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My recent silence has everything to do with travel. I was on The Golden Trudge.
I took a trip to Peru, where I visited Cusco and did the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. When I tell people what I’ve been up to, many of them coo and instantly ask to hear all about it. So here are some basics that I wish someone had told me before I left.
The Inca Trail, if you don’t know, is a pathway through the mountains that linked Inca settlements along cliff faces and in valleys. One of the principal destinations was Machu Picchu, which was a sort of university-and-palace town of its day. What we call the Inca Trail is actually just 26 miles of what was once a paved man-made system of roads that threaded up and down western South America. Its paving stones were laid more than five centuries ago. These days, tourists do the 26-mile segment of the Trail in about four days of steady up-and-down walking, although shorter snippets are available for wimps and pussies.
Like several other precious attractions in South America, such as the Galápagos Islands, you have to be guided to get in. So like it or not, even if you elect to carry all of your own clothes, you will need workers to get you onto the trail. They carry your food, your tent, the cooking implements — and they carry it back out again, too. No one takes the Inca Trail alone.
The first thing to know is that not all tour companies are equal. Many of them will appear equal to the visitor, because they all strive to provide essentially the same service. But they differ behind the scenes. Peru is a nation of subsistence living and few worker protections, and those two facts combine to create an ideal environment for exploitation. So you must make sure the company you pick pays their porters fairly.
Our guide, Hubert, is from a farm town in the mountains. He’s been working the trail off and on for about 11 years. When he began, he was 19, and conditions were deplorable. He was tricked into carrying a leaky kerosene tank, and at night, he was told to go find a cave to sleep in. The conditions were so humiliating that he swore he’d never go back onto the Trail again. But with time, the Peruvian government realized what was happening, and to both protect the Trail and to protect Peruvians, it began to regulate more carefully, starting by implementing a humane weight limit for each porter. The fuel source was changed, too.
Hubert came back as a porter, a job that requires men to race past all the tourists with 50-pound packs on their backs and set up camp at the next night’s base by the time they catch up. Eventually, Hubert went to study English and tourism in Cusco, which enabled him to rise to the level of group leader. Now, he’s in charge of the displaced farm boys who are starting as porters.
Hubert swore to us that his company, Peru Treks, was one of the best, and in saying it, implied some rivals were secretly unethical. He said it pays even its lowest workers fairly, and instead of bundling the company profits out of the country, as so many tour companies do, it re-invested in Peru. Hubert said the company even helped build schools in impoverished hometowns of some of its porters. I saw our porters sleeping underneath our restaurant tent at night, and they talked and laughed with each other by night, so I can only assume he meant what he said and they were well treated. They seemed content.
Peruvian trekking companies are some of the most active spammers of American message boards, and part of the reason is tourism is an industry that’s till in its infancy there. Not everyone understands what good form is. They just know what tourism dollars can mean to their communities. I came to Peru Treks through the recommendation of an American acquaintance who recently moved to Cusco after living in Los Angeles for many years. If a company was a swindler, she would have heard about it.
My tour company promoted very clear communication in excellent English from the very start. One oddity was that it demanded it was paid in U.S. dollars that were absolutely, positively, unquestionably perfect. No rips, no matter how teeny, would be tolerated. Apparently, it’s the only way a Peruvian can ensure a dollar is accepted at the bank. This took some doing on my part. First I had to get immaculate bills from my bank. Then I had to get them to Cusco in the same condition. I accomplished that with a money belt. Two of my bills had mini rips that I hadn’t even seen before, but I had thought ahead and had extras. My trek cost a total of $505. That was a $175 deposit (by PayPal, months ahead), and the rest in cash in Cusco. For that, all my meals were prepared for me, I had a tent (shared with a friend) over my head, and a guide to keep tabs on each member the group as we walked, at our own speeds, over the Trail.
I saved $15 by bringing my own sleeping bag (a Lafuma rated to freezing, and I was cozy every minute), which was lighter and smaller than the one the company would have provided. That’s important because the company’s bags weigh two kilos, and you’re only allowed to saddle your porter ($40 if you use him) with 6 kilos. One kilo goes to the sleeping pad, which they supply.
Bringing a lighter, better sleeping bag allows you more breathing room in packing. More things to pack: a flashlight and a spare, compression shorts for every day, big crazy fat thick hiking socks for every day, sandals for visiting the gawd-awful fetid holes that are offered for toilets, wet wipes for the butt at said sewer maws, some Clif bars or something (Customs didn’t seem to care). Bald guys, pack a sweatband for your head. Bring clothes that layer, because it’ll go from cold to hot in 30 minutes, especially in the morning. Bring earplugs because the tents are staked beside each other, and after days of strenuous exertion, even girls snore. Don’t bring reading material; you won’t have the energy, the light, or the will to be distracted from your surroundings.
