some bushes. She was pointing at the bushes. I stared at the bushes for the longest time.The deer did not re-appear. Time to move on.

We arrived at the second camp at half past six in complete darkness. This camp’s name was Pacaymayu. Here and there camp lights dispelled the gloom. Porters from our team met us. One of them gave me a miner’s hat fitted with a lamp. It cast a good light on the somewhat treacherous path. The camp was situated amidst rushing brooks, a veritable miniature Niagara. When I reached the mess tent, dinner was just being served. My teammates broke into applause. For myself I felt relieved to complete the second day of the Inca Trail without a scratch, without foot blisters and, most importantly, without soròche.


Cowardice and courage are two faces of the same thing and the thing they have in common is fear. Fear of the unknown is the commonest reason why one does not do anything new, whether its seeing new things or exploring new places. Fear of the unknown can be conquered and when curiosity takes its place, courage takes over a person who wants to escape the stifling bond of a mundane, “safe” existence. When one possesses courage, any leap into the unknown becomes an act of self-affirmation. With a single act of the will one has forcefully plucked oneself from the vagueness of ambition to the reality of living now, in the present. From mysterious places in the heart into the mysterious places of the universe, a man can overcome his fears and shout to the world: “I LIVE! I AM ALIVE!”

A porter woke me up at 5 AM and served me tea. I was going to be the first to walk up the trail so that I would not be late for lunch. It was raining. The trek was proving to be unrelenting.

Although the third day’s trail was supposed to be easier than yesterday’s, there was a steep mountainside that needed to be negotiated first.

Above Runkuracay, a tambo or lookout. There's a lot of these all over the Incan Andes.
On the way up, I stopped briefly at the ruins of Runkuracay, a semi-circular tambo, or lookout. From its vantage point you could see down to the camp and across to the surrounding peaks. If anybody ever met an accident here or had to return somehow to Ollantaytambo, he would be in deep trouble. Helicopters found this terrain difficult to fly in because of the mountainous terrain and unpredictable updrafts.

Three quarters up the trail I came upon a shallow lagoon and found a convenient rock whereon to rest my heaving self. Hikers grunted up the narrow path, most of them scarcely pausing to glance at the lagoon. Eventually, the rest of my team passed me by, ever intent on pushing forward. I waved good-bye to them as they disappeared up the trail. Two Germanic looking elderly hikers passed by with their own porters.They must have been in their late 60’s or early 70’s. They vigorously supported themselves on ski poles. I felt a twinge of shame.

Sitting on my rock, I realized that, yet again, I was last in the pack, left behind by everybody else. Or so I thought. Because just then a man and a woman came puffing up and with much moaning and groaning rested on the rock beside me. They were Monica and Juan, from Argentina, and they were fatigued beyond measure, especially Juan who was hyperventilating like crazy. They were the same two persons who lagged behind on the way up the Dead Woman’s Pass. They were in their forties, easily tired like me, and shared my philosophy of taking it easy. They walked and rested when they needed to, like I did. We were thrilled to have found each other. Like souls, like minds, like slackers. When we finally made it up the second pass, we took photographs of each other. We had a good laugh.

We each took our time going down the other side of the mountain.

I was told to expect to see more ruins along the way, and there they were, the two breathtakingly beautiful Inca ruins of Sayaqmarca and Phuyupatamarca.

