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Inca Trail: Day 2 - The Hardest Day

April 12, 2014 -- This was the day that everyone warned us about, from our friends who had been on this trek before to the guy who picked us up at the airport to every single stranger we mentioned the Inca Trail to. This would be about 5 hours of uphill and 1000 m in elevation change to get through Dead Woman's Pass. We woke up before our 5:45 am morning call. Sunrise was earlier, which was helpful in waking us up since the light filtered through the tent. Morning call is basically when the guides go from tent to tent and knock on each one. They also gave us some sweet drink, which we thought was honey tea, and they refused to tell us what it was (I'll tell you on Day 3 when they finally told us). People joked that maybe it had urea in it because the night before, we heard how in traditional medicine, a stomach ache can be treated by drinking some of your own urine... but it has to be your own. Anyway... since we had tea so much - before going to sleep and right after waking up, it was kind of like brushing our teeth. Although we brought toothbrushes, it didn't seem necessary.

Breakfast was amazing. We ate so much: Fruit salad, oatmeal porridge, toast with strawberry jam, pancakes with caramel sauce, and tea. K had regular black tea and CL had manzanilla. There was also instant coffee, powder milk, and powder chocolate. Unfortunately, we forgot to take photos.

Since this was the third to last place we could buy water before Machu Picchu, we went ahead and bought 1.5 L from the farmer for S/.8. This is not cheap - but he had to carry it up the mountain to sell it to us. Also, it would only get more expensive for the next two spots. We had calculated previously from our Big Basin hike in California, that the two of us consumed about 1 L on a 6 hour hike, and that turned out to be true for our first day too, excluding all the drinks and soups they gave us. So, while we could have purchased a 2 L bottle, for S/.10, it wasn't going to be worth the extra weight we would have to carry if we weren't going to drink it all. Anyway, we would be provided with boiled water on the third day but they didn't carry enough gas (those tanks are heavy!) to boil water for everyone each day in addition to all the cooking. Plus, we all had tablets to decontaminate stream water if necessary. There's water everywhere -- the Incans were very good at aqueducts and irrigation, diverting streams to wherever they were.

Some people, I suppose, were very afraid of being dehydrated so they managed to chug through multiple liters of bottled water each per day. However, that means going to the toilet a lot (sometimes in the woods), which was not an appealing prospect to us two. It probably goes against all the warnings that trekking companies give, but we just hiked slowly and drank water when we were thirsty or out of breath on an uphill climb, and it seemed to work for us.

We finished breakfast, packing up, and started the hike at 7:30. But first, we would have to get through Passport Control. K thought it was a really serious thing so she made CL carry his own passport and stand in line himself (instead of bringing both passports herself). It turns out it was more or less the guide giving us the Day 2 stamp in our passport. (I'll show you the passport stamps at the end, with all 4 days' worth).

CL by the waterfall

Then it was uphill and a one hour hike to the next rest stop by a stream, called Tres Piedras (Three stones), but... we didn't see three stones anywhere because it was still a bit foggy. Although the first day was spent at a lower elevation, Tres Piedras was where we reached the same elevation as Cusco. Anyway, this was where some people bought water (second to last spot!) or went to the toilet.

We found that resting for a long time (15 min) was a bit uncomfortable because although initially it felt nice to take off the backpack, we soon got cold and then there was the prospect of putting the backpack back on...

The next part, we were to hike at our own pace. We started off at 9 am and used the clock to track how long along we were. It started off very steep with stairs. Not far into the shaded forest, we were treated to a waterfall, so we took many photos (which then put us squarely at the back of the group).

There were many of these by the waterfall
It was unbelievable how many stairs there were - you could look straight up and where you couldn't see anymore, and thought was the last stair, was just partway up. So.. since it was not a race (there's nothing to do if you get to the camp site first, except rest), we took our breaks every few minutes on large rocks, copying the porters who were doing the same. Of course, they were practically running up the stairs in their rubber sandals while we were merely huffing and puffing up the same stairs.
Surreal view once we were out of (above) the canopy

Because we had started so early in the morning compared to the previous day, there was a morning snack break at 10:30 am at a mini-camp site Llulluchapampa (Yu-yu-cha-pam-pa) partway up at 3,680 m. The fastest pair, who had not stopped, arrived there just before 10 am. I attribute their speed to at least one of them being a marathon runner (speaking of which, there is an unofficial marathon through the 26 mile Inca Trail and those folks finish the trail in 1 day instead of 4). We slowpoke, photo taking folks arrived at 10:20 am, just in time for the popcorn, tea, cheese sandwiches, and what looked to be Jacob's crackers. Although the guides give the group a head start, Janet caught up to us. It was then we realized that our group had very fast people. Even our guide Carlos was impressed and offered to see if one of the fast girls could break his record on the third day.

