December 25th. In the jungle, it definitely doesn’t feel like Christmas. I spent last Christmas in California and even that wasn’t as weird as this. The morning air in Santa Maria was cool and humid. I looked out the window onto the street, the unfinished facade of our hotel reflected in the dark glass windows across the way. I pushed the beds apart back into their original positions. The room had three of them for some reason. I took a warm shower and packed up. The door to the room was mounted upside down on its hinges. Flowers hung from a trellis attached to the second floor walkway. The stairs down had no railing. In the yard there was a picnic table.
At the office, we met our guide. We bought water for the journey — today was going to be a fair bit of walking. Breakfast was down the street at the same place featured in the previous day’s lunch and dinner. It was just as loud, with more Christmas carols and tree-based chiptunes blaring in the wee hours of the cloudy morning. We sat at a different table than the last two times, our third unique meal setting in a room of three tables. The food served was a smattering of light breakfast victuals, including eggs, breads, fruits, and meats. I ate what I could, not finding anything particularly interesting. I was really just ready to get going.
This was the day we’d take the Inka Trail. It sounded cool, like there’d be ruins along the way. I was excited. I had no idea what it actually was. Our guide, in his description of the route, mentioned some steps with a pretty far drop off to one side. That might be rough, but doable, I thought, naïvely. He also threw in the mention of a cable car crossing. Having witnessed Peruvians’ inclination toward danger and questionable safety measures, that had me significantly more unnerved. Oh well, there’s no backing out now — whatever they need us to do, we do.
Hopping back in the van (a different van), we drove down the road a little, then turned off left toward the river onto a dirt road covered with water-filled potholes. A somewhat sketchy bridge crossing across the still-raging Urubamba led to another of many exceptionally nerve-wracking rides, this one on a quite bumpy road rising along the mountainside with the river below. No guardrails, a shaky driving surface, and a bit too much speed had me thankful I didn’t eat a lot of breakfast. Every time trees and foliage made their way between us and the drop, I was relieved at their pseudo-protection. It wasn’t a long ride; we passed another suspension bridge to a village across the river and stopped shortly thereafter to hike. Was this the Inka Trail?
No, it was just a hiking path through the jungle. In the cool summer air, it felt almost like I was back in New England hiking one of the White Mountains. Except the foliage soon became more exotic: coffee plants, banana trees, aloe, all within a few feet of each other. Our guide took the moment to point out these in detail. We had been walking for maybe five minutes before our first break — it was going to be like this the whole way.
In the distance I heard music. Reggaeton, judging by the beat which was more or less ubiquitous in Latin America (to my dismay). I didn’t even know there was electricity in these parts — turns out there was far more than that. In short time, we happened upon a homestead in the mountains. To one side was a bean drying platform, fed by a Myst-like series of valves and channels. Between the two buildings there were a couple folks enjoying beers, a woman at a table with candy and drink for sale, and a tiny little monkey on a rope. I don’t think I’d ever seen a monkey up close before. This one was crazy, jumping around, grabbing things and people with its creepy little hands, attempting to steal items but being withheld by its tether. I was amazed by its flexibility and its ability to wield itself.
We didn’t stay long there. We had a brief chat, but most of it was in Spanish so I tuned out. I was more impressed by the wildlife and the view, the sharp green mountains looked incredible with the clouds crossing their tops. On the way back up the trail, I noticed the house had a DirecTV dish on its corrugated metal roof.
We rose and rose through the jungle, navigating switchback after switchback, curling along the mountain. I fell behind the group because I was constantly taking pictures, especially when the trees broke and the valley showed itself. My legs were already starting to burn. I took photos both to get a quick rest and not to just pass through this novel terrain without a second glance. There were lovely little flowers everywhere, more exotic fruits, and amazing sights on the regular.
Not too long past our first stop, we happened upon another milestone, this time a small village, the centerpiece of which was a home with a large patio, seating area, and larger display of goods to buy. The patio boasted another stunning view of the valley below, itself made of large stone slabs with a thatched roof held up by large wood pillars. Strung in the ceiling were wires, lights, colorful banners, vibrant apparel, and beads.
