The Inca Trail is not for wimps. Forty-four kilometers long — that’s a marathon — it begins at 8650 feet, climbs over two 13,000-foot-plus passes and arrives four days later in Machu Picchu. And those Incas didn’t do switchbacks. No, those bad-ass mo-fos saw a cliff face and said, “You know what sounds fun? Let’s build a stone staircase straight up this bad boy.” By day two, as we dragged ourselves up Dead Woman’s Pass — not an auspicious name, by the way, when you feel as though you are sharing one sad little molecule of oxygen among the ten people in your group — I was starting to feel like they had a bit of a staircase fetish.
It’s the type of hike that requires more costume changes than a Madonna concert in the ‘90s. At 6am, at breakfast, you wear every scrap of clothing you brought with you. Over the first mile or so, as you warm up, off comes the down jacket, the wool hat — llama-themed gear is un-ironic here — and gloves. As the sun rises and you climb a sunny hill, off comes the fleece and on goes the sun hat. As the trail flattens and enters a tunnel of trees, you shiver in your now-sweat-soaked t-shirt and put the fleece back on. As you reach the wind-whipped summit, on go the hat and gloves and finally the down jacket. In the wind shadow, on the way down, the cycle starts over.
The Inca Trail is also not a hike for those seeking solitude in nature. Five hundred permits are available per day — approximately 200 for tourists and the balance (300) for trekking support staff. Camps are highly regulated, meaning all 500 of you are sleeping in roughly the same areas, starting at roughly the same time and marching in exactly the same direction. This one-way-ness of the hike is disconcerting; after the first day, when there are still some pockets of local residents headed to “town”, not a single hiker comes toward you. Instead, hikers are pulled like iron fragments toward the magnet of Machu Picchu. Of course, the range in velocity is vast — from almost-elderly trekkers. hiking poles clutched in each hand, tan sunhat pulled low, carefully placing each foot, to the porters, packs towering over their heads, galloping down stone staircases at Christmas-morning speed — so there’s plenty of opportunity for mindless trail chatter: “Whew, this is hard, isn’t it? Looking good! Can you believe the pack on that guy?” Over and over and over.
You might at first wonder why each trekker needs approximately 1.5 (or in our group, 1.8) support staff for what is really not a particularly complex hike. But here is a partial list of the gear our porters carried to make our trip lovely, memorable and survivable: a dining tent that fit all twelve of us, two tables with tablecloths and 12 camp stools; a kitchen tent in which the team produced three course meals of fresh-made soup and entrees like stuffed peppers, vegetable pancakes, chicken stew in yellow pepper sauce; tents, sleeping mats and bags, and gallon-sized bowls with which they provided hot water when they woke us each morning; and a bathroom. Yes, one porter carried a shower-stall-sized tent and a chemical toilet that was set up for us each time we stopped. Consider that next time you think your job is unfulfilling. One evening, as I was rolling my aching shoulders from the backpack I carried — containing one change of clothes for three people, a camera and a water bottle — I watched a porter unpack miscellany from the top half of his pack, and then pull out a full-sized propane tank. You know, the kind I struggle to carry from my trunk to the back deck. The wind went out of my I’m-a-superhero sails.
By the time we arrived in camp, or at our lunch site, our porters had both cooking and eating tents set up, water boiled, food prepared and an extensive hand-sterilizing protocol in place. At first, the soap-hot water-alcohol soak combo seemed excessive, but then I considered the porters’ job if a stomach bug swept through our camp. And I doubled down on the alcohol rub.
The scenery was spectacular in that way that always sounds trite when described by anyone but an expert. Toothy mountains, lower halves striated by terraces — ancient and current — and cris-crossed with aqueducts and stone roads. Thin mountain air allowing a deeply blue sky. Three snowy peaks — 18,000 feet each — as sentinels. You know, the type of view you have to see yourself or captured by Ansel Adams to really get. And then the ruins, the suburbs and provisioners of Machu Picchu. Patawasi. Qonchamarka. Intipata. Phuyupatamarka.* All nestled in valleys or perched precariously along ridges, highlighting the setting.
