Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I’ve been wondering for a couple of days just how to put this trip, this experience to paper. There is a lot to say, and I’ve been thinking of the right words. Some of the more simple words are “fantastic” and “amazing.”

On the 30th of December, Lou and I get up early, and hike on down to the travel office where we booked the flight. We wait a while, and end up being the first ones on the bus that is to take us to our destination. We’ve hired porters to carry much of our stuff, which means our journey is going to be much easier. We are only carrying the things we need during the day (water, snacks, expensive electronics – me, and rain clothes.) The porters carry our tents, sleeping bags, water, books (me) and everything else we need.

As the bus fills, we spend some time getting the rest of the people, and drive a big circle around the center of the city two or three times while doing so (time we could have used sleeping.) Let me go ahead and introduce the cast of characters, by order of appearance.

Me and Lou – We are the straight men in this whole thing.
Cameron – A tall, strapping Australian lad. Ex professional Australian Rules Football player. Irresistible to women.
Rak – Young Korean guy, just out of the military, about to go into University.
Paulo – A tour guide by trade, speaks a whole bunch of languages (Spanish, Italian, English, several African languages, and a few others.)
Simone – Owns a yoga school ( or are they called studios?), is an Administrator and Professor at a University in Sao Paolo Also speaks quite a few languages – English, Japanese, Spanish, and of course, Portuguese.
Kam (AKA Silent Bob) – He doesn’t speak English or Spanish, just Korean. Also just out of the military, on his way to University (I think.) He lucked out that Rak was there, otherwise, he wouldn’t have had anyway to talk to anyone for several days. Initially we thought the two Korean guys were friends, but they weren’t.

Cameron, when he gets on introduces himself, as does Rak and Paulo. When we stop to pick up Simone, she and Paula appear to have known each other for many, many years and are talking to each other at 90 miles an hour. It’s maybe 7:30 a.m. It was funny to watch, especially after finding out that they don’t know each other.

After we get the everyone on the bus, we stop and pick up the porters. There are five of them, plus William, our tour guide and owner of the company. Lou and I, in the back of the bus, have a porter sit between us. The odor is horrific. Lou has a window, and I eventually get numb to the smell. I don’t know if I’ve ever smelled a live human with such a bad odor. We ride on this small bus (called a collectivo), crammed with 15 people for about three hours, until we get to a town called Ollantaytambo, which is the site of some Inca Ruins, but these ruins are far up a mountain, and we don’t have time to get to them. I get a few pictures. Lou buys some coca leaves from a old lady street vendor, as does Cameron. Cameron however, buys the catalyst. The catalyst is the important part – otherwise, you’re just chewing leaves. It looks like a small ball of tar (black tar heroin?)

We get to the trailhead, and have lunch. it’s not very good, but it’s food. We make a few introduction, and Paulo looks at Cameron and says “Look at you, just look at you. You’re very well equipped.”, as he’s looking him over, and ending on his walking stick. Understand Cameron is 6’4″, one year out professional sports, and pretty well built. Lou and I – we weren’t equipped apparently. By the time lunch is done, it’s about 1 p.m., and we start hiking. The start of the trail is not that steep, but it is uphill, and the day goes quickly. We don’t hike too far the first day, and we end up spending the night in what appears to be some families back yard. It’s very primitive. The family and all the other sites nearby don’t have electricity. We have a basic dinner, and start introducing ourselves and have a pretty good time.

When it comes time to pair up for the tents, Lou and I get a tent (good to be traveling with a friend), the Korean guys get a tent, and, at first, Cameron gets a tent by himself. Simone, the lone female is supposed to share a tent with Paulo (It’s fantastic!!) I can understand it, I guess, since they did seem to be fast friends, but she yells a little bit about sharing a tent with a (very) strange man, and she ends up alone. Paulo and Cameron end up sharing a tent for the rest of the journey.

While Lou and I are in the tent this first night, I tell him we are in a TV sitcom. He laughs harder than I can ever recall Lou laughing. There are few things that make me happier than a good joke, and well, it’s true.