A set of stone buildings presided over the top of a cliff. An incredibly long, steep series of stone steps led up to it. This was the city of Sayaqmarca. It would have been nice to see the view from up there, but really, at this point of the hike, only the most motivated or a confirmed masochist would consider going up anything resembling a staircase. Anyway, I had already been to the top of the pyramid in Ollantaytambo and the stronghold of Pisac in the Sacred Valley, so I had a good inkling of what awaited me there, if I cared to go up. Below close to the base of the cliff, on more level ground were the remains of a small ruin where trekkers sometimes camped.
Phuyupatamarca, or "City at Cloud Level", the most atmospheric of all the Inca cities along the trail
Further down the trail, about two hours distant, stood terraces, huts and sacred structures that seemed to be dedicated to water. This was the wonderfully named Phuyupatamarca, or “City at Cloud Level ”. The Inca trail in fact followed the contour of one its terraces. Thick jungle surrounded the site and would have probably engulfed it if it wasn’t maintained by the Peruvian park service. As if to confirm the city’s name, a fine mist descended on the city, enveloping it in a gloomy half-light. No wind or bird disturbed the stillness. One sound, though, filtered through the fog: the sound of water rushing and gurgling as it descended from the heights, guided by canals into sacred holding enclosures that the ancients had fitted together from finely hewn stone. I imagined this water cascading down into the Urubamba and thence to the Amazon bearing traces of Inca magic. I felt a prickling in the back of my neck. Some part of me sensed invisible fingers from the past touching me, gently reminding me of the souls who used to live here in this remote corner of the world, who tilled the soil and grew crops on these now-barren terraces, who loved and lived and died among these high peaks. They were a people whose existence would have been forgotten had they not left us these haunting structures.

We crossed a bridge that was fashioned from a single huge, rectangular block of stone barely a foot in width. There were no guardrails. A slip and it was a long fall into the deep ravine below. The sound of water followed us as we left cloud-covered Phuyupatamarka. It seemed to be singing a siren song:

                                     Come back, traveler,
                                     linger awhile,
                                     feel my antiquity
                                    savor my tranquility.
                                    I am Phuyupatamarca,
                                   beloved of the clouds.
                                   I am forever.

In my heart of hearts, I started to wish that Macchu Picchu would be like this city, silent, undisturbed by other footsteps save my own. I knew however that Macchu Picchu would be crowded with all sorts of tourists because it was so easily accessible. This city was not. At this moment, I was grateful to enjoy the silence and solitude of these ruins.

Further on down the trail, I noticed something else in the sound of water that made me stop and listen closely. I signaled to Delsie and Ivan to come over.

“Do you hear it?” I said.

“What?” Delsie asked.

“The water”.

“ What about it?”

“I hear the sound of a stream. It flows, and then stops, and doesn’t resume flowing until after I’ve counted to nine.

They did. They heard it.

After all these years walking the trail, they’d never noticed the phenomenon. They were as intrigued as I was.

“What could be the cause of this thing?” I asked.

They did not know.

We left that place wondering whether the ancients deliberately built their watercourses in a way that produced this effect. Did the interval of nine between resumptions of the flow have any significance? Was it just a fluke of nature? Either way, it added to the city’s aura of mystery.

Again our team had stopped for lunch in a rest area of many brooks and glades and again I made it just as spaghetti was being served. Spaghetti? What could be more civilized than being served a plate of spaghetti in an area where to even lug a casserole, let alone the gas with which to light up a stove, seemed unthinkable. But that was what my Inca trek was, an actual moveable feast where tables, chairs, tents, gas, pots, pans, jugs of water, backpacks, bags of food, cooking oil, cups and plates and cutlery, anything that brought comfort to a group of travelers from all over the world, were bundled, carried, unpacked, set up, bundled up again, re-carried by a group of sturdy hard-working Quechua over a trail that could break the spirit of a lightly-backpacked dilettante, like me. The porters did this every single day of the three and a half day trek. Perhaps they were the greatest wonder of all on this adventure.

The trail that greeted me after lunch was a fairyland of carpet mosses, multi-colored flowering plants, waterfalls, highland bamboos, towering trees with trunks and branches overgrown with lianas and laden with all kinds of bromeliads and orchids. I was now walking through a temperate bamboo forest. Here the trail seemed to look more like a garden path in an ecosystem delightfully lush beyond description. Thousands of feet below the forest would turn into humid Amazonian jungle with lots of poisonous critters, but up here the air was cool, and thankfully, no snakes were in sight. I did see large caracaras flying from one tree to another.

