The day of the hike has finally begun! Unfortunately for our group (and all the groups doing the hike the same time as us), we had to walk an extra 1-2km due to road closures. There was only one small road that brings us from Ollantaytambo to the starting point of The Inca Trail at KM 82, and that road just so happened to be going through restoration, so many large holes were dug up and filled with local construction workers. As much as we were unhappy with the extra distance…it made us realize the ones who were least lucky were the workers themselves who frequently would have to stop whatever they were doing for us to all walk through.
Our bus dropped us off on a grassy field where we got our first glimpse of all our porters. I think we were all in shock to see just how many porters there were in total! Our group ended up with around 20 porters and 2 cooks! And this is for a group size of only 16 + 3 guides. We are all eternally grateful for all their hard work as they not only carried most of our belongings, but also all of our food, tents, utensils, and even tables & chairs!
This image below was posted by one of our tour guides which perfectly describes the hike between locals and foreigners. Them carrying around 20kg (44 POUNDS) and breezing through, while most of us carry only a 20-30L daypack at most, – not to mention the high disparity in footwear. Many of our porters were in regular sneakers, some in converses to be specific,…and there were some porters especially from other tour agencies in, can you believe it, SANDALS. And here the rest of us are all struggling with our hiking poles and expensive hiking boots…It must be all the coca tea!!!!!! (side note: we were allowed to give the porters up to 6kg of our luggage and gear, and were advised to only carry essentials needed during the day hike itself. Mine was heavy because I unnecessarily filled up my 2.5L water bag. Alicia’s was even beavier because her sleeping bag was huge and took up most of the duffle bag that was given to us to put the 6kg in)
The Inca Trail is a 4 day hike where by mid-day of the 4th, we would arrive at Machu Picchu. Day 1 was supposedly the easiest as it was shortest at only 11KM. To be honest I took very little photos while walking mostly because I was 1) Dying from exhaustion and had no energy to even bother to take my phone out, let alone take pictures 2) Many of the paths with views are cliffside ones where the path is only a couple feet wide…and I’m very afraid of heights. So most of the time I was just focusing on walking right by the moutain’s side to not fall and die, not getting ran into by porters dashing by, and just walking.
2 of our group mates ended up dropping out and heading back to Ollantaytambo within the first 1-2 hours. Unfortunately as we all walked at our own separate pace, many of us were not even able to say bye. We were glad at least they had each other as company, and we did reunite with them at Machu Picchu! Supposedly there is a certain point of the hike that is “the point of no return” where you simply cannot head back anymore due to distance. Although we jokingly laughed about who would be next, I personally was a bit worried about the hike to come as I had never done a multi-day hike and in such terrain before.
Day 1 of hiking ended as we finally arrived to our campsite mid afternoon in shock, relief, and gratitude that all our tents were prepared and set up for us. All we had to do was figure out which tent was ours. It was very embarrassing to walk past the porters who were applauding our arrival when they arrived so much earlier than us carrying so much more. They even prepared water for us to drink and wash up :’) Due to my small Asian feet….I used my basin as a foot soak as they were majorly swollen from the full day of walking. I sincerely hope for others’ sake that this basin was thoroughly washed because I’m sure it was re-used for cooking…hehe.
After a short nap (or a siesta as they affectionately call it), dinner was served. We had 2 wonderful cooks who came along on this trek with us; this is their part time job too! Our meals for lunch and dinner always consisted of soup, protein + veggie + carb main course, and dessert, always delicious and plentiful. Some of the days, lunch would be in the middle of the hike, and others it would be after the hike – to be honest I can’t exactly remember when lunch was for each day exactly. However in general, lunch was VERY important to us, hence we named our group the Hungry Hikers as we always liked to ask what time lunch was. To me, my goal of completing the hike was FOR lunch.
Post-dinner, we had our formal meet and greet with all of our porters. Unfortunately as there was about 20 of them, I could not remember any of their names/faces except one called Walter mostly because he had a distinctively English name and always wore a cartoon-ish toque. He also usually brought us drinks while we were having meals. Everyone had fun proclaiming whether they were single or not in the introduction (with those who were single cheered loudly for, of course). What we discovered from this introduction was that sadly, the job of being a porter (and chef too) was a part time job for what we can only assume, to raise extra money for their family… Most of our porters were either very young 16-21, or middle aged 40+. So they were clearly raising money for education or for their family/children. We were told many of them are farmers from the rural areas (not cities like Cusco or Lima, possibly not even Ollantaytambo) and after the hike would be going straight back to working on the farm. The oldest porter we had was in his 60’s! It was very heartbreaking to see him and some of the older men carrying so much weight…we can only imagine the toll it must take on their body, regardless of how physically capable they were. The daily limit of people allowed on the trail each day is 500, where only 200 are actual trekkers. That means there is nearly 300 porter/laborers working on trail every single day.
Yelling “Porter!” to let the hikers in front of you know they are approaching is a very common phrase you’ll say and hear along the trail. Mostly so we get out of their way as usually they are scampering down in groups.
Overall in Peru, I did have a bit of a culture shock on the high disparity between our lifestyle and theirs. Not so much that I was in shock of the living standards…but more so that it made me realize just how lucky I was, and made me more humble and grateful for what I have. In the cities of Lima, Cusco, Ollantaytambo, we saw many women and children running food or merchandise stalls on the streets, and also many that will carry around goods to flock around tourists for sales (increasing as we went farther away from the urban core). It’s difficult to fully understand and accept the fact that in other countries, that is a typical and standard way of living. Porters in specific, as the task is very physical and tough on the body, it was very saddening to think that for the need of additional income, they would need to time after time do such a feat, especially at the older and young ages. In general, I couldn’t help but feel bad, and also wonder how they feel knowing the standard of living differences we have. Makes me wonder if it is like how we regular “middle-class” look at and compare to the wealthy upper-class 1%, or if it is a different sort of view. Makes me wonder if they are envious of our luxury, or resentful (if at all?). Or rather, are they are simply appreciative that tourism has allowed and opened new streams of employment for society? I like to hope and think it is the latter, as everyone we’ve met in Peru has been nothing but kind to us.