The real D-Day: The hotel manager woke us up at 3:30 a.m. I took what would be the last shower for four days, “enjoyed” my time on the toilet seat, and blew dry my freshly shampooed hair. When you think about it, four days doesn’t seem like a lot. But for a first-time camper, it seemed like an eternity.
I was leaving behind a lot of creature comforts for a mentally and physically exhausting experience. Heck, I’d even paid a lot for this experience!
Tres amigos: Roger, Franco and Hever
4:30 a.m: We were at Regocijo Square—again the last of the group to arrive. “Positive mind, my friends, positive mind,” said Hever, our second tour guide. “I think my positivity is still in bed,” I retorted.
Some laughed, others grunted. Five minutes later our ride arrived. So did five more people, not present in our orientation the previous night. We were informed by Franco, our third tour guide, that they would be part of our group. We felt a little “cheated” since the group was supposed to be a max of 10 people—and we were already past capacity—but no one had the energy at the time to argue or question the unwelcome addition.
Ten more minutes and we were off to Ollantaytambo. Roger advised us to get some sleep during the next hour and a half. I forced myself to close my eyes and focus on my inhalation-exhalation. I had to force the negative thoughts out of my mind. We were really doing this. Others had survived and so would I. I had no hopes of enjoying the trail, but I was no quitter either.
6:30 a.m: We had a small, quiet breakfast, used the restaurant restrooms (even those who didn’t need to go, went), and headed to Kilometer 82: the starting point of our hike. Here, for the first time we saw the 22 porters and two chefs accompanying us. The “Red Army” was busy counting duffel bags, strapping on their shoes, and dressing up in layers. Besides our personal belongings, they would be hauling all the camping equipment—tents, sleeping bags, utensils, groceries, stoves, and oxygen tanks. Most of them were shorter than me. None of them looked like they weighed more than 150 pounds. Speaking in what seemed an alien language, they hustled to the passport checkpoint.
So did we. 17 strangers, we pretended to be a group for the “classic snapshot” beneath the “Camino Inka Km 82” sign at an elevation of 8,923 ft. We really were doing this! No turning back now.
The beginning of our 4-day hike
Ominous clouds threatened rain as we began the “easy” hike to our first campsite in Ayapata (elevation 10,829 feet) 12 kilometers away. We were walking parallel to Urubamba River, for the most part in pairs, along the wide, paved trail. A number of mules and locals passed us as we, hiking poles in hand, walked a steady, slow pace. The rugged scenery, the fresh morning air, the high-spirited guides…I was beginning to feel this could be fun!
The Inca Trail
And then we hit the first steep bit.
“This is just warm-up for tomorrow guys,” said Roger as we huffed and puffed along. It was the longest half-hour of my life.
“This is easy?” my brain yelled. My mouth was dry and breath heavy. This wasn’t going to be fun!
Sweating to my bones, I yelled “Hallelujah!” as we made our snack stop at 10:30 a.m. As I gulped down water while munching on my banana, I looked around….everyone was red-faced and a little out of breath. “Good,” I thought to myself. “I’m not alone.”
In the 15 minutes we stopped, Franco showed us how to take a bunch of coca leaves, add a bit of the “activator” (a compound that serves as a catalyst for the alkaloids, making the leaves more potent and less bitter), and press the “package” between our teeth. “Don’t chew it, just suck on the juice,” he explained. “This will give you energy and control your heartbeat.”
“Whatever you say,” I thought and plugged a wad between my molars.
Ugh! The coca tea was still bearable, but this? Ugh!
I wasn’t spitting it out, though. Not just yet. This is what would carry me through the next uphill. And sure enough, it did.
We passed more people and llamas before finally reaching our lunch spot at Wayllabamba (elevation 9,842 ft) at 1p.m.
Red Army waiter preparing our lunch table
The “Red Army” had already set up a lunch tent, with a table, neatly folded paper napkins, cutlery et al. They had bowls of hot water, liquid soap and clean towels lined up for us. “All you have to do is enjoy, guys,” yelled Roger.
Here we were, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, enjoying a glass of lemonade while blue hummingbirds flitted about. We had been up for nine hours already and had another three hours to go before reaching our campsite. We needed energy. We needed food. And it came. Lots of it.
