Speedy Sexy Singing Llamas and other ‘Tails’ from the Inka Trail

After another uphill losing battle with airlines, customs, airports and the other great joys of air travel, which deserve an entire blog all on their own, but which I won’t bore you with as we have all been there, and need a beer…make that two…to properly vent our frustrations on it, I arrived in Cusco; sans baggage. Somewhere between Toronto, New York, Panema, Lima and Cusco, my backpack containing everything including my hiking boots and sleeping bag had gone MIA. That’s right, I’m looking at you New York…you know what you did…

I had made the rookie mistake of not wearing my hiking boots on to the plane. My rationale had been solid. After going through what feels like hundreds of customs, I had developed a system that got me through at top speeds, and that included easy-on, easy-off boots. What I hadn’t counted on was them losing my bag. I know, rookie mistake. This was the first time I had ever lost a bag, which is a miracle in itself because I normally take really convoluted flights to get where I’m going, which is normally some far flung out of the way destination.

But regardless, there I was, a day away from disappearing up a mountain into the jungle for four days with nothing but the clothes on my back (which for the record, I had already been in for three days). And as you will notice in the pics, I was definitely not in hike-worthy boots. Now I could have bought new boots, but since the ones sitting somewhere in limbo were less than 3 months old, it put a bitter taste in my mouth. There was still twenty-four hours in which time my bag could show up…I’m a hopeless optimist, I know.

With that optimism bolstering my courage, and my annoyance at having to be optimistic in the first place feeding my stubbornness, I wandered through my hostel, making friends and looking for people who were leaving for the trail the next day, hoping that they might be in my group. Who I met instead was an amazing girl named Nydja from Washington, D.C.. She was one of those inspiring people who travel solo for months on end and she was a huge activist for women’s rights and abused women. We sat and talked for hours over lunch about her work and mine working with rescued women and children. Lunch turned into supper, and supper turned into drinks with friends, and before I knew it, it was 5am and I was shivering in the dark pre-dawn chill waiting for the van to pick me up to go hiking with a huge hangover. (Here is where I insert a medical side note…I’m one of those really annoying people who don’t get hungover, but because of the altitude and my lack of experience with hangovers, this one hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m sure the serpentine road, the tin can of a van with no suspension and the terrifying driving habits of the Peruvians culminating in motion sickness did not help matters any). No one was more excited than me when we finally climbed out of the torture chamber on wheels and strapped on our backpacks. For better or worse it was on foot from here, and by far and large on foot has always been my favourite way to travel.

The four of us, along with our two guides and our six porters, marched to the gate. Passport stamp accomplished, we were off. Almost instantly, it became clear that our group was something special. Casper from Denmark, two sisters Ilona and Linda from Holland and myself the Canadian. It didn’t take more than five minutes before one of us started singing. Two seconds later, the whole group was pulling off acapella masterpieces the likes of which had never been heard on the Inka trail before. At first our guides Eddie and Bernardo seemed a little embarrassed by our display, but by the end of the four day trek, they wore nothing short of proud looks on their face as every team on the mountain with us knew about us, and the guides and porters from all the other teams were asking about us, greeting us and we became a bit of celebrities on the trek.

Without being cocky or tooting my own horn, I say this is well earned. By the end of the second day, our fingers were permanently blue from the lack of oxygen at that high of altitude, and we had been hiking up a steady incline all day. We had also been singing at the top of our lungs…the entire way. That’s a 1200m altitude gain in 9km at 4200m above sea level. Most of the other Trekkers simply stared at us in wide eyed wonder, trying to figure out where we were hiding our portable oxygen tanks as we sped past them. We just cheered them on, and we went from being the strong speedy singing llamas to being cheering llamas.

The trek wasn’t all roses and melodies however. We had gone through rain that day, and would go through rain every day following. I was never more grateful to Nydja then when I changed out of my soaking wet jeans (I know, great hiking material right?) into a pair of leggings she had lent me. I wasn’t so lucky with the sleeping bag I had rented from the guide company. It was down filled, and while it was warm, it gave me an allergic reaction and every morning I’d wake up looking like a puffer fish, barely able to open my eyes from the swelling. A hot cup of coca tea delivered right to my tent door before I had even climbed out of my sleeping bag for the morning was an excellent consolation prize though and I’d often sit there breathing in the steam, letting it open my pores and leech out the histamines, and by the time I got out of my tent for breakfast, most of the team didn’t even realize I’d had a reaction at all. This only worked for the first couple days, by the third and fourth day, my system had wised up to my tricks and on the last morning my swelling didn’t subside to a half human level until well into the afternoon.