On the fifth morning, the porters woke us at 3:30am to make it to the Sun Gate for sunrise, which was a particularly auspicious and exciting event because we were there three days before the winter solstice. In reality, I woke up at 2am when the two French Canadian prison guards in our group started giggling uncontrollably. I was annoyed at first, but at that point, despite the fact that they spoke startlingly little English for Canadians and our conversations primarily consisted of charades, vigorous nodding and encouraging smiles, they were family. This is how it is for me when I share an intense experience with former-strangers; they become, by day three, my entire world, my best friends, and on extremely rare occasions, my arch-nemesis (there was this one girl on our trek across the red center of Australia who would not shut up…). Luckily this group was all kindred spirits, although why I should feel such warmth toward monolingual prison guards remains a mystery to me.
The 3:30am wake-up call seemed excessive when we walked all of 50 meters to stand in line for the checkpoint which didn’t open until 5:30. But after entertaining the other 190 hikers waiting in line with our off-key renditions of Billy Ocean’s Get Out of My Dreams (and Into My Car) and Milli Vanilli’s Blame it on the Rain (how could I not like these people?), the checkpoint opened and there was a two-kilometer race in the dark, along cliff-edged paths strewn with tripping hazards. This was not my favorite part of the trip. We made it to the Sun Gate safely and watched the inside of a cloud lighten; apparently the Sun Gate is inaptly named due to the minimal number of days where the sun actually makes an appearance at sunrise. Also, the sunrise lines up on the summer solstice, which, in Peru is December 21, not June 21. So we took sarcastic photos of the inside of the cloud and continued on to the main event, the purpose of the journey: Machu Picchu.
We always seem to do ruins backwards. On our year-long trip, our first real Roman ruins were in Palmyra, Queen Zenobia’s stronghold in modern-day Syria near the border with Iraq. I believe we may have purchased a “ticket” to this vast city of ruins, but there was no fence or gate or rules. We clamored over walls and up staircases for hours, completely able to picture life as a Roman. After a few months in Greece and Turkey, where the guards got more plentiful and the rule list longer, we showed up in Pompeii with its crowds and plexiglass and strangely un-Italian guards barking orders, and we couldn’t wait to leave. Our Machu Picchu experience was similar. Three days of the secondary sites, of the way stations on the road to Machu Picchu, spoiled us. Of course they were smaller and less well-preserved, but they were ours. Ours and the occasional llama’s. No panting French tourists in sparkly slip-on shoes. No flag-holding tour guide leading a group of 25 silent Japanese in matching t-shirts. No grey-dreadlocked men in white linen pants holding out their rope-braceleted hands toward the energy generated by Machu Picchu’s ceremonial rock (Retta: “They know it’s just warm from the sun, right?”). It turns out that we all prefer the more do-it-yourself ruins.
Of course, mingling among these soft tourists — the ones who had seen a shower and a hairbrush in the last 72 hours and did not have a miasma of stench floating around them like Pigpen in Peanuts — made me put my swagger on. “Day-trippers,” I sneered, ignoring the fact that I was dying to put on a pair of pants that didn’t stand up on its own from the encrusted dirt and sweat. Even Jack noticed. On the train back to the start of the trail — a ride that takes a mere hour on a flat, river-side track and obviously begs the question of why the Inca Trail didn’t just follow this same easy course — he leaned over to me. “We smell like dog. Like Peruvian street dog.” There is no greater insult.
* Every Incan name sounds either like a cross between a sneeze and cough (after two weeks, I still want to say, “Bless you” every time someone mentions the greatest Inca of all, Pacachutec) or a complex Latin dance (“Do you know the Ollantaytambo? No, but my sister taught me the Urubamba.”) All are mouth-twistingly unpronounceable for the first week, and then, suddenly, all the consonants seem to fall into place and they are actual words.
Also, yes, we sang the llama song the entire time. Learn it.