The bathroom at this stop is horrific. It’s down a flight of stairs and nothing more than a hole in the ground. I think Lou got some pictures – if he did we’ll post ’em. Apparently Lou likes trying to photography the worst toilets he can find. He’s found a treasure trove in Peru. When we leave the next day, we pass a glorious, clean, fresh bathroom. I guess that’s what you get if you pay more money for the tour.

The sleep is good, and we get an early-ish start the next day. The guides wake us up with tea of choice, which is always coca tea. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, but coca tea is much nicer than coffee.

Day two is supposed to be the hardest day of the hike, as we end up at 13828 ft (Mount Rainier 14,411) with a pretty good elevation gain. On the first day, I hung back with Simone, as she was quite a bit slower than everyone else. Lou is having a hard time, as his stomach is bothering him. I never asked him, but sometimes things that can make you a little gassy, really, really cause problem at altitude. Have you ever eaten peanuts on an airplane. They are packed at sea level, or close to it. Planes are pressurized to (I think) about 10,000 ft. The peanuts become these full little pillows of air. Same with Yogurt or soft drinks. Open them at altitude or on an airplane and they always burp. The molecules have a lot of pressure at ground level, and much less many feet up. Those same forces work in your stomach. As we approached the summit, and after, I had horrible stomach pain. I thought I’d eaten something bad – really bad, but it went away as we descended.

Anyway, Lou wasn’t feeling well at the start of the day. I was going to hang back with him, but I figured he wouldn’t let me carry his stuff (he didn’t the time before he was sick on a hike) and he’d still probably be faster than Simone after he got going. I was right on both counts. I was most worried about how well I would do once we started getting higher in altitude, but frankly, I did great, other than the stomach issues earlier. I’d been in Quito for a week (9000FT) and then Cusco (11000FT), so I’d had quite a chance to acclimate. There were a few people who had a hard go of it, most surprisingly (to me anyway) Cameron. He didn’t do bad, but he didn’t do as well as I though he would, given the fact he was recently a professional athlete, and young, at barely 29. Lou did well, once his stomach stopped bothering him. There were other people in other groups that we having a very hard time of it. We passed one woman very early on, seated, with her head in her hands, looking miserable. I don’t know how well she did, but I hope she made it. While we were climbing, Cameron offered some coca to chew on, and I, always willing to try something new, took a bit. What you do is take a small amount of leaves (5 – 10) and wrap them around a pinch of the small black tar (catalyst.) Put it in your cheek and chew on it every few minutes. Cameron said his jaw got numb, but mine never did. I did notice that my heart was racing when stopped. At least more than normal – the hike wasn’t that hard on me physically, at least this far.

After the pass, we didn’t have too far to go, and go into camp about 5 p.m. This was New Years Eve. We had a decent dinner, and the porters brought out a cake of some sort that was pretty bad. William (the guide) turned to Simone, and told her to divide up the cake. I can only figure it’s because she’s a woman. Later Cameron explained the rules to Australian Rules Football to Louis and I. Lou and I had the foresight to bring a bottle of vodka for the party we were going to create. We didn’t plan on there being a lot of very tired people in our camp, and everyone but Lou, Cameron and myself turned in early. The three of us decided to go to Camp 5, where some guides hitting on Simone invited her to a party. She said “Can our entire group come?” Sure, they said. But when three single guys showed up they wouldn’t let us in. We even sent Cameron ahead to do the asking – he had a much better chance than ether Louis or I. Alas it was to no avail. The invite was for her, and her alone, I guess. Bastards. We ended up at the next camp over, sharing vodka and talking to a few of the people. While there, I heard my favorite Aussie/Kiwi joke.

An Australian and a Kiwi go to the Kiwi’s farm. They find a sheep with it’s head stuck in the fence. The Kiwi unzips his pants and has his way with the sheep. He turns to the Aussie and say’s “your turn, mate.” The Aussie say’s ” I tried, but I couldn’t get my head through the fence.”

