Inclination in the Inca Nation
I’m in shock. It is finally time. I am in Peru about to hike a trail built by the Incas hundreds of years ago. Callie and I are the first passengers on the bus and we shuttle about Cusco picking up the rest of the hikers on our team. The next passenger is a petite Indian girl with jet-black hair who looks to be our age. She seems quiet and keeps to herself, settling in a seat across from us. Over the course of thirty minutes, we have picked up four Brazilians, a Puerto Rican man, a French woman, a German woman and about five porters that will help carry our food and tents on the trail. The bus circles around the Plaza de Armas as if in a last farewell and we begin the two-hour ride to the trailhead in Ollantaytambo where we will stop for breakfast. It is still early and nobody knows each other so we pass the time looking out the window, wondering how the next four days will develop. Only the four Brazilians in the back of the bus are chattering away in low, lilting Portuguese.
I swing in and out of sleep but every once in a while the bus jolts me awake, finding beautiful landscapes passing by the window. We are in a different world. A completely new, beautiful place and time. Once inOllantaytambo, we get out to stretch our legs. It is a very tiny town where hikers can pick up the last minute necessities they have forgotten to pack or remembered in the two-hour ride here. I look around and we are surrounded by mountains. Up on the hills I can see ancient walls crumbling from years of having to hold themselves up. It looks to me that at one time they must have been great fortresses. A short bus ride and we have reached the trailhead. We step out of the bus to meet our two guides and the rest of the porters that will be traveling with us to cook and set up tents. Years ago, people could have carried their own things but the Peruvian government is no longer allowing anyone to hike the trail alone. Everyone must be registered with a tour group in order to be here. It is a way to reduce traffic on this ever-popular landmark and keep trash left by careless hikers to a minimum. I would also like to mention for the record that our porters wear nothing on their feet besides thinning flip flops.
Our group of ten hikers takes a picture to register the start of our adventure. We check into customs and cross over a suspension bridge. We are all itching with excitement here at the beginning. The trail starts off easy and we are optimistic about the days to come. My bag feels light and the river running beside us fills me with energy. Our guides remind us that the important part is to take the trail at our own pace, it is not a race and the worst thing to do would be to rush or we will get horrible altitude sickness. I have my coca candies easily accessible because I already know I will be the one to come down with a pounding headache. I don’t want anyone to know how inexperienced I am at hiking so I decide that nobody will hear me complain for the next four days. I know this will be especially difficult because I am dealing with an old knee injury that has recently decided it would be a good time to swell up, making it feel like there are cotton balls under my knee cap. Not long into the trail, Praveetha and I start to chat in order to pass the time. Within minutes, I am completely fascinated by her. She studies Literature and Psychology in England and is here in Peru visiting her sister who married a Peruvian man. She has a charming British accent and speaks five languages. She also has tooth bling. Yes. That would be a diamond glued to her left canine tooth.
After a few hours hiking through jungle, it is time for lunch. The porters set up a tent and get to work cooking soup. I take a walk around the campsite and it dawns on me that I am a speck in the Andes mountain range. Who knew I would be here some day? Everything is a deep, pure green. I breathe in the enormity of these mountains. They are impressive in their grandeur. The tops of the peaks are unseen as low, misty clouds envelop them. When we sit down to eat, it is very awkward at first. Nobody knows what to say and between the ten of us, there are eight languages to choose from: Telugu, Hindi, Marathi, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German. Not everyone speaks either Spanish or English so it is making it slightly hard to communicate. The soup slurping is so loud since nobody is making a move to start a conversation. Eventually, we decide on a mix of Spanish and English.
