Machu Picchu – Trail or Trial – Part Two

First campsite - Wayllabamba
First campsite – Wayllabamba

Inca Trail part two. I have realized that this experience was at least a trilogy, so part 3 will follow. Today’s installment – the “village” part of the hike, followed by “Challenge Day” and the Dead Woman’s Pass.

We met our fellow hikers at about 5:30 a.m. in front of the Hotel Marquesas in Cusco. We had briefly encountered each other the previous day during an introductory briefing session at the trekking company’s office. We were a diverse lot – our family of four, newlyweds from Boston exploring Peru, an English couple traveling around the world for a year, accompanied on this leg of the journey by a sister, a couple of salesmen from Texas, a doctor and his wife, also from Texas, and one man from California and another from Germany. Fifteen in all – it was a large and unwieldy group.

After what seemed like a very long bus ride, we stopped for breakfast in the small town of Oyelltambo. The restaurant was most notable for highly elaborate rabbit cages in its garden. It was very early in the morning but I think I am remembering this correctly.

We journeyed on to Kilometer 82 – the official beginning of the trail (or trial, depending on your perspective). We were struck by how agricultural it all was. Women on donkeys carrying bushels of herbs; local people selling water or other items at about every rest stop. The mountains on either side of the trail were green, capped with snow. And flowers everywhere. I hadn’t realized before that begonias grew in the wild. Views of the ruins of Llactapata – a settlement of 100 or so buildings that would have housed soldiers and others traveling the trail. Our trekking company did not scrimp on food. Trout for lunch. Apparently inspired by lunch, our guide then had to explain to one of our fellow hikers that the “no hunting” restrictions also meant “no fishing” with the fishing line he had brought from Texas.

Permits for the Inca Trail are strictly controlled and only a couple of hundred people can enter the trail on any given day. You also have to go with a trekking company – no independent forays along the hundreds of years old stone path.

The first campsite, Wayllabamba, 3000 m, was in the heart of the agricultural area; in fact, local people were selling all different beers and drinks from aluminum containers. Dinner was a highlight – chicken with flaming bananas! But even with the semi-village feel of the campground, the remoteness kicked in with the southern hemisphere of evening stars – visible without any city lights. This was our first time camping with our daughters. Since we hadn’t reinvented ourselves as climbers until age 50, they had never experienced this growing up. But they were good sports and settled into their own tent well – although quite greatful we had made them bring long underwear.

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The next day, day 2, I finally started to feel I had found my hiking rhythm. That day we reached the highest pass in the trail – Dead Woman’s Pass – at 4200 m. It was overcast and drizzly and suddenly the layers of clothes that had seemed too warm in Cusco felt right.

It rained on and off the whole way, the grey punctuated by the yellow orchids we saw every now and then. The up was ok, if steep, but the down hard on the knees. By now hiking on the carved square stones of the trail – some replacements, but some the same the Incas hiked on those hundreds of years ago on missions no one, to this day, totally understands. There was no written tradition.

Yellow orchids - michi michi
Yellow orchids – michi michi

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Of course, as we were accompanied on this hike by the daughters  I had to assume both my mother and hiker persona – not always compatible. In fact, the maternal one is also known as Mommy the Packhorse and as usual I ended up carrying many of the layers that belonged to the two girls. A lesson to be learned: the younger one decided to prance well ahead of the rest of the family on the steep approach to Dead Woman’s Pass, leaving her rain gear and warm jacket with her sainted mother. We found her 45 minutes or so later shivering and cold as the rain and wind picked up.

Dead Woman's Pass
Dead Woman’s Pass

The tree line was about 10,000 feet. Dead Woman’s Pass, at close to 14,000 feet, was cold, rainy, and very windy. Only a few hundred of feet below it was much warmer. Still, our camp site that night – Pacamayo, 3600 m, was very cold. Gone were the villagers. We were in a non cell phone service area, completely disconnected, and with only the grey shades of the ancient Incas for company.

To come – day 3 and 4: the placing of rocks on a cairn, Incan funereal rites, daughter number 2 gets really sick, sunrise (almost) over Machu Picchu, and the van ride back and the attack of the mysterious wild animal. Stories to come.

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