We get back to the camp about 11 p.m., It’s nice to be traveling with a good friend, and I’m really glad Lou is there. Many years ago, when camping, we’d share a tent, but then Lou got into the whole ultralight thing and carries his own bivy sack. I don’t think it’s related to my tendency to cuddle, but then again I’m asleep. We ended up talking about life, the universe and everything until a little after midnight, and the new year. It was nice, and frankly, one of the highlights of my trip. Lou and I are good friends, but we don’t do a lot together. Either live music, which is loud, so you don’t talk that much, or hiking. When hiking, it’s 24×7, and you get to know each other pretty well. We’ve done a lot of miles together over the years, and because of that, we know each other pretty well.

We got up at 5 a.m. (Paulo – “It’s not human”) and leave shortly after dawn. The entire trip is 26 Miles, and a big chunk, 20KM or 12 miles, of it occurs on Day 3. It’s downhill, which I think is harder, because you’ve got less control as you go down, and it’s harder on your thighs and knees. I don’t think Lou has seen this side of 9 a.m. in many years, but he’s recovered from his stomach issues (or at least made piece with it.) The trail is in OK shape, but a bit slick – you’re walking on rocks for a lot of the time (the Inca Trail, which is only for the Inca, royalty, is paved. Common folk couldn’t use this trail.) We don’t break for lunch until about 3 p.m., which is way, way to late to be eating. Once again, I think the more you pay, the closer to noon you eat. We end up hiking until just about dark, getting in just a few minutes before we need a flashlight. I’m still walking with Simone, as we’ve hit it off pretty well, and she’s still going slow. Her knee was hurting her, which I completely sympathize with – my knees are bad too. I’d like to be hiking faster, but I don’t think that’s very nice. I usually hang back with the slowest person in the group, and she’s cute to boot. Again, it’s that 24×7 contact that you have when you’re out in the woods. We got to know each other pretty well over the course of these four days. Along the trail, just after some ruins shaped like a heart (actual heart, which the Incas liked to pull beating from victims, not the idealized ones we give each other for Valentines day) we kissed. Eventually we made the hikers behind us nervous. It was pretty romantic even though we hadn’t showered in several days.

On the end of the very long day three, we camped near Machu Picchu, and had a late dinner. There were a couple of thing memorable about this night. Most memorable, but the one I’d like to forget, was the stench of the porters. We arrived in camp, and the tent was set up (it’s what porters do.) The odor in our tent was horrific. Nose curling, paint peeling, tent clearing bad. It was the same guy who was seated beside Lou and I on the way to the tent. OK, the other was “porter appreciation night.” It’s where we were supposed to tip our porters, cook and guide for a job well done. Of course, none of us had any idea how much to tip, not even Paulo, the erstwhile tour guide. Lou and I talked about it, and were going to tip a whole bunch of money (I think we agreed upon S/150 between the two of us.) We went around the table, and, well, the agreed upon amount was a LOT lower (about S/20 each.) I didn’t really feel like giving a lot more money than anyone else, and, frankly, it made the division hard. We decided to give everyone S/20 each (or about $6.) What William was pushing was for the cook to get more than the porters, and as far as he went, well, he didn’t say, but he did include himself in the tipping guide. Paulo thought Simone should gather the money from everyone, and divide it up, mainly I guess because she’s a woman (see above.) I end up doing it, because it doesn’t sound very fair for her to to do it because she’s got breast. Paulo also had strong ideas about how the money should have been divided up, but since he wasn’t collecting it, it was my decision. The Korean guy said we should give everyone the same, and that sounded like a grand idea. It’s kind of weird when we give the porters the money, they look confused and I never figure out how much we’re supposed to tip them. I think our guide was disappointed, but then again, so were we when eating lunch at 3 p.m.

The next morning is the final hike into Machu Picchu. We get up early, 5 a.m., with the intention of hiking to a spot overlooking the ruins for the sunrise. For breakfast, we get a lovely breakfast. Eggs just the way you want them (scrambled, over hard, even an omelet if you want), bacon – all you can eat, and fresh squeezed orange juice. Wait – that’s a false memory. We got a pancake. That’s right – one pancake, small, with carmel on it, and we’re eating at 5 a.m. I’d say they were disappointed in our tip.

