Monday, January 15, 2007

The Lost City of the Incas

There are moments of beauty, and then there are those that are worked for so intensely and diligently that they are made even more precious. Yesterday, as we gasped for breath on the heights of the sacred Andes, reaching our final destination point, was one of those moments.

We never suspected, as we signed for the expedition, that the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu would prove such an emotional and physical challenge. After all, we had already hiked over 2 weeks and 350 kilometers in Northern Spain completing the Camino de Santiago. How hard could a 45 kilometer hike and couple of days camping along the ancient road really be? We had no idea.

First of all, we were set to start out early on a Thursday morning with a group of 9 Argentineans and 4 Canadians, 11 porters, 2 guides, and 1 cook, but due to a severe attack of stomach sickness on my part (the less-than-pleasant details of which I will not discuss) we were set back one day. Thus we were forced to wake at 2:30 am on Friday to take a taxi to the starting point of the trail at Ollantaytambo so we could meet up with our group before breakfast. The first 6 kilometers that we had to catch up were a piece of cake. We were led along a railroad by a sweet Inca woman with long braids who did the walk every morning to sell ¨choclo con queso¨, or peruvian corn and cheese, to the passengers of the train. She told me that on a good day, she would make US $3.

We made it to the campsite of our group in time for breakfast, and met our fellow trekkers, all young students or travellers in their late teens to early thirties. From there began the ascent.

The second leg of our first day, about 5 kilometers, was pretty calm with mild inclinations. The countryside in this part of Peru is simply indescribable, combining lush high-altitude cloud forests, grasslands, and bamboo jungle, all with amazing views of the Andes Mountains and rivers and streams below.

We stoped with the guide to admire some agricultural ruins and to catch our breath. From here, he told us, we would begin the hard part.

Perhaps it was because I had hardly eaten the previous two days (due to the aforementioned stomach issues), perhaps it was due to the fact that we had only slept one hour the night before, or perhaps it was the high altitude which we are unaccustomed to, but the challenge we faced on this leg of the journey was more excruciating than any physical exertion I have faced. I can´t call it hell, because the scenery around us was so heavenly.

We made various stops during this time, the longest of which was about an hour to have lunch. Though it was only about 1 in the afternoon, to us it seemed like dinner time because we had already been awake so long. At this point, Gaizka took a nap, and I got to know a friendly French-Canadian couple who was travelling with our group. We ate lunch, and soon got off to the steepest, most agonizing portion of the entire trail, and the hardest ascent I have ever made in my life.

This point of the trail was marked by series of jagged rock stairs. Despite the fact that I had only a sleeping bag in one hand, and by far the smaller of the two backpacks we were carrying, I felt as though I was weighed down by a thousand pounds, and as if a strong pair of hands were squeezing the air out of my lungs. I decided not to worry about how fast anyone else was going, that the only way I could complete this would be if I went at my own pace. This turned out to be taking 3 stairs, and then stopping, huffing and puffing as though my chest would explode, then another 3 stairs, etc. Despite the gusts of foggy wind, I was sweating so hard that I was dripping. I wasn´t the worst off, however. I later discovered that the nice guy from the Canadian couple almost fainted, forcing his girlfriend to take all their supplies.

This section took a couple hours, and though I was near the rear of the pack, I saw Gaizka ahead in the distance, leading the crew. Dang, my babe is a stud!, I thought. The real studs, however, were the porters. Many of them carried over 35 kg on their back (despite regulations of a 25 kg max, they are often forced to carry more). These porters, wearing only the barest shoes or sandals, barely broke a sweat as they leaped ahead of us.

In the distance, I could see the pass. Ever so slowly, I made the climb, one step at a time. Finally reaching the peak, at 4200 meters, or almost 14,000 feet, I was greeted by clapping and whooping. I sat down, unable to talk, almost unable to breath. Now I know why they call it Warmiwanusca, or ¨Dead Woman´s Pass.¨ Literally, I am not kidding. Exhausted, I joined in the clapping for the last 3 Argentinean girls to reach the pass.