We dropped our stuff off on a tarp and K was surprisingly already hungry. She had a double cheese sandwich (her cheese sandwich plus CL's cheese, leaving CL with just bread, which he seemed to enjoy nonetheless...) in addition to everything else. While K had coca tea and CL had regular tea, other people experimented with putting cocoa powder into their coca tea to mask the taste of the coca leaves. It doesn't taste that bad - it's kind of bitter like Chinese tea, but their problem is they put too many leaves in their small cup of hot water. After seeing the porters put coca leaves in their mouth, other people tried chewing the coca leaves, but apparently that's too strong. You are supposed to just leave it in your mouth and not chew. It became sunny so we scooted our folding chairs to the shade. We had heard warnings about the Andean sun and the Andean wind on the second day. So far, the Andean sun was proving to be quite strong already and it was only late morning.

Last stop for water before Machu Picchu
Last stop for water before Machu Picchu

Around 10:40, we set off for the next part of the hike, also at our own pace. We saw sheep and alpacas.

sheep and alpaca
Can you spot the alpaca?

Now, it is pretty common for people to fear heights and avoid looking down. However, for the first time ever, looking up had us scared. We saw, far up in the mountain, a trail of brightly colored porter packs. We realized that somehow, we'd have to get up there too. Well, we went ahead anyway. It's just that we had to stop a lot, and CL's head started hurting. Both of us started being short of breath near the last bit. It was sort of strange that we (and everyone else) would have to stop every few steps (Although the steps at this point were more long than steep) to take a break. But this was at over 4000 m, so the air was very thin. Because of concerns of erosion (especially for the parts closest to the top that date from Incan times), pack animals are not allowed, only human porters. The good news is that there weren't any droppings to avoid.

taking a break
Taking a break
Janet caught up to us twice, but it was a good thing actually, because then we got more guide explanations than other people. Anyway, we FINALLY MADE IT! This was more exciting in some ways than Machu Picchu because this part was really difficult:
the top of dead woman's pass
4215 m above sea level - the highest we've been without a pressurized cabin.

By the way, nobody died at Dead Woman's Pass. It's just a horrible name. Our guide said there was a Peruvian woman who did hike there, and eventually disappeared, but although they found her sleeping there, she didn't die there. But supposedly you can see a figure of a woman lying face up on that range, but we did not have enough imagination to see it.

the trail to dead woman's pass
We came all the way from that valley down there.

Everyone else had already started down the extremely windy and foggy other side of the mountain, because it was so cold up there. We put on our jackets and headed down around 12:40 pm.

the descent from dead woman's pass
The beginning of our 1.75 hour descent towards our next camp. The clouds cleared up for this photo.

Downhill was cold and windy for the first 30 minutes, and down some steep stairs. We ran into porters returning uphill. Because this was the most difficult day, there were unofficial porters (local villagers) who offered to carry stuff for people just for the day, and then they would return home. Can you imagine making that 1000 m vertical climb every day? It really is uphill both ways!

looking back up to dead woman's pass
Looking back up to Dead Woman's Pass. See the people at the dip in the middle? They look like tiny trees.

the descent from dead woman's pass
A porter ahead of us on his way down.

We made it through without hiring an extra porter, although we probably would have been faster with one. At the bottom of the first set of stairs, we took off our jackets because it got hot. The weather would switch between seasons quickly. There wasn't much of a transition either. Occasionally, there was a breeze, which was a good relief from the burning sun. We went very slowly, since the steps were not so even anymore. CL's head started hurting as well, and at this point, like distance running, the trek was probably more of a mental game than a physical one. Janet caught up to us again, so we continued the rest of the way together. By the way, we passed people from other groups and they also would pass us as everyone took breaks at a slightly different schedule. At one point, CL's hiking poles lost its rubber tip. This was not good as we had rented the hiking poles, and because they would do damage to the stones. Fortunately, from her urban coin hunting skills, K tracked down the stuck rubber tip in a crevice and we put it back on.

