The Inca Trail, or Mucho People
Note: This piece is long, even by my standards, so I’ve broken it into titled chunks the size of normal entries. With cavalier disregard for intellectual property, I’ve also illustrated the story with embedded links to photos on my walking companion Simon’s website. For a more concise, reliable account, go straight to World of More and see nice thumbnail images, too.
Dead Llama Tours, Inc
The Wayki Trek office on Gringo Alley in Cusco smelled really bad. Something had expired in the back room, but Leo the salesman didn’t seem to notice. At this early stage in our trip, Simon was too English to draw attention to unpleasant odor, and I was too busy pretending to Simon to be at one with Quechua culture to point out to Leo that he needed to fumigate his damn office. Instead, we politely booked a guided Inca Trail trek.
In 2001, UNESCO decreed that independent trekkers were destroying the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu. The path was deep with litter. There were no proper pit toilets. Ancient ruins were crumbling because campers were lighting cooking fires against the walls. The proposed solution was drastic: no more independent trekking. All tourists would have to walk with a certified local guide, using porters but not mules. Group size would be limited to ten per licensed guide, and no more than 500 people a day, including porters, would be allowed to hike. There would be a $50 entrance fee and carefully checked registration. Camping was permitted only at a few designated sites.
We had invested a morning in reading trip reports at the very comfortable South American Explorer’s Club in Cusco, trying to pick a decent travel agency. Wayki Trek, though small and relatively new, was well-reviewed. (No one had mentioned the rotting llama in the back room.) For $200 each, they would take us in a group of six. The price included tax, $25 entrance to the ruins, $50 government fee to walk the trail, three full meals a day, water, snacks, transport up to the trailhead, bus and train back, use of camping equipment, a licensed guide, a cook, and a porter for each hiker. We would carry our own clothes and sleeping bags, and should bring money for extra snacks and tips.
Tour groups are not my idea of fun, and I wasn’t cheered to meet ours. There was Chris and Suzanne, the Swiss-Germans, French Ana, Portuguese Joao, English Simon, and me. With Leo the guide (and Raul the trainee guide), we counted seven languages between us, and none in common. At the pre-trek briefing, we made stilted conversation about Alpine skiing over complimentary pisco sours.
‘I’m Europhobic,’ I complained to Simon afterwards. ‘Well, Eurosceptic. I mean, they’re fine and all, but we’re hardly going to have a rip-roaring time, are we? Why couldn’t we get a few Australians or Scots in our group? Seven bloody languages and can’t crack a joke in any of them.’
Leo arranged to pick us up at our hotel before dawn the next morning.
‘Just remember, you’re on holiday,’ said Simon when he woke me at 4.45. My mini backpack, stripped down to just a sleeping bag, notebook, and washkit, felt luxuriously light as I loaded it onto the minibus. We collected Chris and Suzanne, then Joao and Ana. Next we stopped for a couple of locals. I offered them cake, which startled them. My immediate neighbor was Marcelino, the cook, whose vinegary smell was to season our dinners. At Ollantaytambo, an hour and a half from Cusco, we stopped again so that Leo could hire more porters from the crowd of campesinos jostling for work. The women pushed trail snacks and walking sticks on stray tourists.
We decided on Spanish as the best language to use between us. Ana answered in French, which we all understood. Joao spoke a bizarre Portuguese-French-Spanish-Football creole, which we only pretended to understand; luckily, he wasn’t talkative. Chris and Suzanne switched from Spanish to English to French to Swiss-German, depending on who was dominating the conversation. I translated for Simon and insisted that Leo teach me some Quechua, too, which I wrote down carefully on the back of teabag sachets. ‘Ayiyanchu, wayki!’
‘Why does your friend,’ said Ana with a scornful nod, ‘speak no other languages?’ She herself spoke only French and the Portuguese of her parents.
‘He understands your French fine. He’s just a bit rusty speaking.’ I told her. And added silently, because he doesn’t need to, bee-yatch! Didn’t you people get the memo about English?
The Big Pink Skipping Rope Trail
The UNESCO Trail Gurus decree a four-day schedule for the trek, arriving at Macchu Pichu at dawn on the last day. The first morning, we ate a full breakfast at the trailhead. After a three kilometer stroll, we stopped for a three-course lunch. Leo mandated lengthy rest stops to tell stories or explain ruins during the next section, another three kilometers on flattish ground. Then we camped for the night in a meadow by a river, and settled down to popcorn and cookies in the meal-tent, followed by a three-course dinner.
