Thursday, May 24, 2012

Trip report: Can a 65-year-old woman survive Peru's Inca Trail? Yes, with a guide and a few good pharmaceuticals

The fourth morning of our journey on Peru's Inca Trail, the guide woke us well before daybreak. We struggled out of our slightly damp sleep bags, pulled on our boots and crawled outside while the porters scurried to brake down our tents behind us. I'd been sleeping in all my clothes for the prior two nights to ward of the damp cold, so getting the hiking boots on was the only "dressing" I did.
In a few minutes, we had thrown down some hot tea and cake for breakfast and were on the trail. The first dim shadows of dawn began to outline our path. The goal: Arrive at the mountain-top Inca ruins of Machu Picchu at sunrise.We, along with a couple of hundred other trekkers, had the same mission.
Getting to Machu Picchu on the trail would be a physical triumph for me after four demanding days that took us from 9,000-feet to 13,800-feet elevation then back to 8,000 feet. At 65 but in pretty good shape, I still knew it would be tough. Twenty-five years earlier I'd climbed Oregon's Mount Hood at just over 11,000-feet. I remembered how hard the last 500 feet of that climb had been. Ten years earlier, I'd climbed Idaho's highest peak, Mount Borah at 12,000-plus feet. That was nine hours of hard hard work but I was better adjusted to the elevation.
With a good guide and some specialized pharmaceuticals, I was making it to Machu Picchu.
There was the afternoon on Day Three when Victor, our guide, had given me a flying piggyback ride down part of the 2,100-stone step descent then had hiked next to me for another portion near the bottom in order to get me to camp before dark.
In all, our group hiked more than 32 hours over four days, covering 26 miles at high altitude. That's way more hiking per day that the tour company had outlined.
That last morning, as we approached Machu Picchu's Sun Gate entrance, we faced one last physical test - a near vertical set of stone stairs that demanded three-point climbing. I found myself in a race to the top with a petite silver-haired woman, a Canadian hiking club member who wasn't going to let me be first. Tens of others we're climbing behind us, so I let her prove herself to herself. She sure wasn't proving anything to me. I was just glad to make it under my own steam.
Looking down on Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate was a pure emotional moment. After a week of exploration out of Cusco into the Inca's Sacred Valley, after days of cultural immersion, after meeting the Quecawa (Keh-chu-wah) highland people and spending four days on the trail with its jaw-dropping vistas, all I could say to myself was, "wow, am I really here, is this really happening?"
Yes, I am glad I signed up for the Inca Trail. Would I do it again? Nope.
Multi-generational family group
Age really does make a difference. In our three-generation family group, the 14-year-old had no problem. The 40-year-olds did fine except for the evening when dehydration caught up with one of them. We 65-year-olds definitely found it hard going although we were not the oldest people on the trail. We met a mother in her 70s and her 50ish daughter who were slower than we were but made it. There was the Canadian hiking club with some members looking 50ish, if not 60ish and a bit out of shape. But younger is better on the Inca Trail. I can proudly say I explored the limits of my physical and mental self and didn't quit. Things got a bit more challenging when the altitude or "bad" water, or both, began to play havoc with our intestinal tracts.
Why do the trail? If you want to understand the Incas and what they accomplished, there is no better way than on the trail, which takes you near several of their high-mountain city sites with terraces and central building complexes. With every step, you literally will appreciate their love of stone. The Incas built stone trails, stone steps, stone buildings and obviously thought nothing of arranging stone terraces for growing corn and potatoes. All required huge amounts of physical effort. The beauty of their stonework is remarkable. They had an eye for layout and made their settlements look like they belonged on the steep slopes...always facing the rising sun to the east.
We were lucky to have Victor as our guide (arranged through our Cusco-based tour company, Inca Explorers) because he spoke very good English, along with Spanish and Quecawa. He could give us the name of an avocado in all three languages. Quecawa is interesting to hear because it uses a distinctive guttural k-sound in certain words.
Victor was good at spotting many of Peru's 35 highland hummingbird varieties that flitted from one flowering plant to the next. He pointed out wild orchids, wild tobacco and yucca plants that looked like trees in the misty and lush "cloud" forest.

He also managed a group of eight porters and two cooks who packed our tents, sleeping bags, dinner ware, food and cooking equipment up the trail. We still had to use our own backpacks for essentials such as rain coats, water and fleece outerwear.
A pleasant aspect of the hike is that you are rarely away from running water. While the larger rivers fade from view as you climb farther upward and into the mountain peaks, fresh spring water rushes along the trail at nearly every point. Some of this water comes from ancient stone ditches and fountains built by the Inca.
Temperatures in the 60s during the day were perfect for hard and steady climbing. At night, it cooled into the 30s. We were lucky in that we'd planned our trip to start at the beginning of Peru's winter "dry" season. Rain caught us only on one day.
Initially, I thought walking sticks were for wimps but quickly changed my mind after finding that I could take weight off my knees using them on descending stone stairs, which the Incas built for miles. It also helped that Victor carried my pack in his pack part of the time.
Lunch and dinner...meals on the trailOur cook prepared great meals...lunch and dinner. Fish, rice, vegetables, soup, bread, tea and dessert. Touches of altitude sickness suppressed our appetites, which made it hard to choke down all the food. Popcorn was my favorite pre-dinner snack. It settled my gurgling stomach and also replenished salt that my body was casting off in the form of sweat.
There were so many variables in terms of what might be affecting our bodies that it was difficult to determine treatment. Altitude sickness and altitude sickness medicine can create similar symptoms. Bad water, dehydration...same thing. For me, the ultimate treatment was aspirin, which I popped going down hill to kill the pain in my knees. Altitude sickness medicine seemed to prevent headaches, but not much else. Never mind all that.
I'd be lying if I said there wasn't deep satisfaction in sitting on a grassy, sunny outcrop above Machu Picchu that last morning looking down on the magnificent ruins and the swarming tourists below with their shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes. They had come by train.
I had experienced so much more than they.
Criteria for the trail:
- You are fit, have done some mountain backpacking and tent camping.
- You're ready for long days of demanding hiking at elevations near 11,000 feet.
- You can handle a squat pit latrine. You have your own toilet paper.
- You're curious about people, their manners, customs and courtesies.
- You are a student of history, enjoy nature and have a good, but portable camera.
For more:
Train to Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes,
click here.
Books: "The Last Days of the Incas," by Kim MacQuarrie.
Travel books: Moon Handbooks, Cusco & Machu Picchu.

Textiles of Peru, click here.Cusco, a city at 11,000-feet, click here.
Peru bird watching, click here.     
What to take, click here.

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