Going to bed early the night before was a good idea as I’m up at 4:14am and didn’t sleep well. Some last minute internet checking and then breakfast before Rene and the bus pick me up at 5:45am as the early risers are starting to mill in the streets. As observed in Nepal the month before, the drivers are oddly courteous in the early morning hours, abstaining from incessant honking for just a while longer until some magical hour when it’s suddenly ok to let loose. The bus is ultra comfy and our driver is one of the sane ones. This is no chicken bus by any means as each seat has air conditioning and a light! We stop a few times on the trip to kilometer 82, where we start the trek. Our first stop is on a small pass with a panoramic view of several mountain ranges, all of which end in bamba. And it’s fun to hear Rene say Urubamba is his baritone, Peruvian accented English. It becomes a game for Anand and I to try to get him to say it over and over, kinda like Beetlejuice but without the evil spirit. Before we reach our starting point, we stop in the town of Urubamba for one last chance at supplies. This means another bottle of wine after a long debate on wine vs. vodka. In the end I’m glad I decided on wine, it went better with the meals and no hangovers.
We meet the nineteen porters, head cook and assistant cook at the trailhead a few hours later. All are dressed in matching jackets and pants and it’s obvious right away the porters here are better taken care of than the porters in the Khumbu/Everest region of Nepal. As they divvy up our gear and the common camping gear, we trekkers slather on sun lotion and stretch for our 5 minute walk to wait in line for a stamp. It might be campy, but we all get our passports stamped with the official stamp at the first checkpoint. Rene and Jesus handle all of our other paperwork. Regulations are tight on the Inca Trail and only 500 trekkers are allowed in each day. It is required to submit your passport number and if that doesn’t match what’s on the permit, you don’t get to go. Even with the 500 anticipated trekkers, our trip seems fairly light of other tourists. Blissfully so.
Crossing to the West side of the Urubamba River, we start the trek in earnest and no sooner is Rene letting loose with his vast knowledge of the region. He points out prickly pear cactus and the beetle known to nest there, agave plants, tobacco, elderberries and more. Not only which plants are which, but how inhabitants of this region have used them for centuries. The value in a well educated and passionate guide is quickly felt and I’m more glad now than ever that I signed up with an organized trek.
We stop here and there to observe pre-Incan ruins built by the Allyu communities and Patayacta, ruins set against against a hill which served as a major farming center for Machu Picchu. The facts and names come faster than I can note and after a while I simply relax and enjoy Rene’s stories of how this land has changed hands many time over the last century. While the Inca are the most famous civilization in this area, their reign was relatively short, around 150 years, but the advancements they brought to the region in the form of commerce, infrastructure, communication, mathematics, astrology, religion and more was the most impactful until the Spanish came.
We stop for lunch and after the humorous “here’s how to use the toilet tent” speech, we are treated to our first of many great meals. This really isn’t camping, not the type of camping I’m used to; crouched over a stove tipping on a pile of rocks my hands are too cold to stack level, while attempting to get the burner going and not incinerate my eyelashes yet again as someone else complains how cold it is and can’t I make the water hot NOW?!? This is really, really pampered camping and I don’t mind at all. Especially since I know the porters are limited in the amount of weight they will carry, have adequate footwear and that them have a tent for sleeping. Our dinning tent is set with a table for all 14 of us, plus Rene and Jesus. Placesettings are out, condiments and lunch is served! Turkey sandwiches and I have two helpings. I’m learning this tends to happen, my daily intake doubles when I’m on a trail and there is plenty of food.
On the trail and at lunch we all take time to move at different paces, changing spots to get acquainted with our fellow trekkers. Everyone is very pleasant to be around and we range in age from about 25 to 60 or so. A wide range of professions as well; doctor, med student, unemployed mobile phone interface programmer (UMPIP for short), accountants, stock analyst and the list goes on. Again and again I explain I’m not currently employed except for a once a week posting at Digital Photography School and that I’m currently a bum.