On a short wooden fence at the entrance was tied a monkey, one much smaller than the last one, and this one featuring a large white mustache. I don’t recall the species name, but it was an adorable little humanoid. Above it on a roof support was perched a beautiful blue and yellow bird; a parrot, I think. Our hosts gave it a banana to eat, which I watched it grab in its talons and chow down bite by bite. One of them also brought in another large creature, a large rodent with tiny eyes and little fingers. I thought they said it was a chinchilla, but it didn’t really look like one. It sat on a tabletop not moving, not making a sound.
Our guide summoned us around a table, where he went through a collection of items spread out before us. Fresh coffee beans and grounds, freshly picked cocoa, chocolate and honey, root vegetables, corn, tequila, chicha morada (a sweet drink made from purple corn), among many other things. He poured water into a jar, flipped it over, and purified water came out of a different hole — Inca magic, he joked. I wish I could remember the name of that vessel.
From my bench seat I saw scattered raindrops falling outside of our sheltered area. The weather forecast for our entire visit to Peru called for rain. So far, we’d had rain every day, but only for a few minutes at a time. At first, I thought rain would have spoiled the adventure — now, it was getting hot and the hiking had me sweating. A little rain then would have been nice. The drops fell occasionally during the day, though barely noticeable and providing no relief. The sun continued to shine through the light white clouds.
We started to get moving when another large hiking party arrived at the house. They had left from Santa Maria by foot as we walked to breakfast; our paths intersecting. We later drove by them in the van ride to the trailhead. There were a lot of them and I considered it lucky that our intimate group of seven wasn’t appended to another. On our way out I marveled at the terraforming ability of these people. Across the valley there was a clearly man-made arrangement of plants on a very steep hillside. No fear, these people have. Just wait.
In that village were a fair amount of buildings, but very little sign of human life. There were plenty of animals, however — ducks, cats, and a very loud turkey that I saw. Along the way, our guide taught us a bunch of animal names in the Quechua language. When he asked us one by one to pick an animal, I chose dog, or “alko.” He told us to remember those words, since we’d be quizzed on them later.
The higher we got, the more amazing the views became. Eventually, we could see all the way up the river, almost to Santa Maria from whence we came. The road we rode up was a long way down there now, as was the village and bridge we’d passed. The trail slowly began to narrow. We walked by another cleared field on a very steep slope and I tried my best not to get distracted and lose my footing. I shot a few photos and fell behind again.
Around a turn ahead, the rest of my group was stopped. In front of them was a short set of stone steps with a slight drop on their left. Out of that side grew red flowers. From the cracks came green grass and leaves. This was the beginning of the Inka Trail. If those were the steps he was talking about, this wouldn’t be fun, but at least they’re short. I climbed them one at a time, slowly, hugging the rocks on the right. On the left, a several-hundred foot drop down to the river. The cliffside was sloped at maybe 70 degrees, so it wasn’t a straight drop down, however it sure felt like one. Those steps weren’t so bad, I thought once they’d been conquered.
They led to a corner. Around that turn? The Inka Trail. A several thousand foot path on the mountainside. It was maybe five feet wide. On the right, the rising mountain rocks. On the left, the aforementioned several hundred foot drop, the whole way. This wasn’t going to go well. I was carrying maybe thirty pounds on my back, securely strapped to my body but relocating my center of gravity to an unfamiliar point. The trail went up and down, sometimes with long stretches of stairs. I went down those stairs on all fours, hands in back, like a crab. I went as slow as I could, even though my mind was screaming at me to get it over with.
When the trail flattened, I kept my right arm touching earth. I was shaking. Perhaps it was nerves — fear of heights is one of my biggest phobias. Perhaps it was the relative lack of breakfast. I thought, how stupid that I should lose the ability to think clearly, control my muscles with precision, and maintain a dry grip in peril. How did that mechanism evolve?
Our guide followed behind us, taking the trail nonchalantly. He’d done it many, many times before, he told us. As we walked, he played a flute. It was nice, something else to concentrate on. I could feel my mind leaving my body. The reality of the situation had caused my mind to switch to autopilot. Trust your instincts and you’ll be fine. Don’t think, just do.
