5:20 am on Monday morning and Matt, Carl, Mark and I are cramming a few bites of breakfast into our mouths when Edwin and Jimmy, our guides for the trek, arrive at our hotel to pick us up. This is it – no turning back. We grab our backpacks and duffel bags provided to us by Peru Treks and get on the bus. I’m a bit nervous as the duffel bag weighs a precious pound – does that mean I only got to pack 4.5 pounds and not 5.5 pounds? I asked at the trek office on Saturday but didn’t get a clear response, so now I am anxious that I will be forced to leave some of my clothes on the trailhead or, more likely, get Matt to carry them.
As we wind through Cusco, we stop to pick up our fellow trekkers. Each time I size them up: do they look older, fitter, fun? In the end, we have a great group, even if the 4 of us are the oldest on the hike and 20+ years older than many of the others. The only two other Americans on the hike, Dusty and Jenny, are from WI and UW grads, so there is an instant bond with them. The fact that Dusty is a doctor gives me a sense of security and even though he jokes that he can prescribe drugs and refer to specialists, I am confident that he could perform CPR or splint a broken leg in a pinch! Happily, we never have to call on his skills. There are 5 Australians: Erin and Mark, a couple in their 30s; Katie and Tim, friends who have just finished University and are traveling for a few months; and Ian, who has been traveling for 2 years and celebrates his 25th birthday on the trail. Two other youngsters are Kirk from New Zealand and Crazy Henry from Manchester, England. Crazy Henry is so named because he smokes and drinks like a fiend yet can effortlessly scamper up mountains. I am convinced he could have hiked the entire trail in a day with no problem. Diego, who is probably about my age, is from Colombia but lives in the US and speaks perfect English, and is the nicest uncle as he brought his teenage niece, Isabella, on the hike. Isabella also speaks great English and is a sweetheart. After a stop at a designated shop/restaurant in Ollantaytambo, we reach Km 82 and chaos ensues. Our duffel bags are dumped out for us to jam our sleeping bags and mats into them and then have them weighed, we are mobbed by local folks trying to sell us all kinds of things, the sun is hot…overwhelming. After years of the trail being a free-for-all, the government now limits the number of trekkers to 500 starting per day. This number includes all of the porters and guides, so about 200-220 tourists can start the trail each day. We are not trekking during peak season, and I later estimate that about 110 other tourists began the trek with us, but it seems like at least half of them are dropped off at Km 82 at the same time we are. Good news – my duffel bag makes the weigh in, so I am good to go.
Day 1 is known as the easy day of hike and while it isn’t terribly hard, it is still hiking in the Andes with plenty of ups and downs.We begin hiking at about 10:45. The views are great and we pass some Incan ruins, which we are instructed to call remains as they were not destroyed by man but rather left to the elements. It is cloudy at times, but it never rains. We walk loosely as a group and stop frequently, which actually makes it harder because I never get into a rhythm and the frequent, long breaks make me stiffen up each time. But I understand that the guides are seeing how we do with the altitude and also assessing our hiking abilities for the coming days. We pass farms and houses; it is much like the hikes Matt and I do in the countryside around Cajamarca. At the rest stops there are ladies selling snacks, beverages and coca leaves. Coca leaves are common in Peru and trekkers are advised to chew them to combat altitude sickness and get an energy boost while hiking. I think they taste terrible, and the alkaline substance (made of ash or lye) you add to activate the chemicals in the leaves is awful, but I do chew them during some of the more challenging parts of the hike. I don’t know whether they actually help or have a placebo effect, but the guides and porters swear by them. Having frequent bottled water available is great as I can carry 1 – 1 1/2 liters at a time instead of filling up my camelback to 2 1/2 liters. We stop for lunch at a site with many of the other groups and the porters set up a tent, have buckets of water for us to wash our hands and camp chairs for us to sit on. Our lunch starts with a hot soup (a staple for all lunches and dinners) and is followed by a lot of starches, vegetables and some fried fish. Very civilized.
After lunch, we walk for about an hour and have another break and then finally we make the final push to our camp at 10,137 feet. We climb up past several farms until we reach our barnyard site. I arrive in the middle of the pack at around 4:30. We sleep on animal dung that night, which at the time it seems unpleasant, but when we sleep on rock the second night, the poop site seems nice by comparison! We relax at camp, have dinner and then turn in around 8:00; sunset is around 5:30, so it is already pitch black. Matt and I both sleep well – the only night on the hike that we do. Due to our group’s hiking skills (in fact, the porter with my and Matt’s bags arrives a good 30-40 minutes after I do) we get an extra half hour to sleep in on Tuesday – our wake up call is at 5:30 when the porters shake our tents and bring us coca tea. It is a cloudy morning and we have the dreaded challenging day ahead of us. By 6:30 we are packed up and on the trail.
Day 2 is different than Day 1 – we are allowed to walk at our own pace with a few meeting points along the way, including a morning snack before the big push to the summit. For the first time, I learn the proper way to hike mountains – go slowly and try to keep your breathing and heart rate stable as opposed to climbing in a burst of energy and then resting to recover. This makes perfect sense, and Carl, who has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, climbed in this manner the prior day. We are also cautioned to give way to the porters and always keep to the mountain side to avoid being whacked by the porter’s pack and pushed off the mountainside. The porters are amazing – I’m not sure any are taller than I am (5’3″) and they carry huge loads, as Mark can attest. We step aside often for the porters and then try to watch to see how they manage with broken down tennis shoes or sandals. Humbling, to say the least. I also try to see where they walk as they often pick out the best part on the trail – the lowest steps, less slippery spots etc. Each trek company outfits their porters in a specific color; ours wear yellow.
Next Up: The Summit and the Longest Day
If you missed my prior post Hiking to Machu Picchu Part I – Preparation, read it here https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/15/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-i-preparation/