[Start with part one here.]

Day five.
Inca trial/Camino Inka.
The day began at 5, and I was picked up from the backpackers’ hostel at 5.30. We then picked up the rest of the hikers from a nearby hotel. They were 4 of them: all from Hong Kong. The two guys, D and M, were pilots and the girls, S and J, were part of cabin crew of a well-known airline.

The trek begins at Piscacucho, a couple of hours from Cusco. It was a beautiful, sunny day and gorgeous location.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

I changed intoto shorts and t-shirt, and mosquitoes had a free buffet. The entire trail of 45 kms had mosquitoes, I was told.

The 45 kms were split as 11, 12, 16 and 6 over 4 days.

Intro to Incas.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

The first day was easy, and we saw a few Inca sites on the way. Unlike other trails to Machu Picchu, the Incas used the Inca trail (duh!) during their time and built 9-10 sites along the way. Inca trail was a pilgrimage route, and the idea was to endure pain before visiting the sacred Machu Picchu — similar to my plan.

We started the day at 9000 ft. and crossed the Inca sites at Llaqtapata. Lunch was after 7 kms of walking, and a pleasant surprise. Backpacking for me usually means carrying all equipment, cooking and foodstuff. On the Inca trail, porters carry equipment and food. And they are marvelous! They walk way faster than hikers, carry upto 20 kgs (That’s the most weight they can carry. Their bags are weighed at checkpoints.) and only drink an corn based alcohol drink to keep them going. The first few hours of the trek, as porters passed by, I felt sorry for them. But they love what they do, work as a team and are quite happy doing their job. It pays them more than what farming does, and they are respected on the trail by everyone. Hikers have their breakfast/lunch and start hiking, porters pack all stuff, race ahead of hikers, and arrange for hot meals by the time hikers reach the next campsite. I found the hikers on the Inca trail not very fit, and much sightseeing happens on the way too. So the equation works out well for porters.

All meals included an appetizer, a soup, a main course with 3 dishes, dessert, juice (usually instead of water in Peru) and tea/coffee. I, of course, felt spoilt when I saw the first lunch ready at Llaqtapata, which included vegetarian food made only for me. But there was also a feeling of Goddammit, I deserve this after all the hiking I’ve done this year.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

We reached our campsite at Wayllabamba (9800 ft.). The first day was mostly easy hiking. That’s the Incas’ way of making one underestimate the hike. The weather seemed like it’d hold up for the rest of the hike. By now, the six of us (tour guide, folks from HK, and I) had settled down in our relative positions while hiking. The guys were faster than the girls, but the girls were doing okay too. I was at the peak of my stamina (because it was the end of summer and I had hiked plenty). I prefer walking first when I’m going for the kill, or last (with the last person) as that helps me conserve my energies for the future part of a hike. The first three days, I was conserving energies and my knees for what was going to be a sprint on the last day. More on that later though.

Stories from 30,000 ft.
Much airline conversation happened over the course of dinner thanks to the 4 employees. I now know many secrets and free stuff airlines have, the grades of smiles used by flight attendants and that flights have a survival kit in case passengers are stranded on water which contains — and this is rather hilarious if you get the joke — a book with prayers of all religions. Yep, that’s right. After a point, the airline just wants to say All right, we’ve done our best; let’s see what *you* can do now.

Many stories were shared, some of them hilarious and some outright disgusting or plain sexual harrassment. People go to ridiculous lengths while traveling alone and many seem to think air hostesses are easy. I also confirmed that Indians were the worst air travelers. I’ve seen compatriots treat flight attendants as servants, in line with our social psyche.

Day six.
The quasi-14er.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

This was the most challenging day of the hike. We started at 9000 ft., crossed a pass at 13,828 ft. and descended down to 12000 ft. to camp. Reaching the pass was an extra challenge because of the altitude and the steep hike. J was feeling the symptoms of altitude sickness. After guiding her for most of the ascent to the pass, I took off in the last 30 mins before the pass. The rationale was thus: If you’re me, you’d obviously see that 13,828 is *this* close to 14000 ft. I haven’t had much luck summiting 14ers this year (both attempts had to be abandoned), so I selected one peak near the pass to summit, to feel 14000 ft.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

The guys D and M were already at the pass when I reached and agreed to join me. D is afraid of heights (Aren’t we glad he isn’t a pilot!) and stopped midway when we had to walk along a cliff that fell a thousand ft. M continued on the crazy attempt. He wasn’t experienced with hiking and climbing, but didn’t give up. At one point, we had to cross a metro of rock, with a cliff on one side, and a valley on the other. I played Morpheus to his Neo, and showed how it was only in the mind that made people crawl past it instead of walking.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

By the time M and I summited the peak, or guide Jose reached the pass and took D down to safety, while I guided M down. M and D had the experience of a lifetime. That was the craziest thing they had done and vowed never to attempt something similar again. I know the feeling, but if they’re anything like me, they’ll keep attempting crazy stuff and feel the same thing all over again.