Every big turn was an opportunity to rest and survey the coming trail. It was also an opportunity to be disappointed that there was at least that much trail left in the distance. One turn was particularly harrowing. We were stopped because another group was resting there and were more or less impassable given our comfort level. I was annoyed at not being able to move from the precarious strip of land I’d been stuck on, just ahead of some stairs that I wasn’t looking forward to climbing anyway. Eventually we got moving, and once I reached the top of the short set of stairs, I was relieved to find a relatively wide outcropping and a little nook in the mountain, into which I promptly retreated for a seat. We all stopped there for a moment, this other group still there too but on the outer edge of the trail.
They looked familiar. It clicked, suddenly: these were the three German girls I’d taken a photo of the day before! They were having their photo taken again, this time standing on the very edge of the trail with the view of the river behind them. Insanity. Since I’d lost all ability to be afraid or nervous, I flat out asked them “Habt ihr keine Angst!?” They laughed and replied in German, which was a tad quicker than I could digest at once. I smiled and tried to reply to what I could understand. I could use more practice, but that was nice — to speak and be understood in someone else’s language, for more than just a basic sentence.
They left before we did. Clearly, they had no fear since they were, relative to us, booking it. Another ridge of slow, painstaking movement. Several hundred feet more. The guide gave us time. Fifteen more minutes before a break. In Inka Trail time, that was an eternity. At our pace, a quarter mile, maybe. At the end of this concave bit was a rather large ridge out from the mountain side with an open circle and a tree. A good place for a break. Hell, sitting there felt like an accomplishment. I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. I was expecting a few stairs on a cliff, not a mile walk. If I knew we’d be doing that before I left, I might have reconsidered. In retrospect, I am very happy I took that hike. I’ll never do it again, but I’m happy I did.
I fed my shaking body a Clif bar and downed some Gatorade. Tastes like victory. A few of the others wandered over to the far side of the ridge out into the air. I thought they were crazy… then our guide asked us to leave our bags there and go out onto it with him. It was a strip of land a little wider than the trail, with slopes on both sides that were slightly less crazy, and some trees. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, but as soon as we were somewhere wider, I found a rock to cling to and didn’t move for some time.
He gave us a long speech about the Quechua, the history of the trail and the valley. It kept occurring to me that this was Christmas. I was sitting on a rock, surrounded on three sides by a few hundred feet of air, in the hot Peruvian sun, with six of my closest friends and family. What a day it had already been.
We took a photo together there and then headed onward. A relatively short strip of Inka Trail led into the woods. By this point, it was nothing. I still climbed down the stairs on all fours, but my walking speed had increased quite a bit! In a very short while, we ended up at a barren little homestead by a pineapple field. A man there had drinks, waters, and other goodies for sale. He seemed expensive, though, so I thought it best to save my precious soles for later. Barely five minutes up the road, we happened upon another house. This one had freezie pops! What a welcome relief, if a bit sticky. They also had cheaper water and puppies! The latter weren’t for sale, unfortunately. On the way in, there grew tiny little peppers, about the size and appearance of orange tic-tacs. I tried one without a second thought — it was exceptionally hot, but a short burn. I kind of liked it. There was a nice shaded area with benches there, where I would have liked to sit for a few minutes, but we were getting closer to lunch. I know, we just sat not that long before. I was starting to ache. I needed… something.
The walk out led through a village overgrown with grasses, flowers, and other foliage. I saw some flowers I’d never seen before, plus others that I absolutely love. There was an open concrete slab, probably another bean drying area. There was also an overgrown football field, a small one with net-less goals. It looked like it hadn’t been used in some time. The buildings were in less-than-stellar condition; their roofs rusted and brown, bricks cracking and wood fixtures rotting away.
Through a jungle of banana trees we ended up on a road. A gravel one, mind you, but a road nonetheless. There was an electric service line below. We were getting close to some kind of civilization. Indeed, some of the buildings in this area featured political graffiti, but were even more run-down than those up the road a bit. By all appearances, they were abandoned.