I heard a peculiar birdcall from a bird I could not see. It started from somewhere and then would be answered by some other bird from somewhere else. The strange thing was that the call would be answered in a musical interval of a second. Intrigued, I started answering a birdcall, and would be answered a semitone to a full tone below the one I just made. In time, I was having a jolly conversation with a bird or birds that seemed to be following me down the path.

When I caught up with Delsie and told her what I was doing, she said,”Oh, that sound is not from a bird. It’s from a tiny frog. There are many of them around here, especially after the rain.”

I never did see the frog/s, but I once had a similar experience in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I used to frequent a coffee shop there called the Café Papyrus. In this coffee shop, I heard a strange chirping sound. I looked around the shop. No bird. No cage, either. A recording, I thought. After hearing the same sound every time I visited the coffee shop, I finally asked the girl in charge what it was.

“Oh,” she said,” that’s a tiny frog, a coquì. The coqui lives in that potted plant over there.”

And there it was, clinging to the underside of a leaf, tiny as a thimble, the Puerto Rican coquì with a sound mightier than its size. “Ku-ku-ku-kweeee!”

One feature of the trail that surprises anyone who goes through it is a natural cave on the side of a granite cliff that the Inca engineers had widened into a tunnel. The wall inside the tunnel had an astonishingly fine finish. The Inca workers did the smoothing by hand, using sand, cornmeal, and meteorite stone. The question that must come to anyone who goes through this tunnel is why they took the trouble to buff up the wall. Why not just widen it and be done with it? Did they expect anything, bad or good, to happen to them if they did not do a more artistic job at it? Kingly displeasure or divine retribution?

Then again, consider the Nazca lines. The ancients drew gigantic figures in the Nazca desert that can only be seen from several hundred feet up the sky. Whatever practical purpose they may have had (some suggest they indicated water reservoirs underneath the desert floor, others that they were landing strips for alien spaceships), first and foremost they were probably made as an offering to some celestial being, a sky-living god.

Something like this must have motivated the engineers of this tunnel. A cave with a smoothly carved interior thousands of feet up on a cliff in the Andes would be somewhat incomprehensible, even incredible, for anyone who hasn’t actually passed through it. Yet it is there to see for anyone willing to undergo the foot-smashing, knee-jolting, backbreaking rigors of the Inca Trail.

I managed to arrive in the third camp, a place called Winayhuayna (after the orchid), with little light remaining. This time, nobody broke into applause at my entrance. I had arrived just a few minutes after the three Americans. An accomplishment. But then the Americans had dawdled, had actually gone up to Sayaqmarca and taken plenty of photographs.The lowering darkness prevented me from appreciating the fact that we were in the vicinity of yet another set of ruins, that of the eponymous Winayhuayna, which were reputedly the most exquisite of the lot. All I saw were tents set on steep terraces, rocks and a motel with hot showers! I wanted to take a shower but there was a long waiting line and I was too fatigued to care about personal hygiene. There would be time to bathe tomorrow.This was to be our last night in camp. Tomorrow, we would wake up well before down, at 4:00 AM precisely, in order to reach Inti Punku, the Gate of the Sun, in time to witness the sunrise over Macchu Picchu. Hurray!
Winayhuayna: the ruined city before Macchu Picchu on the Inca Trail that I did not see due to nightfall and exhaustion!

During the night, after a repast of pizza, spaghetti and a delicious soup made from a type of edible lupine (ordinary lupine is toxic), Ronnie introduced the porters to us, and passed the tip hat. Each of us hikers expressed our thanks to the porters for their hard work.

I especially gave thanks to them for their encouraging words to me as I labored up the trail.

“Gracias a todos que me han dicho “Vamos! Vamos!”

They laughed.

