Hiking on Soup

About to beginThe first day of the Inca Trail, and we were all raring to go, kitted up with bamboo walking sticks, bottles of water, waterproofs and cameras charged and at the ready. We’d also bought the corner shop out of every single Snickers bar it had, and most of the biscuits. Snickers bars are surely bought in purely as fuel for Inca Trail walkers – their price compared to anything else in the shop is the equivalent of walking into Sainsbury’s and paying a tenner for a chocolate snack bar.

Being on a tour, you get a list of what you should be packing – one day pack that you walk with, and a duffle bag which is carried by porters – your overnight things. There’s a strict five kilogramme limit on what you can pack in the duffle bag, and officials even weigh the porters to make sure they’ve not been overloaded. This is all a good thing when you always take too much stuff, wherever you go, like I do. Without guidelines I’d likely have packed enough to spend several months on the Inca Trail, and set up my own camping store at Machu Picchu. I was doing this before I came away on this trip, its a bad habit that has followed me – much like head-spinning mood swings, spending too long on the Internet, putting too much food in my mouth at once, and being rubbish at talking to women I find attractive.

Cuchiwattos!!The porters, who we were all introduced to before starting the trail, were to be referred to as Cuchiwattos, not porters. Cuchiwatto roughly translates as ‘studmuffin’ or ‘hunky fella’ and is a more flattering name. There’s this, and the fact that calling out ‘Cuchiwatto!!’ as any porters passed us on the trail brought grins to their faces. This is doubtless what every other tour group coming through here does, but they don’t seem to have got bored of it. We may have had to weigh the luggage they carried for us, but the amount they carried, at altitude, was staggering. An average Cuchiwatto would walk the trail with at least twenty-five kilogrammes strapped to their back – duffle bags, gas bottles, chairs, tents, food and equipment. They carried everything strapped round their shoulders in blankets, where us tourists had padded day packs with soft, sweat-absorbing straps to carry our digital cameras and pac-a-macs.

The first day was easy going – at least compared to the second and third. Gentle slopes, lots of stops to note interesting cacti, and still some oxygen in the air as we hadn’t got up too high yet. During the day, the group spread out until everyone was walking at their own pace. The busy chatter of the group as we left the first checkpoint eventually became the sound of the river in the valley below, the occasional rain, and your own breathing or humming. My attitude to walking has changed since I’ve been away. I used to think that going downhill was always better than going uphill – now going downhill is worse because it knackers your knees and ankles and requires more concentration to make sure you don’t tumble apex over tip down a crevice. I used to want to stop continually for little breaks – now, it gets to a point where you just want to keep moving because after a point you’ve developed an almost autonomic rhythm, where you just breath at the right times and your legs take care of themselves. I used to want to go the least distance possible, now I want to go further if I’m enjoying it. I hope I don’t forget this in six months and start complaining about having to walk down to the shops for a pint of milk.

Inca terracesOn the first night, we camped at the base of Dead Woman’s Pass, in the meeting point of three valleys, where clouds meandered by in the distance or crawled up the hills towards you. Cows and horses perched on the sides of the hills hundreds of meters up, grazing on slopes that looked so steep they should have just rolled down the mountain, and Inca ruins sat in the middle of it all, next to a football pitch and the campsite. By the time I got there, the site was fully set up, all tents erected, dining tent up, table and chairs out, knives, forks and napkins laid. The porters left after us that morning, heavily loaded, and still got to the campsite and set it up before most of the group. Even though we were hiking through remote countryside a long way from any roads, we still ate in a remarkably civilised fashion, and the food was incredible for where we were and what resources it was prepared with – in the middle of nowhere, thirty people ate three-course meals of good, hot, fresh food. The starter was always soup, usually quinoa soup – by the end of the trail I was sick to death of soup.

The food in Peru, and Bolivia, generally isn’t much to write home about, unless you’re writing home to tell the folks how crap the food is. Chips and rice are usually served at the same time, with virtually everything. Chips sneak in all over the place, often stirred in with lomo saltado (beef fillet fried with onion, tomato and pepper), hiding in sandwiches, and sitting around in salads. I got quite paranoid that chips were going to spring out at me from puddings and under napkins. I never quite figured out if this was actually because Peruvians and Bolivians like chips with everything, or they think tourists do. Sadly, in many foreign places, when they try and prepare ‘Western’ food, it’s a disaster – when the local dishes are usually cheaper and better quality (and then some places are just plain bad at everything). I remember one of the worst examples being Indian baked beans (tiny little things in a nasty sauce mixed up with chopped pepper, it looked like some sort of showbiz ready-mix vomit). I can also categorically say that tea, bread, bacon, and sausages are rubbish virtually everywhere outside the UK, Heinz tomato ketchup in Australia and New Zealand is just plain wrong, and muesli is far better in most other places where it is usually served with masses of plain yoghurt and fresh fruit.