We passed yet another waterfall and many streams. It was all very nice but we were tired, hot, and sweaty. About 10 minutes before the camp, Janet asked us if we wanted to take a shortcut that the guides usually take. K was ok with it, but there was the prospect of bugs in the bushes, so we went the normal way, which involved a downhill and another uphill before reaching the camp. Lunch was at 2:30 pm. Guess what time we arrived? 2:20 pm! Of course the fastest pair got there one hour before us, and the pair before us got there 30 minutes before we did. Oh well - we got rehydrated grape juice, that K thought tasted like medicine, and put our stuff down before washing our hands.

Lunch was lovely, and the best meal of each day. We had a fried empanada with chicken, soup with fava beans and Andean spinach (very thick, like wakame), Llama meat with potato sauce (the sauce tasted better than the llama, which tasted like tough beef), Fried rice (which we didn't have), and dried potatoes (very starchy).

fried empanada
Fried empanada
Meat and Potatoes
Meat and Potatoes. More specifically, llama meat.

After lunch, it was free time. Although we thought we were last to arrive in our own group, we saw others not in our group who arrived about an hour after we did (we had finished lunch and saw them just come in). There was no more hiking for the day since the third day would be another bright and early start and it would be the longest day. K and CL climbed back up to a bit of the trail to take photos, since we noticed many flowers and birds on the way down.

View of our second day's camp
View of our second night's camp Pacamayo (3,600m). The yellow tent is the kitchen tent

There were many more photos of the waterfall and streams and I'll link to the photo gallery once that is done.

Yellow Flower
One of many flowers.

White flower
This one was high up, which made it difficult to get a photo.

After our photo session, we came back to the tent to wipe down, change clothes, and add to our journal. Because our tent was next to the kitchen prep tent, we saw the porters start to prepare dinner.

Kitchen tent
Chopping boards on laps

It used to be that there were hot showers on the third night, but that place had since closed. As a result, there were a few people who were very excited to see cold showers in the toilet area of the camp. One woman (from another group) exclaimed that she'd rather be cold and clean than warm and dirty. Nobody from our camp did anything more than wade into the stream. The water was much too cold.

While we knew tea time (yes, tea time!) started at 5:30 pm, we got cold and headed over there a bit early. We had cookies and popcorn with the tea. The Norwegian couple (P and L) joined us next, and then most everyone else filed in. Then it got too dark, but it was not yet dinner time. Someone brought in the gas light (The same one from the night before, with parts of the moth still on it), and we played cards. Our half of the table learned a new game called Bazook aka 31. K got second place -- she tied with P on the last round, but owing to the rules of the game, he won because he had one more life.

The next game was Mafia, which CL and K learned when we were in college, and where people were crazy competitive about winning. One of the other people in the group learned in girl scouts, but everyone else was playing for the first time. I won't try to explain the rules of the game here, but basically, the object of the game was to identify the mafia out of the whole group through process of elimination, accusatory remarks, and plenty of lying. Most people treated it like a regular guessing game but CL was very vocal and tried to get everyone to be strategic. It didn't quite work, possibly because everyone was so tired. While in a normal game, the Mafia would take out someone so vocal, that's not what happened as the Mafia were not playing strategically. K was taken out early in the game because she had exclaimed about a spider dangling the tent, to which people probably thought she was trying to distract. But there really was a spider! In the end, we had a stalemate on who would be voted off (3 to 3) until someone finally changed her vote. The villagers won and the mafia lost, and we could finally all have dinner a little after 7 pm.

Dinner was.... Fava beans, noodle soup, and a Chifa dinner. Chifa is Peruvian Chinese food. In this case, we had fried rice (different from the lunch one), fried wonton in sweet and sour sauce, and a fried chicken roll with chinese vegetable in the middle. K didn't eat much because she doesn't really like adapted Chinese food for the most part. We then had tea.

Noodle soup
Noodle soup. We didn't take photos of the other food.

After dinner, we just wanted to go sleep. Everyone had said how cold it would be, so K brought air activated hand warmers but they weren't necessary. In fact, it really wasn't that cold. However, if you go during peak season, their winter/dry season, it can get below freezing. The guides said during their wake up calls in the dry season, they would sometimes see morning dew that had become ice, cracking apart when the tents were unzipped.

On the other hand, the ground was rocky and uncomfortable, despite our sleeping mats. At least this time, we set up the sleeping bags to not roll down the hill. However, K managed to keep rolling into C, who kept having to push her back.

At night, even though there were no chickens or dogs, there was an incessant chirping. It was so annoying and got stuck in our heads. It even continued into the morning. We thought it was some bird, but it turned out to be a frog. The only time it seemed to stop was around 4 am, when the pitter patter of rain started...