After spending time in South America on her Gap Year, Stephanie Parrott reflects on her five day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the porters she met along the way and their love of the sacred trail.
It’s such a Gap Year cliché to say that on my year abroad (obviously after the typical ski season, South East Asia, Australia route) I ended up in South America and found myself signed up to do the five day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – absolute idiot not thinking of the fact that I’d done no exercise for the last year, but that’s a different story.
The Inca Trail is so much more than just a ‘Gap Yah’ adventure with thousands of cool photos at the lost city; it’s a sacred passing, a spiritual journey and an experience of a life time.
The journey begins in Ollantaytambo and took us through snow capped mountains, up to altitudes of 4000m above sea level, down vertical drops, through cliffs, along dead woman’s pass – basically five days of serious hiking, camping and conquering altitude sickness. When taking in all of this information, the real shock didn’t come from the mention of actual exercise (although that was truly terrifying), it came from the fact that in a group of ten of us, we had eighteen porters and two chefs who would carry literally everything – tents, cooking equipment, stoves, tables, chairs, water, food, even our clothes, all of it on their backs.
We started off each morning, with someone outside our tent waking us up with hot chocolate and warm water to wash with, we’d then get up and join our fellow hikers in the bigger middle tent where a cooked breakfast would be waiting, fill up our bottles with water that the porters had boiled and filtered before heading off and leaving the campsite and all of our belongings exactly how it was. About an hour or two into our hike for that day, round about the moment when I always felt like I was about to collapse, our whole group would start cheering as we’d see our porters getting closer, with 25kg of OUR unnecessary crap in a huge bag on their backs. They’d march past, hunched over, streaming sweat but hiking like absolute troopers, high fiving us as they passed, smiling and waving. The fact that I’m standing there dying of exhaustion with hiking boots, hiking sticks and a small bag with water and snacks, while the porters practically jog past, in sandals and a whole campsite on their back was utterly ridiculous and the minute we saw them, we stopped complaining immediately.
We’d try to keep up with them for the last stretch of uphill before we’d get to our break spot, over looking the stunning sacred valleys and mountains of Peru, and the porters would be no where to be seen.
Every moment of the five day hike, I saw some of the most unbelievable views – it’s no wonder the Incas completed the Inca Trail as a sacred passing. We learnt all about their culture, the sacrifices that they made to the mountains and the land, the offerings they gave to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and the beliefs, superstitions and sufferings that made them who they are. Our guides and porters followed exactly the same traditions as their ancestors and after spending time to get to know them, we learnt that they walk the Inca trail every day of their lives, carrying huge loads on their backs because to them, it’s an honour that they get to follow the footsteps of the Incas. They’re not interested in the money, they don’t care how heavy the bags are, they’re not bothered about the fact that they’re doing a job – for them, they are the luckiest people in the whole world just standing on the path that the Inca’s built as a sacred passing to The Lost City. The Inca people cared so much about the land they lived on and the spiritual elements that came with it.
We learnt of children born to be Pacha Mama sacrifices – their families honoured by the fact that their daughter has been chosen to be drugged and then killed, with axe blows to the head, when she turns fifteen. The Inca’s then made the ceremonial walk with the offering along the Inca Trail, reaching the snow capped mountains half way through and leaving the offering (the dead little girl) there, before carrying on. Five years ago, mountain hikers actually found a girl’s body completely preserved in the ice from the mountain and with tests have been able to find out exactly how the sacrificial killing happens.
Each day, hike and even step, you could feel the atmosphere changing as we grew closer to Machu Picchu, especially with the porters explaining how incredible this place truly is and how much it means to their families. Then the worst happened, on the evening of day four we were camping right behind Machu Picchu mountain, we’d planned to be up at 3am the next day to start our two hour hike around the mountain and arrive at the stunning view of The Lost City as the sun rose – we were that close. However our absolutely incredible porters said their goodbyes that evening, they thanked us for learning about their culture and for getting to know them and explained how the next day for them wouldn’t be quite the same as it was for us. They had to change course and take all of our tents, cooking equipment and belongings back down to Aguas Calientes, the town we’d be getting the bus to after visiting Machu Picchu, so it would be waiting for us.
It was heartbreaking. To these men, they are the luckiest people in the world, getting to walk the sacred Inca Trail. They hike for five days with 25kg of other peoples things on their back, to get so close – two hours away – and then have to turn around and go back, only to do exactly the same thing the next day. It’s not right, not fair, not okay… but they don’t complain, they’re happy, lucky and living their lives through their ancestors. I don’t know if the exhaustion added to us being so emotional but it was a very sad (embarrassingly hysterical) goodbye to twenty of the nicest and kindest men I have ever met, who have so much love for their country and it’s history.
G Adventures, the company who I did the Inca Trail through, are planning to take all of their porters to Machu Picchu next year. They’ll finally get to experience what they live every day of their lives for.
Stephanie Parrottbookmark me