By James T. Carney
[Sequel to "Lima and Cusco"]
Our first day on the Inca Trail was relatively easy because we hiked for only about five miles and probably climbed a thousand feet or so in altitude. The portion of the trail we climbed followed the River Cuscichaca.
|Click to enlarge photographs|
We passed one significant Inca ruin at Llactapata, but didn’t have time to explore it. My one regret about the trip was that we did not have any real time to explore the Inca ruins along the trail. After passing these ruins and hiking for about two hours we arrived at a campsite where we had lunch and watched a group of girls playing soccer on an abbreviated soccer field. I was anxious to move on but was alone in my eagerness. At last, we got going again.
This part of the trail passes through several small settlements until coming to the campsite at Guayllabamba, where we stopped for the night. The porters erected the two-man tent where John and I slept through the night, getting up only to go to the restroom right outside the tent. There was running water at this campsite and actually a toilet upon which one could sit—a luxury which was missing for the rest of the trail. I found a hut in the campsite where the family that lived there kept its guinea pigs—a major luxury for Peru in Guayllabamba.
Indeed, the picture of the Last Supper in the Cathedral in Cusco shows Christ and the disciples about to dine on a guinea pig whose feet are sticking up in the air:
|Cusco Cathedral Reviews—Cusco, Peru—gogobot.com|
The next day was supposed to be the toughest day on the trail because we had to climb almost four thousand feet to Dead Woman’s Pass. We got going as soon as we had eaten breakfast and dawn had broken. Most of the trail up to the pass involved traveling up rather bare fields that enabled one to see far beyond where we were going—a dubious benefit in my view. My approach to hiking was to go slow and easy and not to try to keep up with anyone. This meant that I was generally last in our group and our guide had to stay with me to make sure I got where I was supposed to be going. I felt a tremendous sense of exhilaration when I got to the top of the pass and for the first time was absolutely sure I would make it to Machu Picchu. At this point, I figured it was all downhill. Boy, was I wrong.
It was literally downhill for the rest of that day. Of course, as any hiker knows, going downhill is more dangerous than going uphill because of the risks of slipping and the constant jarring impact on the knees from stepping down. However, our hiking poles were a major assistance in descending. We had to travel about another two hours after we reached the pass to arrive at the campsite at Pacamayu. We got hit by a brief shower on the way down to the campsite that left the trail slick. I took one spill when my feet went out from under me and I fell backwards. No harm was done but our porter got concerned and carefully escorted me to our campsite.
At the break of dawn on the third day, we had breakfast and started our hike to the second pass. The ascent was only a couple kilometers and was relatively easy. We passed the old fortress of Runkuracay at the top and then proceeded to the fortress of Sayacmarca, where we had lunch. I thought we would have a relatively easy day of it since the rest of the day was all downhill—“forever.” What I didn’t reckon on was that we had another 11 kilometers to cover—i.e., a distance equal to the total distance we had traveled during the entire second day.
It didn’t matter that it was almost all downhill because I was running out of steam, and darkness—which seemed to hit by 5:00 p.m.—began to descend. At one point the guide wanted two porters to carry me but I refused and staggered forward with one porter holding a flashlight so I could see and the other holding on to my arm so I wouldn’t fall. It seemed an eternity before I got to camp at Wiñay Wayna. I had never been so exhausted in my life.
I never saw the ruins at Wiñay Wayna because it was dark when I arrived and it was dark the next morning when we got up and started on the trail to Machu Picchu—after passing through a check point manned by the police. Police in Peru seemed to be heavily armed, although the only time I saw them make an arrest was when John and I were in front of the Cusco cathedral and a truckload of them showed up, jumped out, and commenced a vigorous pursuit to two fat, middle-aged women (accompanied by kids) who were try to sell items to the tourists. For fat women, they really could run, but they were outnumbered by the police. I assume that their illicit activity involved selling goods without a license. They didn’t look like Muslim terrorists.
In all events, I was happy to be moving forward to the end of the trail. Much to my surprise, I found myself quite rested. Most people who hike the trail get up about three o’clock in the morning so they can hike to the Sun Gate, which is the third pass on the trail, in time to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu—a much overrated experience according to Mark Adams in his book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu. In any event, I did not make it in time to see the sun rise and I doubt that anyone is our group did either. I certainly had had enough of clambering around in the dark after the previous day.
It was about 6 kilometers from Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu and we did have to go up the very steep (but not very high) pass known as the Sun Gate. I had to get on my hands and knees to climb the steepest part. However, it was all worth it when we reached the top of the pass and could look down and see the mystic ruins. The view was simply magnificent although Machu Picchu was not surrounded by the clouds which you see in most pictures and which make it look particularly mystic.
It took a good hour or so to climb down to Machu Picchu, where we spent part of the afternoon exploring the ruins. We would have spent more time but we were hit by a torrential downpour. The Machu Picchu ruins did not look as impressive as they would have without having previously already seen a lot of Inca ruins, but they were clearly the best set of ruins in Peru. However, they differed in degree and not in kind from the other ruins.
We waited out the rain in the restaurant below until we could take the bus to Aqua Calientes, which is at the head of the Cusco railroad line and about a mile downhill from Machu Picchu. We had a great dinner with our guide and then took a long train ride back to Cusco, landed in our hotel in time to pack up our bags, and the next morning headed to the airport for our flight to Lima.
We spent almost a full day at the Lima airport waiting for our plane to the States. We talked to a couple who had hiked up Kilimanjaro and said that it was a tougher trip than the Inca Trail. I have no intention of testing their claim. I had originally gotten into the hiking mode because I found that ordinary tourism left me—an ardent amateur historian—bored after several days of forts, museums, and cathedrals. Probably the best hiking trip I took was with my friend Rich when we hiked the length of Hadrian’s Wall—74 miles—over ten days. There were forts, museums, and other sites to see all along the way, as well as interesting terrain. And we hit a pub every night. The Inca Trail, in retrospect, turned out to be more of an endurance hike than a pleasure one, and while I endured, I did not appreciate what I was seeing in the way that many others did. Kilimanjaro—which is pure endurance and no real things to see—poses no charms for me. I hope to hit a little happier median on my next trip, because there will be a next trip. As Tennyson’s Ulysses says,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
by George Frederic Watts
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought…..
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Copyright © 2013 by James T. Carney