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Waterworld, or the Floating People of the Lake
May 3-6, 1999

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Los Incas

Last year, someone ran the annual race from the Kilometer 88 checkpoint to Machu Picchu, about 40 km (which is a little less than a marathon), in 3 hours, 22 minutes. He worked as a cook for one of the tour groups and was accustomed to hiking the Inca Trail. This is in contrast to the twenty people from our United Mice travel group: it took us four whole days.

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Kilometer 88: the starting point for most backpackers hiking up to Machu Picchu
The Inca Empire radiated out to all four corners from its navel, Cuzco. There weren't any horses or wheels at the time, so how did the Inca conquer such a large territory and control the different tribes that stretched from Ecuador to Chile? They did what we were doing: hiking it. Relays of young runners would pass messages all across the empire, using vast networks of stone "highways" that went from the coastal deserts at sea level to the mountains at 5000m. All told there are some 5200km (3224 miles, about as much as from Miami, Florida to San Diego, California) of Inca roads, steps and tunnels through valleys, up hills, and zigzagging throughout the current countries of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

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Part of our United Mice hiking posse
The runners, called chasqui, were youth and had a quota of service: two weeks of every month for a year. They would run verbal and quipu messages at an average of 9km/hr for those two weeks, transferring messages at checkpoints called tampus, or tambos, every 20km. For example, chasqui could run the route from here in Cuzco to Lima, about 672km, in only three days, even at our high elevation. Chasquiwould not be the only people on the trail: merchants, traders, tax collectors, priests and farmers would also make use of the tambos. Today, in modern times, about 30,000 trekkers hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu every year. We went at one of the best times of the year: right after a full moon in the early part of May, with clear, sunny skies during the day and frosty nights where one could see the Via Lactea (Milky Way) stretched out between high mountain peaks.

Mood: A+
Lunch: Potato casserole and veggies
Dinner: Vegetable pasta soup and fried cauliflower

Map of Lima, Machu Picchu, Cuzco
Cool fact! More than 90 species of orchids, medicinal plants and edible plants grow along the trail. Cochineal is a substance that is used in dyes and can be gathered from a fungus that grows on the underside of cacti. Cesar, our United Mice tour guide, took some of this reddish goo and put it on our lips, saying, "Did you forget your lipstick?"

After a restless night, I was up at 4:30am in preparation for setting off. Liz, a traveler from Idaho, and I walked down from the hostel to the tour bus, where the other 20 in our group were gathering. I had packed light because I knew the trail would be steep: a sleeping bag, long johns, shorts, two shirts, toiletries and first-aid supplies made up the most of my rucksack. On our bus, people yawned with sleep and chatted as we made our way to Ollantaytambo (see Kevin's dispatch) for breakfast and then down to Kilometer 82, where we disembarked and crossed the river up into the hills. The trails were all maintained and refined in the last 20 years by the Instituto Nacional de la Cultura (INC), so we saw lots of painted signs: "Siga: Camino Inka by INC" (This way to the Inca Trail). Although the Inca were the most known, not all of the stone steps on the trail were created by the Inca. In fact, many of the pre-Inca cultures had advanced stonework and systems of paths and highways that existed before the Inca took control.

After lunch and a power nap on a flat grassy area, we continued on to Kilometer 88, where most backpackers begin the trail. From our viewpoint, we could see down onto the terracing of "uptown," or "town on the hillside," Llactapata. Cesar explained to us about Dr. Alan Kendall's theory of vertical economy here in Peru. At 1500m, coca leaves grow. At 2000m, corn grows in 210 varieties from all the different microclimates. At 3000m, one finds the 84 types of potato (although we've found different estimates of how many types of potato there really are), and then the camelid family of llamas and alpacas, sources of both meat and wool, are found at 4000m. Because of this, Llactapata functioned as kind of a granary, where pack animals could carry in food from all the different heights. After a break, we pushed forward, reaching Huayllabamba at 2750m by three in the afternoon. We set up camp and I dipped into the stream, a fork of the Llullucha river and Cusichaca river. After some afternoon tea, dinner, and bites of some persistent mosquitoes, I conked out.