Our guide soon remarked that we had five minutes to lunch. Immediately, my brain began to sing this song:
Yeah, we got just. five. minutes.
The song is about five minutes long, with each verse starting with the lyrics “five minutes”, “three minutes”, and “one minute” respectively. They also more or less mark the position in the run of the song. I used it to estimate my walk, humming along in time. Somehow, it ended exactly as I walked into our destination, a jungle restaurant and homestead with a shaded resting area full of hammocks. The German girls were already there, sleeping. We headed inside to lunch.
Lunch was spaghetti (what?) with tomato sauce and cheese. The highlight of the meal, however, was the appetizer. Fresh pan with guacamole and salsa. I don’t care for guacamole, but I love salsa. This was some of the best salsa I’ve ever had — it was very spicy, mostly peppers with a bit of onion, and extremely savory. Its flavor complemented the pan, livening its blandness and unleashing a sweet, spicy, savory mixture. It was truly wonderful. As I said before, I’m not often amazed by food, but this was one of those times. The spaghetti itself was mediocre in comparison. I couldn’t really complain though, after all this was Peru, not Italy. Plus, in the midst of this hike we were on, any food, especially carbs, were quite welcome. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
After lunch came the siesta. Our turn in the hammocks had come. I found one by the outhouse, but switched when another shaded one became available. I’d not often laid in a hammock; it was pretty comfortable. I fell asleep. It felt like I was dreaming when I awoke. I was still in the jungle of Peru. It was still Christmas. It all felt unreal.
The others were already up once I came to. Back at the house, a few were playing with the most adorable tiny kitten. It had super wide eyes and frizzy hair, the cutest little thing. I picked it up and it felt light as a feather. Its meows were almost inaudible in their high pitch. So precious! As we left, it followed for a little bit. I wanted to keep it.
The path took us near to the river. We’d descended quite a bit to get to lunch, and now we were far less than a hundred feet up. The clouds had dropped just as much, blocking the sun for the most part but leaving splotches of sunlight upon the mountains ahead. We walked past a scary looking suspension bridge to seemingly nowhere before lowering down to nearly river level. It was quite loud in its violence, splashing and brown. We crossed over a stream feeding into it and the contrast between the relatively fresh blue/black water and brown flow made a stark dividing line between the two. My photo taking habit caused me to once again fall behind the others along the riverbank.
I rejoined them at another suspension bridge, this one on our path. It appeared much like the other, supported by a pair of white frames on the valley sides, rusty cabling draped across the span and driven into the mountain rock. The span was a single layer of wood planks, some missing, others loose. It twisted whenever someone moved. I did my best to stay in the stable center axis, though the whole experience was less scary than I thought it might be. I took time to shoot photos from the sides, a relatively high metal fence preventing falls into the river maybe twenty feet below. The scariest part here was trying not to step on loose planks. When there’s only an inch of wood between you and visible rushing water beneath, you have to have some kind of trust in it. When that trust is momentarily breached, you’re gonna have a bad time.
I walked cautiously, finding only a few betrayals along the way. Again, I’d already been through so much this day that I was more so annoyed that the world was trying to make me afraid rather than feeling any kind of fear. Once crossed, the path took us again down to the other bank, through fields of sandstone chips and fallen boulders. At every turn it was evident how the river had sculpted the valley, cutting into the rocks and eroding vigorously in the relatively recent past.
And then, at last, we came upon the fabled cable car. The thing that was still able to make me a little nervous at a thought, imagining what kind of massive valley we’d be suspended above in a rickety little thing. Well, in reality, it was a several foot wide metal basket on a low zip line across the river. An operator on one side manually pulled it over to our side, where a group of two would get on and be pushed off, gravity doing all of the work. Very Myst-ish, again. It actually looked pretty fun!
It was! When it was my turn after a short queue, I jumped at the chance to get on and giddily waited to be pushed. The torrent of water roared maybe ten feet below; I cried “weeee” all the way across. After dismount, I wanted to go again. Except, by this point in the day, my feet were really burning and my shoulders ached something fierce from lugging that backpack all this way. I just wanted to relax.
