Day 1 began early Monday morning, November 26, as we set out by bus for the Inca trail. There were sixteen paying “passengers” in our group (we were one of maybe ten groups to start that day, with members from the US, Hungary, Finland, Ireland, Canada, and Australia), with two guides, one chef (this was not your typical camping food!), and eighteen porters (each starting out with a load of about 55 lbs).
We began outside of Ollantaytambo at Piscacucho (2,600 meters above sea level), registered at the entrance checkpoint, and crossed the Urubamba River to pick up the trail.
The first section we walked was mostly flat and easy. Our knowledgable main guide, William, stopped periodically to point out features of the plants or landscape.
One of the early highlights was looking down at the ruins of Llaqtapata, the Inca city where the builders of Machu Picchu are thought to have lived. The sky was bright and clear, banishing fears of rain, but the sun was quite hot!
We stopped for lunch near one of the mountain streams, a refreshing treat. And, as we came to appreciate more each day, a delicious lunch was ready and waiting for us in the shelter of a tent set up for our meal. This was quite a pampered version of backpacking!
The short hike from there to camp was full of ups and downs, climbing a bit higher along the stream. Our campsite at Wayllabamba that first night was lush and green, with soft grass under our tents–something we would miss on subsequent nights.
The second day was the most challenging, with 1,200 meters of elevation gain–much of it under a brilliant sun.
I was quickly lagging behind the rest of the group, and benefitted from the good-natured companionship of the guide-in-training, a former porter who was assigned to stay back with the last passengers. Angel proved to be very aptly named on more than one occasion that day, encouraging me without pressuring, and insisting on helping me with my pack on three of the most difficult stretches. We also had some interesting conversations once he learned I was a pastor, about why there are so many religions in the world, and what Catholicism looks like in the Cuzco area.
The highest point on the trail is Warmiwañuska, Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4,215 meters above sea level (13,776 ft).
I took my time, slow and steady, and paused fairly often to turn and look at the impressive view behind me, or admire the flowers and let my pounding heart calm down a bit.
At last I reached the top of the pass, and took a few minutes to admire the view and catch my breath.
What goes up must come down, that’s the way of mountains, so the trail to the campsite took us steeply down the other side. There were some massive steps, but whenever my knees would begin to quiver there would be a short flat section, or a nice rock to sit on, and since I generally feel pretty sure-footed I made good progress.
I had to remind myself to stop from time to time and admire the beauty around me.
In Peru’s mountains and jungles many people speak Spanish as a second language, after their local indigenous language, and this was true for our porters. Along the trail I’d been helping Angel with his English, and he’d been teaching me some Quechua words.
Two-thirds of the way down we were met by one of the porters, Efraín, who’d been sent to meet us with sandwiches (since we weren’t expected to make it to camp in time for the late lunch). This added yet another item to the list of things I’d been thankful for that day: a fresh breeze, the cover of cloud, cold running water, food to eat, water to drink, a helping hand, an encouraging word, and now, a sandwich brought special delivery! Practicing an active spirit of gratitude was a gift for me that day. Here I had a perfect opportunity to practice one of those Quechua words: Sulpayki, Efráin! Thank you.
We made it to camp at Pacaymayu (3,500 meters) at about 4:00, and the rest of the group was still having lunch! So we got to join them, and then in the evening we were formally introduced, porters and passengers.
The labors of my life have so rarely been physical, I was rather amazed to see the diversity of ages among these men. Javier, the youngest at age 19, was the head porter. And the oldest, at 60, was carrying one of the propane gas tanks up and down the mountains. Most of them make this trip every week. I’m grateful the Peruvian government has set some minimum work conditions for the porters, and that the company we went with makes additional commitments to care for those it employs. I’ll be praying for their safety.
Next: Day 3, my favorite part of the trip!