Casper, who had brought the entire pharmacy of Denmark with him, offered me some antihistamine, but I didn’t dare take it, because Day Three of the trek was no day to be drowsy. It was all downhill, and the downhill was all stairs. Now… When I say stairs, I mean ladders, cliffs and boulders. Some of the steps would be barely wide enough for your toe, some of them were so far apart you had to either do the splits or jump to reach them. Some of them were flat surfaces, but some of them were sharp as a knife. And all of them were wet and slippery as Canadian sidewalks in January.

Remember those hiking boots that were still in limbo? Ya, they weren’t on my feet as I was going over these knife blades pretending to be steps. Between the strain of the uneven ground, the sharp rocks and the wet mud, my boots disintegrated. My guide Bernardo came to my rescue like a heroic Gepetto, and somehow magically glued my boots back together. This would last until some point the next morning after slogging through more rain and mud, I’d stub my toe for the millionth time on the uneven rocks and they would split open again. Once again, Bernardo would sit by the dying light of the cook stove and glue my boots back together.

By the end of the trip, my boots became just as famous on the mountain as our musical skills did. Everyone who saw them would look at me like I was insane and then ask something to the way of “how are you walking in those? Don’t your feet hurt? Are you crazy?” To which I’d always respond with ” the airport ate my bag, and surprisingly, these boots are more comfortable than you think,” when really, the reality is that I basically walked the Inka Trail barefoot, since that is how thin the sole of those boots were.

By the last night on the trail. Everyone was soaking wet and chilled to the bone. For some odd reason the Holland sisters tent was the warmest, so we all crammed into it, blending into one giant sixteen limbed human pretzel and broke into Casper’s Oreo cookie stash. We all decided that there was no longer any point in conserving our phone batteries as for better or worse we would be back at the hostel by tomorrow night. We cranked the tunes up and sang our hearts out to European pop music, half of which I didn’t understand as I don’t speak Danish or Dutch. When they called us for supper, we were all really reluctant to leave our warm nest, even though it smelled like stinky feet and dirty wet sheep.

But the cook’s reputation for creating five star masterpieces off of a camp stove made our minds up for us and we crawled back out into the cold. And sure enough, we weren’t disappointed. I don’t know who is capable of making a cake on a camp stove, but try making a tiered birthday cake complete with fancy icing on one. Oh and by the way, you carried all the ingredients including the stove up a mountain. I was so excited about this trek, because I was going to lose so much weight and get in such great shape while hiking. Ya…. That didn’t happen. I gained weight, that’s how good our chef was. Passion fruit glazed chicken over a bed of rice, ceviche, you name it. These dishes belonged in the fancy hotel restaurants, set on fancy china and served with a perfectly chilled Dom Perignon, not on my tin plate as I balanced on an uneven plastic stool at a foldable table under a tent on the side of a mountain. Whatever the company pays the chef, it’s not enough. I won’t complain though, because I thoroughly enjoyed his fantastic cuisine.

Day One through Three were amazing. So many people talk about seeing Macchu Picchu, but there were so many other ruins on the trail, some of which I found better than Macchu Picchu (GASP! The sacrilege! I know). And I found that for one simple reason. Tourism. Macchu Picchu is slowly sinking, and to preserve it they are trying to sympathetically rebuild it, using the same ancient techniques that built it in the first place. But the problem is that Macchu Picchu is one of Peru’s greatest tourism draw, and to draw in the funds that come with that tourism, a lot of people go through the ruins every day, which wears down the site faster. They have since “touristified” it, putting in signs, and labelled walkways, and have basically raped the ruins of any original beauty. It has now become Disneyland ruins.

I prefer to see things untouched. And to be honest I was so disgusted with the scene that I encountered at Macchu Picchu, that I could have happily started the four day trek at Macchu Picchu and done the hike backwards, and enjoyed it more.

On Day Four, and the last day of the trek, were were up before the birds. 3am in the pitch black and freezing cold and pouring rain. We didn’t even stop to eat breakfast. We simply grabbed a sandwich and ate it on the trail. We were in a race against time. We had 6km to hike to the sun gate and we had to reach it just as the sun was coming up. The sooner we got there, the more time we’d have at Macchu Picchu before the mass throng of tourists invaded the ruins. We weren’t the strong speedy llamas for nothing. We were among the first to arrive at the Sun Gate, and there below us looking just like a post card, was Macchu Picchu. All the pain, the cold, the wet, the tired, everything melted away as we saw our goal, there in front of us shining like a diamond in the early morning light.