The tough looking Brazilian man sitting next to me who has been hiking in a sweaty wife beater asks what I have been drinking all day out of my Camelback. I am not sure if he is trying to joke with me or if he has never seen one before. I opt for nervous laughter and hide in my soup. Conversation at lunch doesn’t get much more productive than that and we pack up our bags to start the next leg of the trail. After a few hours we reachLlactapata which are ruins stretching a kilometer long. It used to be a city dedicated to agriculture with places of worship, watchtowers and warehouses. We end the day at Wayllabamba where there are tents already set up waiting for us. It is the most beautiful sight. Callie is there waiting for me when I get to the campsite. She is naturally a stronger hiker than me and I already know we won’t be spending all of our time together on the trail. We change out of sweaty clothes and meet in the middle of the site for dinner. We are all starving because the last leg of the trail seemed endless.
The site sits on a patch of grass behind what seems to be a house. In this wooded area, the old aqueducts are still in use and houses have been built on top of ancient Inca foundations. There are chickens running around (with shoes on) and a few sheep as well. Our group gathers in the eating tent and thankfully dinner is less awkward than lunch. We are beginning to get comfortable with each other now and I can start to see people’s personalities come to the surface. Listening to the four Brazilians speaking Portuguese is truly intriguing to me. It is an amazingly beautiful language that sounds like a blend of Italian, Spanish, and French. When I listen closely, I feel like a swimmer in these words, only coming up to the surface to get air when I hear something that is close enough to Spanish to understand the meaning. Thankfully, they each speak a bit of English and this makes dinner conversation more interesting.
Thiago is the most entertaining of the group. His English is very good since he is a computer engineer and needs to know the language for his work. Sometimes in his heavy Portuguese accent he will lean over to Ingrid, the German woman on his right and ask truly random questions that seem to baffle her.
“Ingrid, do you drink milk?”
“Yes, Thiago I do,” He lowers his head, purses his lips and nods.
“Do you like Rock music?”
“No” Same reaction. She is not the only one confused. We’re not sure why he has chosen to ask her such weird questions. A few minutes later we are discussing politics and geography. In this beautiful cultural blend of representatives we have in the tent, my interrogative instincts rise quickly to the surface. I want to know all about the governments, the rich history, the lives of the people in each of their countries. Here in this small tent we are France, Germany, Brazil, India, Puerto Rico and the United States. I realize how much we represent our countries and in a sense we are like cultural ambassadors to each other. Ingrid is an older woman from Germany who has seen so much in her lifetime. She has traveled the world hiking in some of the most beautiful landscapes and is now living in Cusco learning Spanish. She saw the Berlin wall come down. At one point in her travels she decided to stop taking pictures. “Who is going to look at them when I am gone? She asks us. “I have no children, photos would just take up space and be thrown away. I have all my memories up here,” she taps her forehead, “I don’t want to waste any more time with a camera when I can sit in front of a beautiful scene and remember it for the rest of my life.”
After dinner, nobody wants to leave the warm tent to go to bed. In the course of two hours, we have gone through all the mate de coca and popcorn, the soup and the rice. We have each discussed the places we have visited and the ones we wish to conquer before we die. We have shared our world perspectives, told funny stories that actually happened and made up crazy new ones we hope never will. We have established that sometimes you don’t need a camera to capture your memories and that Lula de Silva, the Brazilian president is missing the pinky finger on his left hand.
Right before we are about to stand up to leave, Thiago lowers his head into his hands and in a troubled, muffled voice tells us, “There is a ship. It has two bad legs, it break my heart…I cannot go on.” I look at Callie and her eyes get wide. We both want to laugh so hard because we have no idea what he is trying to communicate to us right now. Glances are passed around the tent.
“What do you mean Thiago?” I ask him. He stands up abruptly and his head brushes the ceiling of the tent. He starts fishing in his pockets and pulls out a small flashlight. “I show you. Come.” We all follow him out of the warm tent and into the biting night air. A few meters from the tent, there is a stake in the ground with a rope attached. There is a small sheep tied up and his front two legs are broken. This is the “ship” he was telling us about. He bends down to pet the sheeps head like a dog and looks at us with desperation in his eyes. “It break my heart,” he repeats. He stands up and walks to his tent with his head down, “Goodnight.” we hear softly as he is walking away from us. The rest of us stand here bewildered, looking at each other and eventually drift towards our respective tents too, throwing a glance back at the poor sheep. As Callie and I crawl into bed, Felipe mentions something about knowing what our breakfast will be in the morning.