The day is foggy so our efforts for the viewpoint were in vain. As we are walking toward Machu Picchu, Simone and I are holding hands. Cameron ask if she and I are girlfriend and boyfriend, and I make some flippant remark. There are a couple of stories involved here. First is Simone and I (which I’ve alluded to earlier, and will follow up on later.) The other is Cameron.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Cameron. He was definitely the coolest guy on our journey. Lou and I spent a lot of time saying “Cameron and I did this” or “Cameron said this.” We watched him approach girls, and girls approach him, and he was in a different league than Lou and I – the next step in evolution if you will. At one point he took his shirt off, and well, he’s a very well built man. It’s come in handy a couple of time – when I can’t understand Simone, or want to change the subject, I just ask “Did you see Cameron with his shirt off.” She starts giggling like a schoolgirl and the subject is changed. He’s an ex-professional athlete (Australian Rules Football), friendly, and a lot younger. So I thought – “he’s not very smart.” I was wrong – he’s a smart guy. “not very nice” – Nope – I was the one having to apologize to him for comments I made. “not as funny as I am” I don’t think Robin Williams with a coke habit is as funny as I am, but he’s a funny guy. Heck, he even took some fantastic photographs. He’s taller than me, by about an inch, and he weighs just about the same (which made me feel pretty flabby.) There was something about him that I was fascinated about, but I couldn’t place it, but eventually I did. He is the guy that I could have been or could be if I realized my potential. A younger, more confident version of myself – better looking, with a much more promising upside. To quote The Meat Purveyors “he gets’ more ass than a toilet seat.” At the new years party the next camp over, there was a overweight guy from San Francisco macking on a very sexy Columbian girl he shouldn’t have been (unless he was really, really rich.) Lou and I plotted sending Cameron over, just to set the Universe right. We didn’t, but it was part of our general “Cameron is cool” talk. If I have any regrets, it would have been a few of the things I said (I hate apologizing, but hey – he was even cool about that), and not getting a picture of him with his shirt off. It would have been a great Christmas present for Peggy for many years, and eventually mentioning his name isn’t going to set Simone off onto a giggling fit. If I have anything I’m thankful for, it’s having met him (which is true of many people on this journey.) He’ll be famous one day – he’s got all the tools, and is a great guy.

Back to the story. We walked into Machu Picchu, the nexus of our adventure, and it was glorious. We got lucky – the day was cloudy, but not too cloudy (or is it foggy? As high as we were, I think it’s the same thing), and some of the mountains surrounding were especially dramatic (look at the pictures for more information.) We were on top of the world. It’s one of the wonders of the world, and I’m glad I was able to make it. Some of the stone work was amazing. The guide pointed out a lot of really cool details, as he’s done throughout the tour. It was probably the only unexpected treat on the journey, other than the people. Of course neither Lou and I have the desire to listen to an entire tour of information (one reason we travel well together), so it was wasted on us.

Lou, Simone and I were all pretty tired, so we spent some time looking at the ruins, with me taking lots of pictures. We made a quick day of it. There is a mountain behind Machu Picchu that you’ve probably seen in the pictures. Lou had been sick for most of the trip, and not eating, so he wasn’t up for it. That was all I needed to keep off the mountain. Cameron and the english speaking Korean guy went, and it was supposed to be fantastic, but it involved, at some point, climbing hand over hand up a rock wall (or was it a ladder.) Not my thing, even though thousands of people do it every year. Cameron said the view wasn’t great, so I’m doubly glad I didn’t do it.

Lou, Simone and I were very tired, so we headed to the civilized bathrooms (meaning there are seats) and later grabbed a soda. After talking for a bit, we decided to head to the town at the bottom of the mountain, called either Agua Caliente, or Machu Picchu. At the top of the mountain, you can buy tickets for a bus ride down. Lou bought 3 tickets, and they charged him for the round trip (why – in Peru, everybody tries to screw you. That should be the advertising scheme for the country. Come to Peru for a Screw. I think Thailand is using that now though.) The bus ride down take 30 or 40 minutes of constant switchbacks. At the bottom, we eventually find the restaurant (thanks Simone) where we are supposed to meet our guide and gather our luggage. Simone speaking Spanish is very, very handy.