Most of them were leaving the next day after breakfast, job accomplished. The rest of us would hike down to Macchu Picchu and take the bus later in the day to Aguas Calientes, and then the train to Ollantaytambo and the final bus to Cuzco.


I woke up, like everybody else, at a quarter to four. It was dark, but stars were visible in the sky. I started the walk completely missing out on the fact that Inca ruins of Winayhuayna lay not too far from our tent.

After a gulp of matè and a bite of pancakes, we were off, gingerly trodding the narrow paths between tents, being careful not to fall off the sides of the high terraces on which the camps were set up.

The other teams were also on their way. Everybody was jostling to be first at the control gate to the Macchu Picchu part of the trail.

After being seen through by the controllo, we filed into the misty forest.
It wasn’t such an easy jaunt, as the literature would have the armchair traveller believe. It was a fairly hard climb, muddy and slippery in the foggy dawn. As usual, everybody else got past me, including Monica and Juan!

Delsie and I arrived at Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, or Gate of Heaven (take your pick) at around seven, well after most every trekker had passed through. Inti Punku was a temple-like enclosure. Roofless, it combined the functions of a grand gateway, a rest stop and a lookout. Like the other stone buildings I had seen so far, it was part of a larger complex of walls and terraces that stretched at no great extent below it.
Inti Punku or Gate of the Sun (Photo courtesy of Panoramio).

When we arrived, it was deserted save for two other hikers, a man and a woman, who sat on a stone ledge, gazing at the foggy valley below. They said they were from Northern California, near San Francisco. They remained behind to see if they could catch a glimpse of Macchu Picchu.

I learned from them that when the teams came up to Intipunku right at about the time the sun rose, a thick fog had covered Macchu Picchu. Not even a rooftop was visible. Disappointed, they all trudged down to the ruins without seeing the city from this magical point of view.

However, I had barely arrived at this lookout when the fog parted, revealing Macchu Picchu, its gray buildings springing from the misty blue landscape like the jutting bones of gigantic prehistoric beasts. I had a minute or two to savor the heart-stopping view before the restless fog rolled in and hid it once again.

I had achieved what I had set out to do. I had seen Macchu Picchu the way the ancient Inca traveler saw her, from Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, a thousand feet up as the condor flies. My vision had come true.

Just before we descended into Macchu Picchu, Delsie told me about an incident on this section of the trail a few years past.

“See those metal railings?”

I saw them. They seemed puny support against the sheer thousand-foot drop of the cliff.

“From that spot an American hiker saw a pretty bird. She was a biologist. She leaned against the rail, which was then made of wood, to gain a closer view of the bird. The rail collapsed from under her. She fell to her death. It took a while to find her body in the valley below. They’ve replaced the railing.”

I kept to the safe side of the mountain all the way down.

A little more than halfway to Macchu Picchu lay the ruins of the so-called Watchman’s Tower. There was no time to give it more than a cursory examination.

Then, before I knew it, I was walking along a terrace in Macchu Picchu.

A serious-looking girl barred us from proceeding any further.

If you are a trekker, you cannot just walk into Macchu Picchu. You had to go down another path and make your way back up to the ruins with the other tourists via the proper park entrance and present your prepaid ticket. Down by the park entrance I saw a hotel and a restaurant. Buses. Tourists. I felt slightly disoriented. I also felt relieved. I had my passport stamped with the logo of Macchu Picchu.
It is not common knowledge, but Macchu Picchu lies at a lower elevation than Cuzco.
While Cuzco lies roughly 11,000 feet above sea level, Macchu Picchu is a mere 9,000 feet. It was warmer here, too, though you still need a sweater and a parka because the weather was unpredictable.
Though the sky was persistently cloudy when I entered it, Macchu Picchu dazzled.
To sum it up, Macchu Picchu was all the other ruins we’d seen along the Inca trail put together, refined, enlarged, expanded, made several times grander and then set in the most spectacular setting imaginable, a narrow saddle between two pyramidal peaks. In fact, no other city has a more sublime and dramatic setting then Macchu Picchu. The Urubamba river was visible below, coiling like a large brown snake between jungle-clad peaks that rose abruptly from the river floor. Dramatic mountain peaks surrounded the city. One had a perfectly pyramidal shape. The terraces here were grander and wider. Temples abounded: the Temple of the Condor, the Temple of Windows, the Temple of the Jaguar, the Temple of the Sun with its famous sundial, the Inti Huana, which was infamously damaged by a TV crew that was shooting a beer commercial. Thankfully, all manner of commercial activity, not to mention helicopter over flights, have been banned here.