An avocado appetizer drizzled with a tomato ketchup-mayonnaise mix, followed by quinoa soup, garlic bread (Yes! This was a luxury trip!), vegetable frittata, rice and pasta. We packed in the calories like never before and could easily have napped, but Roger reminded us the clock was ticking and we had to make the most of daylight.
Our lunch spot
Before heading back on the trail, though, I mustered the courage to go to the restroom. I had been holding it in for too long. From reports online, I knew it would be a hole in the ground with possibly no running water to flush. I knew I’d have to squat. And I knew I’d have to carry my used toilet paper in a plastic bag if there was no trash can around. Yet, I didn’t know what to expect.
As I opened the squeaky door, I was surprised to see that it was more than just a hole in the ground. They actually had ceramic tiles to indicate where to place your feet when squatting! And it was clean! The door didn’t lock, but I wasn’t complaining.
I won’t go into all the details, but will share one piece of advice: fold your pants before entering the loo in the wild. ‘Nuff said.
We were back on the trail at 2:15 p.m. and had one target: reach the campsite before 5 o’clock. The “Red Army” passed us within 45 minutes of our leaving the lunch site. They had somehow managed to eat, clean up, repack and reload in the time we scaled a couple hundred feet.
Applauding the Red Army
Re-energized, we made good time on the post-lunch hike reaching the campsite an hour early! And there they were, smoke billowing from behind the “dining tent,” aromas wafting through the jungle air, ready with hot water bowls and clean towels, the ever-energetic porters.
I was spent. The pain in my calves and shoulders was a tad more than just noticeable but not quite at the point to merit an Ibuprofen. I had promised myself I wouldn’t take any medications until I absolutely needed to. So, I washed my face, rubbed my feet, and stepped into the tent that had already been set up for us.
Our first campsite
Our duffel bags, sleeping pads and sleeping bags were in there waiting. My first thought was, “Wow! That’s tiny! How are we ever going to fit in here?” My second thought after having changed into nightclothes was, “This is all you need.”
Not to go philosophical, but this 6-square-foot shelter was serving the same purpose as a 3,000-square-foot house.
“Are you guys ready for happy hour?” shouted Roger, breaking my sudden-pensive mood. We stepped out of our tents, fresh-faced. “Now we will stand in a circle and get to know each other better,” Roger announced.
He wanted us to know the porters and the porters to know us. But he also wanted us, fellow hikers, to get to know each other. What better way than starting with the basics? Starting with the chef, each person in the “Red Army” introduced himself by stating his name, age and region he was from. None of them spoke English, so Roger translated. I was surprised that a lot of porters who looked 50 were only in their 30s while others who looked much younger were approaching their 60s!
The Red Army’s dinner
All of them had bright smiles, a twinkle in their eyes, and a palpable sense of commitment—to us. They were there to make this trip as safe and enjoyable for us as they possibly could. Walking the same route faster and with triple the amount of load, they ensured both.
When our group’s turn came, I attempted to introduce myself in Spanish…broken Spanish, but they understood. I wanted to express how grateful I was for their service but all I could do was shake their hand and say, “Mucho gusto amigo.”
During the introductions, we found out that our group ranged in age from 29-49, hailing from all parts of the world, despite most of us being American residents. “We could easily be part of a United Nations conference,” said a fellow hiker in his thick Australian accent. “Yes, we have pretty good representation here, don’t we?” said another in his distinct British voice.
Happy hour constituted fresh popcorn, crackers, hot chocolate and an assortment of teas. Milo with Anchor (dry milk powder) never tasted so good!
Standing in small circles under a starry night, we gazed at the moonlit glacier peak as we got to know each other better: What do you do? When do you think the new iPhone will be out? Why did you come to Peru?
We must have talked for an hour, when we heard Franco announce: “Dinner is ready everyone. Grab your seats!” Perched on those cold black stools, 20 people sharing a table meant for 10, we gorged on our food: vegetable soup, rice, some egg appetizer, salad, and tofu-soy stir-fry. Creamy chocolate with nutmeg rounded off the meal rather nicely.
Roger briefed us on what to expect the following day. “It’s going to be a long day, guys,” he said soberly. “And it’s going to be tough. We will try not to push you, but will if we have to. Try to get some rest tonight because it’s an early start tomorrow morning.”
It was lights out at 8 p.m. Slipping into my sleeping bag liner, with a hot water bottle to warm my feet, all I could think about was surviving Dead Woman’s Pass the next day.