Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Inca Trek, Day One: Cusco to Wayllabamba

The Inca Trail is a 43-kilometer (26-mile) hike through the Andes, culminating at the magnificent Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. The trail follows the ancient El Camino Inca—“The Inca Road,” and passes many impressive Inca ruins, as well as a beautiful cloud forest and mountains. It takes four days to hike this trail, so I decided to dedicate four posts to it: one post per each day we spent on the trail.

The first day of the trek was quite easy and relaxed. It started early in the morning with a bus ride to “Kilometer 82”—the starting point of the trail, from which it was another 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), this time by foot, to the first campsite.

At 5:30 A.M. we were picked up from our hotel, and two hours later we found ourselves at the picturesque town of Ollantaytambo, where we stopped for breakfast. It’s a pity that we didn’t have time to explore Ollantaytambo, as with many well-preserved buildings dating to the Inca times it looked very interesting.

The breakfast gave us the first opportunity to get acquainted with our travel companions for the next few days. It took us just a few minutes to realize that some of them wouldn’t do too well on the trek. One woman was wearing a fancy knee-length coat, a very long pashmina, and fashionable sunglasses that she needed to push back on her nose every few minutes. Her husband wore a bit more appropriate clothes, but had so much trouble filling up their camel bags that I was convinced that it must have been the very first time in his life that he had done it. Then, another family of five only got an idea to buy raincoats and trekking poles the moment our bus was about to depart Ollantaytambo. I’m not sure if I was more amazed by the fact that they didn’t bring the raincoats with them in the first place (we were there in the middle of the rainy season), or that they only decided to buy them after we all boarded the bus, and were ready to leave for the trailhead. Later, we also learned that the same group of people didn’t have enough common sense to plan their trip in a way that would allow them to get acclimatized to the high altitude before embarking on the trek … The sad consequence of that was that they were super-slow throughout the trip, and even experienced some of the typical altitude sickness symptoms, despite taking medication against it.

After we finally managed to leave Ollantaytambo, we drove for another half an hour till we reached a staging area near Kilometer 82. There, our porters were already waiting for us, and as soon as our bus stopped, they frantically started repacking the supplies we had brought (the food, gas bottles, tents, tables, chairs, etc.). By the time our trekking companions were ready to start hiking, most of the porters were already half way to the campsite. Despite carrying a serious load, they had to walk very fast (some of them even ran), as it was their responsibility to set up a temporary campsite and prepare lunch for all of us somewhere along the way to our final destination for the day.

The weather was a bit gloomy when we started hiking the Inca Trek, but our spirits were high. We were all very excited about the adventure that was about to begin. After our hiking permits and passports were checked by a governmental official, we crossed a bridge on the Vilcanota River and followed a trail leading up into the mountains and away from the river.

As we were climbing higher and higher, our enthusiasm suffered a decline; but as the views were getting better and better, it quickly soared back up. The first semi-interesting thing that we saw along the trail were the ruins of a former fort, Huillca Raccay, which controlled the entrance to the Cusichaca valley.

A few minutes later, we encountered the second ruins of the day, which were much more impressive. They go by two names: Llactapata (“Town on the Hillside” in Quechua) or Patallacta, and they were primarily used as an agricultural station that supplied Machu Picchu with maize, the staple crop of the Incas. The settlement was quite extensive and comprised over one hundred buildings. Some of them had been inhabited by farmers, while others by soldiers protecting the access to El Camino Inca and Machu Picchu. Interestingly, during the Spanish invasion, the Incas had burned this site, along with a number of other settlements along the Inca trail, to discourage Spanish pursuit. This strategy has worked quite well, as the Spanish never discovered the Inca trail or any of its settlements, allowing us to enjoy the Inca masterpieces till this day.

After leaving Llactapata, the trail started gently climbing for about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles), before it flattened as it followed the left bank of the river up for another 7 kilometers (4 miles). From parts of this trail there were great views of the Cordillera Urubamba (the Urubamba mountain range) and the snow-capped peak of Veronica (a 5,860-meter mountain).

A hummingbird.

Along the way we passed through several small villages, and in one of them we stopped to have lunch. The lunch was prepared by our porters, but I’m hoping that our travel agency paid some money to the local people to compensate them for the inconvenience caused by our presence.

As you can see in the photos below, the lunch we were served (as well as all the other meals that we received on the trail) was very elaborate. It consisted of a salad, a soup, a main course, and a dessert—not quite the same meal most backpackers are used to while on a long trek.

Examples of salads we were served.


Main course.

Typical breakfast.

Sample desserts.

It was a wonderful treat, which we deeply appreciated, but at the same time I just couldn’t stop feeling bad for the porters who had to carry all this food, as well as the chairs, tables, tents, gas bottles, plates, and cutlery that we got to use.

I hadn’t expected such an elaborate setup, and I would have been more comfortable sitting on a blanket spread out on the grass, and eating a simpler meal. I’m not a princess, and I don’t like being treated like one. Don’t get me wrong: if I were super-rich, I would probably hire a chef, a driver, and a personal assistant to work for me full-time. I have no problem outsourcing some of the mundane tasks that I do not enjoy (like cleaning and driving), or do not have time for (like cooking and shopping). What I have a problem with is taking advantage of the inequality in wealth distribution throughout the world, and, e.g., hiring porters in poorer countries for a fraction of the cost it would be in your home country. Either carry your gear yourself, or pay them what you would have to pay to a porter in your own country.

After lunch we hiked for about two more hours before we finally arrived in the small village of Wayllabamba (located at 3,000 meters), where we spent the following night in the campsite set up by our amazing, underpaid porters. There, again, I was shocked to see that each couple was assigned to sleep in a four-person tent, instead of a two-person tent. Could someone explain to me what’s the logic behind that and why the porters have to carry so much extra weight? I, for one, felt extremely uneasy about it, and felt so ashamed that I almost couldn’t look the porters in the eyes. And reminding myself that at least they had jobs, and earned above-average (for their country) wages, was not helping. Small things like this tainted my enjoyment of the nature and the ruins along the Inca Trail, and were the reason I found the Inca Trek morally dubious. I’m not sure, though, what would be the alternative. Maybe encouraging somebody to start a new, “fair-trade-like,“ travel agency?