I packed but didn’t use (but would still bring if I were you): moleskin for blisters, Potable Aqua for purifying water (you can buy bottles at way-stations along the way, and sometimes the crew boils water for you). I wish I had brought a truly waterproof jacket, not a kinda waterproof one that I had. You want the water to bead off you, because it mists and rains here and there, and you don’t want to have to bother with a plastic poncho. You can buy a walking stick (really a broomstick with a fabric tip) for about $2 on the morning you start — don’t neglect it, because it will become your third leg, and you’ll wear the bottom to a nubbin.
Cusco is at a very high altitude. Way higher than Tahoe or Albuquerque or anything American. When I first got off the plane, I saw a few faint stars for some minutes as my brain struggled to recalibrate its oxygen needs. They even sell oxygen canisters by baggage claim, although I think they’re intended more for panicky types than for actual medical amelioration. Some of my traveling companions made some classic early errors: they ate a lot (altitude causes you to digest slower, since your blood is working harder to oxygenate), and they got really drunk (I won’t say who, but one companion had a double-digit number of drinks that first night). Even if you can easily do that back home, those mistakes can cost you at altitude. Fortunately, after three drinks in four hours, I went back to the hotel (Rumi Punku — it’s lovely and pristine and I recommend it) to play Angry Birds. I don’t like finding my limits the hard way.
Every day of the trek involves getting up at the crack of Mother Nature’s ass. You will not sleep in. You will go to bed shortly after dusk daily. You will want it that way. That’s because the physical demands are tough. The food will be very good for the sparse resources available, but it will not be rich. There will not be beverages served with dinner (bring your water bottle), but there will be tea and lots of it. The guide tries to stuff you full of tea at every opportunity because you need to stay hydrated.
The first day of the Trail had a few fleeting moments of ardor, but we all knew that Day Two was going to be the real killer. Anyone without hiking and climbing experience can do the Trail, but you’d better have a few things. One is a patience for stairs. More than once, we wished the Incas had invented ziplining instead, because just as soon as we’d slaved to mount a never-ending spindle of stairs threading up to some heavenward vanishing point, we’d have to descend on shaky knees on the other side. Losing everything you’ve just gained, knowing full well you have to regain it somewhere down the line, is positively Sisyphean, which is to say negatively.
The first thing you do on Day Two, right out of the sleeping bag, is start climbing, because the first and most difficult of three passes is ahead of you. And it goes like that for hours. I have to say that if I had truly known how much of a struggle Day Two was before I signed up, I might not have signed up, which is why I hesitate even discussing it, because you should ignore what I’m saying and sign up.
Up, up, up, as trees gave out and I found myself on a cliffside, looking down at alpacas and feeling jealous that they got to stand there and eat grass.
The air got thin as we approached 14,000 feet. There’s no predicting how anyone will handle altitude. I was a decided middle-of-the-packer, but even the front of the pack could only walk at a pace of about a foot every two or three seconds, and then stop to catch some breath every minute or so.
I started calling the hike “The Golden Trudge” because I knew what was coming at the end. My nickname gave me permission to admit it was grueling, but it also reminded me that it was do-able — and worth it. (And it was, on all counts.)
I would have had a harder time if the group had always been together. But everyone goes at their own speed, and every 90 minutes or so, the guide waits up for everyone to bunch back up again, drink water, and cool down.
It reminded me of one of my favorite maxims: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
By late morning, after cruel periods during which the destination seemed to stretch away from us with every step, we had bested the first pass (high fives all around!), and we knew it wouldn’t get any worse than that. And it didn’t. The worst had passed. I for one have no issues with coming down — it’s up I hate. But if you do have Going Down problems, get ready for Day Three, because after some truly wonderful passages through jungle paths and through an original tunnel carved by the Incas, there’s a long segment that’s said to include 2,000 steps down, as jangled as the porters’ teeth. Every time you put your foot down, you’re navigating around a messy fracture. Every moment’s an ankle-breaker.