Mood: B-
Breakfast: Yogurt and muesli
Lunch: Tomato soup and pasta salad, tuna salad
Dinner: Chicken Cacciatori and mashed potatoes with rice

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Dougal and me at the top of Dead Woman's Pass - despite the cold, I was sweating in shorts!
Dude: Right on! Today we crossed Abra de Warmiwanusca, or Dead Woman's Pass. It was 4198m (13,769ft) above sea level, straight up, and it took me three and a half hours. Have you ever climbed stairs in high buildings? Warmiwanusca felt like climbing up to the two thousandth floor.

We woke up and started up the steep trail and steps, following villagers who were going about their business. Frolicking in the grass with spectacular views behind us, most of the trekkers in our group had a good time taking pictures and talking in-between heavy breaths and rest stops. After passing the "Three White Stones" campsite, I was tempted to buy a chocolate bar from some of the women who sit nearby selling water, sodas, and snacks, but settled for some granola that I had packed and a couple of sips of water. Cesar had warned us against gulping lots of water: because of the elevation and the cold, your stomach sometimes doesn't agree with too much and you cramp up.

Porters agreed to carry some of the backpacks this day and many people in our group opted to pay 20 sols (Peruvian unit of money) for the privilege of walking up the pass without a heavy pack. Lucky! The porters practically ran up the steps while the rest of us slogged slowly on. Many porters make their living from hiking the trail. Luis, a porter from our group, and Santos, the cook, were both under 25 years old. They told me that the money they make is quite good, even though the job is tiring. Groups usually tip generously, and our porters netted an average of 45 sols per person for the four days. I heard about one older porter who was completing his 372nd time on the Inca Trail. Amazing!

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A rainy tea break!
At the top of the pass you can see how heavy a load the typical porter carried, along with tents, tent stakes, tarp, cooking stoves and kerosene, pots, and food for the four days. I was happy I could handle just my backpack, and at the to, I was so hot and tired that I threw it down and just rested for a bit. Due to the elevation and the wind sweeping over the pass, some of the other trekkers were cold and had on all their layers, but I felt comfortable in shorts. Beyond the pass we made our way down hundreds of steps to a well-deserved, rainy afternoon tea break. If you have knee problems, I strongly suggest you take your time here. Walking up steps can be hard, but walking down steps can be harder, and my legs were shaking like jelly by the time I got to our tea stop. After washing in the waterfall and a cup of coca leaf tea to help stave off symptoms of altitude sickness, we hiked another hour to the circle ruins of Runkuracay, or "egg hut," at elevation 3710m, where we camped for the night.

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A spectacular view on Day Two!
Runkuracay looks out over the valley and has well-shaped, inclined walls that are built to withstand earthquakes. It was probably used as a storage/supply site, where people like us on the trail could rest and pick up or leave some dried llama meat or some grains. At the time, it would have had a thatched roof, but now it stood in a grand circle, with open passageways pointing, like the Coricancha sun temple in Cuzco, towards all the different paths of the empire. The night sky here blazed with the brightest stars I've seen since sleeping outside in Concepcion, in Guatemala. In the pitch black, we easily picked out the Southern Cross, which the Inca saw as a constellation of a llama, as well as darker cloud-like spots between the brilliant specks of light that made up the Via Lactea, or Milky Way. The next morning Cesar told us we'd have a beautiful sunrise and promised us that we would be awoken at 4:30 with coca tea in our tents.

Mood: F-, then A+
Breakfast: Pancakes and oatmeal porridge
Lunch: Pasta salad and potato soup
Dinner: Potato soup, Spaghetti, peaches and Jell-O

Dude: This path from Runkuracay to Machu Picchu marks the start of the true Inca trail. Until this point, INC had taken care of putting down steps and clearing the trail, but from now onwards, there were true Inca features, like a cave and carved staircases. Looking back from Runkuracay, you can see a thin black line of the original trail. "Too many tourists kept falling off," said Cesar, so they built the more manageable INC trail. Last year, at our previous campsite, Huayllabamba, a woman had taken off for a quick walk without her flashlight. She got lost after the sun set and kept circling round and round looking for the campsite. Porters eventually found her body 8 days later, where she had fallen. You must always be careful to hike safely and hike prepared.

