I hadn’t thought too much about our journey along the most famous path to Machu Picchu prior to arriving at the control gates on day one. Friends said it was difficult but the altitude had been kind so far. All I knew was that we had to camp and forgo showers for a few days. This was going to be interesting.
After walking for four days I couldn’t help but think of the 2001 movie, Gosford Park, which highlights the delicate interplay between classes during a weekend on a country estate. For on the Inca Trail one finds two distinct groups of people: the well-off (and often white) “brave” hikers making their way to Machu Picchu, and the locals who make their adventure possible. We hadn’t found the opportunity to be so close to Peruvians prior to this trek. Worried that we’d missed out on the cultural side of Peru because the Puno protests had kept us away from Lake Titicaca, we were happy to chat with our guides and the team of staff travelling with our group.
The trek is only 43 kilometres but it feels much longer. Even the first day, classed as “easy” by our guide, left us exhausted. But we were always entertained. We passed many local people at the beginning, walking alone or behind mules that carried provisions to various points on the trail. Ladies selling water, sports drinks, candy bars and other provisions became our saviours. We carried only small daypacks as we climbed up and down dusty hills.
The second day found us ascending more than 4,000 metres over the ‘Dead Woman’s Pass.’ It took some of us almost four hours of continuous climbing to finally reach the top. Meandering along, a wad of coca leaves in one cheek, gives you plenty of time to consider what’s happening around you. Some people saw the trail as a racetrack, running ahead and leaving the rest of their group behind. Others took a slower pace, either to savour the experience or because they physically couldn’t go any faster. From time to time the cry of “Porters!” could be heard and the line of hikers would step aside to let these very important people through.
Because where would we be without our porters, cooks and guides on this trek? Porters make less than 170 soles (US$62) per four-day journey (not including tips) and carry all the equipment, personal belongings and food required by the groups they are supporting. The weight limit is 20 kilograms, but we were told that our porters were carrying more because several others had not shown up for work due to the election. They would make more money in tips than usual for their services.
We were introduced to these men on the second day and learned their names, how many children they had and how long they had worked on the trail. We cheered them on as they passed us on the trail. Because when your lungs feel like they are about to give out and your legs are screaming for a break, you come to appreciate that you would be taking the train if not for these guys. We ate delicious food at every meal, things you would not believe could be made at a campsite. At the tipping ceremony on the last night, the woman who presented his envelope literally kissed the cook.
Machu Picchu makes people a little crazy…I wish I could count myself among these devotees. The ruins are something I knew I should see while in South America, but hardly the highlight of my time here. We awoke at 3.30 am on the final morning to be among the first people at the site. Not my idea. One of the women in our group must have thought her head would explode if she was not at the head of the line, making it quite unpleasant for some of us. We heard that some people run during the final stretch and push others out of the way. Luckily we did not experience this madness. We bonded with most of the people around us. Displays of support and camaraderie were more common than competitiveness and opposition.
I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy listening to another couple recount their experience on the alternative Valle Lares Trek. They had a private toilet tent, no one else in their group and a good night’s sleep the night before visiting Machu Picchu, all things that would have made the experience much more enjoyable for me. They also spent time with the locals in rural villages on the walk. Their experience sounded less rushed and perhaps a bit more sanitary (toilet facilities on the Inca Trail are horrendous). While I don’t regret doing the Inca Trail and will always remember the beautiful scenery and sense of accomplishment I felt on completing it, part of me found the process and schedule of the trail to detract from the spiritual journey that it should have been. While the ancient path was once traversed by the legendary Incas, I found it difficult to connect with this history on my own journey.
More interesting for me was the interplay between the people on the trail and the path as it exists now. A must-do on many a traveller’s list, the Inca Trail is tightly controlled and everyone has pretty much the same experience. A late start on day one brings you to the first campsite at dusk. The second day is classed as the most difficult with freezing temperatures awaiting you in your tent, while the third day features the most beautiful scenery and the long-awaited chance for beer and a hot shower at the Winay Wayna campsite. Everyone gets up in the wee hours of the morning on day four to reach Machu Picchu before the non-hiking crowds flood the site. I yawned my way through the guided tour of the ruins because of sleep deprivation and fatigue.
One thing is certain: the path traversed by today’s trekkers is certainly easier than it was centuries ago because of all the help on hand. Perhaps something is lost today with the rigid schedule and group dynamics of the trail. While I would still recommend the Inca Trail to those who are curious about its mysteries, much was missing for me in the lack of surprise and discovery along the way.
Have you hiked the Inca Trail? What did you think?