“I can’t believe I thought I could enjoy this,” is all I can think as my heavy breathing echoes in my ears. We have been on the Inca Trail for over six hours now and awake for twelve. Our bus left the square at Cusco at 4:30am this morning and we set foot on the trail around 8 am with the obligatory group photo at kilometer 82.
We have been going up and down mountainsides, slowly ascending towards our first campsite at Ayapata. We have about an hour left and my lungs are burning for more oxygen in the light air and my shoulders have started to scream from my pack.
I’m grateful for two of my fellow Llama Path trekkers who help me adjust my pack and poles to make it easier. They are from Alberta and have far more experience with all this gear I’ve been playing with for the past few months to prepare. We get my pack resting on my hips, and immediately I feel my shoulders relax.
Sidebar: Why did I have sore triceps on the Inca Trail? From using my poles wrong. Why didn’t I learn the correct way before I left? Good question. If you’re just starting out, there is a good overview here on how to properly use hiking poles. The quick and dirty: shorter on uphills, longer on downhills, elbows at your sides and slightly bent for “flats”.
You read a lot of blog posts about the Inca Trail and anticipate it to be difficult, but the overwhelmingly positive experience, awesome views and sense of accomplishment afterward means everyone’s stories are painted with a rosy brush. Either my friends and bloggers glossed over how fricking hard it is or I refused to pay attention to those parts of their stories. The latter is entirely likely.
For me, day one was the hardest. It was the day I met the reality of what we were doing head-on and had to mentally prepare for what my body was going to face ahead.
Our guides told us repeatedly, the Inca Trail is a mental challenge more than a physical challenge. This reverberated in my head as my lungs and legs burned. Each time my mind started to dwell on the pain, I was relieved to find our group stopped around the corner, taking a short break to admire Inca Ruins or just rest before the next big climb.
Adding to my anxiety was the fact we left the last, “normal” toilet behind at lunch and my body was not impressed with the combination of a big lunch, heat, physical exertion and perhaps the boiled water. I was chewing Pepto Bismal tablets like coca leaves and tried counting steps to take my mind off it.
“Left, right, left, right…,” I focused on the steps for the last 45 minutes of the day. When I saw a campsite sign, I snapped a picture to celebrate – we did it, day 1!
“That’s not our camp,” said our guide. Dammit!
Another few hundred meters, which felt like miles and we arrived. I didn’t bother to take my camera out. The “Red Army”, the incredible group of men who carried our belongings, tents, food and more up to our camp met us with applause.
We smile gratefully and clap back, although they deserve applause from us.Every day they were ready to help with whatever we needed, all with a smile. They packed up camp after we left in the morning and about an hour later, ran ahead of us with their huge 60lb packs. They would be waiting at the lunch site when we arrived, tents set up, a huge spread prepared and water boiled for us to set out again. Then they did it all over again for the evening camp and every day thereafter.
Every day they were ready to help with whatever we needed, all with a smile. They packed up camp after we left in the morning and about an hour later, ran ahead of us with their huge 60lb packs. They would be waiting at the lunch site when we arrived, tents set up, a huge spread prepared and water boiled for us to set out again. Then they did it all over again for the evening camp and every day thereafter.
I think the porters inspire nearly everyone who hikes the Inca Trail. They are amazing men, and we learn most are farmers who choose this work between seasons because it pays better than farming.
To me, both occupations look to be physically impossible and the compensation pales to the work in unforgiving terrain, weather, and markets. It’s not the first time, nor the last, on the trip we realize how big the gap is between Peru and Canada.
As the sun set and it got cold, I realized hiking in my sweater was a poor decision because now it was wet with sweat and I didn’t have another. I made a mental note to not do this again and laid it over my sleeping bag hoping it would dry during the night.
At dinner, I didn’t eat much because I was worried about the bathroom situation. (This was a common theme on the trip.) The guides noticed and gave me some bread in case I was hungry later and reminded me again this is all psychological. When we went to bed at 8:30 PM, I resolved to let the anxiety go and enjoy the experience.
After what seemed like hours of deep breathing and positive self-talk, I sort of fell asleep.