The next morning, we loaded up the van with our duffel bags. We were allowed 6kg per person and I just filled mine with socks and baby wipes. Jose was in high spirits, joking around and getting to know the group; it was great to see that my first impressions may have been completely off. We left Cusco for the Sacred Valley, passing a small village along the way. In the village, we met women and children who fashioned artisanal products such as blankets and scarves using traditional means. We saw how they extracted dyes from local plants, how they coloured the fibres in huge pots over open fires, and how the alpaca fibres were made usable. The people were dressed in frilly black skirts and bright red shawls with jauntily angled stiff berets. There were no men around; they must have been working in the surrounding hills.
From here, we slowly climbed in altitude again to a point high on a mountain. The sun was incredibly strong by now and, despite the altitude, we were all in t-shirts. On the other side of this mountain was a huge valley with massive roofless stone structures and steppes cut into the steep slopes. Here, high above the Sacred Valley, Jose told us impassioned stories of the wars between the Aymara and their enemies. His stories, we would later find, had a tendency to go on a bit too long but, listening to him telling sweeping legends in these majestic surroundings, we all began to warm to him.
We drove a couple of hours to Ollytaytambo, near the beginning of le Camino Inka, the Inca Trail, a historic pilgrimage for the Inca peoples who would make the journey to Machu Picchu. Ollytaytambo is an ancient and charming Inca town which has been beautifully preserved. The streets are cobbled and laid out on a grid system. The buildings are single-story with impressive stonework and, that afternoon, from the vantage point of a temple set into the face of a mountain, we saw that the town is set at the feet of three massive mountains that surround and dwarf it; a truly awesome sight. That evening, some of us had a superb meal in one of the many tourist restaurants; how we came to this one and had a meal was sheer pot-luck; a tourist kid, seeing that we were dithering outside, ran out to implore us to come into this particular restaurant. We feasted on great, fat burritos, heaving with guacamole and sour cream with impossibly, finely-cut matchstick chips in a highly après-ski-like, convivial atmosphere (candlelight, everyone squashed around a table that was slightly too small and with very friendly owners) – what more could you want!
That night we played cards under the stars. It was so quiet and the room we stayed in was probably the darkest I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping in. The coffee the next morning was the best I’d had in Peru so far (and, unfortunately, the best I was to have until I reached Australia and South-East Asia). It was thick, black as death and stronger than neat whisky; it was rocket fuel served just as I like it. That morning was also the beginning of a continuing preoccupation with bowel movements for the whole group for the rest of the Inca Trail. You never knew when your next opportunity might be, so take them when they arise, even if you don‟t really need to.
The final addition to the group joined us that morning; he was Hubert, another guide and a friend of Jose. He was an immediate hit on the group; the guys liked him for his ruggedness and easygoing nature; the girls liked him for his, well, his ruggedness, easygoing nature, and his just smelling of “man”! He was about 5 feet 10 with long hair and eyes that you just knew had seen many things. He was clearly a ladies‟ man and the women in the group were no exception; they giggled about him all the time. Hubert threw his gear into the van and we drove off to the beginning of the Inca Trail at the famous 82km point. Here, we met the porters for our group; around fifteen men, young and old, all Amerindian, who looked to be carrying a huge amount of luggage. They had no English, nor it seemed much Spanish. Some were friendly and outgoing, others shy. All had, at first sight, deeply inadequate footwear for such a journey: just trainers and sandals. These were the men who would be carrying our tents, the pots to cook our food, basic staples and our duffel bags. Jose explained that there used to be no restrictions on the amount a porter carried on his back but that now the industry had become more regulated and the maximum today is around 30kg. It made the backpacks we carried seem light and, as we watched the porters fly past us after every mealtime and every stop to set everything up ahead with all that on their backs, we felt increasingly humbled.
The first day was very easy; the trail was mostly flat and paved path. Every now and again, we would climb and be rewarded with stunning views across the valleys and mountains. The group became very spread out; Grant and I changed pace often so that we‟d have the chance to meet and get to know everyone in the group. Rich lived a particularly interesting life; he was a carpenter who‟d work like a beast for six months (12 hours a day, six days a week), save every penny and then go travelling for the next six months, go home, and then do it all over again; he‟d seemed to have found a middle ground between normal working life and being a perennial traveller.
Emma had been travelling solo for 13 months through Asia and Australia, now she was working her way up through South America; I can‟t even imagine being on the road for that amount of time; with the exception of Rich, Emma was easily the most seasoned traveller of the group, with absolutely no qualms about things such as the drinking water or the facilities. That first night, our group camped in a field, two to a tent, and all in a row, with a squat toilet in a hut on a nearby hill. We feasted on traditional Peruvian stews and soups, and drank some hot tea mixed with local rum. Afterwards, we all went into Emma‟s tent to chat, play card games, drink some more rum and slowly stink out her tent with all our sweaty socks (no showers just baby-wipes!); it was just like camping as kids. Before everyone went to sleep, Jose and Hubert warned us to put our boots inside our tents just in case animals such as wolves ran off with them. However, it wasn‟t until the next morning at breakfast that the rumour went around that Jose had actually been concerned about tarantulas but didn‟t want to alarm us!
