Chloe Hayes: Seeing South America Chapter 2
So the Inca Trail begins and you´ve got all the blister plasters, sun cream and sexy zip- off trekking trousers that were recommended to you. Packing is difficult because if you have a sleeping bag and a roll mat, which you sort of/ definitely need, it will have taken up 3.5kg of your allotted 6kg. 2.5kg is waaay less than we all thought, naively packing reading books and travel towels when in actual fact a packet of baby wipes, a head torch and some spare pants was about our lot and even then we were dangerously teetering off the scales.
That said, we got off the bus at Km 82, the start point of the official Inca Trail and were given a string bag of snacks, yet more weight we were not anticipating, grabbed our walking poles and headed off to the checkpoint, passports in hand. This was where the proper excitement kicked in, we were here, the reason we had all come to Peru in the first place, all in our gear, crossing the bridge onto the trail. The first morning the path was full of little shops, villages and most importantly, real toilets. The scenery was incredible ranging from valleys to forests to mountainous, of course my Pentax constantly around my neck, pinhole in the left trouser pocket and iPhone in the right. I think I must have gone through about 3 films in the first day alone. Our lunch place was just across a tiny bridge over a stream and when we arrived the porters who are phenomenal human beings clapped us in to the camp.
I´ll let you decide who should have been clapped into camp after I explain the porters daily chores. Every morning they woke us up from our tents with hot coca tea and a bowl of warm water to wash our hands and face in. They prepared us a 3 course breakfast consisting of quinoa porridge, pancakes, scrambled eggs, fried breads I could go on. Then they would make sure we had clean water for our journey, pack up the entire camp including our duffel bags, tents, the dining tent, wash up everything and tidy the site. Then they would pass us with HUGE backpacks literally the size of themselves weighing 20- 25kg each, set up the lunch camp, cook us a 3 course meal consisting of soup, fish with vegetables and rice and then some sort of jelly or cake, all amazing, all freshly cooked and eaten on a fully set table including table cloths and cutlery. Then pack that down, and wash up, pass us again and set up the camp including tents and everything ready to clap us in and welcome us with a glass of fruit juice and have afternoon tea ready which was usually tea, coffee and hot chocolate with biscuits jam and honey. HOW. These people were amazing and everyday day we were in awe of their incredible abilities. These people deserve a medal, an OBE, a Michelin star, whatever, they were miracle workers.
Back to Day 1. After lunch and a lovely basque in the sun we set off again and got back to camp at around 3pm were we were of course greeted with another unearned clap. The campsite, Wayllabamba, was beautiful, perched on the side of a mountain with stunning views. The tent was so much cosier than I had imagined and we all went to sleep listening to another lovely thunderstorm.
Day 2 on the Inca Trail is challenge day. The guides are not wrong. Up at 5.30am and after breakfast the first thing you see is a steep climb and that is pretty much how it stayed for the entire day. Throughout the walk the flora and fauna was slowly changing and it became a lot more green and covered, we were walking into the rainforest. After 3 hours of climbing up we reached the last point that you could buy things so we all stocked up on drinks, chcocolate and most importantly, rum to celebrate reaching the highest peak of the Inca Trail. By about 11am 4 of us had reached dead womans pass. The altitude and the steep steps combined made our hearts beat out of our chests and we were all gasping for breath. The steps were so steep in fact, that we found ourselves questioning how these apparently tiny Incas climbed them and more importantly, why would they put themselves through this by choice. It did feel like a real achievement climbing on top of the mound however, placing my stone on the pile for the gods.
After about an hour and a half of negotiating very steep, slippery steps all the way back down the other side, we reached our camp, No. 9 at Pacaymayo and we were so glad as it had just started to tip it down. I felt so sorry for the people still going down those steps in the rain but they all made it and we were reunited for afternoon tea all in one piece. At dinner we cracked out the rum, having purchased a bottle for us and a bottle for the porters and it was made into what I can only describe as a hot toddy meets mojito. A mixture of the rum, lime and warm water made for a warming and highly alcoholic cocktail enjoyed and appreciated by all on this wet night. The toilets weren´t too fabulous either, having to walk down a slippery hill and over a bridge to a hole in the floor wasn´t super fun, but like everything else we took it in our stride, made jokes about it an embraced the bizarre.