Simon and I were disbelieving. This was the badass Inca Trail? At the Explorer’s Club, we had read accounts of oxygen-deprivation and altitude sickness, of gruelling passes and knee-destroying descents. Trail of Feathers, an entertaining, wildly exaggerated account of a trip to Peru, starts out with a quote from an unnamed guidebook, which claimed that the Inca Trail is ‘harder than Everest’.
It isn’t. The Inca Trail is for pussies. For Big Girls’ Blouses. For Big Pink Skipping Ropes.
Honestly. The porters race the Inca Trail once a year for fun, and the record is under four hours. We sad-sack gringos had four whole days to do it, and we didn’t even have to carry packs. The trip reports we’d read had clearly been filed by people who counted a stroll in Central Park as hiking. To be fair, we did have to work the second day, on the famous Warmiwanusqa, Dead Woman’s Pass, a climb to 4400 meters. I’d half-hoped Simon would be breathless, coming from sea-level London, but I was the one who had to trot, panting slightly, to catch up. Our biggest fear was that they would make us carry our own gear again, but one by one the porters jogged past us on the steep slope, leaning forward against the 25-kilo loads tied to their bodies with complicated rope arrangements. They were seemingly hardly troubled by their burdens. A green-tinged gringo was carried down past us, splayed across a mule.
View from Dead Woman’s Pass
Your Finger, Idiot
Far below, the Urubamba river wound through the valleys. Behind was a snowy, jagged peak. We asked Leo the name of the mountain.
‘Veronica? How can a mountain be called ‘Veronica’? What’s the one next to it called, Susan?’
‘A European lady called Veronica was the first person to climb it, about forty years ago. So they named it after her. All the placenames around here are fairly arbitrary. For example, when Hiram Bingham discovered this area in 1911, he asked the locals what the ruins were called. They told him ‘macchu pichu’—Quechua for ‘the old ruins’. Of course he thought it was some mystical Inca name, gringo fool. Half the placenames in Peru mean things like ‘A mountain’ or ‘Your finger, idiot’, when the foreign archaeologists asked ‘What’s that?’ They wrote ’em all down.’
It’s hard for me to appreciate natural beauty when there are new people around. It’s the failing of an extrovert, and it’s why I like to travel alone. Otherwise I busy myself harvesting human stories rather than noticing the cara-cara eagles swooping through a gorge. With six new people to play with, including Leo, I was as wound-up as a six-year-old at a birthday party. Simon and I chattered all day long on the mountains, swapping life stories and sad romantic histories, making up silly characters, and reciting whole scenes from Father Ted. He had a penchant for very bad, very long jokes, his enjoyment of which was in inverse proportion to the limping punchlines. At the top of the mountain passes, he would launch into a medley of mournful Smiths’ songs ‘because I’m so happy’.
‘I crashed down on the crossbar
and the pain was enough to make
a shy, bald Buddhist reflect
and plan a mass-murder…’
In return, I lectured him cheerily on Cromwell, the Irish potato famine, and the Penal Laws.
‘And then Trevelyan, the Lord Lieutenant, decided to withhold the Indian corn set aside for famine relief, to teach the Irish to plan a bit better in future.’
‘Good grief, did he really? I’m so sorry. So, the Dalai Lama goes up to the hotdog stand and says “Make me one with everything…”‘
We especially enjoyed the fact that our European neighbors changed into fresh outfits, matched by couple, every day, while I wore exactly the same clothes four days running, as usual. Simon took to calling me ‘the fragrant Mary Archer’. The third morning, as I put on my stiffening socks, he asked innocently if I’d ever seen the Al Pacino movie, Stench of a Woman.
‘Simon,’ said Suzanne in the meal tent one night, ‘I think you are always making the jokes when we are walking. I think this is very English. And when you make fun, you don’t zmile, you have the serious face. This is also very English, I think.’
Suzanne herself was smiley, a grown-up, snowboarding Heidi. When we brought this to her attention it bonded our group.
‘Also you see Heidi in Switzerland? I like Heidi,’ said Joao.
‘Heidi was Swiss,’ said Suzanne proudly, ‘The book was by Johanna Spyri.’
‘Oh my Got!’ roared Chris, who looked like Peter, ‘Clara wass so hot!’