The second day of the trek was much tougher than the first; we started the climb in the morning walking up huge, rough-hewn „steps‟ and climbed around 800m, again with the effect of spreading out the group. We munched on coca leaves which apparently are excellent for alleviating the sharp headaches caused by altitude. They‟re about the size of sage leaves and they‟re really bitter. You roll up a small bunch and chew them to release the juices and then you hold them packed against the inside of your cheek, like a hamster. It does seem to work; I had no headaches and felt great. After a quick lunch, we trekked up to „Dead Woman‟s Pass‟, the highest point of the Inca Trail at around 4,200m. On the way, I had a quick chat with Hubert, a man, it quickly emerged, who simply loved his job. He told me about how much he loved Cusco and about the peaks that he‟d climbed around his city. Some of them were over 6,000m and didn‟t require oxygen. The impassioned way he was talking about the rewards of climbing and the views from the summits really left a mark on me. The rain started coming in hard now and, by the time I reached the Pass, it was torrential. The descent into the second camp was steep and slippery under foot. It was here that I encountered my first squat toilet. I‟d held out up until now but that solitary hut was calling my name! Inside was a porcelain hole in the ground with footholds. You place your feet on these and squat. It‟s deeply uncomfortable; I don‟t know how women do it! Your legs start to shake and your muscles start to cramp; all you can do is concentrate fiercely on making sure you don‟t fall over or shit on your heels or both! The views of the surrounding mountains, verdant and partially obscured by thick cloud, were majestic. I later heard from Grant that someone had asked Hubert how he was as he arrived at camp. Apparently he swept his arms all around him, smiled beatifically, and exclaimed, “This is my office!”
The third day began as each morning so far had done: a wash in a basin, hot coca tea and a spot of quinoa porridge (quinoa is a versatile grain native to the Andean region of South America. It isn‟t really a cereal but has interesting nutritional value, being high in protein and gluten-free. It was sacred to the Incas whose King used to sow the first seeds of the season). The trail began with a particularly steep climb; it was lucky that Grant and I had put in some proper preparation before the trip. We descended through beautiful cloud-forest as we approached the tree-line again. I had a great chat with Jose on the way down to camp three; he told me about how he‟d met his wife on one of these trips. She was from California and apparently fell for him on one of these trips. They‟d had a brief fling. She‟d come back out to see him, pursued Jose over a few years, and she now lived with him in Cusco. They married but, sadly, he wasn‟t allowed by US immigration to visit his in-laws.
By now, the trail was becoming much busier and we saw first-hand how the impact of tourists was negatively affecting the Inca Trail. A couple of people in our group saw a girl from another group literally take a shit on the path; it smelt like death and there was toilet paper all over the walking trail; it was just nasty. The final campsite was packed; we walked past the horrific communal toilets to the only bar onsite. Here, the balcony views were probably the finest I have ever had the pleasure of wolfing down a pint with; huge, densely forested mountains all around, with a cold beer in hand. That evening, we drank and danced and chatted with the porters, who asked me, through translation, what I did for a living. I explained that I had resigned from my job in order to go travelling around the world. They looked at me and Grant in astonishment and asked whether we were millionaires. Jose told me that they just couldn‟t comprehend the notion that someone could do that; I didn‟t say anything; I had the strongest feeling that we were immensely privileged and said no more. I didn‟t feel guilt, just a sense that there was massive inequality in the world. I can‟t even think of the word that describes the gulf in freedom that allows me to do what isn‟t really that outlandish in the developed world and that of a man who doesn‟t have the money to travel anywhere close to even beyond his own borders.
The final push to Machu Picchu began in the pitch black of early morning at 3.45am. We trekked for more than an hour to the Sun Gate and marvelled at our first view of Machu Picchu far below in the distance with the iconic Huayna Picchu looming over. It‟s like something out of a Tintin comic; that kind of exoticism and mystical imagery. It‟s one thing to see Machu Picchu in photographs; it‟s surreal actually being there and walking around it surrounded by clouds. You‟re keenly aware that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Machu Picchu is a huge complex of ruined stonework and huge steppes carved into the side of the mountain. It‟s set on a lush green plateau, on top of a ridge and surrounded by a crown of huge forested mountains and clouds all high above the Urubamba Valley. It was thought to have been built by the Incas in the 1400s but was abandoned before the arrival of the Spanish. (Some theorists suggest that smallpox may have wiped out the Incas around Machu Picchu.) Soaking up the enormity of the place, it‟s astonishing that the Spanish never discovered it. It was only discovered and brought to world attention by the explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. Strolling around the ruins, and looking at the mountains, you wonder, in a similar fashion to Stonehenge, how these huge slabs of stone came to be here. There‟s no quarry nearby and no obvious place where the rock could have come from. It‟s a marvel! I lingered at the edges to stare at the surroundings and tried to spot a Peruvian eagle (a national icon); I‟m sure I did see one circling high above in the distance. I even saw a llama strolling across the grounds and managed to get close enough to pose for a picture with this fantastic creature.
