Sexy Llamas & The Inca Trail

Trip Start Nov 29, 2013
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Trip End Nov 29, 2014


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Flag of Peru  , Cusco,
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Blonde

Depleted of strength and energy, we wolfed down our Big Macs and contemplated ambling down to the hostel. Collapsed in McDonalds we reflected upon the past four days; trekking, camping and 3am wake ups, support and reassurance from new friends and a glimpse into the lives of the incas as we tread their ancient pilgrimage. Machu Picchu, the grand finale, was riddled with tourists who'd reached the fortress by bus as the Trekkers puffed and panted from the Sun Gate entrance. By 9am the postcard picture was eaten alive by the swarms of happy snappers. Alas, the South American relic was an anticlimax.

To quote Ernest Hemmingway; "It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end."

...and what a journey it was. The classic Inca Trail was an unforgettable experience.

Concealed within the Andes mountain range, between Cusco and the Amazon Rainforest basin, lies the 26 mile long trail. Laid by the incas, the ancient route extends through the tundra of the Sacred Valley destined for Machu Picchu. The intellectual people hadn't even completed their endeavours before the Spanish conquered in the 15th century, rendering the heart of the Incan empire completely abandoned. It wasn't until 1911 that Hiram Bingham accidentally stumbled upon Machu Picchu and the trail which was shrouded by cloud forest. Today, the famous trail curves it's way up and down the mountains, rendering extravagant views of snow-capped peaks, Andean rivers and abundant jungle vegetation. Unspoiled ancient Incan settlements, tunnels and ruins dot the snaking pathway before the final pinnacle at the Sun Gate on Machu Picchu mountain.

The Inca Trail cannot be undertaken independently, so after a little research, back in January, we chose 'Llama Path', a reputable company I couldn't recommend enough. A pre-trek gathering, the night before our voyage was held to run through the itinerary as well as meeting our guides and fellow trekkers. We were not in the company of excitable scallywags (yet), these were mature people with life experience who pushed the boundaries of conversation further than the 'five questions' a backpacker in the early stages of their trip, asks a fellow traveller.

There was keen trekker Simon, a British expat living in Cordoba, Argentina joined by his father, Paul, the loveliest man. Canadians Noelle and Michelle, sisters who were celebrating turning 40 this year; hilarious friends Jennifer and Robin from San Francisco; lovely couple Tasha and big kid Mark from West Virginia; Canadian couple John and Rina who I thought of as Mum and Dad and lastly the adventurous duo from Finland, Kimo and Christina.

Reuben and Wilbur, our guides, who cheekily titled us "sexy llamas" have been operating on the Inca Trail for 18 years collectively. Did you know you have to complete five years at university to become a guide for the Inca Trail? Me neither.

It wasn't until the next morning, after being picked up at 4:30 from central Cusco, we first met the life blood of the entire operation; the porters. These local chaps are employed to carry everything one may need over a four day period; our clothes, sleeping bags and tents (big up to Noelle who shouldered her 60 litre backpack the entire trek). They also transported the kitchen tent, utensils and food, their tents and equipment; the list is exhaustive. These guys make 20kg weight look effortless. David tried one on for size once for a laugh, but struggled a few steps. Although this was all a bit of a jolly, there are cheaper companies who do not have porter luggage weight restrictions. It's really sad to see and these are proud men who would rather not accept a tourist's offer of water, food or a helping hand. Except one I met. It was nearing the end of day two, the toughest and longest day. I'd been speeding down the slopes and I'd seen the scruffy undernourished looking man in his well worn sandals several times. Decelerating when I see the labourer slumped on the floor out of breath, I offered a water bottle, chocolate bar and fruit. He couldn't have snaffled the food up faster. An imperative reason in choosing Llama Path was due to the respect toward their porter staff.

Onto the bus they confidently strode in their bright red uniform and smart Dr. Martins. It was at the end of our first day, at the first campsite where Reuben called us from the comfort of our generous two-man tents for the big introduction. Us 'Sexy Llamas' stood opposite the porters and chef as if we were about to partake in line dancing and we all said our name, age and where we were from. And in true Blind Date style, the audience clapped after each intro, but not before Cilla, aka Reuben, translated. Porter's ages ranged from 18-59. Roars of encouraging claps were given to the seniors. David and I had heard the oldest porter ever is in his seventies and still going strong! Heavyweight!

