There is nothing quite so headclearing as four days of hard slogging through tranquil wilderness. The Inca Trail is a busy trail, far from remote, worn smooth by tens of thousands of boots a year, yes; but that doesn't detract even a little from its beauty. Am I glad I walked it. (For values of "I" that do not currently include my calf or quadricep muscles.)
DAY ONE. Stride up trail, manfully proud of carrying my own 12kg/25lb pack. Magnanimously make way for our stream of 18 sandal-clad porters, the largest of whom is six inches and forty pounds smaller than I, each weighed down by roughly 40 lbs each of food, water, tents, fuel, chairs, tools, pots, pans, plates, cups, etc etc.
A glorious day, surrounded by raw wilderness, as I desired, entirely untrammeled by civilization, making our way on foot down the magical Inca Trail, like the Incas themselves, as it should be! The rest of the world should throw down their shackles of cars and fixed-wall buildings.
Sampled coca leaves, which the porters chew. Results in a strange numbing feeling, not terribly appealing. Does take the edge off the uphills though, and only one sole a bag.
DAY TWO. A difficult day. First I scalded my fingers on one of the metal cups of mint tea the porters bring us in our sleeping bags to aid the waking process. Then, at dinner, had no dessert spoon. Ruggedly ate my chocolate pudding with a fork. After all, we're roughing it.
No TV in camp; will make suggestion to tour company. Perhaps two more porters, one with dish, one with television? Also, along with erecting our tents for us, cooking our food, carrying almost of our gear, bringing us tea in bed, etc., perhaps they could lay out our mattresses and sleeping bags, rather than forcing us to do so ourselves.
Coca leaves very useful in dulling ache from legs. Porter I am buying from has raised prices to nine soles a bag, explaining we are further from coca growing region. Still reasonably priced.
DAY THREE. Still not there yet. The road goes ever on. Does it bloody ever. Am sick of mint tea and my request for cappucino instead was met by unforgivable bemusement. Sole silver lining is my newly acquired taste for coca leaves. In fact, have decided to give up on food and chew coca instead. Pedro now charging eighty-one soles per bag but better that than the constant suffering of endless up-and-down trudgery.
Is now apparent that the Inca Empire fell for good reason. There is nothing here but rocks and trees and an infinity of steep leg-chewing hills. Prospect of another day unbearable. Oh, coca, sweet coca, only you can dull the pain.
I'm kidding, I'm kidding. The trail was magical, it really was. And it was a challenging hike. But it was not exactly a raw wilderness adventure. Nowadays you're required to go in a group with a guide, annoying but convenient. Most of me deplored, deplored! being waited on hand and foot by the 18 porters to the extent that pretty much all we had to do was walk. But part of me...um...didn't.
It is fifty horizontal kilometres, probably five vertical, from the trailhead to Macchu Picchu, three days of walking. (OK, so I have friends - paging MC Brown - who would do the whole thing at a dead run.) In that relatively short span you go from relatively sparse farmland and eucalyptus forest to full-on high jungle, hydrated not by rain but by clouds themselves.
The whole trail, start to finish, is fantabulously gorgeous. Day One, six hours of relatively easy walking, parallels the gorge of the raging Rio Urubamba (which eventually becomes the Amazon) on a trail clogged by mules and porters and local children on their three-hour walk back home from school, between enormous rocky ridges backdropped by snowcapped mountains, past little villages and a rebuilt Inca city, up slopes carved by burbling streams and terraced into cornfields.
Day Two kicks off with a pair of steep 500-metre climbs (actually, a 1000-metre climb divided into two by lunch in a llama-patrolled field) through cloudforest and past the treeline to Dead Woman's Pass, 4200m/14000ft high. Fuelled by coca leaves1, Snickers bars, and Audioslave, I soared nonstop up both of those. (My pack really wasn't heavy relative to my weight, and I've done a reasonable amount of higher-altitude trekking before) The views were astonishing; looking down, the trail we had just taken seemed to disappear into an enormous jagged wall of rock that swallowed half the sky, and the trail yet to come led down into a cloud-draped valley. A thousand feet down, in the saddle between two passes, we camped amid the cloud, romantic but also damply bone-chillingly cold. Sometimes the cloud retreated, and we could see all the way to the high snow-smeared peaks of the Andes, and Inca ruins perched above us. Once a new cloud rushed in, turned most of the world white, then lost momentum and fell back downslope, all within five minutes.