Lunch is, well, lunch. Not very good, but not camp food either. First walking in, we walked to the back of the restaurant, which overlooked a river, but Simone said it smelled like bug spray, so we sat outside, near the train tracks. Cameron, coming in about 30 minutes after us, got a fly in his omelet. Not soup, but omelet. He found it after eating half of his lunch. That’s funny, even if it had been me. He called the waitress over and she took the plate away. When the bill came, they didn’t charge him. That surprised me, since Peru is full of cheap bastards.

Simone wanted to spend the night in Aguas Caliente, and well, she’s got the breast. Apparently her knowledge of Spanish AND Portuguese didn’t help her figure out that Aguas Caliente means “hell on earth.” We get a decent hotel room for $30/US a night, and each get a great, hot shower. There are hot springs in this town, which was her reason for wanting to stay. We go to them a little after dark, and frankly, it’s not very hot. It starts to rain, and we go from lukewarm water to cold air. Not pleasant. Eventually I pick out a restaurant for dinner, mainly because there were a lot of people seated. There weren’t a ton of people – maybe 8 different tables. We order chips and guacamole and two soups. After about 45 minutes, we (OK – Simone, in Spanish) ask for the guacamole. Eventually, after asking a second time, we get the guacamole, but never get the soup. I haven’t eaten much all day, and am not very patient, so I’m getting antsy. We ask for the check, and eventually get it (again, Simone and her handy Spanish.) They tried to charge us a 10% service fee, but Simone got it removed, after much arguing. While we were there, two other tables got up and left because it was taking too long. I guess they hired a one armed, one leg, blind cook – how hard is soup to defrost?

The next morning, we have a 9 a.m. checkout time (to quote Paulo – it’s not human.”) We go to an internet cafe, but it’s very expensive, and very slow. We end up killing the time with much walking, and much goofing. We walk into the tourist information booth, and ask the woman behind the counter what hikes are nearby. She tells us about a very nice hike to a waterfall, then says – “you can’t do it today – it’s too wet.” Then she tells us about another hike, at length, then says “you can’t do this one either.” Funny, and a huge waste of time. Our train back to Cusco is at 3:30 p.m. Eventually it arrives, and we get on. Initially we have seats near, but not next to each other, but Simone switches with someone, then someone else wants to switch with us. I end up across from a small child, which makes me very, very happy. My first seat had a normal sized guy across the seat from me (the seats faced each other.) We were touching legs, and the way it was going, I was going to have to buy him dinner at the end of this four hour train ride. A child, well, that was much, much better. Simone was across from this child’s father. She and I spoke quietly for much of the trip, but eventually we found out the Senor spoke english. He was from San Francisco, but his wife was Peruvian. He was a truck driver for Xerox, and, from initial appearances, a very good father. He loved his kids, and was very protective of them. He took his daughter from his wife, and held her while she slept (she was the youngest) and when he she awoke, he handed her back, and made sure his son slept well, and didn’t fall off the seat (he stood up to give his son the entire seat.) It was touching.

At the three hour mark, the train stops, and many, many people get off, and take busses. We don’t figure out until the train is pulling away that the busses would save 45 minutes of the last hour into Cusco. It’s OK, since we’d only go somewhere and talk. Might as well be on a train. Eventually, I let spill that for the last few years I’ve had an intimate relationship with a friend of mine (no – not Louis – A woman.) Simone was tired, having PMS, and altitude sickness. She didn’t take it very well, but with all the things that were going on, not that big of a deal. She was tired, so Lou and I headed out to a bar to meet up with Cameron. I figured I’d go and give Lou some company until (or if – Lou sent him e-mail) Cameron showed up, and give Simone some time to herself. It was a nice enough time – I had a burger and a couple of pisco sours and made an early night of it. When I got back Simone was asleep – she had a very early flight ( 6 a.m.) When 5:30 a.m. came, I didn’t do very well. I hadn’t been sleeping much the last couple of night on the trail, or in “hell on earth.” I should have carried her bags to the taxi (she had a lot), but I didn’t. I feel pretty bad about it, because I like to think of myself as a gentleman.

