Truth be told, though day 3 was – aside from the pre-historic sized wasps – a very pleasant hike, I was hesitant about day 4’s hike. We had another 2,000′ summit with 14 miles to cover in the dense, hot and humid jungle. The only consolation I had about the trek was that our previous night’s camp sat at 7,000′, meaning our summit was only up to 9,000′ – still nothing to scoff at, but after the ordeal we went through with 15,000′ this seemed like it would be a walk in the park, yet I was still uneasy. Today we would begin walking on the Santuario Historico De Machupicchu, essentially an Inca trail that has been preserved by UNESCO and the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. Jose gave a brief introduction to the trail has he took out his walking sticks and began adjusting their lengths. I missed much of what he said, because the sight of his poles made me go from a mild worry to an uncomfortable panic. In all the previous hiking we’d done, he didn’t use the poles. I thought they were more or less for weary gringo hikers to use if need be, but no, they were his and he was going to use them today! Jose was short, or to put it another way, he was around my height – about 5’2″, but he had set his poles at their shortest length, much too short even for our standards.
Why are your poles so short? I asked.
Because we’re going up. Straight up. Jose responded. Notice how we’re the only group on the trail today? And our porters aren’t hiking with us? That’s because this is the tough part of the trek and they refuse to climb it. Let’s go!
Pictures cannot do this mountain justice, so believe me when I say, from the very first moment we stepped on this trail my legs and lungs were on fire. My heart beat like a wild animal against my ribcage as I again fought for air. I had begun to acclimate (though not very gracefully) to the thin air over the past three days, but I still wasn’t prepared to conquer mountains with the limited supply. There was no plan B on this mountain, no horses to ride on, porters to carry you or taxis to catch. Once you started, you had to keep moving forward until you finished. I took a sip of water, hoisted up my pack and began the (very) slow climb up. After what felt like hours, and miles we stopped at a coffee farm to visit with the farmer and learn about the coffee-making process. I looked back down the trail only to discover that we had covered maybe 100 feet, which meant we had 1,900 more to go. Damn. Had I had any breath to spare I would’ve screamed out in frustration and anger, but I didn’t so I sat down to give my legs a rest while the coffee farmer serenaded us.
Turns out, the delicious drink comes from beans that are grown in a small red fruit which grow on bushy like plants. This particular farm is smack on the side of a vertical mountain. I do realize that all mountains are vertical, but this mountain in question is nothing but a sheer cliff all around – straight up and straight down. It’s a miracle that anything can grow at such an angle, let alone people who live and work in such an environment.
We were each given a fruit to taste, and were shocked to find it similar to a cherry, except that where there would’ve been a cherry-pit there were two slimy coffee beans. It’s no wonder that coffee farmers the world-over have a hard time keeping animals away from their crops, this fruit is small and delicious. It makes me re-think the Kopi Luwak I tasted from Vietnam. We also sampled some freshly roasted coffee, which carried some heavy fruit notes but was delicious. Knowing we had such a long trek ahead of us Jose gave the call, and we all loaded up our packs and hit the trail.
Up. Up. Up.
Switchback after switchback, there was nothing to look at but the bottoms of the boots in front of you. I quickly became the last in our line of 6, as I fully felt the struggle against gravity. The boots in front of me began to leave my line of vision as I fell further and further behind. I needed every single spare ounce of energy and willpower to keep moving forward so my mind went into survival mode and let go of everything that wasn’t immediately pertinent to the task at hand. For the first time in my life my mind was truly blank. Call it finding your inner eye, or transcendence, or temporary insanity; either way I went into a state of extreme focus.
One foot. Two foot.
One foot. Two foot.
One foot. Two foot.
And so it went, until the switchbacks ended and there was no more mountain to look up at. I had made it to the top. My mind came back, though the colorful sailor-like language was the first to re-enter my vocabulary. Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty proud and sat down to celebrate with 16 cookies, one package of crackers, and a swig from my water bottle.
With the summit behind us, it was now onward and downward! It was a steep downward, but I was able to keep my breath and enjoy the scenery as we descended into our final overnight.
Today’s lunch would be our last with Cesar and Rene, as they departed back to the highlands while we moved forward towards Machu Picchu. It was bittersweet, as
we I was glad to be nearing the end of this trip, but sad to say goodbye to our team. As I mentioned earlier, the porters do not do the aforementioned summit, opting to hire a car to take them to our meeting point at the Central Hidroelectrica train station. They prepared a lovely cream of onion soup followed by rice, chicken, and fruit before they sent us away with full bellies and big smiles.
The rest of the day’s miles were spent desperately trying not to twist and/or sprain an ankle while walking atop large, loose gravel that followed the train tracks. A gentle rain started up, giving the humid jungle an even lovelier dampness *insert sarcasm* as we spotted wild capybara scuttling to and fro across the tracks. Occasionally we’d have to hop to the side to allow for the slow moving blue and yellow Peru Rail to wobble and clank it’s way past towards Aguas Calientes.
For the majority of tourists who visit the Lost City, this train is how they get there. Only the truly touched opt to bypass this convenient and comfortable mode of transport, electing for a several day, near-death hike through the wild mountains. I only envied those convenient travelers for a minute, before I pitied them, for they never laid eyes on the mystical lagoon, they weren’t kissed by the glacial winds of Salkantay’s summit, nor did they sleep beneath the billions of stars in La Playa, doge an Amazon Wasp or walk through the fields of a coffee farm. Sure, they got a lovely train ride through the jungle, but we lived it.
We re-emerged with civilization as we drug ourselves into Aguas Calientes, only to find it swarming with loud, slow tourists. Ugh. Our last night would be spent in a hotel (yay for mattresses and showers!) and our last meal together at a restaurant, where we went over the next day’s plan: Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu, and the Lost City!