Friday, May 30, 2008

Trekking The Inca Trail: Lima, Cusco, Pisaq, Saqsaywaman, Aguas Calientes (Part IV)

Trek Day 4

Surreal, unbelievable, amazing and the phrase "money couldn't buy this" where some of things said about day four of our trek. It all began quite innocently, we got up and had breakfast as normal. The campsite was being packed away again when we left camp in a westerly direction following the Urubamba river along a fairly flat, dusty and hot trail to our lunch stop. We passed through a varied environment again, there was forest, narrow paths alongside the edge of the mountains and sun parched fields.

We had lunch near to the train station known as Kilometer 82 (82 Kilometres from Cusco). The Inca trail to Machu Picchu has a few of these kilometre markers, in essence they are railway stations marking the route used by rich tourists from Cusco who can't be bothered to walk to Machu Picchu. Some of the stations do have towns attached so of course they also fulfil the needs of the local townsfolk and transporting goods to Aguas Calientes which is the nearest town to Machu Picchu. Our lunch was at a purpose built campsite near to Km 82, the nice thing about it was that we could eat lunch in a nice cool hall out of the blazing sunshine.

After lunch and a sit down we walked the short distance to the bridge over the Urubamba river at Km 82. The bridge was typical of the area, wobbly! The plan was that we were going to cross the bridge, sort out our paperwork as we were now entering the Machu Picchu National Park, walk a short distance along the railway line then join a trail to our last night's camping at Km 88. Well, that was the plan anyway. It started OK, we walked to the bridge crossed it and then waited by the railway line for Libby to sort out all the paperwork. After a while Libby came up and said there was a problem but it should be sorted out soon.

The Inca trail was on the other side of the bridge, the side where we'd had lunch. The staff at the crossing couldn't understand why we wanted come the other way over the bridge and walk into the National Park along the railway line. All our paperwork was in order and the crossing had prior notification of our intention to cross on this day. Libby had taken groups on this planned route many times before and this was the first time she'd had a problem. Apparently the rules affecting entry to the Machu Picchu National Park had changed within the last few days, so therefore our paperwork was out of date. Libby was great at trying to resolve it, desperate 'phone calls to her boss in Lima didn't help though, we needed a contingency plan.

Between them, Libby and Explorandes came up with a plan that involved one group of us getting on a train and going straight from Km 82 to Km 88, the site of night four's camp. The rest of us, which included me, would walk for two miles back along the river to the town of Chillca. Explorandes were only able to reserve so many seats in the train going to Km 88, that is why some us had to walk the other way. Once at Chillca we would wait until evening and catch the train from there to Km 88. Again we had reserved seats on that later train. All this took three hours to sort out but going by train towards Machu Picchu or walking the other way were the only ways we would get out. It was roughly half and half were travelling by each method. The walkers waited for the train the others were catching just to make sure that a) it arrived and b) they got on it. There was spontaneous cheering and applause when it did arrive as after such a long delay we were moving again!

Once the train had gone we, the group that was left, began walking to Chillca. Most of the walk was up a long hill, not to steep but steeper than we would like at this point of time. Being part of this group did seem the best option because at least we would get a bit of walking in this afternoon. The route we were following was a road so we didn't have worries about narrow mountain passes or anything like that. At one point we passed a cemetery, in contrast to how cemeteries normally look this one was very colourful. The gravestones were decorated with bright flower arrangements. It was interesting to see how other people deal with death.

After about an hour of quite tough walking we arrived in the town of Chilca. There were two small shops in the town, for some reason, the local exchange rate I think, we went for the one on the left and I went straight in and bought six bottles of beer.

After about half an hour of lazing around outside drinking beer and chatting to people I made my way inside the shop. Quite a few people were already in there, sitting on whatever they could find. The man who owned the shop, I suppose realising he was on to a winner, was working frantically with his wife to get as many chairs and stools made available as possible. To the side of the shop there was a small courtyard, no roof but tables and chairs and what was turning into a beautiful night sky. There must have been thirty to forty people crammed into this shop which was no bigger than most people's sitting room. We'd drunk all his small bottles of beer so we were now onto the familiar one litre bottles.

After an hour of drinking, chatting and generally having a bloody good laugh Libby decided that rather than waiting for the train here in Chillca and hoping it stopped, it would be easier for us to get a bus a bit further down the railway line so that we could catch the train at the major station of Ollantaytambo (78 Km from Cusco).