Playing guide.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

At the pass, while two of us had a minor headache, J was severely affected by altitude: headache, nausea, weakness and aversion to food. I played guide and brought her to the campsite at her pace, while Jose kept up with the rest of the group. Upto last year, I was a very good hiker but a terrible guide. I could almost never bear walking last. Make that: I could never bear not walking first. If you’v hiked with me, I know you’re smiling here. Over the last 2 years, I think I’ve turned into a better guide than hiker. I  had some more high altitude experience than our guide, so I kept her busy with breathing exercises, food, water and conversation to keep dizziness away. High altitude sickness is terrible to experience, and the only remedy usually is to reach a lower altitude.

We reached the campsite well after dark, and slept like babies after dinner.

Day seven.
More peaks.
I had conserved enough energy, and reckoned I could go for the kill for the last 2 days. Day three long (16 kms) but we crossed incredible landscapes which made the hike enjoyable. We started at 12000 ft. and crossed a pass at 13,500 ft. Here on, I was walking at my pace, reaching passes and checkpoints in almost half the time as others, and climbing all nearby peaks while the others made it. I climbed about 4 peaks this day. Towards the end of the day, we had to descend 4000 ft. and I switched back to guiding the last person.

There isn’t much to write about this day; photographs can do the talking.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010
From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010
From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010
From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010
From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010
From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

Day three’s campsite was better than the rest. There was a restaurant with electricity and hot showers. Machu Picchu was 6 kms away, but there was a catch.

Day eight.
The catch.
If you see any photograph of Machu Picchu, you will see a steep cone-shaped peak overlooking it. That’s Wayna Picchu. It is tough to climb, views from it are stunning, but only 400 permits are given out daily to climb it: 200 for the 7 a.m. slot and 200 for the 10 a.m. one. Tourists start lining up for permits well before sunrise and permits run out before 6.30, for both slots. The Inca trail is well maintained and tightly controlled. Camping I’d only allowed at designated campsites and no hiking during night is allowed. On day 4, we were supposed to pass a checkpoint right after or campsite. The checkpoint doesn’t open until 5.30 a.m. and we had 6 kms. to cover from that point. Strange, but not unlike me, by now I was more interested in Wayna Picchu than Machu Picchu. If you really love to do something, you will see art in the way you do it. Trekking is one of the things I see art in, and the last day was the performance.

The end of the pilgrimage.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

We stood in line at 4.45 a.m. at the checkpoint, and there were already upto 50 hikers ahead of us. By the fourth km. I had passed all of them and reached the sun-gate. This is the first view of Machu Picchu on the Inca trail, after three and a half days of challenging trekking. After wanting to be there for over a year, after months of planning, after 3 days of walking and after enduring enough pain — just like the Incas intended — I was there.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

I felt nothing. After a couple of snaps, I continued with the remaining 2 kms. for the Wayna Picchu permit. I made the 6 kms. in 55 minutes with two twisted ankles — both — on the way. I had hiking poles, but couldn’t get myself to use them: That would be cheating.

The 10 a.m. slots were full, and I got a 7 a.m. permit.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

The rest of the hundred-odd Inca trail hikers that day probably enjoyed the first view of Machu Picchu a lot more than I did. I got a piece of paper and some great views from Wayna Picchu. In terms of total happiness felt, they were easily the winners. But I wasn’t after happiness; I was after a feeling.

After Wayna Picchu, we had a 2 hour guided tour of Machu Picchu, and then we all had some time to wake around and explore. I walked down to the lowest point, sat on a rock, watched the towering Machu Picchu above me, and listened to some of my favorite songs.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

I felt what I was after.

I can’t think of a word to describe it, because I can’t describe it.

I wanted to visit Machu Picchu and trek the Inca trail ever since I saw the Taj Mahal in Sep ’08. Visiting the Taj required zero effort, but was accompanied by an empty feeling. But there was another wonder in the world which required plenty of effort and probably carried a proportionate feeling. It did.

From [Peru] Inca Trail 8th-11th Sep. 2010

Part five here.