So make sure those shoes have ample toes, or you’ll mash your toenails with the repeated downward motion. Test your shoes before leaving home to make sure you can point them down an incline and still feel comfortable. (I am now so in love with my shoes, which were Keens from REI, that I’ve taken to wearing them when I’m on Fox or out at bars.) Those thick socks will help, too. Day Two is the most grueling day, but Day Three is the longest (11 hours– but Day Three is so beautiful, and so full of heart-filling moments that the first two days weren’t, that I not only didn’t feel like it took that long, but it also made me resent Day One for being so relatively lame). What would take me four days, some maniacs do in six hours on the Inca Trail race. I envy their bodies but not their brains.
Then there’s the matter of coca leaves. At the start of the trek, you’ll be given a chance to buy some, and you’ll wrap 8 or 10 leaves around a morsel of lime ash that acts as a catalyst to release the mild stimulant that Peruvians have been using for centuries. You will stuff that packet in your cheek and drool, annoyed, while you wait to feel like Cheech and Chong or something. But you will not feel stoned. They are not the same as cocaine; that’s the result of a scientific refinement process that some Swedish guy came up with. In fact, I couldn’t be sure if I was feeling the effect of the coca leaves or the effect of altitude and exertion. It was that faint. Then again, lots of drunks don’t realize they’re drunk, either, and if the Peruvians swear it helps them climb mountains, I guess I’ll have to believe them, because I saw them haul past my ass with 6 kilos of my stupid crap on their backs.
Yes, for sure, they deserved tips. Some people say that the Peruvians are better built to handle altitude — something about good calves and oxygen-rich blood — but I’m not so sure people don’t say that to get out of a decent gratuity. Peru Treks was clear about everything but this, partly because it probably doesn’t want to come across as greedy. Its instructions on how to tip the staff was confusing, and if laid out on paper looked like an algebra formula.
All 16 of us spent some brain-bending moments deliberating on what an appropriate and human amount would be for everyone. I think we settled on the about 55 sols total for each porter, and about 15 from each person for the assistant guide, and 30 or so from each person for Hubert, and I forget what for the cook, but it was good because we loved his mad mountaintop skills. I think there were around 22 porters to consider, and I think that when all was said and done, each of us distributed about 100 sols amongst the staff. That’s about US$35. It’s nothing considering how hard these Quechua guys work — up before us, asleep after us, beating us up the mountains in sandals — and the fact that we have so much and they have so little that they are willing to leave their families for days at a time to do this work in the elements. We gave each porter his share, pressed right in his hand, so that there was no chance he could be cheated out of it by his colleagues. It also was humanizing to recognize each man as an individual. (Actually, I’m surprised that thinking about this, and about the looks on their faces, has brought tears to my eyes.)
Whatever it we gave, I didn’t feel like it was enough, but few of us had planned well enough to have loads of cash. Most of us were out, because we forgot how much water we would drink and that it would cost another 2 sols for every day we walked deeper into the mountains: 4 then 6 then 8 then 10 for a bottle. If I were to do this again, I’d have at least $50 American (about PEN 140), if not more, just for tips. More, preferably. Consider it part of the budget, because really, it means far more to them than it does to you. You should also have it all in the local currency, since many of these guys don’t even speak Spanish, let alone have access to a bank. (The local bills don’t have to be as minty fresh as the greenbacks do.)
I’d take about 300 sols into the mountains. That lets you err on the side of abject generosity when it comes to tipping, and it gives you a buffer to buy lots of water, and also to buy a meal for yourself in the town of Aguas Calientes after seeing Machu Picchu. Meals there are pricey — in the mid-20s and low 30s for a main. Although there are ATMs in town.
The last day, you’re up around 3:30, which sucks. Then you’re waiting in line at the back gate of the Machu Picchu park entrance, which also sucks. Then, at 5:30, you’re in, and you hike two challenging hours (which Hubert had lied about, calling it “a gentle up,” which sucked) until you reach the Sun Gate, which overlooks the ruin. When we arrived on the Incan-made structure at the rim of the mountain, it was raining. And the clouds below meant we couldn’t see a thing, although despite the cover, we could sense an enormous empty space below us. “It’s over there,” Hubert promised, but frankly, after 25 miles of mountain hiking, we’d tackled so many other obstacles that we really only envisioned Machu Picchu in the abstract, anyway. I’d almost forgotten that it was the point.
We walked another mile or so, and the we arrived at the top of the ruin. It was still cloudy. It wasn’t visible. Hubert told us to wait. “Just wait,” he promised. And sure enough, the clouds teasingly lifted, giving us our magical first look at the object of our desire.
Is there something else you’d like to know? Ask it, and if I can, I’ll answer it.