At five-thirty in the morning, a porter is unzipping the bottom corner of our tent to offer us mate de coca and to nudge us into waking up. The porters are some of the toughest people I have ever met. They are hired by the tour companies to carry the tents, food and equipment up the Inca Trail alongside us. Extremely fast walkers, they carry an incredible amount of weight on their backs and usually do it all in a pair of worn down flip flops. They rarely take breaks and don’t drink mate de coca like the rest of us in order to deal with the altitude. Instead, they are toting some mysterious liquid in their flasks. When we ask the tour guide what it is, the rough translation is something like, “super wine”. Porters usually have dark, leathery skin because of how much time they spend in the sun and are proud to say they are descendants of the great Inca people.
Our team slowly wakes up. We feel every bone in our bodies creak and every tense muscle scream. We dress in layers since the day will start off cool, peak at some sweltering temperature in the middle and end with us shivering again. After breakfast, the tents are packed, water bottles are filled with boiled water and we start out on the trail for day two, the most difficult day on the Inca Trail.
It is obvious within the first hour that the steps are getting steeper. Callie and I split up towards the beginning because I am a slower hiker and don’t want to wear myself out by trying to keep up with her. The path today follows the Llulluch’a River and it is an incredibly steep climb. We pass throughYunkachimpa and are surrounded by jungle and misty forest. Vines hang down, reaching out like lazy arms. The green color that composes our surroundings is breathtaking. We are all split up in different parts of the trail, each hiking at our own pace, passing people in other hiking groups or being passed by them in a sort of silly dance. Throughout the day, I meet new hiking buddies or spend hours hiking alone. I have more time than ever before to ponder life or question whose crazy idea it was to come hike this trail. My legs are crying out in protest and accusing me of self-torture.
After a while, the jungle begins to thin and I leave it behind me as if I’m shedding a big, heavy coat. In front of me is a steep slope, leading around a mountain and I can’t help but think that there is no way I am ever going to make it to the top. I can feel every ounce in my nine-kilo backpack before I start the long journey to the top. I encourage myself to count out at least thirty steps before resting each time. On this hill, the hikers from all groups are slowly inching their way up at a tedious pace. We pass each other in one moment, only to be passed up moments later. It is the most excruciating and slow-going process. No wonder they say it’s the hardest day of the trail. An hour later, I am standing at the top of Warmiwañusqa, which means “Dead Woman” and sits at 12,600 feet. It’s possible that in this moment, I feel more pride than all of my proud moments combined. Maybe it’s because I can physically see the distance I have come. Or because can feel the accomplishment in my bones and in my tired muscles. Looking down the side of the mountain, I see that it is spotted with colorful dots that are more hikers making their way up. I am glad I made it, but also proud because I made it on my own.
So far, my gimpy knee is holding up well. The knee brace is keeping my kneecap in place as I walk, leaving me with only slight discomfort. I turn away from the view looking out on the hikers making the trek up the mountain and turn 180 degrees to see the next part of the trail. It is cold, misty and beginning to rain so I throw on a poncho for the last bit of today’s hike. I can only see about five feet in front of me and the old, crooked stones under my feet are dangerously slick. I can’t see any of the other hikers around me because of how thick the fog is but I can sometimes hear them slip and land on top of their own hiking backpacks. With every step, I am just praying to stay upright on this mountain.
I finally reach camp at Paqaymayu at 10,500 feet. The mist is coming in over the hills and there is a beautiful waterfall behind me, gushing out of the mountain. I find a man holding our team flag and he leads me to the rest of the group. The tents are already set up and I can smell the porters making lunch. Callie is waiting for me in our dry tent and welcomes me with a smile.
“You made it!” she has already been waiting an hour or so with Felipe, the two of them being our strongest hikers. She did today’s seven-hour hike in five hours and I finished up in six. I lay down on the hard ground, chilling out for a few moments before getting up the energy to put on dry clothes.