The next morning, I slept somewhat late for me (8 a.m.) I’d gotten the nicest room in the place, and it was glorious. I had a view overlooking the city, and a TV. The bed was large, the shower hot, and a enclose patio outside my door. This was the same place Lou and I had stayed when we were in Cusco before, and I’d tipped them pretty well – I gave these guys $20 between the two of them. After that, they were fawning over me. They didn’t say anything when I brought Simone to spend the night, asked for a 5 a.m. wake up call for her, nor when I showed up a day late (they kept one of my bags.) I asked for coffee, and was brought a full breakfast (well, Peruvian breakfast – bread, butter, jam and coca tea.) Later, one of the guys brought me some sort of crazy banana juice, and pretended to be interested in my pictures. I guess they don’t get tips very often in this place. It was a fair trade for the times Lou and I woke these guys up at 3 a.m. to get in the hotel As far as I could tell, one of the two of them was always there, and Lou and I stayed there about a week. It was one of the few times I spent money in Cusco, or Peru and got more than I expected.

As I wrap this up I should tell a little bit more about the people we met.

Paulo. Most interesting of the people not yet mentioned, and I don’t even begin to do him justice. He introduced himself as a tour guide, but eventually we found out he worked for Doctors without Borders. Personally, if I’d have gone to medical school, I’d tell everyone I met. He was also very fit, and finished almost every hike at the front. I don’t know how old he was (he refused to tell anyone), but I’d guess anywhere from 45 to 50. He coined the phrase “It’s fantastic” and “I love people” A very nice guy, and good to have around when you (Lou) are sick. He brought an umbrella on the trail – it was a good idea, but made him look kind of funny. He was in great shape, and had a whole bunch of energy.

Rak – The Korean guy. Very nice, and gave a lot of insight into the Chinese – Korean – Japanese view of the world (or at least how Koreans feel about them.) He had this great pose, where one arm went to the back of the head, and the other straight out, much like the Heisman trophy. It was supposed to represent an electrical shock – I wish I could have gotten a picture of it.

Kam (AKA Silent Bob) – don’t know anything about him. I wish we could have communicated – he seemed nice enough.

William – Our tour guide. He was nice enough, but needed to learn a lot about customer service. Another example of Peru’s national slogan (Come to Peru for a Screw.) He knew a lot about the stuff we were seeing, and even had visual aids. But, he also tried to take advantage of us. On the last day, as most people were waiting to catch the bus, we started talking. There were five porters, a cook, and one extra porter that Lou and I had paid for. But, Simone and Paulo had also paid for a porter to carry their gear. Now, the problem is that four people paid for two extra porters, but only got one extra porter. I was annoyed by that, since every time I turn around someone was trying to take advantage of me. He tried telling me that the porter that Simone and Paulo hired had gotten sick, and the other porters has shared the load. Bullshit, I say. They didn’t decide they wanted a porter until they were on the mini bus to the trailhead. We argued a little bit about it, and in the end Simone didn’t have to pay for her porter (which wasn’t my goal. It wasn’t about them money, but the principle.) I don’t know if Paulo, but I hope not. Paulo had been complaining about it before. One of my last experiences in Cusco was getting Lou a picture with a LLama. I asked twice “Uno Sol?” “Si, Si.” There were two women, two babies and a Llama. After I take the picture, I give one woman the Sol. The other woman wants a Sol too, and the first woman is asking for Sol for another Sol for her baby. So it went from one to two to three. It’s only 30 cents, but good god damnit – if they wanted more money, they shouldn’t have said it was only one Sol. I argued with the woman for about a minute and walked off, pissed.

The Porters – These guys were monsters, even though some smelled bad. All the guys, like most of Peru, were very small – maybe 5’5″, yet they carried a whole lot of weight – bags as big as they are. They were amazingly quick going up these mountains. Some of them passed us at a very slow run. These weren’t super athletes – just guys trying to make a living. I imagine it’s because they live here, so the air is plentiful for them, and they’ve been in this country for generations, if not for all of recorded history. A bath would have definitely helped them.

Simone – A sexy little brazilian number. She lives in Sao Paolo. I’m going there in a couple of weeks for Carnival, and see what happens.

Oh – HERE are the pictures.