We made the short descent down into the valley below to the town of Agua Caliente; again a picture-postcard Peruvian town, with fairly ramshackle and charming buildings built around a single train track going back to Cusco; fantastic for posing on the tracks. That night back in Cusco, we enjoyed a massive drinking session in and around the Plaza de Armas; they keep clubbing simple in Peru; it‟s just cheap, strong drinks, free entry to each venue, a big dance-floor, loud, upfront, cheesy music and an almost unhealthy obsession with all things Bob Marley, who dominates the playlist. This was the case all through South America; South Americans love Bob!
I‟ve been on some great holidays, but the Inca Trail was easily the most enjoyable one that I‟ve ever been on so far; talk about setting a benchmark for the rest of the trip. I put this down to the combination of a challenge, to the strong camaraderie within our group and to the absolutely awe-inspiring setting. The tour guides were awesome fun: Jose and Hubert. I‟ll never forget a line from Jose regarding a woman that he once admired: “If I don‟t kill her, I‟ll send her to the mental home!” A Peruvian saying, basically along the lines of “God, she‟s hot! I‟d fuck her to within an inch of her sanity, or beyond!” The camaraderie was fostered by shared hardships such as a lack of sleep, cold nights, squat toilets and rain, and also a sense that we were privileged to be there; a sense reinforced by the amazing native porters whose physical strength and good natured kindness put into sharp perspective any difficulties that we may have encountered. I don‟t think that bowel movements, aches, pains, gut rot and state of the toilets have been discussed as frequently as on this trek; I‟d never planned my next shit with such precision before.
The end of our Machu Picchu trek was also the end of any structure in our travelling. Our only restriction was that we flew out of Buenos Aires on 21 January 2009. From Cusco, our plan was to head west to Bolivia. We planned to make our way to Argentina overland, and, as South America has almost no trains, that meant buses. Eventually, we grew to love South American bus journeys because, given the enormous distances, they were almost always overnight, meaning we saved money on a night‟s accommodation.
Buses, as the sole mode of transport on the continent, we would find were generally really comfortable, but not in Peru! Our first bus journey was seven hours to the town of Puno on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca, which at 3,812m is the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world and the largest lake in South America. That bus journey was an eye-opener; the bus smelt stale and the seats were slightly damp. On one of the legs, some locals came on board the ancient bus selling their wares; one of whom was an old woman with a huge cloth pack on her back. Inside was a massive piece of undetermined meat; I‟m going to guess it was beef but I couldn‟t be sure it wasn‟t horse or llama. I had images in my mind of a horse‟s head. I tried to sneak a look at the contents of the sack; all I could see was a large knife slowly hacking into it and pieces of meat emerging which she would dole out to passengers with some loose potatoes. You‟re probably thinking “Just try it you pussy!” but I don‟t really think I could have stomached it, particularly on a long distance bus with no facilities on board!
We went through the altiplano highlands where life, whilst beautiful and isolated around the huge Lake Titicaca, is also bleak and desolate. We passed a town called Juliaca, which was nowhere near as pretty as its name suggests. The roads were unpaved with workers moving debris for no apparent reason. The buildings were mostly decrepit or half-finished; yet this was no new town. All of the towns on this road from Cusco to Puno to La Paz had an unfinished look to them. Half-finished houses and broken roads are the norm and the people had the dead-eyed look of years of being weathered by the harshness of their environment. (I’ve since read however that the buildings are deliberately left unfinished so that its owners don‟t need to pay full taxes on them (similar to the Window Tax in Britain in the 18th Century)). The terrain here is rocky and dusty and, with no signs of vegetation or crops, I imagine it’s impossible to cultivate anything. This was pure poverty and, with no signs of any means of production or commerce, I imagined it must be perpetual poverty. Despite this poverty and desolation, I had an insistent feeling of being pleased to be here; and why not! I was on the other side of the world! It sounds ridiculous but, even travelling for this short period of time and on a fairly well-worn route, it’s a satisfying feeling that you‟re out here. Fuck holidaymakers in Majorca! It’s all relative though; I’m sure that Antarctic or jungle explorers look on backpackers with the same degree of condescension.