I was picked up at 5.30am from the Cusco hotel by a 20-seater bus that was occupied by myself, Tina, Monica (a second tour guide), the chef and a porter. We drove for over an hour to a town to meet up with the rest of the group. En route Tina told me that a poncho would be a great investment for this trip. I think I’ve only ever worn one before during torrential rain at Glastonbury but as I wanted to try and keep my stuff dry if it got really bad, I followed her advice.
The tour group could certainly be classed as belonging to a slightly older demographic. I’m normally one of the eldest on these sort of things but here I was the fourth youngest out of twelve. I suppose the Inca Trail is expensive and anyone travelling on a budget must really want to do it. Seven out of the twelve were over 50 years old, with the oldest being Mark from Australia at 63. However it soon became apparent that these weren’t your typical 50-somethings. They all seemed to do triathlons, regular 100-mile bike rides and other activities that put my physical attainments to shame. I booked the trip through Intrepid who I think are an Australian company. Many Antipodeans use them. Here there were five Aussies, four from the UK, two New Zealanders and one UK/NZ hybrid. Everybody seemed pleasant enough and a good laugh.
After another 40 minutes of winding roads we were at the start of the Inca Trail. Since 2001, the Peruvian government has instituted a quota system limiting how many travellers can be on the trail on any given day and the permits now sell out months in advance. Admission is strictly monitored. You and your permit are checked against your passport details in a manner as rigorously as at an airport. There’s no bunking in as the start of the trail is separated from the public area by a turnstile bridge that runs over a fast flowing river. I was slightly worried as my permit was registered against my old passport. I realised this last night when speaking to Tina, who said it should be OK. You never know if there’s a jobsworth on the gate though. I was thankfully waved through the checkpoint without any problems. And we were away.
In the grand scheme of things this morning’s walk was a gentle stroll on a path that was in good condition. The afternoon walking was much the same with a few ups and downs but nothing too heavy going. There was beautiful scenery at almost every turn of the hike with an abundance of Inca ruins, snow capped mountains and deep valleys. This beautiful landscape would continue until we reached Machu Picchu on Sunday. By the time we arrived at the campsite, in 4 and a half hours of walking we’d covered 12km of 47km and risen a relatively gentle 350m to 3000m. All these measurements are according to the leaflet that we were given this morning.
Just before tea we met all of the staff who were travelling with us. These included the porters, a chef and his assistant, the rubbish man and the toilet man. Yes there really is a person who’s role is to set up a chemical toilet inside a tent with separate facilities for number ones and number twos, so to speak. They all introduced themselves. The age range of the staff varied from early 20s to late 50s. Almost all seemed to have numerous children and grandchildren. Then it was our turn. I had a go in Spanish. After Spanishising my name, I went through where I was from, approximate age and number of children. I needed a bit of help from Monica with the no children that I’m aware of joke which got the obligatory laugh.
All the staff were great, both today and throughout the whole walk. Everything ran smoothly. When you arrived in camp all the tents would be set up and there would be a drink awaiting. Each morning we were awoken with a bowl of warm water to wash with and given cup of tea. I politely declined the cocoa tea on account of it not tasting very nice from what I’d heard. I didn’t really need any sort of altitude treatment. Also in case any future employers find this and if cocoa is on a list of banned drugs! The porters were especially impressive at their job. While I was puffing and panting up hills or cautiously walking down them to avoid slipping, they’d be literally running past you in order to get everything set up on time. When you factor in that I was carrying a coat and some water in by backpack and they had 20kg of stuff, and they tend to be or a relatively small stature, it sounds even more amazing. On some of the other Machu Picchu treks, mules help carry luggage but the Inca Trail is walking only. Monica told us that most of them would have been used to walking long distances having often travelled many miles each way to school and they’re also used to running around at altitude. In recent years the workers have unionised to improve standards such as a maximum carrying load of 20kg and also that a reasonable minimum daily salary is paid. It’s natural to feel a bit bad that it requires 20 support staff to help 12 westerners to do a 4-day walk. However as most of the staff come from poor rural backgrounds, these are classed as somewhat decent jobs. They certainly give the impression that they are grateful for the employment opportunity provided through tourism.
It went dark at around 6pm and after the evening meal there was not much to do except go to bed. It’s been a good while since I’ve been asleep by 8pm but the combination of an early start, the walking and the darkness meant that sleeping tonight was not difficult.