Up at 5.30am again on day 3, the longest day of the trek. I was really looking forward to this day as we had done the steps, they were over, now it was just a lovely scenic walk. Oh how wrong I was. The first half an hour of the trek was solid, steep steps up to an Incan site ´Runkarakay´. Edwin gave us a mini lecture of the site and then we continued up yet more steps, we felt like pros at this stage and were going up them pretty quickly, more in the mind of getting them out of the way than being the fastest. We came up to a lake which honestly looked like something out of Jurassic Park, Abrevadero was swampy and cloudy and looked really mystical and beautiful with the tiny white flowers surrounding it. Our resting point which was about 20 minutes further up some steps was, we were promised the last of the steps and looked like something out of Jurassic Park even more so than before, so much so I had to draw a huge dino footprint in the boggy mud with my walking stick just to make it come to life.
What comes up must come down as we had learnt before and we found ourselves tiptoeing down steep but very narrow steps at a snails pace in the rain. They led under huge rocks and caves and the path slowly got flatter, warmer and wetter, we were now walking through the cloud forest. The plants were fascinating, like nothing I had ever seen before, huge tropical leaves and long stems with balls of foliage hanging off them. The birds got more colourful too and the trail seemed to completely change and come to life. This is where I really had a field day with my camera capturing all the beautiful greenery you always imagine would be in a rainforest and don`t belive you´ll never see. The path came to some enormous rocks that had literally fallen over the pathway that the Incans had just dug out to create the path through. They were extremely steep and I was very tempted to turn around and use them like a ladder. We got to our lunch place at 11.20 and were told there was a surprise for us, how exciting! When we were all together the chefs came out with a huge feast of dishes. Fried chicken, quinoa croquettes, fresh salads, beef stew, stuffed chicken and so much more all made at the top of a mountain. After this delicious banquet we were all told to close our eyes. We opened them to a huge, fully iced cake with ´Happy Honeymoon N and M´ (a couple on the trek) iced onto it. It was an astonishing moment that almost brought a few of us to tears, the chef explained that it was made by putting the mix into a closed pot with a rock on the top to create a steam oven. This is where the Michelin star comes in, I`d like to see Gordon Ramsay make a marble cake with a pot and a stone.
Newly energised we set off about 1.20pm and got to our penultimate Incan site about 3613m above sea level name Phyupatamarka. It was much bigger than the previous ones on the trek and we could watch the gardeners scraping off the moss and unearthing the stones beneath. As we moved along the surroundings became more and more tropical seeing huge sheer drops covered in tarzan style Lianas and beautiful wild orchids in the trees. At about 3.30pm we had come to our last Incan site of the day, Intipata, a stunning and fitting end to our last full day of hiking. We came into view of it from the side and so the terraces as we walked out of the jungle were breathtaking. We of course, all had to have a big group photo and were so jolly walking all the way back down and through into our final campsite `Winaywayna`. 'I am definately going to take the clap this time' I said as I walked through the other campsites thinking about the 10 hours of walking through all weathers and what felt like most ecosystems. We had a proper laugh all the way through mainly from the ecstacy of finishing but also from the fact that we had become such good pals over these last 4 days together. It was an amazing feeling. At dinner that night the porters came in and Robert, the guy from Johannesburg gave a lovely speech on behalf of all of us saying thanks to them and that they have helped us make a dream come true and the chef and Edwin gave us one back, it all felt quite sad and the end of an era even though it had been such a short time!
