July 11, 2014
The big day arrived. We were heading out for four days and three nights without modern conveniences. I hopped out bed and prepared to enjoy my last shower for days, so it was with much chagrin that I realized that I had no shampoo packed in my weight-restricted bag. With heavy heart, I shampooed my hair for the trek with bar soap while ducks quacked in the courtyard outside our room. Goodbye running water. Goodbye flush toilets. Goodbye clean body. Hello, Andes.
After a hearty breakfast, we grabbed our gear bags and backpacks and piled into the van to head to Kilometer 82 where all intrepid Inca Trail trekkers begin their journeys. The van was quieter than usual as we drove through the countryside away from Ollantaytambo and toward the Camino Inka first checkpoint. I stared out the window as our van traveled too close to the edge of the Urubamba River on a rough, dirt road just wide enough for one and a half cars and barely wide enough for one over-sized tour van top-heavy with gear. I reflected on what a shame it would be to perish on the way to the Inca Trail, and then put on my sunglasses and closed my eyes.
When we reached the rendezvous where we would meet our porters and begin our hike, reality set in. Before us were 24 porters for the 14 of us trekkers. Westerners really are a pampered group. These 24 men, plenty of whom were in their forties, were gearing up with packs weighing 55 pounds to do the same trek I knew I would suffer through carrying my piddly day pack. And they had done this dozens of times because it was their day job. Some of them would complete the hike in sandals made from old tires. I felt like a colossal waste of carbon matter as I walked toward the passport line wearing my puny, ten-pound pack.
The first step toward hiking the heavily regulated Inca Trail is having your passport logged and stamped at the first checkpoint. To do this, you pass beneath a gate marking the entrance to the Inca Trail. This is the first obligatory photo-op. We all handed over our cameras to our tour guides and smiled obligingly for a slew of group photos. I imagine those tour guides know every camera in the world by now for the number of times they have to endure this lunacy with different travelers from around the globe who show up on their doorstep to experience their backyard. When we were smiled out, we headed into the line where we waited with other groups for our turn to be logged onto the trail. With passports then officially stamped, we crossed over the Urubamba River and onto the initial portion of the trail, a gravel incline to a small lookout platform.
Ray had told us that this day would be our easiest and a gauge for what to expect along the rest of the trail. In retrospect, day one was the easiest of the four. Saying that day one is easy, however, seems a bit of an overreach. There are plenty of challenging ascents along the way, and the landscape in the dry season isn’t as shady and forgiving along the trail as one would hope. The area on this first portion of the hike reminded me a bit of Colorado, dry and rugged. The flora was different (we don’t have eucalyptus trees in Denver), but the rocky landscape reminded me of home. You find the familiar where you look for it, I suppose.
The biggest surprise for me on this day was the number of small, remote villages we passed. I am not sure I grasped how many people lived along this trail before we began hiking. But people still live in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Because there is no motorized travel along the trail, we encountered many burros that first day that were laden with all manner of goods. It wasn’t that many miles into our trek when we passed a burro transporting not goods but a person who was clearly western and obviously miserable. This person, we realized, had been attempting the trek but was now either too ill with altitude sickness or too injured (sprained ankle, anyone?) to continue on ahead. Ray told us that when this happens on the first day, you may be fortunate enough to be escorted out via a rough ride on a burro’s back. A fellow traveler coined this method of transportation the Donkey of Disappointment. That moniker didn’t seem strong enough to me given the appearance of that weary traveler, so I renamed it the Donkey of Despair. Nothing like being hauled off the Inca Trail, sick and defeated, in front of others. I must admit that I made a pact with myself right then. If, heaven forbid, I became one of those riding on the Donkey of Despair, I would not ride silently past new hikers, head hung in shame. Instead, I would mess with them by shouting warnings laced with obscenities…”Turn back! It’s horrible. You crazy bitches are headed straight into the depths of hell! Save yourselves!” Luckily, it never came to that.
Each section of the Inca trail is diverse and breathtaking in its own way. Along the way, the scenery changes but the consistency of the Inca ruins remains the same. To gain appreciation for the Inca structures, it helps to remember that Peru is a very seismic country. Earthquakes are frequent. Several times since the Incas civilization collapsed, strong and deadly earthquakes have decimated structures in Peru. Yet Inca structures remain because the Incas were superior engineers. Ray, with his five years of studying the Incas and his nine years taking tourists through this area, had endless stories about the ancient kings and their struggle to create and maintain the Inca empire. When we stopped at ruins, he would take time to tell us their significance and then he let us wander around, stand in them, and ponder it all. One thing about hiking this trail as the person I am at 46 and not the person I was at 26 is that I was able to enjoy the hike as a journey and not simply as a means to reach a destination. Each time we took a legitimate break, I marveled at the work of the Incas or at a plant I’d never before seen or at the imposing grandeur of the Andes. I was not the fastest hiker in our group. I may very well have been the slowest. But two months later I can still recall the feeling I had standing where this photo was taken. That, my friends, is what living in the now is all about.
Day one was my least favorite day in terms of scenery and ruins. The day for me was mainly about getting into the groove of the hike and determining what was in store for me during the days ahead. When we finally arrived at camp that night, I was worn out…not so much from the 7 miles but from the emotion of the finally realized experience. I was glad to find our tent, peel off my socks, and settle into flip-flops and a cleaner t-shirt. I’m not sure I ever was so happy about the prospect of sleeping in a tent as I was that first night. I probably never will be again either.