“Hey, so I was talking to Natalie, the French girl, on the trail today,” she tells me as I stretch out my legs and kick off my soaking boots.
“Oh yeah? She seems nice,” What I mean to say is quiet. She is a tough hiker as well, in her mid-twenties, long blonde hair and bright blue eyes and always smiling. She speaks French and Spanish, which has made it hard for her to participate in our group discussions. The only common language between the rest of us is English.
“Did you know she is pregnant?”
“What?!” I sit up and tilt my head. This is an astonishing bit of information.
“Yeah! She is eight weeks along. You should see her talk about it, she is so excited.”
“Do you think it is a good idea for her to be doing this trail?” I ask, concerned about all the heavy hiking we have been doing these past few days.
“I don’t know but she said she went to a doctor before she came here and he told her it wouldn’t be a problem.” The porters call us over for lunch and we meet in the eating tent. Our team talks about the hike and how happy we are to be done with the most grueling day of the trail. Conversation at mealtimes gets stranger every time. Somehow we end up talking about piercings and broken bones, about languages and which ones are the hardest to learn, weddings and marriage, music and family. Outside our tent, the fog starts to roll in like a big welcoming, puffy blanket. Before it covers the waterfall behind camp, Callie and I pose for a picture forming the letters “C” and “H” with our bodies. We have decided to spell “MACHU PICCHU” along the trail in front of the scenery because it’s boring to look at too many pictures of nature no matter how beautiful. We spend the rest of the day keeping warm in the tent and scribbling in our journals before the memories escape us.
If someone had told me this morning that today would be a harder day than yesterday, I never would have left the tent. We are woken up again by the porters, handing us steaming cups of mate de coca through the tent door. Why doesn’t this happen to me at home? I love it. The cool mist is chilling and my stomach churns because the first hour and a half is supposed to be a very steep climb. This morning, our team is cheery and rejuvenated, chattering away at breakfast. Ingrid leans over to Natalie and asks in English if she slept well. Tears start to stream from the corners of her eyes without her saying a word. She shakes her head side to side. Callie and I look at each other knowing right away what must be wrong. We are the only two people on the team that know about her pregnancy. We try to think quickly because we are sitting in the middle of everyone but don’t want to make a scene or have her feeling uncomfortable. We motion for her to follow us out of the tent.
Once outside, she explains to us in French-coated Spanish that last night she started bleeding. Callie and I know this is bad news since we are exactly in the middle of the trail. We can’t go back, we can only keep moving forward. There is no emergency rescue system out here and no place to land a helicopter. She is going to have to finish the trail before she can see a doctor. We try to think quickly and can only come up with talking to Thiago. He is a cancer surgeon but there is the slight possibility that he might have learned something about this type of situation.
I pull the tent flap open and ask him to come outside. The problem is that Thiago only speaks Portuguese and a tiny bit of English. Natalie speaks French and Spanish. So Callie and I go back and forth between them, first speaking Spanish to Natalie and translating in English to Thiago, helping each other to fill in the gaps until the two of them understand each other. Thiago explains there is a chance that she lost the baby last night but also since she is not in a lot of pain, he is hopeful that she might still have it. The bleeding is obviously something to worry about. Natalie starts to cry and explains she obviously never would have done the trail if it would have put the baby in danger but the doctor in Santiago told her it wouldn’t be a problem.
Next, we explain the situation to our guides John and Hernan. They tell us that there is a doctor at the camp tonight but there is a whole day of trekking, at least seven hours at a normal pace, until we get there. They also mention how important it will be for her to go slow. Today is a completely downhill trail but with very jolting steps which may worsen her condition. Her brow starts to furrow at this news but we look at her and tell her not to worry. Callie and I decide to hike with her at the back of the group until we reach camp and John carries her hiking pack for her. The rest of the group has already started out on the trail, still unaware of the situation. The five of us trek forward in baby steps. I can already tell it is going to be a long day.
