As I closed last time we were at campsite 2 (Pacamayo), removed from all cell service, in the view of the tall peaks of the Andes. The next day, Day 3, was the longest, but most beautiful, day of the hike. In the morning, after a typical early start, we stopped at various Incan ruins. The one that stuck out the most was a religious site where mummified bodies were taken after they had been dead for several years. The bodies, which were mummified into terribly contorted shapes, were transported along the stone trail to this location, where they were placed into very small niches. After various rituals involving special water were performed, the mummies were returned to their homes and placed in holes on the sides of the nearby mountains.
It was either there or at the second pass (I believe Dead Woman’s Pass was considered the first pass) that we hiked up a peak and each placed a stone from below on a cairn as an offering to Pachamama – Mother Earth. The so-called “Inca Cross” actually represents the Incan belief in the need to bridge the gap between earth and sky, and man to the gods. Perhaps not so different.
After lunch we reached the heights of the third pass. Surrounded by snow capped mountains and looking through vistas of mountain ranges. We descended into heath and very quickly down into the “cloud jungle.” As we journeyed lower and lower there were more wild begonias and blooming orchids.
At a certain point on the descent, our guide, Juan, took us to a small structure, manned by a single lady. It was a local “pub,” according to Juan, where the local corn beer, “chicha,” was made. The small, low-ceilinged room was filled with wood benches, and the proprietress looked as if she’d had one too many. We all passed around a cup of chichi – it reminded me a lot of the “shebeens” in South Africa – the local drinking establishments.
Toward late afternoon the trail split and you could take a 20 minute detour to another ruin. The husband and I declined, but by then the two daughters were well ahead, not having found my tendency to hang back and study the flowers a particularly desirable quality in a hiking companion. We didn’t know if they had chosen the detour, and suddenly I became convinced they had taken a wrong turn and were lost somewhere in the wilds of the cloud jungle…I sprinted the last downhill hour (developing a rapid descent technique that has served me well on other hikes), only, of course, to find them safe and sound at the third campsite, Winay Wayna. They had staked out the best tent site; the husband and I were relegated to the one by the particularly awful “bathrooms.”
That night was our last camping night – we were to arise at 3:40 a.m. the next morning to hike the remaining five miles to Machu Picchu itself in the hopes of seeing the “Sun Gate” at sunrise. Dinner was quite elaborate, featuring a rice cake shaped like – I think it was a chicken! The tipping ceremony also took place that night. But at that point, the complexion of the entire trip changed.
As you’ll recall, daughter number 2 was the one left cold and shivering on the way to Dead Woman’s Pass. That apparently caught up with her and she couldn’t eat dinner – the cook’s very kind offer of a special celery tea made her feel even worse given her extreme dislike of celery in any form. In any event, at 12:30 a.m., a little voice (or as little as the voice of a nineteen year old is) called at our tent door, “Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom.” I found myself taking her on a midnight excursion to what passed for a bathroom; she was burning with fever, so I moved into daughter number 1’s spot in their tent, and daughter number 1 moved into my tent with the husband. We were the only people up in the campsite shuffling back and forth between tents in the early morning hours, and lord knows what our companions thought we were up to. That’s when I discovered my older daughter apparently sleeps in the equivalent of a squirrel nest, surrounded by so many possessions it was impossible to straighten my legs! I finally got the sick daughter to sleep and dozed off myself for a couple of hours before we started on the final leg of the hike.
The daughter now known as the Sick Daughter was a trooper though! She made the hike without complaining and although we missed sunrise, the view of the mysterious ruins, the elegance of the structures, and the incredible geometry of the carved stones was overwhelming. I was struck by the lack of ornamentation. Not one curlicue, not a single mark that served anything other than a functional purpose. Instead of decoration, perfectly cut stones, brilliant in simplicity — yet forming a place the purpose of which is still not fully understood.
The approach from the trail, I think, is very different than if you have taken the train to the site. There’s a drama to reaching it after four days of intense hiking that a train simply can’t mimic.
Sick Daughter unfortunately spent the half day we toured Machu Picchu in the shadow of one of those perfectly formed stone walls, together with another of our hiking companions who had similarly been taken ill.
About noon we took a bus (!) down to the small village of Aguas Callientes, where we stayed until the night train and van ride back to Cusco. After four days of hiking in the wilds, it was a shock to see cars, streets, and shops. Our guide was friends with the owners of a restaurant, which, like so many Peruvian structures, had an unfinished second floor that was still open to the main street. They let Sick Daughter stay up there on an air mattress; as I warned, if she rolled she was going to topple out of the building and into the street. In the meantime, the rest of us went to the mineral baths. As we had no swim gear we rented bathing suits – we did pick a place where we could see the washing machines! Quite civilized – and such a change from where we had been. You could order Pisco sours and drink them in the hot tubs.
The trip back to Cusco was an amalgamation of bad travel experiences. Bullet points: (1) On the way to the train station, all the power in the village went out, and hundreds of people were rushing in the dark, carrying heavy backpacks (at least those of us who had hiked). (2) Our hiking companions had decided illegally to bring beer onto the train – and the bag in which it was stored broke, causing beer cans to roll all through the dark train station, to the great concern of our guide. (3) No one sat in their assigned seats on the train, meaning that I could hardly find a place to sit with my feverish and clearly ill daughter.
The train didn’t actually go to Cusco but to another location, about a two or three hour van ride away from the city and our hotel. The roads were long and windy and steep and high and we had been up since pre-dawn, hiked miles at altitude, toured Machu Picchu and soaked in hot springs. At a certain point we stopped because Sick Daughter needed to go to the bathroom – I got out with her. As we stood there in the pitch blackness, we suddenly heard rustling in the underbrush and something started to lunge out toward us….we both screamed and scurried back to the van as fast as we could. To this day, I’m convinced we nearly fell victim to a mountain lion.
Finally, we made it back to Cusco and the sophistication of the Hotel Marquesas.
It’s hard to sum up the Inca Trail – not a summit of height, but certainly a summit of sorts. And next week – finally a real summit. A week from today we’ll be hiking Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.