I always enjoy the welcome meeting, or team briefing, at the start of a tour; sizing-up your travel companions for the next week or so, sizing-up the tour manager and the organisation behind them. As a former tour manager myself, I enjoy watching out for the machinery operating behind the curtain. As a passenger on the tour, I’m interested in making sure everything goes smoothly and as planned.
We met the night before departure in a room above the tour office, lined with vinyl-upholstered seating, a small table in the centre. We were offered tea as people drifted in. Our tour guide Felipe introduced himself and his assistant, Hans. Although Felipe’s English was good, he seemed to struggle with our rapidly spoken accents – several times answering questions quite different to the ones asked.
He handed out blue nylon duffle bags for us to pack our things into and gave me the hiking backpack I had rented to replace our usual daysack (the rental having a waist belt and chest strap to better distribute the weight of the pack for the longer periods I would be carrying it while hiking up Andean mountains.)
At the end, it felt slightly anticlimactic as we all departed to pack. After our sleeping bag and mat, we had an allowance of four kilograms for personal items in the duffel bag but, being used to travelling light, were easily able to stay within the porters’ weight limit.
So, early the following morning, as the first sunlight warmed the tops of the hills which surround Cusco, we headed down towards the Plaza San Francisco, dropped our excess luggage off at the tour company’s hotel and boarded the little bus ready to go. It emerged that two of the eleven scheduled for our group would not be joining us, as one of them had got quite bad food poisoning and his girlfriend was staying behind to take care of him.
The early journey was subdued as we had all got up earlier than we would have liked to make the 6am departure time. After an hour or so, we stopped at a small restaurant in the town of Urubamba and had a light breakfast. As we were eating, Felipe emerged with a chocolate cake! It turned out Andrew (one of our fellow trekkers) had a birthday today. Chocolate cake for breakfast does wonders for a group’s cohesion and enthusiasm!
Our next stop was at “Kilometre Eighty-Two,” the official start of the Inca Trail. Here we joined our porters and spent a while sorting out gear in the car park before finally proceeding down to the checkpoint, with a brief pause for photos beneath the Inca Trail sign. In no time, we were checked-in and had crossed the bridge over the Urubamba River. Just like that, we had begun the Inca Trail.
The pace was brisk and the vegetation at this lower altitude quite lush. Not far in to the walk though, Felipe stopped to give us all a talk (the first of many) about the benefits of chewing Coca leaves. He handed them out to those who were interested and explained how to chew them up and then keep the wad in your mouth to let it ferment. I gave it a try. The taste wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t notice any of the advertised benefits. I wondered if that was related to my resistance to dental anaesthetics.
Trekking onwards, the sun was eventually replaced with cloud, but the occasional spits of rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm as we trekked through trees laden with Spanish Moss and passed cacti bearing tasty red fruit. As we approached our lunch stop though, it got heavier and we decided it was time to break out the ponchos.
The “poncho plastic” (as Felipe referred to them) was probably the best investment I made out of all extra equipment we bought for the trip. It only cost S/.5 (about £1.20) and got plenty of usage over the following four days. Covering both your upper body and your backpack, it was an easy-to-put-on waterproof.
Lunch set the tone for the trip’s high standard of catering; a ceviche starter, followed by a variety of plates including battered trout fillets in a delicious sauce, massive Andean corn-on-the-cob topped with Llama cheese, soup, several salads and rice. When hiking at altitude, the meals are carbohydrate-heavy and usually include a lot of liquid (hence, soup or porridge figured in every meal.)
The skies cleared after lunch and, by the time we reached our afternoon rest stop at the Llactapata ruins, we were back to clear skies and able to enjoy the magnificent views between the sheer mountains and down to the Patallacta ruins on the valley floor.
Our camp for the first night was in a farmer’s field just off the trail. It had been advertised as having a hot shower, but that proved to be optimistic. The first user of the shower reported it went cold halfway through. Looking at the wiring to the electric heater attached to the shower head, I’m surprised it lasted that long. There was also much discussion about the cleanliness of the room – which was shared with the toilet and had a filthy floor – and the contortions necessary to reach your towel after the shower.
There was a great view from the campsite though. As the sun set we watched the last rays illuminate a glacier further down the valley before settling in for an early night after another delicious dinner.