Temple of the Condor

With two of my  co-trekkers, Ines and Andrew, both French/Argentinian

The Great Plaza

Another view of the Great Plaza

The llama keep the grass short

Macchu Picchu is built upon solid rock

The Urubamba River. This river ends up in the Amazon!
Looking down from the heights of Macchu Picchu

Entrance to a Temple. Notice the finely-fitted stone walls!


Macchu Picchu

I was told that Macchu Picchu was a royal sanctuary maintained by the Inca rulers of Peru, and that only women were allowed to live in it. Men did the grunt work, building, chiseling, planting crops and the like, but the women maintained –heavenly boudoirs, I’d suppose. The thing about women is true; the boudoir is mere speculation, of course. They did some ceremonies in Macchu Picchu that kept the king in Cusco in the good graces of the Sun God.
With Canadian tourists


El Templo de las Tres Ventanas, or Temple of the Three Windows

I forget what this temple's name was, but it sure looks pretty

Behind me, the Inti Huatana, or Hitching Post to the Sun, the most sacred object in Macchu Picchu

Macchu Picchu.

Lost City of the Incas.

Hiram Bingham spent many years uncovering her splendors. I spent an hour or so trodding her grand lawn, peering into her secret cells, feeling the touch of the divine in her sanctuaries, making eye contact with the resident llamas (yup, they were there, grazing on the lawn), and generally marveling at the incredible engineering skills of the Incas.

I asked Macchu Picchu’s pardon for not examining her every nook and cranny.

For, awestruck as I was by the majesty of Macchu Picchu, I was bone-tired and needed rest.

Four days of trekking had taken their toll on my body.

Before I went down to board the bus to Aguas Calientes, I gave a parting gift to Delsie in lieu of a tip – my 80 gig Ipod. Seeing her delight at the gift was priceless. A few moments later, I saw Ronnie. He wiped back tears – of joy, obviously—on seeing me finish the trail. In not so many words, he told me that I’d taught him and others not to take the trail for granted. What was a routine trip for him was a life-changing adventure for others like me who may never get to do it ever again. I gave him a handsome tip.
With Ronnie, guide #1, who at first tried to dissuade me from continuing with the hike, afraid I might get altitude sickness, or worse. But he eventually came round to my point of view, which was: "I don't care!"

At a restaurant verandah near the park entrance I ordered two chicken sandwiches and a large orange juice. Tourists brought in by buses were milling about on the grounds near the hotel and were starting to crowd the park entrance. I regarded the new arrivals with just a wee bit sense of superiority. They would never know the torment, the rigors, and ultimately the joys that I had just experienced. My mud-spattered boots, my sweaty jacket, my walking stick, my body slumped back on the chair in thankful rest all bore testimony to my four-day slog through rock and mud high up in the Andes.

I had dared to walk the Inca Trail and succeeded.


  1. Excellent article. I will do a similar hike in 7 weeks of the Inca Trail (I hope!), similar because I am not in shape and will be slow as well. Thanks for sharing the experience and the photos!

  2. I'm so happy I stumbled across this! My boyfriend and I are tackling this once in a lifetime trip in May. I can't wait!! Until I read your story, I was scared. Lets be honest, I'm still scared, but I feel better about it now!! Thank you!!