Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Inca Trek, Day Two: Wayllabamba to Pacamayo

The second day of the Inca Trail was the most physically challenging. The distance we had to hike was the same as on the first day (12 kilometers/7.5 miles), but the elevation change was much bigger. First we had to climb over 1,200 meters (4,000 feet), and then descend 700 meters (2,500 feet) on steep, slippery and unequal stone steps. And all that at an altitude of 3,500 to 4,200 meters (11,500 to 13,800 feet), which makes breathing somewhat difficult.

The highest pass of the trail is called “Dead Woman's Pass” (Abra de Huarmihuañusca), and many believe that it is named after a woman who died there from exhaustion a few years earlier. Our guide, however, maintained that the name refers to the shape of the mountain near the pass, which resembles a sleeping woman. He could not explain, though, how come the pass was called “dead” and not “Sleeping Woman’s Pass.”

Anyway, before our trip, both Anil and I had been a bit worried that we might succumb to altitude sickness, and have a hard time on that second day of the hike. Neither of us had been so high in the mountains before, so we had had no idea how our bodies would react to the high elevation. So about half a year before the Inca Trek we had started an intensive, self-imposed training program, which involved going hiking every weekend, and walking up and down the steepest hill in our neighborhood at least twice a week. I’m proud to report that thanks to this regime, we were both in an excellent shape; it showed during the Inca Trek, as we could hike much faster than all of our travel companions. On some days we were twice as fast, on others three times as fast, as the slowest person in our group. If we had had to hike as slow as this person, it would have been extremely frustrating for us. But, luckily, our guide quickly recognized that, and allowed us to separate from the rest of the group, and hike at our own speed. It was great for us, as even though we were a part of a bigger group, we felt independent and free to do what we wanted.

I have to admit that even for us (Anil in particular) the “Dead Woman’s Pass” was quite challenging, and we felt a great relief when we finally reached it. We were hoping to take a longer break there to recover a bit, but it was close to impossible because of freezing winds. So, shortly after we took a photo commemorating our achievement, we started a descent to Pacamyo (3,600 meters), where our campsite was already waiting for us (we could see the colorful tents form the top of the mountain). This last bit of the trail was unexpectedly difficult. We were finally walking on the real El Camino Inca, only to learn that the Incas—who could build perfectly shaped and symmetric houses—preferred to build unequal steps. You can imagine that walking down the stairs for about 700 meters can be rather hard on the knees. Now add to this picture steep and slippery steps of varying height, and you’ll understand better why we didn’t enjoy too much this part of the trek. You might be interested to know that we figured out that it is better to run down rather than walk on this part of the trail. But then, you have to be extra cautious not to slip and fall down (as I almost did).

Views and flowers on the way to the pass.

As we were getting closer to the pass, the trail was getting steeper.

Finally there!

On the way down.

Not surprisingly, at the end of that day, we were super-hungry.