It’s a rough beginning and I am praying that it doesn’t stay this difficult. After only forty-five minutes, we can tell Natalie is in a lot of pain. We all stop and re-assess the situation. John and Hernan decide to carry her between them in a blanket the rest of the way. The five of us are alone, in the middle of the trail because we are all the way behind all the other hiking groups. While not ideal, the decision is made to carry her on the blanket, which leaves a very obvious and difficult second problem to solve. In order for them to carry her like this, they will not be able to carry their backpacks. Callie and I look at each other, shrug our shoulders and bend over to pick up their packs and strap them onto our fronts since our backs are already supporting our own packs. We can’t see the steps we are going down and if we lean too far forward, the weight on our fronts threatens to make us topple forward.
After a while hiking like this, we reach Runkuraqay at 11,400 feet. In the days of the Incas, it was used as a type of relay station. It acted as a postal center and healers would come here to sleep on their trek along the trail. Farther along the trail we pass more ruins called Sayaqmarka, which is beautiful, built with a steep stairway. Once we catch up to the group a few hours later, Felipe and Elwyn take the packs we have been carrying so we can have a break for a while. The trail evens out and it will be flat for an hour or two. John and Hernan let Natalie walk this part and the rest of the team goes ahead of us. I walk a long time with Natalie talking about life. I don’t want her to feel alone on this trail. I know if I were going through something so difficult, and so far from home, I would need a little support too. I tell her that I think she is staying very strong. She tells me more about her life in France and the family she is missing. Her boyfriend, the father of her baby, has already returned to work in France after spending a few weeks with her traveling in Chile.
We pass through a rock tunnel and the forest around us thickens. The rain is coming down lightly at first but as we move forward, starts to pelt us with angry sheets of water. We reach Phuyupatamarka, which means “city above the clouds” at 10,800 feet. Important Inca ceremonies used to take place here. There are look-out posts and ritual baths. The view from this point is absolutely incredible. The ruins are made up of walls covered in moss. They are old and crumbling but definitely not forgotten. They give off whispers of elegance and grace. These walls were once shelters to the great Inca people.
Natalie, John and I are at the back of the group at this point. Hernan has rushed ahead of us to get to camp and see if he can get a stretcher for Natalie. Now, we are worried about reaching camp before the night falls. If we can’t make it in time, there will be no light and we will be in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. There is no way to force Natalie to hike any faster. Just as the light is starting to fade, we see three men coming towards us with a stretcher. They load Natalie in gently and start barreling down the side of the mountain. I realize that now I have to do my best to keep up with the four men carrying Natalie because I am the very last person on the trail. I have trouble keeping up with the porters and I start to stumble around with the light quickly fading. My knee is starting to give out from the three-day intense hiking and my backpack is feeling too heavy. The color of the night sky gets deeper. The rocks are slippery and wet from the rains. We are all clambering down them and with every sharp turn, I worry that they might drop her. I can tell she is thinking the same thing with her eyes shut tight, fingers gripping the sides of the stretcher. After forty-five minutes of pushing my body to keep up with the agile porters, we reach camp Wiñaywayna at the base of the mountain. I squeeze Natalie’s hand and they put her in a tent with Ingrid. I throw off my backpack as if throwing off the entire world and crawl to the tent that Callie and I are sharing.
When I open the tent door, she takes one look at me and I can see worry spread across her face. I lie down in the middle in the tent, soaking and shaking. Exhausted doesn’t even begin to describe this feeling. I feel defeated, like every atom of energy was sucked from my body. I can feel every rock on the ground pushing into my back. Tears start to leak out corners of my eyes. This hike that should have taken seven hours, lasted for twelve painful hours. I am still worried that she may have lost the baby.
They promised there would be a doctor at camp and I’m devastated to find out that he isn’t here waiting. The porters say he is actually five kilometers away in Aguas Calientes and it is too dark for him to make the trek here now. All because we arrived after nightfall. I am too tired to argue with them that they should have radioed for him to come earlier. It’s too late now. Natalie will have to wait until tomorrow so she stays in the tent and sleeps until morning.