Day Three, past the stony (and largely rebuilt) ruins of Inca communications and religious centres, through rocky tunnels carved six hundred years ago, along the top of a ridge with an astonishing Tolkienesque panoramic view of white peaks above brown rock above furrowed folded green jungly hills to both sides, through cloudforest thickly draped with vines and orchids, nearly every tree covered with diaphanous moss. And then to the downhill. Ouch. For me, down is always far more murderous than up, and one thousand metres down in ninety minutes spelled Aargh. My bum knee was sending me warning twinges for the first time in months by the time we finally reached the campsite.
I think I've mentioned that this wasn't exactly remote wilderness. All the campsites had toilets (well, wooden thatched-roof long-drop squat toilets) and up until lunch on the first day you could buy Coke and Snickers and cigarettes(!) from trailside vendors. The third campsite had hot showers and cold beers, and my God, were we happy to see them. It also had fairly amazing Inca terraces right next door, three hundred feet of agricultural terraces with a carved-stone aqueduct irrigation system still trickling happily along six hundred years after construction.
Oh yes. "We." Four Americans, four Canadians, two Dutch, two English, average age thirty, half long-term and half short-term travellers, a fairly typical group for South America, and a very good one. The Americans were smart, funny, tough, hardworking, easygoing, and did all they could to dispel the myth of the ugly American traveller. Sadly, a few hours after we reached Macchu Picchu proper, several hundred of that species came up to the ruins by bus, and promptly undid all their good work.
Day four, we woke at 4 AM2 and made our way along a mountainside, looking down at thin tendrils of cloud, past the stupefying Andean landscape that we were all so accustomed to that we no longer bothered gaping, and up one last steep climb to Intipuku, the Sun Gate to Macchu Picchu.
1If you chew coca leaves by themselves you eventually develop a slight numbness in the mouth; but if you chew them with a little volcanic-ash catalyst, your mouth promptly goes numb like you've been injected with Novocaine, your aches and pains fade a little bit, and you get a slight adrenalinesque rush. Non-addictive, I swear, I'm not chewing them as I type this, nosirree.
2My waking times for the last six days have been 5:30, 6:00, 5:45, 4:00, 4:30, and 4:45, all times ante meridian. Oh, the irony. When not travelling I generally refuse to wake before 9.
The Dead City Of Gold
Macchu Picchu is breathtaking. Not so much the city itself - first, I'm more into wilderness than antiquities, and second, only the bones of the antiquities remain. A lot of bones, but still nothing more than walls and rock, and it takes a lot of imagination to picture it all brightly painted, the temples plated with shining gold sifted from the Urubamba far below, the stone altars darkly stained with blood (some of it human), mummies sitting ominously in temple niches, all of it lit by wall-sconce candles at night.
No, if you ask me, it's the setting that makes the place. I cannot imagine a more beautiful location for a city. Though it wasn't a very practical location. There are conflicting theories about why Macchu Picchu was abandoned before construction was complete, but while the Spanish invasion was no doubt a factor, the fact the area didn't have enough available irrigation water to support even a small city had a lot do with it too. (It's estimated that only 500 people lived there.) There is a river right next door, horizontally, but about 300 metres down, which is a long way to carry water. A narrow stone aqueduct brought (and still brings) a trickle from ten kilometres away and a kilometre up, but not enough.
You can still see why they chose the place. Symbolic reasons, for one. The city is nestled in a huge bend in the Urubamba far below. At the end of that bend, north of Macchu Picchu, a huge mass of rock rears up a full 600 metres/2000 feet from the river, in the shape of a colossal resting puma. (OK, a little imagination is needed, but only a little.) Just south of the puma, Macchu Picchu was built in the shape of a condor with wings outstretched, across a wide ridge leading south and up. Serpent river, puma mountain, condor city; the Inca totem animals for the underworld, the earth, and the heavens, respectively.
All around are small mountains, gigantic knolls carved by the river, or enormous hill faces carved by little tributaries, all of it densely green with cloudforest, and above these the towering snow-painted Andes, and the roar of the silvery Urubamba below on both sides of the city is so loud it can be heard everywhere. As far as the eye can see, in every direction you turn, is the most dramatic jungle mountain landscape imaginable. Pictures don't do it justice, not even close, you'd need a 3D diorama, and even that wouldn't capture the sounds, or the clear cool mountain winds, or the feel.
Well now. "Next time I say, 'Let's go someplace like Bolivia', let's go someplace like Bolivia."