Not wanting to waste any time we descended down to the ruins. And suddenly, they weren’t so beautiful anymore. As I stood there waiting for our turn to stand on the picture rock (you know the one I’m talking about, the one that everyone stands on to get that classic Macchu Picchu picture), I overheard a group of women talking nearby. They were complaining about how tired they were, how sore their legs were from the stairs, how cold they were. I turned around to ask them how the trek was for them only to catch the overpowering stench of perfume. This was quickly followed by the view of mini skirts, heels, perfectly manicured hands, clean hair and a face that had makeup loaded on with a shovel. They were tired from the two sets of stairs that led from the main entrance to the overlook. I spun around in disgust. Here I was, going on nothing but stubbornness and adrenaline, soaked to the bone, in clothes that I had now been wearing for a week solid, with no shower in that week other than the rainstorms we had walked through, and I had walked 42kms up three mountain peaks on an injured knee, subsequently overloading the other knee and finished the trip literally hobbling, and now I was surrounded by people who found the stairs in the ruins too hard and wondering why they didn’t have buggies or vehicles that did driving tours through the ruins, or at least put escalators in.

My disgust must have been evident, or maybe Casper just felt the same as me, like the once beautiful place had been prostituted, because we both quickly left the sisters behind who wanted to snap a million pictures. Casper and I walked through the ruins as quickly as we could, looking for something that had retained its virginal luster, only to find more destruction. Days of hiking to reach it, and I spent a whopping 2 hours walking through it as quickly as I could, barely snapping ten pictures, before I couldn’t take anymore and we both went to the cafeteria and ordered a cheeseburger. And most of that two hours was waiting for throngs of high heeled perfumed mini skirts to get out of the way so I could run up the stairs.

Now more than anything, I just wanted a hot shower and a change of clothes, followed by a good long dry warm sleep in my hostel bed. We grabbed the bus down the mountain side and went into the town to catch our train back to Cusco. For some reason my train ticket ended up being for a train two hours later than everyone else’s, so I put my spare time to good use and went shopping for a change of clothes. I also bought some shampoo and new boots as mine had by now disintegrated even past Bernardo’s skill.

I had a great time sharing stories on the train back as I was lucky to have gotten a seat next to a group of two retired couples and the four of them had “earned their right” to Macchu Picchu by doing the two day river hike to reach the ruins. Since they were retired and obviously not in the best of shape, I didn’t hold the shorter easier trek against them. In fact I was impressed that they had hiked at all, and congratulated them on their trek. They laughed at my stories of losing my bag and boots and doing the trek in fashion boots and we shared in the adventure, conspiratorially glaring at and mocking the fakers who had taken the train to the ruins rather than hiking it.

And I discovered the best revenge for those perfumed mini skirts. They had to sit next to me on the train ride back, and while I was used to it by now, I’m sure my dirty wet smelly llama stench brought tears to their eyes. Serves them right!

Pulling into my hostel late that night, a shower had never felt better. In fact at first I grossed myself out as layer after layer of skin sloughed off in the shower. But once again clean, and feeling human, I couldn’t help but feel doubly accomplished. Not only did I do the four day Inca Trail Trek to Macchu Picchu like I had always dreamed of doing, but I did it solo, with no bag, no boots and nothing but the clothes on my back. I had never felt more proud to be in the experienced backpacker family then I did right then. Pure stubbornness and the will to never give up no matter what the world threw at me had seen me through.

And that ladies and gentlemen, is what it really feels like to be on top of the world!

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RIP boots… You weren’t made for walking but that is sure what you did.

PS… Guess what showed up in Lima when I went to board the plane home? Better late then never I guess!

The Diagnosis:

Accomodations: Milhouse Cuzco, $13 CAN/ night, 12 bed mixed dorm

Tour: Bamba Experience 4D/3N Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu $654/ person. (expensive but worth it as this is all included for the 4 day trek including food, trail permits, entrance fees, pays for the guides, cook and porters, etc.)

Transportation: taxis, buses, etc. Cusco is a big place and the best hostels are all located in the historic city center (and trust me that is where you want to be within walking distance of because it is beautiful). This is located approximately 30-40 min. drive from the small airport. And unless you are super adventurous, fit and have a military grade GPS unit implanted in your brain, you will never be able to find your hostel or walk to it from the airport as the streets are so labyrinth-like, blending without warning into other streets, not to mention the high altitude makes you extremely dizzy if you aren’t used to it. In fact my taxi driver had to stop a couple times and ask directions to find the street my hostel was on, and its a well known hostel in the area. Once you are in the city center though, everything is within walking distance

Food: Down the street from the hostel is one of the best places to try the national specialty dish of Peru; Guinea Pig. Kusikuy also makes a fantastic alpaca steak which I highly recommend. Bonus: if you show your wrist bracelet from Milhouse, you get a 10% discount! But if you are more interested in cheap/easy rather than experience, the hostel has a bar upstairs that makes a solid meal for anywhere between $15-$30 Peruvian Soles ($6-$12 CAN).

Story Time

Have you hiked the Inca Trail? What were the highlights/lowlights of your adventure?

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