Day 4, our last day with Edwin and in the clothes we had been wearing for the entire time on the trail (yay!). We had to be up 3.30am. Yep. After a quick breakfast of cake and tea we had to leave the camp pretty sharpish so the porters could pack up and get down to town in time for the first train. The other reason was that we had to get to the checkpoint for the Machu Picchu national park and grab one of the benches so we could have a comfy wait. In the pitch black we trekked down to the gate and had a 1 and a half hour wait until it opened. Once it did we were hiking at lightning speed through the park next to seriously sheer drops on one side and a solid wall of rock on the other. Even now I cannot believe how fast we were going, as I was in the middle on this part I don´t know who was leading and setting the pace.
Within about an hour and a half we were at the sungate- picture postcard moment?! Sadly not. The cloud was so thick you could barely see the hand in front of your face. The porters had given us all a packed sandwich seen as we had eaten breakfast so early and so, looking as british as we ever had, we sat in our plastic ponchos (a necessity for the Inca Trail), in the rain eating cheese sandwiches on the side of The Sungate. By this stage, Edwin had started to look slightly concerned that we weren't going to get our view of Machu Picchu, I however, luckily didn´t have any expectations as I was totally focused on the hike itself. As we walked down to Machu Picchu, the classic photo that everyone gets was slipping out of our grasp very quickly. We got to the spot at about 7.15am and we all agreed that we should take it anyway, seen as this was still an epic moment for us all, actually completing it and knowing we could get rid of our walking sticks and coca leaves any minute.
Edwin took us down to the restaurant where he suggested waiting for a bit for the cloud to clear, it actually started raining more but we were more preoccupied by the fact that you could actually buy things, there were people that didn't smell and there were REAL TOILETS! We were so excited by this that a couple of us ran to them, sol in hand with complete joy. Half an hour past and it had only got worse so we all went in anyway ready for Edwin to give us his final Incan lesson. Whilst in the queue waiting to get in we saw the funniest thing. It was the grumpiest man ever wearing a plastic poncho looking utterly miserable sat under a beautiful flowering tree. The ironic juxtaposition was so hilarious we all had to take a photograph of him. Awful people. As we stood listening to him on one of the terraces, the clouds were very slowly dispersing around the mountains, the group getting ever more distracted and getting there cameras ready. Then literally all of a sudden they dissolved away and left us with the legendary view, the one that is actually on the front cover of my copy of 'South America on a Shoestring'. Of course poor Edwin was facing away from this and didn't know why suddenly we weren't listening to him, we were so desperate to capture it before it disappeared again.
Once we had listened to the full tour and got our Machu Picchu stamp in our passports we got on the bus to the town of Aquas Calienetes to be reunited with Martin and a delightful Pisco Sour. As the bus was ready to pull away, a girl got on the bus and as she approached us made the most almighty disgusted face I have ever seen. We all laughed so much because we knew full well it was our smell that had caused that face but we were past caring. A half pint of beer and a Pisco Sour later along with some food, we were slightly tipsy to say the least. We decided have a stroll around the town and then we all got on the train back to Ollantaytambo. What a swanky train it was too. Glass roof so you could see all the scenery, music, posh seats and food and drinks, it was a welcome luxury after our amazing trek. We all howled with laughter all the way back at various things, either from the sheer relief or the over-tiredness.
The next day was spend relaxing and shopping in Cusco, recovering from the trail and preparing for the Amazon. The phone began to ring in our hotel room early the next day and we were told we had to leave earlier than expected due to protests on the road. We boarded a 27 minute flight to Puerto Maldonado and wow did we get a shock when the door opened. Not only did the heat hit you like a tonne of bricks but the humidity was instantly unbearable. Still, mega exciting to be arriving into the Jungle. We met our local guides for this section and then we stopped off to swap our bags over and get an ice cream or two. As we drove through the city and out again the exotic plantations of bananas and papayas were increasing and and the ladies on the corner selling chicha and juices fading. This sounds silly but it really felt like we were properly going into the Amazon, even though of course we were and strangely enough it was exactly how I pictured it, things are so often not that way. We swapped the bus for the boat in Infierno (literally meaning 'hell' as the first settlers found it unbearable to live in) and we were on our way down the Tambopata River. We were given a little string bag and inside was a small metal dish containing fried chicken, rice, plantain and veg and 2 tiny bananas for pudding. Eating that whilst travelling down a river in the middle of the jungle was honestly one of the best moments of my life. It felt like pure bliss feeling the sun and the breeze and watching the flora and fauna go by.