Dead Woman´s PassThe second day’s hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass (so named as the profile of the pass looks from below like a recumbent, large-breasted woman) was, we were told, the worst of the trail. This involved a climb of over 1300 meters, the height of Ben Nevis, to the top of the pass at 4200 meters. The height and likelihood of altitude sickness was one thing, the fact that the entire path to the pass was uphill with very little respite the other. With the benefit of well-recovered legs, writing this at just above sea level, I can say that it really wasn’t that bad – but at the time, I was supping on a cold bottle of coca tea, trying not to look uphill, walking very slowly indeed, and occasionally muttering ‘come on, you bastards’ at my legs. As you got higher, a hundred steps became fifty, which became twenty, and then ten, between each break. The path really may not look that difficult, but the altitude just forces you to slow right down. Still, I made it, we all made it, and the sense of accomplishment was undeniable.

The third day was worse than the second. No huge climb this time, but the cumulative effect of yesterday’s walking, i.e. knackered legs, as well as absurdly steep steps and a dodgy stomach from too much soup – or maybe it was just the altitude. By the time I got to the camp at the end of the day, after a frustrating series of bends downhill into the campsite, I crawled into my tent feeling utterly pathetic. We were told that beer was available at the camp site on the last night, so looking forward to enjoying a few drinks, I bought four. After one I was out cold. At this point I want to apologise, profusely, to my tentmate Trevor. I had the very worst case of the farts through most of the Inca Trail, and the poor lad had to share a tent with me when I was practically lifting the thing off the ground. He deserved better.

Machu Picchu

The next morning, after a night of solid rain (we camped the last night in rainforest), we walked the final five kilometers to Machu Picchu, ignoring aching legs to reach the sun gate just after dawn. The view of Machu Picchu was beautiful, and it got better the closer you got. The citadel was swathed in cloud one minute, and the just as suddenly as it was covered, the clouds disappeared and revealed the ruins. This is a very well-known view – photographs of Machu Picchu are all over the place, and thousands of tourists come here every year – but we got there early enough to see the place without crowds of tourists (most come by bus from nearby Aguas Calientes, choosing to forego the three-day hike), and the scale, beauty and mystery of the place was still stunning, made all the more memorable as this was the pay off for three days hard work. Buses bring people up from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes now, and there is an expensive hotel looking out towards the citadel, but it was fascinating to imagine what it must have been like when Hiram Bingham ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu in 1911, the citadel apparently abandoned, cooking utensils and household items lying around (the Peruvian government is still trying to get several artefacts back from Yale University that were taken by Bingham). There are other hitherto undiscovered Inca cities further out in the jungle, at least as impressive as Machu Picchu, and it’s a bit sad to think that they too will end up with buses ferrying tour groups to them through the trees.

From Machu Picchu we went to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, via Cusco. Puno was yet another place we were told was dodgy. Presumably we get told everywhere is dodgy for the benefit of the people that were thinking of walking around with their cameras hanging round their neck, passports sticking out of their back pockets, waving wads of cash in the faces of the locals and shouting ‘MUG ME!!!’. In Puno we went for a meal, and were treated once more to the standard Peruvian dining experience – panicked looking waiters, more soup, only partially correct orders, and a band with pan pipes and guitar playing traditional Peruvian hits which always include El Condor Pasa. CDs are also available for sale, with phenominally badly designed cover photos of the band looking rather uncomfortable. I can only assume that all Peruvian towns have a ‘hit squad’ of pan-pipe players, who are tipped off by restaurant owners as soon as tourists show up – because they’re always there. I don’t, I hasten to add, want to knock them or deprive them of a living – most of them are really good, and the singer in Puno had such a powerful voice he could make your quinoa soup shake at ten feet.

Lake TiticacaWe headed out onto Lake Titicaca from Puno in a boat with only just enough space to swing a cat, though I believe cat swinging is prohibited on most boats. Lake Titicaca (Titicaca means grey puma) is the highest navigable lake in the world at over 3800 meters above sea level, as any tour guide will be more than happy to tell you – and it is massive. Peru sees Lake Titicaca as a major tourist draw and source of Peruvian pride, and says it owns about sixty percent of the lake. Bolivia sees Lake Titicaca as a major source of Bolivian pride, and also says it owns sixty percent of the lake. Bolivia’s navy also use the lake for exercises as Bolivia has no coast – it lost control of its small stretch of coast in a war with Chile in the late nineteenth century and has been trying to get it back ever since, but the Bolivians are obviously optimistic people, so they still have a navy.

Home cookingWe visited a couple of islands on the lake – Taquile Island, where the men knit hats and clothing rather than the women, and Amantani Island, where we stayed overnight with local families. These places, where Quecha (the Inca language) is the first language and traditional dress is still worn, felt that much further removed from the trappings of the modern world, though tourism was obviously very important to the islanders, who were canny enough to ask for money to be photographed knitting or doing anything picture-worthy. Our ‘mother’ for the night on Amantani Island cooked for us in her tiny kitchen by the light of one candle, smoke filling the top half of the room. I babysat the four sons, if you look at being jumped on by four giggling terrors as babysitting. Trevor’s wish for a guinea pig for his dinner was granted, and a black guinea pig was duly stunned, decapitated, skinned, gutted and spatchcocked. I couldn’t eat guinea pig, having been close to a few in the past. We headed to the village hall for a dance with the daughter of the family, the traditional dance here resembling just managing to restrain your partner from punching you in the guts. After the dance we went to beds with Empire Strikes Back duvet covers and mattresses stuffed with straw, where I farted myself to sleep.

Enough for today – next, Bolivia and the journey home through the scariest country yet – America.