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It's pretty nice to be on top of the world...
Good as gold, the porters woke us before sunrise in our tents with mate de coca, and I grinned wildly as we headed up the second pass, Abre de Runkuracay, to the summit at 3998m. There we were treated to a spectacular snow-capped view of the Cordillera Vilcabamba. From here we climbed more Inca steps to Sayacmarca, or "secret city," at an elevation of 3580m, where we took a snack break and learned more about these ruins. Sayacmarca lies at the cross of three different trails: one up higher into the Andes, one to Vilcabamba, and the one we were following to Machu Picchu. Not many people could have lived here, since there were no agricultural terraces. A system of water canals and ritual baths circle around the ruin, fed by water running off the mountains. It also probably served as a check point, kind of like immigration control, for the three trails and as a place to collect and distribute provisions for the inhabitants of Machu Picchu. We knew that we were getting close to our goal, but since I hadn't purified myself and wasn't in the right mental space, I did not realize that the rest of the day would be difficult for me.

Pachi Pachamama,
Imaraycuchus ricusayku caipicainiykita,
P'achallisga p'isqomanta,
sut'iyaimanta Urq'manta.
Pachi asirihuasqaykurayku
chay ashka chaupi t'ika ukhumanta.
Pachi, imaraycuchus ch'inkayniykiwan
sapa chisiyaspa yachachiwaiku:
"Wajchakayqa, nan winay Janajpachaman"
Pachi kay k'acha kutimanta.

Thank you, Pachamama,
because we feel
your presence, dressed as a bird,
a mountain or a dawn;
thank you for smiling at us
through flowers of many colors;
thank you because, in silence,
you show us each nightfall.
"Humility is the way to eternity."
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.

(Quechua prayer from The Gate of Paradise, Luis Espinoza Chamulu)

We continued down to the valley floor, passing a dried-out swamp bed and then climbing up into a lush cloud forest, with hundreds of varieties of ferns and little flowers holding onto the sheer cliff faces. At the same time, old, twisted trees provided an air of mystery and fairy tales for the walk. I started feeling dizzy and having trouble walking. Was it the altitude? Or did I not make a correct offering to Pachamama, Mother Earth, for safe passage? Whatever it was, by the time Donald, my Australian friend, encouraged me up to Phuyupatamarca "town above the clouds" at 3530m elevation, I felt terrible. Pale and shaky, I put my pack down and stretched out on it. Donald's wife Zelda made me put on her chompa (sweater), and Candice made up a wad of coca leaves and boldo (a small, edible plant of Chilean origin whose leaves are used for medicinal purposes) for me to put in my mouth.

A few of the other groups stopped and had lunch here, but Candice held my hand and walked me down steps and through switchbacks to the youth hostel at Winay Wayna (2640m), where we were going to camp for the night. Here, a fiesta was in progress, as hikers from all the starting points (Km 104, Km 88, Km 82 and beyond) converged to have a hot shower and cheese sandwiches. Many trekkers, thrashed like me, simply settled into chairs and drank endless cups of mate de coca. However, the happy ambience started to work on me and by early evening I was back into an A++ mood. Cesar took us out to visit the beautifully sculpted baths and ruins of Winay Wana, and at 7:00pm we had a farewell dinner and toasted each other's health, especially that of the porters. We had come this far. . .tomorrow would be the day we for which we had waited for so long. . .Machu Picchu, the stunning finale at the end of our long hike on the Inca Trail.


Abeja - Water Makes the World Go Round
Kevin - The End of an Incan Era
Kavitha - All Dressed Up but Nowhere to Go
Kevin - Perhaps the Greatest Epidemic Ever
Monica - Machu Picchu at Last!
Making a Difference - Save the Rainforest from Your Own Backyard!
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