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And we're off

Sacsayhuaman, the head of the puma
Sacsayhuaman, the head of the puma
I think we all woke up excited. My parents also woke up to a ruin right out their window. Tucked up onto the hillside directly in front of their bed was the Ollantaytambo ruin, terraces resplendent in the morning light. That was to be our first stop but before visiting we needed to cherish our last shower, last toilet, and, if you were me, pick out the clothes that you would be wearing for the greater part of the next four days. We were allotted one 8 kg bag each, including our sleeping bags. The majority of my clothes were for warmth because although I hailed from Maine I got cold very easily and hated being chilly. Also, I only owned one wicking hiking shirt and firmly believing in the truism "cotton kills," I resigned myself to a smelly fate.

Unfortunately we arrived at the ruins mere moments after a rather large, loud, and heavy set group of Italians. As they ambled up the staircase between the terraces, we ambled up behind them. As their guide waxed eloquent about the huge, pink granite stones destined to be a never completed temple, Teddy waxed... well, you get the point. The unfinished nature of the site allowed us to get a glimpse into Inca building techniques. Without the invention of the wheel, they managed to transport multi-ton granite blocks from a quarry across an adjacent valley. Some of the dirt ramps they used were still visible, as were the nobs protruding out of the stones which were presumably used for maneuvering.

After the ruins we loaded up the truck and headed towards the trail. I was surprised by the quality of the road. Considering that hundreds of people made the same drive every day, I would have thought Peru would invest a little in the infrastructure. Instead we rumbled along a dirt road which snaked through small adobe huts and corn plots. Suddenly we were at the trail head, an unremarkable dirt parking lot with many sun-weathered porters milling around.

Right before our eyes the porters dutifully portioned off all of our luggage, tents and food; fourteen of them for the seven of us. Most of them wrapped their large bundles in tarps and manipulated pieces of cloth to work as backpack straps. The porters were all farmers from the same town and were used to carry big bags of potatoes on their shoulders. This was their preferred method of transporting weight, be it crops or tourists belongings. Once they were loaded up they zipped off, one by one, to get to our lunch site and set things up. We, on the other hand, were left behind with bags of nuts and dried fruit to fortify ourselves for the walk ahead.

After forking over our passports and being checked off we were finally ready to start. We crossed a bridge and began our journey along the Inca trail. The scenery was dry and the mountains around us were ragged and sharp. El Veronica, I believe, was a massive glacier-capped giant lurking in the distance although luckily it was in the opposite direction from where we were going. The brush on the side was distinctly desert like, with lots of agave plants and the bizarre, Seussian flowers that they sprouted every handful of years. We had many companions on the path. Porters would occasionally whiz by, accompanied by the now familiar chant "porter on your left." There were also some donkeys stubbornly plodding along, loaded high with food and sodas to stock the few pit stops along the path. On the opposite side of the river bank we could see some worn away terraces and stone huts. While many of these were Inca sites, they were too dinky to merit comment from Teddy.

A few hours in, after our first steep, but short, climb, we stumbled upon our first ruin. It was a magical moment when Patallaqta came into view beyond the lip of the hilltop. Below us at the base of the mountain was a sprawling Inca site complete with concentric rows of terraces. I was struck by how unassuming it was, tranquilly seated at the riverbed in the middle of the wilds. In America there would be a huge parking lot right next to it and tourists with video cameras would teem all around the site but here it was deserted except for a few archeologists working on restoration. It was a breathtaking sight, made more so by the fact that we had hiked here and would hike past it and leave it in peace.

Lunch marked the start of a routine we would go through every day. There was a big orange and grey tent set up for our group when we hit the campsite with six basins of water and a bottle of hand soap sitting outside the entrance. After cleaning up a little we sat in the tent and were given our first course, camp juice and a soup. Next would come the main course, ranging from spaghetti to chicken breast. It was a nice, relaxing time and a warm soup was surprisingly welcome after a dusty hike. We hadn't yet reached our night camp, however, so after lunch and a reapplication of sunscreen we continued on the trail.

As we started to gently climb the flora changed. Trees along the path become more dense and more green. Before we knew it we had reached a small camp where a few people lived year round. They had built a few houses and boasted tv and electricity. They were eager to sell us a coca cola or, to the likes of my father, a cold Cusqueno beer, but we gracefully declined. A few hundred feet up the mountain we found our camping spot for the night. It was a two-terraced site directly below a fenced-in grazing plot for a pair of friendly donkeys. There were four dome tents set up and our orange dining tent. Near the tents was a pile of bags that held our personal items. Upon our arrival the porters met us with more juice and basins of warm water for washing. Kevin and I claimed a tent and climbed in. I was a little surprised by the close quarters and Kevin declared we would be sleeping head-to-toe. After pointing out that would mean him sleeping with his nose in my boots and his head downhill, he conceded that we could sleep side by side, given that I didn't breathe too close to him.

By now it was after four and as the sun was getting low it was beginning to get chilly. I clambered into the tent after attempting to scrub the dirt caked on my ankles and put on a few layers of warmer clothes. Next, it was time to investigate the bathrooms. Perhaps the less said about them the better. To be fair, I'd say these were the worst bathrooms we encountered on the trail, although bathrooms were a constant topic of conversation, especially among us women, so there may be a few in my group who would care to disagree with this statement. Let's just say there was a hole and some rather dirty looking cement surrounding it.

Around five we had our tea. This was quite a civilized outfit we were with and I felt positively Victorian sipping my, well, powdered hot chocolate and munching on freshly popped pop corn as the sun set behind the mountains. We were all cozy and content in our dining tent and pleasantly tired from the day's activity. Without having to move a muscle dinner was brought into the tent and Teddy acted as a liaison between us and the porters. Teddy regaled us with tales of past groups and reassured us that we'd all make over Dead Woman's Pass tomorrow. A kerosene lamp flickered in the middle of the table as we sipped our soup and dined on river trout. After dinner the porters brought a kettle of hot water and the teas were brought back out. With all of us dreading a midnight bathroom break, we declined the offer. By 8 dinner was over and we happily trooped off to bed. I climbed down into my sleeping bag, wished Kevin goodnight, and closed my eyes.

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