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Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Inca Trail - Peru

I am still reflecting on a recent trip to Peru to walk the Inca Trail.  I wondered what the effect of altitude would be and had a sharp introduction when I carried a rucksack up a flight of stairs in Cusco (alt. 3400m).  The shortness of breath was profound.  I had taken a pair of running shoes and shorts because I like to run in each location I visit but, for once, wisdom prevailed and I opted to spend the day there in gentle acclimatization.  Even if the altitude hadn’t affected my breathing the narrow, busy street filled with dust and fumes made the thought of deep breathing unattractive.

Inca stonework ~ extraordinary

The acclimatization continued with a day touring the sites of The Sacred Valley and then we began the trek proper from the checkpoint at Km 82.  We (Gina and myself along with our friend, Sue)  were in a group of 16 with 3 Kiwi lads, an Aussie girl and her teaching friend who came from England, two girls from Sweden, two more girls from Denmark, another girl from the US and yet another from Scotland.  Finally, there were a mother (Angela) and daughter from Canada.
The group were mainly younger people with everyone except Gina, Sue and Angela at about half my age or less.
The altitude (we reached  maximum height of 4219m) had different effects on different people.  I was short of breath if I made an effort but otherwise was unaffected; others had significant and debilitating responses.  We were hugely assisted by our team of extraordinary local porters and our guides had great mountaincraft, they also had oxygen to assist extreme cases combined with the use of local remedies.
Gina, me and Sue with our indefatigable guide,
Roger, giving the llama sign
We all completed the trek...GI problems affected some of the group and Gina had a tough last day but the sight of Machu Picchu, so much more enthralling when it opens out in front of you than in all the photographs, made the trip so worthwhile; let alone the myriad other experiences during our week in Peru.
I was intrigued as to whether the effects of being at altitude would enhance my running on return to the UK but any benefits were lost, I fear, to a 31 hour journey home.  That said, I feel strong at the moment.
The trek is over a distance similar to the marathon and so it was no surprise that a local porter had, reportedly, covered the distance in less than 4 surprise but very considerable admiration.  The elevations and descents are substantial and the footing very uneven at times but it is, of course, the effects of altitude that make this feat seem so improbable to those visiting the Inca Trail. 
Assistant Guide, Roddy, preparing coca leaves
for our ceremony to the mountains
I had one  moment when I had to ask myself a question about my skepticism.  Our main guide, Roger, was very knowledgeable about Inca and pre-Inca history.  He also had a great love and respect for the mountains and nature that were supported by his Inca beliefs.  Early on the first day of the trek he asked us all to take part in a very simple ceremony where we blew over three coca leaves, held in a fan shape to represent the mountain peaks, four times, facing four sets of mountains.  We then had to place the three leaves under a small rock and silently ask the mountains to take care of us.  Although I have no belief that the mountains can have any direct influence over my life I do have a great delight in wild and open spaces.  To argue against Roger’s request would, I felt, have seemed disrespectful and difficult to explain given some language limitations.  I was also entirely happy to take a moment in silence to just remember what a privilege it was for me to be in someone else’s land and under their guidance so I participated in the ceremony willingly.  I guess I’m not a very militant skeptic.