We waited for the bus and drank a bit more, after about another hour it arrived and we all piled onto it. What a journey, all the seats were full and the rest were in the aisle. In the good old British tradition we had a sing song all the way. Most of us had brought beer with us from the shop so people sang (shouted), drank and just continued having one hell of a party. Libby did tell us that when we left the shop in Chillca the owner came after us asking for his bottles back. He'd just had the best two hours of his shop's trading history and he was worried about a few céntimos for the empties. I'm sure that it was just a natural reaction and with hindsight he would have realised what had just happened to his bank balance!

The driver of the bus to Ollantaytambo must have wondered what on earth was going on and when he started driving along the railway tracks so did we! Either he knew there would be no trains coming either way or he was just risking it to add more excitement to our lives. After about twenty minutes we were in Ollantaytambo, although it was now dark the town looked very nice. We got to the train station got off the bus and walked through big crowds of passengers and traders. In between the car park and the train there were lots of stalls selling everything. Most of the people seemed like travellers who were just milling around, we had reserved seats on a train though, so we just walked through the middle of them. We were directed to our carriage which turned out to be the Scope carriage with no one else on it. We made ourselves comfortable and then another Scope trekker, Simon and I went to the nearest stall selling beer and bought two crates for our fellow passengers, I think there were twenty four of the small bottles to each case so plenty for us and a few spare. This afternoon we'd had a beer shop, a beer bus and now a beer train!

As well as a beer train, like the bus it turned into a sing song with someone who shall remain anonymous doing a brilliant rendition of Shirley Bassey's song "Big spender". We had seats reserved on the train but we didn't actually have any tickets and one of the funniest moments was when the ticket inspector(s) came round. There was a group of us at the end of the carriage nearest the door who had set up an impromptu bar and smoking area. When the inspectors came round, they couldn't get through so they had a beer instead, we just "held them hostage" at that end of the carriage! I think the main inspector was suitably rewarded at the end of our journey.

It is 10 Kilometres from Ollantaytambo to Km 88 but it seemed like that train ride took us ages. It must have been at least forty five minutes. Then we were there, we were camping at a place called Q'uente at a height of 2,500m (8,125ft) which was right next to Km 88. There was no station, we just got off the train stood beside the railway line and waited to see what the next weird thing to happen would be. Suprisingly, nothing. The campsite and the facilities are owned by a German called Reiner, he doesn't speak a word of English but we had been promised a camp with showers and a barbecue. So although we were camping tonight we had relative luxury.

Anyway, Reiner had come down to the railway line to meet us and he led the way. It was pitch black and a narrow sometimes steep path to the camp. Those of us who had torches used them to light the way for everybody else as there was no lighting on the path. Even though I had a torch it didn't stop me walking straight into a metal pillar in the middle of the far end of a bridge that we had to cross. It didn't hurt me too much but the woman following me, Karen, got a hell of a shock when she walked into my trekking poles which were sticking out of my day pack. After a bit of swearing she said she was OK though.

We made our way up to the campsite. It was quite a substantial site, there were a series of buildings, the main one being our eating area which were all keen to visit. Alex and I dropped our stuff of at the entrance to the three sided room where we would be eating, as did everyone else in our group. After telling people about the afternoon we'd had we learnt that most of the advance party had been on the beer since they arrived. I'm sure we'd had more fun though but they'd had showers and a wash! We'd been promised a really nice barbecue, our cooks had been here a while after they bolted past the guards at Km 82. In the end was what turned out to be what I thought was the worst meal of the entire trip.

We had some nice soup followed by some very tough highly salted steak. I don't know wether the steak was from Reiner's stock or if our cooks had carried it with them all the way from the start of the trek. I suspect it was Reiner's but whichever it really was vile, some people liked it but most people I spoke to did not. Some of the vegetables were OK though, I'm sure it wasn't helped by the fact we were so late in arriving. All this was washed down with some nasty mulled wine. Needless to say, as if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared! Or, bottle keeper, normal service was resumed as we stocked up on beer for the evening.

After supper we had a briefing from Libby about what had happened that day and what the plan was for tomorrow. As soon as Libby had finished telling us what would happen tomorrow, Brod, being very quick witted asked her "What is the chance of any of that happening then?". In context it was a very funny thing to say considering what had happened to Libby's plans so far that day. I'm sure any of my fellow trekkers reading this will get the joke and smile to themselves!

After supper Alex and I went around the corner to the field where the tents were, but this time it was quite hard to find an unoccupied tent but we found one at the back of the site. Alex went to sleep almost as soon as we got inside the tent and slept until morning. I sorted out my sleeping bag and went back to the main building to see what was going on. Not much, as it turned out, a few people were playing cards, I hung around for a bit and then went to bed. Tomorrow was the day we had all been waiting for, Machu Picchu, the goal of the trip!

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