(Semi)-ancient ruins, stairways into the clouds, towering jungle-covered peaks, orchids, giant ferns, gruelling climbs and helter-skelter descents. Yes indeed, the Inca Trail has it all, folks. As I'm sure this is a subject that has been done to death, I'm going to skip any further description and wait till I get the photos scanned so you can see for yourselves. I'm certainly not going to inflict any of the "magical, mystical" stuff that even the normally dry guidebooks indulge in as, quite frankly, I think that's all New Age bullshit.
Suffice to mention that the 1,000 metre drop down original Inca steps through dripping cloud forest in the dark on the fourth morning was pretty wild. Oh god, yes, and Lord of the Rings. Should really have been filmed there - I felt like I was in it the whole time.
For me, however, none of the archeological or natural elements could quite match the human spectacle of the trail. Of the 500 people allowed onto the trail each day, just under half are guides and porters. In my group there were 17 tourists (all of us young) complemented by 14 porters and two guides. The porters were all small, slight, Quechua-speaking men who rushed ahead of the group to arrive at the next campsite, set up the (two-person) tents and the cooking and dining tents, and prepare the next meal. The food was sumptuous - fish in coriander and tomato sauce, beef fillets, omlettes and pancakes for breakfast, soup with every meal - all served while we sat on stools round tables in the dining tent. To be honest, the food was probably better than many of the 10 soles menus you find round the plaza in Cusco. They even remembered to prepare a special vegetarian option for an Israeli girl at every meal.
All the ingredients and equipment were carried by the porters, including tents, tables, chairs, stoves and gas. Most of them were supporting around double the weight of the heaviest load carried by a tourist. I was close to defining the later category since, realising that the porters would be taking our foods and tents, I added in a novel, the Peru Handbook, my notebook, a small Spanish-Quechua dictionary, sandals for walking round the campsites and my sneakers for wearing after visitng Machu Picchu, in addition to my regular stuff. The rationale was partly that I may as well splurge on the home comforts - since it wasn't "proper camping", why not be able to take off my boots and have something to read in the evenings. Partly the opposite - an attempt to simulate the weight I would have carried on an independent trekking trip. Nevertheless, most of the porters were carrying about twice my pack plus some extra bits. The official weight limit for a porter is supposed to be 25 kilos (established in 2001), but one of my group noticed at the weighing station at the start of the track that one of their packs tipped the scales at 34.5 kilos, without comment.
The most notable thing about the porters' load, however, was the fact that they didn't actually have any packs. They assembled their cargo each morning in bundles with makeshift straps of rope or woven cloth, and hauled it all onto their backs. Forget the waist straps with which most packs distribute their weight onto the hips of the carrier, the porters didn't even have free hands, having to hold their bundles onto their bent backs as they headed uphill. And they didn't have shoes either, making do with sandles constructed from tyre rubber - "Goodyear boots" as I later learned they were dubbed.
Despite this, they all made rapid and sure-footed progress both up and downhill. On the climb up to the 4200-metre Warmiwañuscsa (Dead Woman) Pass on the second day, I was the first out of our group to the top, five minutes ahead of the next guy and two hours before the last few (some of the other guys in the group were I think stronger and fitter than me but my level of conditioning from climbing Misti and Chachani meant that I had less need to stop). Most of the way up I was following a porter who was carrying a 50-litre gas bottle roped to his back. I kept thinking he was tiring and I would overtake him, but eventually it was he who disappeared off ahead, and by the time I got to the top of the pass was well gone.
These guys get paid 100 soles per trip (about $30 USD). It's more than the subsistence they could get farming on their chacras, but wouldn't go far with a family to feed and clothe.
Arriving at the camp sites, feeling a little exhausted from the climbs and grumbling if our dinner was 20 minutes late, we were a little like mehm sahibs. Or, for that matter, like Inca nobles. Amidst all the trekking along the historic trail and the little lessons from the guides about how the runners or chasqui brought fresh fish up to Cusco from the coast, everyone seemed to be missing the irony that, 500 years later, they're still doing the same thing. The stone Incan buildings with their straw roofs might have been a little more comfortable than our tents, but they didn't have electricity or running water either. Being waited on hand and foot while we trudged along the trail, we were living the lives of Incas ourselves, while the porters were time-warped in the roles of their commoner ancestors. The irony deepens when you learn that the the current theory on the purpose of Machu Picchu is that it was a lower, warmer holiday resort from Cusco.
After packing up the tents on the fourth morning, the porters went as far as Wiñay Huyana before descending to Km 104 to catch the train back to Cusco. Did they ever get to go to Machu Picchu, I asked one of the guides. Sure, he said, sometimes people who don't want to carry their own stuff hire an "extra" porter, who goes with them all the way to Machu Picchu. And if they're never hired? Well, they can catch the local train to Aguas Calientes for 3 soles, and on every second Sunda entrance to the ruins is free for people from the department of Cusco. Plausible, I suppose. But it seem that, just as in Inca times, the commoners are denied entrance to the sanctuary.
The other highlight of the trip was the chaos that surrounded our entry to the trail. Given the limit imposed by the government of 250 trekkers entering the trail each day, everyone reserving a place has to provide their passport details together with a copy of their passport. This, one imagines, is to prevent agencies from overbooking and creating chaos at the start of the trail. Of course, some people cancel. The combined need of agencies to sell and of tourists to get on the trail means that their spots get resold. When we arrived at the stop for lunch before beginning the trek, it was revealed that 9 out of our group of 17 were occupying the places of cancelled reservations. Unable to show their own passport at the control post, they were given the names and passport numbers of cancelled people and told to invent a story about why they hadn't brought their passports with them. Lunchtime featured the somewhat surreal sight of people wandering around, mumbling to themselves, memorising their new identities.
By the time we got to the control post, even the people who were going to enter with our original passports were nervous. It felt like we were trying to cross the Berlin Wall or something. The eight of ous who were really us went first, then waited on the other side of the bridge from the control post. The first couple from the next group took a while to come across, as they concocted some story about how they had just got back from a rafting trip and hadn't had time to collect their passport from the hostel. After that it got quicker as the guides intervened and I think the control post people gave up in exasperation on realising that over half the group didn't have passports.
One of our group, a Norwegian guy called Runar, didn't even manage to get assigned a false identity, I think because the maximum group size is supposed to be 16, and we were 17 in total. The solution to getting him onto the trail? The guides distracted the control post people while Runar dashed across the bridge and walked five minutes down the trail.
A Canadian couple in the group had waited an extra few days so they could go with their own passports. An agency in Cusco had offered them the opportunity to go earlier if they stuck a false name and photo on their passport. They decided not to, as tampering with your passport is, um, generally not a good idea.
The sheer Peruvianess of this whole situation made it for me practically the most memorable aspect of the trip.