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Scaling the Peaks, Unwashed: Spring Break Inca Trail

By Linda Yan '15  |  april, 2014, Issue 2
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Linda Yan '15

It's cold, drizzling, and I'm developing the beginnings of tunnel vision. My field of view is starting to grey along the sides and my ears are ringing. Finals? No, just the last mile up the distressingly-named Dead Woman's Pass, 13,829 feet above sea level.

Fuck your idiotic ideas, I thought at myself, furiously, you could be sipping margaritas in Cancun.

Twenty-six of us set out from Cusco yesterday morning before daybreak. As the historic capital of the mighty Incan empire, Cusco was the literal representation of the Incan genius for concentrating power and influence. Now, it's a tourist town like so many others, filled with women hawking souvenirs in its narrow, winding streets and a Starbucks proudly installed above the center square.

Those of us with earlier finals arrived in Cusco with time to spare, adjusting to the 11,000 foot elevation with ample rest and local Cusqueña beers. By the time we started our journey, many of us had acquired fabulous llama sweaters, hats or mittens. Before the end of the trip these warm items will have recouped their cost time and time again.

We started the Inca Trail at 5:30 on Tuesday morning, the tour bus picking us up and navigating with uncanny ease through narrow side streets. At one point, in a breathtaking act of audacity, the bus went backwards for almost a mile to get around a street's onerous one-way policy. Rattling the whole way, the bus pulled into the Sacred Valley along the Urubamba River.

Breakfast was served. Those of us who were serious about our victuals took up strategic positions in order to maximize our chance of exposure to eggs (farm-fresh, fluffy) and pancakes (blini-sized, richly sweet). A Peruvian version of an Egg McMuffin was constructed and hastily demolished. Coca tea, which we found to be ubiquitous and is considered a local remedy to altitude sickness, was consumed.

Led by our tour guides, Marco and Santiago, we quickly made our way through the Cusichaca Valley. The day was warm, the mountains lush and studded with the remains of old Incan waystations, sites where grain was collected, inventoried and stored. We met up on a slope as bucolic as something out of The Sound of Music for a brief history of the rise and fall of the Incan empire. Santiago, earnest and more poetic than his jocular counterpart, talked about the role of civil war, tribal politics and deification in toppling an empire of millions. For his part, Marco had generated some A+ bon mots including but not limited to:

"When you get sick, we will give you condor piss. Don't worry, you don't have to drink it...just sniff it."

"You cannot get lost on the Inca Trail. There is no left, there is no right. There is only one path."

"The third day is the laziest day. If it is sunny, mucho wow wow. If it is rainy, we will have to sacrifice the youngest."

We made camp in Ayapata, close to a few other groups. Yoga happened. Porters in red, who had carried our tents and various effects on their backs, provided welcome hot water in shallow basins. Dinner was surprisingly lavish, starting with soup (with a spoonful of spicy pico de gallo), continuing through plates of rice, grilled meats and examples of the 3000 different potato varietals, and ending with a sweet dessert and more coca tea. Some of us braved the trip to the outhouse; others crawled back into their tents in anticipation of another early start. Yet others, played cards as the temperature outside dropped steadily.

The second day, acknowledged by all to be the hardest day of the 4-day hike, dawned clear, but the truth is that a 5:30 AM wakeup call followed by trying to wrestle a giant sleeping bag into its travel sack and a precarious trip to the squatting toilet makes for a grumpy journalist. Quinoa porridge and dulce du leche on toast were the highlights of the morning. After breakfast, we left camp single-file and started the thousand-foot ascent above the clouds...

To Be Continued in the next issue of Chicago Business.

Last Updated 4/21/14
Last Updated 4/21/14