The first day wasn't too bad, 10 miles at a slight incline from kilometre 82. We set out to get to know each other; "awww have you just finished school?" (Smug face), which is infinitely more refreshing than the usual "so, how long have you been travelling" pish posh. Before lunch I'd learnt that Paul had 10 children, but it was apparent he was the biggest kid; Kimo worked far too hard so he and Kristina are off exploring the world trip by trip. I learnt plenty about the Canadian and American governments as John and Mark battled it out as to who had the worst. What wasn't pleasant to learn was that Robin and Jennifer had eaten out the night before, Jennifer decided it was a great idea to eat animal intestines while Robin stuck to salad. Unlucky for Robin, you don't make friends with salad. Only toilet trips. She was not only suffering a tummy twisting case of travel turds, but an agonising compound fracture in her ankle too. That crazy woman walked the entire 26.5 miles with only a couple of trekking poles for help and not a whimper.

Commencing at km82, an environment suitable for cacti, by lunch we'd reached a thicker, flowery vegetation and I was already reaching for the insect repellant. Mark had been tracking our movements by GPS and we were ecstatic to hear we'd hiked almost seven miles before the midday feast. The porters accessed lunch or camp areas earlier and were set up by the time the not-so-sexy llamas slouched in. Even after commencing the next leg of a journey, these hard workers would soon catch us up and we'd cheer them on as they marched past us, the red army, like loyal ants on the attack.

If David and I were on a solo four dayer, lunch would never stray too far from a banana and a handful of nuts, but llama path pulled out all the stops. Before each meal, porters lay out a bowl of hot water, soap and your allocated towel, to scrub that sweat off your hands, face and anywhere else you see fit. We sat around one long table under the shade or in the warmth, depending on which meal, of a tent. The chef whipped up three course meals, catering for the vegetarians and even dished up individual gluten free plates for Michelle. Every morsel was homemade and delicious, by far the tastiest and highest quality grub we've had in the last six months.

Every evening after the long, hard slog we headed to the tent for 'happy hour'. It was the greatest HH I've ever experienced, yet there was not a beer in sight! Instead, the table was scattered with treats; hot chocolate, popcorn, crackers with dulce de leche. Even knowing that dinner was just around the corner we all thought it appropriate to carb load anyway.

By the final course of dinner, each evening, lead eyelids failed to remain open, words, let alone sentences were slurred and one by one we sloped to bed. The porters could have set up our tent over a bed of cacti I was that shattered but just about managed to conquer the final task of the day, blowing up an inflatable pillow.

Day 2 was by far the toughest challenge. A 5:30 wake up call with a cup of coca from a porter named Victor; we were going to need that. We silently ate the breakfast of pancakes and quinoa porridge veraciously and were climbing before the sun rose over the surrounding mountains. The dreaded second day, I don't advise you go at it without trekking poles (David, Simon and I did not), is spent hiking over two peaks. The first, the sinister sounding 'Dead Woman's Pass' is the highest at 4250m. Unfortunately, the dangerously nicknamed peak is very safe and merely resembles a giant boob; "I'd have that looked at if I was her", joked Noelle, as we stared up at the lumpy mound.

David and I had been at altitude since the Uyuni Salt Flats, five weeks previously, yet we continued to feel the altitude. Wilbur taught us how to correctly roll and chew coca leaves and although we looked like hamsters, the stuff really worked! By no means did we experience a cocaine high but our heart rate slowed, breathing at 4000 metres became easier and our lips and tongue became numb which was a novelty. It was no wonder I can never understand anyone from Peru and Bolivia's highlands.

It felt like hours and hours until we reached the nipple and were met with another coca tea and cheese butty. One by one after a high five and a cheer, we had to commence a 670m drop before another 500m pass. The second pass was treacherous, Paul was suffering terribly with altitude, Robin was in a fair bit of pain and Mark had already passed his muscle rub around the group at lunch. The real annoyance though, was the patronising voice of an American woman from another group. Just when you needed to gather your own thoughts in preparation for the next twenty, forty or one hundred steps you heard a "oh my god, you go girl", "oh hunny, you got this one girlfriend", "just look at him, look at him go". Imagine Janice from friends. Her.