Callie helps me pull my life together and to change into warm dry clothes. She lets me lean on her as we walk to the mess hall where all the other hiking groups have gathered in celebration, toasting with frothy glasses of beer and paying for lukewarm showers in the nasty stalls in the bathroom. There is a feeling of triumph since we all know we will be seeing Machu Picchu in the morning. It’s not until I eat something that I feel life come back to my body. The positive energy is contagious and I start to remember why I came here. Tomorrow we will see the land of the Incas.
Today’s wake up call is at 4 a.m. All the teams rush through breakfast to get to the front of the line for the control point at the beginning of today’s trail. It will take only an hour and a half to reach Machu Picchu. It is a calmer and flatter trail than the past days but still interrupted by stairs. We finally reachIntipunku, which is the “doorway to the sun” and from here we get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. It is absolutely beautiful and the clouds intermittently cover our view, almost teasing us. We are now about forty minutes away. At this point, everyone in our group is walking beside each other. We decide to hike the last part of the trail together. We have gotten so close over the past three days and have helped each other through the hardest parts.
Finally the clouds open up and we are standing above Machu Picchu. It is raining and clouds swirl in and out of the ruins. There is a group of people snapping photos in front of the famous green hill called Huayna Picchu. Before taking the steps down to the ruins with the rest of the group, Callie and I stand for a few moments in awe. We earned this. It took so much effort to get here and we actually made it.
Machu Picchu is built upon a huge slab of white granite. It is split into two sections, one for agriculture where terraces were used to grow food and one urban sector where there are living quarters and important temples. There are sixteen ritual baths that were filled by an intricate aqueduct system. Our first part of the tour is the Temple of the Sun, which has a semi-circular façade. It was used for solar cult ceremonies and astronomical measurements. There are two windows that align with the sunrise on June 21 and December 22. It is a temple built to worship the heavens, the earth and the underworld. It is built in the “Inca imperial” style, which is based on finely cut stones. Recently, archaeologists have attempted to re-create the style using modern equipment and they were still unable to get such perfect results.
As we walk through the grounds, I think about the brilliance of this ancient culture. They were so advanced in astronomy, agriculture and architecture that it is impossible to call them “uncivilized”. In the Main Temple, there are three windows that line up with the equinox and solstice and in the Sacred Plaza, a stone altar throws a shadow in the morning that is the shape of a llama. We also visit the Temple of the Condor where mummies were found. It is a temple that signifies how the human can be carried to the sun god on the wings of the condor.
After the tour is over, we take a bus into Aguas Calientes and I am glad we will finally be getting a doctor for Natalie. When she leaves, I hug her good-bye and wish her luck. Her eyes are sad but she tells me how much she appreciates that I kept hiking with her yesterday. She lifts her pack onto her back and turns to leave.
Once she is gone, Ingrid shakes her head, “It’s really too bad she lost the baby.” I turn to her in utter shock. I had no idea. I thought there was still some hope that Natalie would be alright. Ingrid sees the surprise on my face, “She miscarried this morning, didn’t you know?” I can’t imagine having to go through something like this the way Natalie did. She was strong on a trail that is difficult to hike when you are completely healthy. I also wonder why she didn’t tell me she lost the baby. Maybe she didn’t want to disappoint me after we worked so hard to get her to camp. Those of us remaining in the group eat lunch and head to the train.
Curving in and out of this beautiful Peruvian landscape, I have time to think about the past four days. I met people who I will always remember and hope to see again. We left imprints on each other from our different cultures, memories from the trail and silly inside jokes. I met people that make me remember why I love to travel and explore. Seeing Machu Picchu at the end of the trail was amazing but the three days leading up to it were even more rewarding. I learned about physical limits, how far my body can be pushed when there is no other option. And I learned about emotional limits. How supporting someone you don’t even know or just walking with them can make a difference. I accomplished more than I thought I would, saw more beautiful sights than I knew existed and became a stronger person for the experience. The bewitching atmosphere of this corner of Peru will never leave me. I have conquered the Inca trail.