A bum who loves a trail. I can’t fully convey my love for a trail, open air, new sites. There’s simplicity in the movement from one locale to another and it frees the mind from everyday worry. Even when someone else isn’t carrying all my gear, cooking my food, setting up my camp, providing washing water, opening my wine…..where was I? Oh yeah, even without all those comforts, when I have my favorite Dana Design backpack on and 60lbs of gear across my back, food for days and the minimalist of clothes, even then I love the simplicity of the trail and life on it. Everything is brought down to the most important things. Sure it’s an escape and one of the best I know. No bills, no phone calls, no deadlines, no lines! I’m in control of where I go, how fast and what I do when I get there. Relationships fall away and I’m free to create anew while on the trail as no one knows who I am on this trip through Peru. Twice on this trip I’m referred to as an Encyclopedia because of little bits of information I expound ala Cliff Clavin, a fact that has come to annoy a number of friends back home. But here, people are impressed. Bingo, a new me. But still the same. It’s a drug, the clean slate of travel. The newness. The mystery of your very self and identity. But for most, it is only fleeting.
After lunch it’s more uphill, passing through small villages with a table setup catering to a trekker’s needs; juice, water, cookies, Snickers bars and the like. We watch some children entertain themselves with a game I used to play as a kid called “kick the ball over the roof and everyone dives after it”. We used to use an American football, but the game is the same. Children’s laughter is always welcome in my life, no mater the continent or language. And then more uphill! Finally reaching the town of Huayllabamba we split off from the main path to find our camp already setup and waiting. The porters broke down lunch, raced ahead of us, and had things setup for dinner about the time we got there. This will be the norm and it’s amazing how hard they work.
We pair off and find our tents and then are brought warm washing water to clean up at the end of the day before putting on warmer camp clothes. The evening is bringing a dampness to it and a slight chance of rain. Before light is gone from the sky I head over to a local ruin, an outpost on the Inca trail, and watch a local soccer match set in an awesome natural amphitheater where the players uses the walls as if playing indoor soccer. They play for the love of the game and only relatives and town folk watch. Score is not kept.
Looking on are a number of us tourists, some meeting others from different groups, especially the slender blonde in slinky Spandex who has no trouble attracting a crowd. As they walk off I hear invites to this group camp or that, trail romance can also be a wonderful intoxicant, one I’ll abstain from on this trip. I play with some children who have set up a ‘store’ in the ruins. My Spanish isn’t good enough to buy any of the weeds they’ve picked and setup, but they know what a large camera like mine is for. I let them watch the soccer game and take some photos. Did I mention I love children’s laughter? Pictures of the kids themselves bring huge smiles until they bore of the game five minutes later. For me it’s a nice fix as I miss my daughter a lot right now. I wish she were here, she’d love it. She loves the outdoors and while she might not like the trekking length, there is plenty for her to explore here and be a kid. I can imagine her climbing through the ruins and picking her own weeds to trade with the other kids as they are not much different than her.
We meet up back at the tents for evening tea. This also will be a ritual and I love tea. When the tea is gone I open the first bottle of wine and offer some, only a few accept. As dark creeps up the valley and we sit on a large step by the tents watching the distant clouds try to decide when they want to rain and if they are coming this way, Rene starts in on stories from Peru that bring a magical air to the setting. The most poignant story includes a half-man/half front of a deer creature who lives in the hills and uses magical powder on the trail to drug locals. The creature then performs surgery to remove all of your fat. I love local folklore too, it’s always more colorful than I’d hope for. It’s what adds true flavor to a trip. It also leaves us in stitches.
Dinner is a yummy fish dish with a side of political discussion. Yes, we are obviously getting a bit more comfortable with each other. The conversation is cut off by the arrival of the most amazing trail desert I’ve ever had; split local bananas with a chocolate flambeau prepared right at the tent. Wow! I have seconds without needing to be asked.
We finish the night as Rene tells us what’s on the agenda for tomorrow; nothing much, just a 13,781′ pass. Might be snow. Should be rain and fog. Some llamas. I head to bed early and happy for a great start to the trek and thankful for what seems like a really fun group to hang with for the next four days. A group I can relax with and be myself. Before I fall asleep I ask the indecisive clouds if they’d be so kind as to dump their wealth while we sleep so tomorrow can be mostly rain free. As I drift off I can hear the wind pick up and the light, familiar patter of rain on a rent. I love life on the trail.