This was not the end of our day. We still had to descend the mountain on the other side at the same knee-jarring angle as our ascent, before we reached our campsite. During this time, I talked pleasantly with one of the guides, and made it, the last person in our group, to our campsite. At this time it was about 6:30pm. We had spent a total of 13.5 hours on the trail, completing in one day what most do in 2.

As you can imagine, Gaizka and I were so tired that we could barely stay awake. We had a small snack before going to bed, and then, despite the fact that the agency had forgotten to give us our sleeping pads, we fell asleep on the cold hard ground almost immediately. And then it started: The torrential downpour that began at 2am and lasted until we awoke soaking wet in our tents. Our clothes, or bags, and worst of all our feet were all sopping wet. Luckily I had purchased a thin plastic poncho, so we covered ourselves up and slept miserably for another hour and a half.

We were the first ones to awake the following morning, and immediately tried to make sense of all our soaking belongings. We were soon greeted by our awesome porters bringing us hot water for tea. I have never tasted tea so warm and good. Gaizka hates tea; however this time he thankfully slurped it right up.

After a rough morning, we made it off to start our second day. Though considerably less demanding than the first, we still had to climb the second of the two peaks. The trail was covered by mud, and the rocks were very slippery, but the torrents the night before left dozens of beautiful waterfalls in our path, and we snapped some beautiful pictures.

By lunch time, the sun had appeared and was rather warm, so we took out our sleeping bags and set them to dry. Between the 15 of us, we compared stories of how wet we had gotten, how little sleep we had, or how much our tents had leaked. Despite all this, we were all in good spirits, knowing that in less than 24 hours we would reach our destination.

The countryside ever more beautiful, lush and green, we made our way to the campsite. Here we were met with another less-than-pleasant surprise. We hadn´t arrived in time to get a good campsite, and the only one left was covered in rocks from a mudslide the night before. Luckily, this was the only campsite on the trail to have a restaurant and a small hostel. We chose to spend a little extra to sleep in the creaky bunks in the hostel.

Dinner was served buffet-style, and our porters and cook amazingly turned the barest of elements into a beautiful array of items. After this, the group collected tips for the porters and cooks. Gaizka and I had already decided that we were going to leave a generous tip (we had heard from many sources, and had seen for our own eyes, that the porters are severely under paid. Most only get about US $4 a day for the difficult work they do, and are sometimes treated as outsiders and forced to sleep in the cold). Later, to our embarrassment on the part of our group, we discovered that the amount of money we put in to the tip pot amounted to almost half of the total tips left by the 15 members of our group. We apologized to the cook on the behalf of our stingy group, and gave him and his son (a 13 year old porter in our group called Cesar) an extra few dollars to help out.

We slept relatively well in the dorm-style room, for 5 hours, and were satisfied not to have gotten drenched. We awoke at 4:30 am, more anxious than ever to reach Machu Picchu. The idea on this last day is for the groups to wake up as early as possible to reach the ¨sun gate,¨or the first view of the ruins, before the sunrise. Struggling up an incredibly steep, though brief set of ancient Inca stairs, we raced other groups to the top, using hands and feet to make the climb.

And before we knew it, there it was: our first glimpse of the sacred city. We had made it just in time to sit and meditate, as the sun peaked over the mountains and bathed the city in golden sunlight.

It was one of those moments that stick with you forever.

We descended into the valley of Machu Picchu, and to our delight we even saw alpaca along the way. Soon we were at the main gate, the famed spot where the beautiful pictures are taken, with the peak of Wayne Picchu behind the ruins, shrouded in mist. We had done it. There were few words to describe the allure and amazement we experienced as we thought of the difficult trail behind us. All I could think of was what it would have been like to experience the trek as a pilgrimage as the ancient Inca had, and then see the city in its full glory, when it was a lively citadel of 10,000 people. Even now, as much as 500 years later, the ruins of Machu Picchu echo of glory. No wonder its know as a miracle, a mystery, the 8th wonder of the world.

No comments: