The Inca Trail (Part 1)

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu are words which envoke mystery and lost worlds. The site itself was discovered by Yale University's Hiram Bingham in 1911. Peruvians hold different views on this real life Indiana Jones. Many view him as a respected explorer who discovered one of the most prized tourist attractions of South America, others see him as a looter. However you view him, there is no doubt that Machu Picchu is a significant discovery for the indigenious Peruvians and that thousands of the artifacts discovered here were taken from Peru to Yale University's Peabody Museum. The Peruvian government is still pursuing the return of these items via the US courts. Nevertheless, some excellent artefacts can still be seen in the Museo Inka in Cusco.

Weighing station at Pisacucho (km 82)

So you are considering undergoing this trip and wondering whether you can complete this trip in one piece? Our trip to Peru last December saw my second completion of this classic trek. My first trip was back in November 2000, when I completed this trek in a mad two and a half days. Most guides recommend that you acclimatise to the high altitude of Cusco (3326m) for a day or two before embarking on this trail. The truth is this acclimatisation period differs for everyone. We met some travellers would had stayed in Cusco for upto six days before striking out. We arrived the day before and set off the next morning withPachamama Explorers. Pachamama Explorers is a professional outfit run by a friendly and efficient South African and her Pervuian husband.

From early 2000 or so, the Peuvian government banned unaccompanied trekkers from embarking this trip. In 2001 the increasingly restrictive red tape caused elevated entrance fees. In the six years that have past since my last visit the experience has changed somewhat. I believe it has changed for the better. In the past, I have heard anecdotes of porters carrying back breaking 65kg loads over the entire 33km trail. Now there are weighing stations at severval points along the trail to ensure that no porter carries more than 25kg. Porters were also reportly badly treated, under fed and poorly sheltered whilst their guests ate like kings and slept soundly in modern tents. Do your research! We found Pachamama Explorers' porters were well treated and fed decent meals each day. We did encounter other porters over the three days who didn't fair so well. An senior local guide in Cusco who had become disillusioned with the situation, described how some smaller companies take on part-time porters during peak periods. The intense competition for employment caused many porters to offer their services for less than the minimum wage, in the hope that the tips from the tourists cover their shortfall.

Prior to the new red tape, some unscrupulous companies bought up all available trekking permits in advance even though they had very few bookings. This allowed them corner the market and force tourists to buy their services as other companies did not have the capital to secure the permits ahead of reservations. This practice has been stopped by very strict controls. Permits are no longer issued without a passport number and full name. At the head of the trail and at various points along the 33km armed guards and rangers inspect passports and permits. A missing permit at these check points result in a hefty fine.


Coca leaves and "black stone"

So did we encounter any altitude sickness? Another change since 2000, is that all guides are now required to carry sub-pint sized emergency oxygen tanks in the event of a trekker becoming severely affected. On my first trek I had witnessed a porter collapsing at the top of the Dead Woman's Pass (Warmiwanusca at 4198m). Dropping his cargo and suffering from a nose bleed. The other guides were quick to play down the situation whilst all tourists crowded around. There is no doubt that the second day is the toughest. We had witnessed a girl slumped at the edge of the trail attended by an oxygen wielding guide. She was seen later smiling and relieved as her guide carried her day pack.


Fresh evidence of soroche on the path to Dead Woman's pass.

So what can you do to minimise the effects for the rarefied air? Coca leaves. They seem to be the panacea for all ills in Peru! Australian travellers in our group of six were offered various forms of coca leaves for stomach upsets, headaches and exhaustion. Mate de Coca (Coca tea) is consumed over much of South America. The Andean people chew coca leaves too. Chewing the leaf over a period of 30 minutes or so provides a mild feeling of well being. For some people, they feel no appreciable effects. On the first day of the trail, you'll probably be offered coca leaves and also something they call a "black stone". This is in fact an alkali catalyst made from quinoa ashes mixed with anise and cane sugar. Quinoa is a type of cereal that is widely eaten as a porridge for breakfast and can be used in most meals. This "black stone" is a soft ball with a consistency of dried dough. It is used by wrapping a small amount with half a dozen coca leaves and chewed (much like an Indian "Pan"). With this catalyst, the coca leaves release their novacaine like effect within minutes, leaving your gums numb. Not all locals use this catalyst as it does become very bitter once the main release is over! The locals tell us that the symptoms of altitude sickness are closely linked to your digestive system. Surprise! Coca leaves provide a way to improve your digestion. I have to agree! :)

Do bear in mind that chewing coca leaves and drinking Mate de Coca is not in the same ballpark of taking cocaine. Peruvian president Alan Garcia has recently marketed coca leaves as a general cooking herb!

In my trip to Bolivia, I managed to find Mate de Coca tea bags manufactured under the name of Horniman, a Tetley subsidary based in Greenford, England. The influence of the British in South America cannot be under estimated!

More in Part 2...