We all sang the theme tune as we waited for dinner, and we discussed raclette hungrily. Joao wanted to contribute to our deepening togetherness, and loosed some strangled yelps from the corner. Eventually, he took a deep breath and produced ‘Day-veeed Beck. Ham. Now go to Real Madrid.’
Chris, Simon, and Joao dribbled this conversational football until bedtime.
Leo and the Porters
We were blessed with Leo as a guide. With his sleek bowl haircut and bright brown eyes, he had the look of an intelligent forest animal. Every mealtime he told us long stories of Inca legend and history.
‘The Inca could only marry a woman from a noble family. But one day, he was traveling in a village far from Cusco, and he saw the most beautiful woman imaginable. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen. And he fell in love with her on the spot. Of course, she wasn’t an aristocrat, but he couldn’t believe that she was just an ordinary village woman. So he brought her back to Cusco, and he asked his priests to tell him who she was, where she might have come from. And the priests agreed that she was very special indeed. It was out of the question that she marry the king, since she didn’t have noble blood, so they decided she must be sacrificed. On the spot where her blood fell, the first coca plant sprang up. That’s why coca has always been regarded as a woman, a sacred woman.’
Leo was a local, one of seven children from a small village outside Cusco. His father was illiterate, and determined that his children would get an education.
‘He was a very unusual man,’ said Leo, ‘He said to us once “I have a very small plot. I can’t divide it up and leave it to each of you; it would be unusable. The only gift I can leave you is an education.” So two of my brothers are lawyers and I studied tourism in Cusco for three years. My sister is a teacher. The others didn’t want to study. All through college, I dreamed that soon I would be able to support him so he could retire. But he died the month I graduated.’
He had run for local office in his village the previous year. His platform was spreading the benefits of tourism from the trail throughout the community: better conditions for the porters, extended transport links. Porters are paid 120 soles, or about $34, to work the trail for four days. Out of this, the government charges them entrance to the trailhead each time, at the local rate of $11 a head. Then the train monopoly charges them full local price for the journey back to Ollantaytambo. They are supposed to pay tax on the balance. There is a complicated scheme whereby registered porters could request rebates on these entrance fees, but most of them don’t. They are just poor farmers who try to bring in extra cash for their families when crops allow. When I asked, most of the porters said that they walked the trail about four times a month in season, which, counting tips, still brought in an income higher than a teacher’s salary for sixteen days’ work.
Things had got slightly better in recent years. Now there was a weigh station at the start of the trail to make sure they were carrying no more than 25 kilos. Previously, tour companies had saved money by hiring fewer workers and loading them with up to 60 kilos. Back in Cusco, I’d seen flyers for The Andean Porter Project, an organization that tried to improve their conditions. They were recruiting traveler volunteers to help measure the porters for ergonomic backpacks. Listening to Leo, I was exasperated at this well-meaning, cack-handed nonsense. These people have been carrying loads on tump-lines for generations, and will continue to do so long after they’ve sold the daft charity backpacks to buy multinational fertilizer for their fields. Pressuring their government to ensure that they hold onto the money they work so hard to earn would do a lot more, but I suppose it doesn’t deliver the meaningful, personal connection that the volunteer/consumer demands these days.
Leo came from nowhere to be a favorite in the mayoral election, he said. People were surprised by his youth and ideas. He wanted to persuade PeruRail to reopen the link to his village, and to offer cheaper ticket rates to locals than they currently did. He wanted to set up a center to help porters with rebate paperwork, while lobbying the central government to drop the entrance fee. He wanted to represent country porters and guides in Cusco, where the high-level decisions about Trail management were made. As an educated city slicker and guide with strong roots in his village, he felt he had a unique insight into the needs of the tourists, the porters, the agencies, and the guides. Everyone thought he would win. But the vote count, which normally took two hours, stretched to eight. Something odd was going on: many extra votes had crept in. It turned out that his main rival had gone to every house the night before and offered a dollar a vote. Leo didn’t know how much he had paid for the extra box of blank ballots. He came in third.
‘So will you run again?’
‘Who knows? Peru can get you down.’
It was Leo’s idea to bring the porters into the meal tent after dinner on the first night. It’s an Inca Trail tradition to introduce them to the tourists on the last night, just before tips are presented. Leo wanted us to get to know them earlier so that we could chat to them on the trail. They liked to know about their tourists, he said. They often asked where theirs was from, what they were like. So he decided we should make friends.