We stopped a few times to look at Macaws and baby Caimen and 2 hours later we hopped off and climbed the steps from the river into the Tambopata Ecolodge site. Now, if I thought the boat was bliss, then this place was utter paradise. We met in the bar that had the classic vented doors and meshed windows, just like something I had imagined out of a 1950's exotic murder mystery set in the colonial Carribbean, greeted by a fresh juice and a cold wet flannel felt like pure luxury and we had our talk about our lodges, how to use our emergency whistles if an animal tries to get in them and the fact that there is no electricity. That afternoon I had a tranquil nap in the hammock and then we had a nightwalk to attend. Pre-warned about fire ants going up trousers and bullet ants falling down the back of your neck I got suitably dressed, looking fabulous of course, and we headed out with our head torches. Leaf Cutter Ants, Bullet Ants, Tree Snakes, Spiders and Birds were all seen, not to mention my favourite, an enormous Cane Toad. The first night involved showering with a cockroach and trying to figure out the mosquito net but we went to sleep listening to the amazing sounds of the rainforest.
Up at 5.15am ready for a day's exploring in the jungle. We got on the boat and within about 10 minutes we saw a pair of Toucans perched on a tree, they were the one animal I really wanted to see and it really was a surreal moment. We pulled up onto the beach and started trekking ready to explore. Walking trees and pregnant trees were all along the path alongside many insects and gorgeous butterflies. The guide stopped us and started taking a few leaves off a tree, then crushing and squishing them in his hands saying 'Wanna see some magic?'. The green leaves turned into a pinky purple dye and we ended up getting face painted like the tribes who live in the jungle. It took us 3 goes to coax a Tarantula out of her nest and when she did come out it was for a tiny split second but equally fascinating.
We came to a lake and got on what looked like the jeti, but when it started moving we realised it was the actual boat itself. We saw some birds closely relating back to the dinosaurs, many fish including piranhas and tigerfish and an eel. On the other side of the lake we went to see 2 incredible trees. One, not technically a tree but a mass of vines that had grown up a tree, killed it and slowly it had hollowed out creating a cage-like structure that you could step into. The second was a huge Kapok tree with a vast sprawling trunk that dwarfed the whole group into tiny ants. Getting back on the boat meant snack time, a passionfruit like fruit named Maracuya and some soda crackers, which most of us realised that if we crumbled them into the lake, the piranhas would come up to the surface and snatch them up, it was pretty cool. That afternoon was spent watching Aguti, Monkeys and Lizards and then we went down to the swimming hole, which was more like a puddle and wallowed in the beautiful coolness. It was so refreshing we stayed there, sat on the rocks in the brown water for ages. That evening it was time for the night search for Caimens. We got on the boat in the dark, (the mosquitoes where everywhere!) and travelled down the river. We hadn't been going for a minute when we saw the first one, a big lady on the beach. We saw many that evening and also a type of Heron that actually eats the baby Caimen, it was really beautiful and rare we were told and it was definately my favourite thing.
The next day was our last official day on the tour, we go the boat, the bus and the plane back to Lima and then had to say goodbye to three of the girls at the airport. We headed straight out after we got back, aiming for the water and light show at Parque de la Reserva. It felt really sad as it was almost like a summary of our adventure and that it was marking the end. We went out for dinner with the group for the last time and Martin gave us a lovely speech about how much he had enjoyed being our tour guide and how much of a great group we made. We really did make a fabulous group!!
Words and images by Chloe Hayes