Fifteen more minutes, then hot springs. I couldn’t wait. That sounded amazing. It was definitely shorter than fifteen minutes. The hot springs were basically right there, almost visible from the cable car. There were four pools there, which I thought were surprisingly crowded for such a remote location. It was also far more structured than I’d expected, with crafted concrete walls built right up against the side of the cliff. We walked up, grabbed a table for our home base, and changed into something more appropriate. Entry required a cold shower, for hygienic purposes, I think. It was misery for a few seconds, but felt so good upon entry to the warm pools. I don’t think it really cleaned much off, to be honest.
I floated there in the hottest pool with the others, immensely enjoying the warmth all over and trying to find a decent place to sit. There was gravel at the bottom which kneaded away the aches on my feet, as well as larger rocks which I accidentally bumped into as I walked. Along the cliff were slabs of rock jutting out; they made a decent enough seat, though they were irregular and it took some effort to find a comfortable position. We also splashed around a little, like kids in an above-ground pool. I enjoyed the freedom of movement; the buoyancy made me feel light. In the distance, several mountains away in the fog, was a waterfall. A thin white line, barely noticeable. Above us was a large power transmission line. Up a little way, a radio tower stood on the hilltop. We must be close to civilization, I thought.
Once it had begun to get darker, we got out and re-dressed. While waiting for everyone to gather, I went over to a vendor cart there and bought myself an Inca Kola. It was everywhere in Cusco. A bright, radioactive yellow soft drink. I didn’t want it then. Here, I needed something sweet to take the edge off. When in Peru…, I thought. It wasn’t bad. Maybe a bit too sweet, tasting mostly like a mix of banana and perhaps pineapple. I don’t often drink pop so this was an indulgence. It also contained caffeine which certainly helped keep me a little bit perked up after the draining hike.
We walked in darkness to another van. Inside it already? The German girls, of course. I calmly greeted them with a “Wie geht’s?” and failed to reply to their reply with little more than a “Gut, gut.” Clearly, there was so much more going on than warranted a “good, fine,” so I somehow thought to append a “Wir leben!” They chuckled and I decided it best to return to English since I was too tired to think.
The van drove on into the darkness, on a loose gravel road, around switchbacks and up. I don’t know if it was scarier knowing how high we were or not. Probably about the same, since the river remained audible and our drive now had the added risk of visibility issues, despite not seeing how far down the fall would be. It turns out I still had the capacity for fear.
It wasn’t long before we emerged into a city. Almost too suddenly, we’d gone from pitch-black headlit gravel road to orange lights and buildings. The van dropped us off at our hostel, a several story high building. Our room was on the third floor, up a steep winding staircase. Therein was no internet to speak of, but I took a moment to relax, shed my unneeded clothes and supplies and lay down for a minute. I needed a massage. Out the window was a view of the mountain, hidden in the dark. Below sprawled corrugated roofs. In the distance, I saw what I thought was a football pitch.
We went dinner at a restaurant down the street. The way there was down a dimly lit city road, almost an alley, decked on both sides with markets, businesses, and other closed places. One of them was a “Pizza Hut,” at which another trek group was dining. Way to go, guys. Our place was at the end of the road around a corner. Inside was decked out in green and blue, with TV overhead playing local news, and music in the background playing some medley of pop music and local-ish sounding fare. A Christmas tree by the counter stood bent.
As for the meal itself, there was bread, of course, with chicken and potatoes. It wasn’t very memorable; definitely not the best meal of the trek. What I remember most is wanting water. They gave us lemonade, a single pitcher, which lasted about ten seconds on our table. It was good, just not enough to quench my overwhelming thirst. Perhaps some Inca Kola would have done better?
It was a decent meal all-in-all. At its conclusion our guide again took some time to instruct us on what to expect the next day. We’d begin by zip-lining (!), make our way over to Hidroelectrica (!!), and then walk to Machu Picchu (!!!). I was so excited! Except, after a long day of walking, a good sleep was really what I wanted. That and that massage I mentioned. Well, in the end I got both. 🙂 With a lulling cascade of rain in the night, I slept like a rock.