It was excruciating. We Europeans sat on our little stools, trapped by the table so that we couldn’t stand up in greeting, while the Quechua porters lined up for inspection, heads bowed. They whispered their names at Leo’s prompt.
‘Tomas.’ ‘Marcelino.’ ‘Simón.’ ‘Javier.’ ‘Ramon.’ ‘Rigoberto’.
We said our names, and told them where we were from.
‘Do you have any questions for the porters?’ asked Leo. We squirmed. I asked if they had families. They all did, except for the shy 18 year old. Leo slapped his back and joked about his girlfriends on the trail. Suzanne asked how old they were. Late twenties, mostly, slightly younger than us. Leo asked if the tourists had families, in a new, loud tone that people use in seniors’ homes. Nope. The porters marveled a little at these six childless thirtysomethings.
‘Europeans aren’t sure how to make babies,’ we explained. ‘We’ve come to Peru hoping someone will tell us.’
They filed out after a decent interval of fixed grins from both sides. Leo explained that their shyness was a documented psychological phenomenon in colonized, mistreated people. I elbowed Simon in the ribs.
To be an Inca Trail guide, you need a three-year qualification in tourism. I asked Leo how much they taught of local history, culture, or archeology. Almost nothing, he said.
‘It’s all bookkeeping, marketing, and sales. People just sit through the classes because they need the piece of paper to work. If you want to teach tourists about the other stuff, you have to study on your own.’
He had worked for the big Cusco agencies for ten years, and eventually got sick of their treatment. They didn’t provide porters with tents or food, they crammed tourists into huge groups, they exploited wherever they could. So he recruited six other experienced guides, and they started Wayki Trek as a co-operative. They never took groups of more than eight, and they looked after their porters. They made less money that way, but more than they had working for someone else. He was happy.
So were we, until Leo disappeared halfway through the second day, apparently to attend to a client from another Wayki group who had been taken ill. Raul, the trainee guide, would look after us until he came back that evening. We never saw Leo again.
Raul was a raw graduate with an adolescent air. He hadn’t got to the part about studying on his own: we knew more about the ruins than he did. We wondered if the disappearance was prearranged. Leo himself had been filling in for a guide who was ill; a back-to-back shift on the trail. Perhaps he brought Raul along while he sussed out how self-sufficient our group was, and then took off back to his family. We never found out.
On the third morning, the porters brought coca tea to our tents before dawn so that we could be first on the trail. Baby Guide Raul explained we were starting early because there were several ruins on the way, which filled up with tour groups later in the morning. Although the trail was overcrowded, by always being the first or last to leave, or by taking alternative, harder routes, our group was mostly alone. We were also the smallest group on the trail. SAS, supposedly the plushest outfitters in Cusco, brought about 30 people, and the mix of pace and temperament never seemed like fun when we passed them.
The full moon hanging over Dead Woman’s Pass lit our way as we hiked up the slope. This section was true, paved Inca Trail, and easy to follow even in darkness. These paved paths had once supported a relay messenger system that brought news and produce from all over the empire: a Cusco noble could enjoy fresh fish from the coast in just two days.
A few pale streaks appeared above the mountains as Raul ushered us into Runkuraqayand gave a halting lecture. He was nervous in front of his first-ever tour group, and it didn’t help that we felt conned by his boss’s disappearance. Raul kept asking me to translate for Simon—he didn’t even speak English—and I wanted to tell him that I would as soon he told us something new or accurate. But his charisma deficit was more than redeemed by the mountains at dawn. As we continued up the pass, we spoke in cathedral whispers when we spoke at all. Below us, an early porter followed playing ghostly flute music like a wood nymph.
I felt sorry for us tourists and our camcorder minds. It was so hard for us just to be in the mountains at dawn. A wandering porter with a flute felt somehow staged, and we assessed the scene for corniness while we tried to enjoy its beauty. We photographed. We imagined how we would describe it later. We pasted the memory into mental scrapbooks, and flipped through them looking for comparisons. Often, we were too bent on having memorable experiences to experience them.
We climbed to Sayacmarca, a ruin perched on an outcrop so isolated that it wouldn’t seem like prime real estate to a modern eye. Simon speculated that all these ruins were elaborate Victorian fakes, built by hurling stones up from the valleys using steam-shovels and Irish navvies. We wandered through, stroking the smooth stones, wondering if the holes punched through some the corners at waist height were for drapery tie-backs. Velvety ladies’ slippers grew among the stones.