On a positive, the scenery was getting better and better. You may or may not know that there are a variety of trails of differing lengths leading to Machu Picchu these days, but of course there is only one pathway that the Incas took. It took the ancient peoples several days to complete the pilgrimage and they all needed places to sleep. There are remarkable Incan sites, some more beautiful than Machu Picchu itself, dotted along the route (just look at the piccies). And this is why the only trail worth investing your time and money in, is the Classic Inca Trail.

These wonderfully preserved sites, where the Incas worshipped, lived and rested, hugged the jungle mountains. They looked like something out of Stephen King's 'The Mist' as the clouds floated through the buildings. Reuben explained the significance of each site, there was nothing he did not know. The Incas seemed to have a deep understanding and incorporate astrology into their belief that centred around Mother Nature. Their culture makes more sense to me than any other, they worship Pachamama (Mother Nature) and she gives them sun, water (rain) and earth (crops). I also like the fact that this 'god' is a woman.

Reuben gave us one especially deep talk, nearing the end of our trek. He touched on stars, planets and questioned the possibility of life out there; implying aliens and perhaps a possible connection with them... When I noticed Jennifer smirking and staring beyond Reuben, then Michelle and Rina too. Following their gaze, I noticed a family of llamas gallivanting across the terraces of the Wiñay Huayna site. Running and jumping as if to make a complete mockery. Funny animals, llamas.

That night, our last, the chef pulled out all the stops, using melons and avacado to create tortoises and birds out of food, what talent! The chef and porters gathered around the dining tent while Simon and Michelle gave them a thank you speech in Spanish. Reuben and Wilbur surprised us with 'llama path' tshirts. Can't get enough of free tops on a year long trip!

It was the final morning, ironically a Monday morning, up at 3am, the porters were off home and we piled outside the entrance to the Sun Gate. It opened at five and over the next few hours, the other 200 hikers queued behind us. We'd not noticed this amount of people over the previous days, but what a feeling walking past them all, to the front, after a toilet trip.

We were told by Reuben the night before that in no circumstances are we to run or take over anyone. This section of the Inca Trail is the most dangerous, it would be dark, it is narrow and there is a steep drop off the metre wide footpath. He recalled a story from a few years before; an American couple who ran from the back of the queue shouting "porters". You'd instinctively step to one side to let porters by, so this was a little naughty of them. The woman simply tripped, fell off the path and perished.

That somber thought stayed with me as I tied my shoelaces in a double knot in the morning. At five, we started our march up to the Sun Gate, de-layering as the sun made an appearance. We reached the marvellous Sun Gate an hour and a half later, the clouds parted to give us our first peek of Machu Picchu. Karl Pilkington had the right idea by refusing to go any further, stating that he could "see it fine from there". He'd have had a field day if he'd have made it down there, while Sky 1 would have ruined the Great British public's opinion of the mysterious wonder of the world.

After a couple of shots in front of the site and an hour or two of squeezing past people to keep up with the sexy llamas, we went to climb Huayana Picchu. It's that mountain behind Machu Picchu in the postcard picture. We were aching, dehydrated and dirty, but preferred to escape the crowds up a mountain that only a few people climbed due to a restriction. Another classic view.

We all congregated in a nearby town of Aguas Calientes, I was happy to be met by a half cut Jennifer. Each one of us tucked in to a hearty burger and a beer before waving goodbye to Reuben and Wilbur. Then without further a do we caught the train with our group. While concentrating through the window pane, attempting to figure out our start point, on came the music and the train attendants gave us a fashion show. I kid you not. Then a wolf masked creature, a trippy colourful beetle juice ran through the cabin while yelling then had a dance with Jennifer and then John before disappearing. David has included a video, lucky you.

Back in Cusco, we'd said the dreaded goodbyes before heading to our local McDonalds. Such a cheesy cliché, but we missed our group already. Thanks guys! X
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Comments

Simon Taylor on

A lovely read Tash.

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