Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Inca Trail

Our expedition starts at daybreak. Streams of rain flow along the cobblestone streets of Cusco and the town slowly comes to life, while we wait under the roof of our hostal to be picked up. Dressed in jeans, a sweater, a scarf and a hat I am shivering from the cold. When our vehicle finally arrives, we are half an hour behind schedule. Four Australians are already inside, sitting with their bags between their legs. Our group is supposed to number twelve people: four of them, us two and six Latvians. Plus ten porters and two guides.

We reach Ollantaytambo at about nine in the morning. At this time, the main square resembles a parking-lot for busses. Tonnes of passengers pour our of the busses´ insides and try to break through a crowd of local women. Trade of chocolate, coca leaves, water, thin rainproof ponchos, and walking-sticks for the hike, begins. In a packed restaurant that also doubles as a hostel, we eat our breakfast. All public toilets are busy, so - if the need arises - one uses the bathrooms in the emtpy hostel rooms. Sipping my coffee, I look through the window over the square, at this unparalleled Spanish/English spectacle amongst the busses, at the last minute shopping, trading, this final exchange of goods. When I gaze up, I have a feeling that, along with myself, ghosts of local inhabitants' ancestors are watching these events; ghosts, that must still live in the town's ruins that can be seen on the slope of the opposite mountain. I wait for one of them to notice me and greet with a nod or a wave; but time is running out, we have to travel further. Passengers board their busses, the town fades into the distance and we, along a river, on a bumpy, muddy, one-lane road, head toward kilometer 82. It is here that we are to start our four-day long, unforgettable hike along the Inca Trail.


It is drizzling when we cross the suspension bridge to the other side of the Urubamba River, also known as Vilcanota or Wilcamayu, Quechuan for Holy River. There are only ten of us, two Latvians dropped out somewhere along the way. Dressed in rainproof jackets, walking-sticks in hand and backpacks on our shoulders we start our ascent. We are in the middle of the road when, surprising even myself, I stop and gaze at a point far away. On the other side of the canyon, high above us, a female silhoutte stands out against the horizon. Her clothes are so obviously different from mine: a layered, pleated skirt reaches half-way down her calves, her hair is braided in two long plaits. A little dog is loafing around her feet. The woman strolls back and forth along the abyss, right, left, the dog following her every move, finally becoming still only when she stops, on the edge. For a moment they both look at the wanderers below, at me. It seems like they are counting how many of us walk the trail today, I have a feeling that news of our arrival will be carried through the mountains quickly. I want to share this incredible sight with Bjarni, but when we look up together, there is no-one there anymore. And it seems like there has never been.

We continue the hike, slowly covering some ten kilometres and making our way towards the first night´s rest. We hike along the river; this evening the rush of its water rocks us to sleep at the campsite in Wayllabamba, the last harbour of civilisation on the trek. I fall asleep curled up, in training trousers, with Bjarni´s body warming mine, slightly cold from the chill of being at 3000 metres above the sea, wrapped in my sleeping bag. In the middle of the night, light from torches wakes me up; voices are approaching outside. It is raining cats and dogs and our guides are checking if the tents are alright, whether any of them are leaking. Listening to the sound of drops beating at the tent´s cloth, I slowly drift back towards dream-land.

Our awakening is sudden, and very early in the morning - five thirty. Bjarni draws back the zipper and the hands of one of our porters pop into the tent, with two cups of hot tea, made from coca leaves. We warm up to this warm liquid, gathering the strength to go outside. After spending a few minutes packing our bags, we decide to greet the new day. The valley of our campsite is covered in mist, although the sun is slowly burning its way through the white layers. Dew brightens the grass, birds warble in the trees, the river roars in the distance, from the other tents our companions slowly emerge. All together, in a much larger tent, we eat breakfast, sitting on little folding chairs arranged around two small metallic tables. Today is supposed to be a challenge for us, as we have to conquer the most difficult part of the trail: the Dead Woman´s Pass. At 4200 metres above sea level, it is the highest point of our journey: reaching it will take us some five hours, followed by another few hours going down the other side, to the next camp. Although it is cold, I sweat relentlessly and stop every few steps to catch my breath. I am astonished by the porters: one after another, twenty, fourty, sixty years old, carrying at least twenty kilos on their backs, they run past, leaving me standing with my mouth agape. They clap their hands when, exhausted, I finally reach the pass; at the same time, a few are nourishing themselves with cigarettes. I am speechless.

It rains a bit as we head back down, on our way coming across a deer foraging for food. It comes so close, almost within reach of my hand, and looks straight into my eyes, until the rustle of another hiker's rainproof jacket suddenly scares it away. This night we sleep at 3600 metres, surrounded by the snow capped cones of still higher mountains. In a tree next to our tent, hummingbirds have a nest.


The third day welcomes us with mud, drizzle, and, as always, coca-tea. We start to feel muscle pains, but still have enough strength to walk another thirteen kilometers. It doesn't seem like much, but at this altitude every kilometer counts triple. At least for me. Down, up, climbing stairs so tall I can barely raise my leg from one to the next, on a trail covered with stones, through a dried-out lake, past ruins of consecutive towns that used to cater for the one that is my destination, through an Inca tunnel hollowed in the rock, along the river - I struggle with the altitude for every gulp of air. I forget all about the noise of planes, the smell of petrol, hot water, fresh shirts, dry shoes. Edwin, our guide, tells stories I listen to with amazement. Like the one about chasquis, specialised runners, whose task was to deliver messages, royal delicacies and other things as quickly as possible from place to place throughout the Inca Empire. Especially for them relay stations, tambos, were constructed, places where they could rest, eat and change their clothes. A few kilometers before reaching such a station, the chasqui would take a pututu out of his bag, a trumpet made of a conch shell, and with its help he would announce his arrival. Another chasqui would run to meet him half way, take charge of whatever his predecessor was carrying, and then he himself would commence his sprint over the next few kilometers. When Sapa Inka, the Sun's son and the god regent, settled high in the mountains, far from the sea, requested fresh fish, he could enjoy it the very next day.

Today I, at 4000 meters above the sea, wait in a tambo for the muffled sound of a pututu, staring at a distant pass between mountains, a pass I struggled with so recently. I make an offering of stones and coca leaves, bowing in three directions and reciting "Sulpayki Apus": "Thank you, Mountain Spirit" for your help in this journey. Between the rustle of bamboo leaves and the hum of small waterfalls, I try to catch voices of people who, a few centuries ago, were travelling the trail I am conquering now. I delude myself that nature will share with me the unspoken.


I fall asleep to wake up in darkness. Crowds of hikers with flashlights are queueing to attempt the last leg of the four-day trip. I didn´t fully realise how many people had started the hike together with me. Now we are all waiting for a gate to open. At five thirty a.m. we are allowed to cross the fence, we start the last walk along the trail. We slowly climb up tall stairs, known locally as the "Gringo Killer", in mist we complete our journey. When the clouds finally part, the town appears.

Machu Picchu, proud and beautiful, shines in the sun, welcoming its next arrivals.

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The past!