From Sayacmarca on, the trail mostly descended. The Quechua call this region ‘la ceja de la selva’; ‘the eyebrow of the jungle’. We stepped down through high jungle and rock tunnels, through elaborate agricultural terracing, through spearmint-scented meadows. Our group had been spoiled with solitude on the trail. Reaching the final campsite, where every hiker had to stay on the third night, was a shock. We picked our way between row after row of blue-domed tents, catching unwelcome glimpses of pale bellies drooping over y-fronts. There were two filthy toilets for 500 people. At one end of the campsite there was a pumping disco—on the Inca Trail, for God’s sake. Sometimes I want to take Peru outside and smack it. Hard.
But Wayki Trek had done well again, and our camp was tucked in a spot that was as private as possible in the circumstances. We would need the quiet: Raul wanted to get us up at quarter to four to be first to see Macchu Pichu at dawn. At 4 am, we were bleary, trying to force down the pancakes and hardboiled eggs of our last catered meal. At 4.45, we were waiting for the ticket office to open, head of the line while other groups straggled in behind us. A large, impatient group who had passed us the previous day tried to barge us, but we stood firm.
‘I feel like a German in Majorca, up at 3 am to get my towel on the sunlounger,’ I grumbled. Chris pounced.
‘You also have this joke about the Germans? In Switzerland also they are famous for that.’ He paraded up and down the ticket office loudly mimicking a middle-aged German package tourist determined to reserve his spot. We giggled and shushed him: who knew where the other trekkers were from.
At five we passed through the ticket booth and onto the last few kilometers of the trail. It was very dark, and my flashlight was to weak to see the path clearly. The crowds behind us forced us to jog-trot, and I kept stumbling on the slick rocks. The boorish leader of the enemy tour group told us to get in against the wall so his 30 clients could pass on the narrow path.
‘Non! Ils ne passent pas!’ spat Ana, ‘Il est cochon! Et j’espere qu’il comprend francais.’ We cheered her bolshy spirit as we rushed and stumbled along, resenting the mob after the peace of the early days of the trek. I wished I’d stayed in bed.
Suddenly, it seemed, we arrived at the Puerta del Sol, just before six o’clock. The Sun Gate is high above the ruins. At the June equinox, the sun shines directly through it and lights up the main temple in the valley below. We were a five days early. Below the gate are steep terraces, both for defence and agriculture, and this is where the trekkers arranged themselves as they filed in. We sat with our legs dangling over the edge, waiting for the sun to rise over Macchu Pichu.
And we waited. The sky got light, but Macchu Pichu was hidden behind a valleyful of dense fog. An American with a camcorder narrated the scene:
‘Down below here is where Macchu Pichu is supposed to be. So they say.’
On a terrace above us, a group of rowdy Brazilian Seventh Day Adventists waved their football shirts and the Brazilian flag. We watched as a Dutch hiker dropped to his knees and proposed to his sweetie. The crowd cheered as she covered her face and accepted. An English pal we’d met in Cusco had been entrusted with videotaping the proposal and he dutifully panned from future groom to bride: unfortunately, he had forgotten to press ‘Record’.
I ticked off t-shirts from other backpacker destinations: a ‘Danger! Mines!’ shirt from Cambodia, a Beer Lao shirt, a Bolivia Death Ride sweatshirt. Several Galápagos slogans.
On a far terrace, a tour group sang Happy Birthday, and the crowd joined in. Chris turned to me.
‘Do you want that we should also sing Happy Birthday?’
‘No! God no! Let’s just sit here quietly and enjoy the lovely fog.’
Simon disappeared, and returned with hands behind his back.
‘I have a special birthday present for you, my dear,’ he said, offering two very squashed Mars Bars. I was touched, since I’d thought he’d hoarded them unsportingly since Cusco (while I’d demolished a 1lb bar of Dairy Milk in a single sitting).
Birthday or not, Macchu Pichu refused to put in a dawn appearance. One by one, the tour groups gave up and headed down to the ruins proper. At 7.30 our little band followed down the jungle path. As we walked, the clouds dissolved and revealed the whole valley. Tired, cranky hikers stopped complaining about the dirty French hippie blasting Bob Dylan, and stared at the ancient city. The llama grazing on the terraces stared back with an insolent gaze. Macchu Pichu, swirling in the mist, was an even better birthday gift than my precious squashed Mars Bars.