Here we are, just 76 days from setting off on the Inca Trail, and we have successfully completed our first major tests of hiking at altitude. The results were mostly positive, but also quite sobering. I think at the moment we both feel that we can probably do this, but it is going to be, pardon the pun, an uphill struggle.
We began this new phase just four days ago on Friday. For me, the day did not start auspiciously. I woke up with a sore throat, a little congestion, a slight fever, and the realization I had probably just caught whatever it was that Rita had almost shaken off. Great timing. I took a Claritin, some ibuprofen, and mostly tried to ignore it.
So we were on our way, starting with a flight to Quito. Since we arrived in the late afternoon, we spent the night at a hotel next to the airport, and started our acclimation phase. The airport is slightly lower than most of Quito, but still we were at 7800 feet – an impressive gain over our usual sea level existence. Neither of us felt any difficulty breathing (except for my damn sniffles), and when we checked our O2 levels with our handy-dandy tester, we were still in the low 90’s range, which is fine.
Saturday morning, we were up early to pick up our rental car, and on our way to the markets of Otavalo. There we walked around the markets for a couple of hours, racking up about two miles of gentle strolling at 8300 feet.
Otavalo is a beautiful place to visit, and if you like open-air markets, you really need to check it out sometime. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, the vendors are out covering at least 20 blocks of the downtown streets, with everything you can possibly need or want. Hand crafted items, brand name clothing, musical instruments, live animals, produce, seafood, meats, and more.
After a few hours, with a boss new hat that I bought at one of the stands, we got back in the car and continued on to Cotacachi, our home for the next few nights. We checked into our favorite place there, La Cuadra. This is a family-run hostal, where the owner, Señor Jairo Gomez, really goes out of his way to make your visit pleasant and comfortable. The coffee in the attached café where you get your included breakfast is also fabulous.
It was a pretty casual and relaxed day. All we did after checking in was walk out for lunch, relax a bit, and take another 2-mile walk before dinner. We were still following our plan of allowing some acclimating time, and Cotacachi still keeps us above the 8,000 feet level. We still felt fine, no signs of high altitude stress or problems.
Sunday we kicked it up a notch, taking a day trip to explore around Otavalo and Lago San Pablo. We started with the Cascada de Peguche, just outside of Otavalo.
This is a very charming park, not too far off the Pan American highway, and the roads only get truly “interesting” in the last few hundred meters. The waterfall is in the indigenous comuna named “Fakcha Llakta”, and they have turned it into a very successful tourist site.
You pay $1 a carload to enter and park. There is a square with some food and souvenir stands, then you go through an stone archway and into the next section. Here there are more vendors lined up, offering things as trivial as knitted finger puppets, to as essential as mosquito repellent (dense and beautiful foliage here, you will want some kind of insect repellent). A brief stop at the baños ( 20 cents ), a walk through of an Incan solar calendar, and we were ready to register at the entrance to the park itself, and drop another $1 each for the entrance fee.
The main trail is a wide and easily walkable stone path, with moss-covered stone walls on either side. Already you can hear the waterfall, but the acres of lush forest keep it hidden. We chose to divert from the main trail, and take a smaller path through the woods that led first down to a lightly swinging foot bridge that ran over a stream on the valley floor.
On the other side of the bridge, things were looking up – literally. Here the path started upwards again, and soon became a set of stairs made of earth and timber. We were happy we had been practicing stairs for the last few weeks, and also sorry that we had not thought to bring our hiking poles with us.
Signs soon told us we were on our way to the top of the falls. Along the way, we had terrific views of the other trail to the base. You can also see where they are raising trout and tilapia, and a small village re-creation. We also discovered a small cave, and another place serving food next to an Incan Museum.
What we were also happy to find was that we were not winded or tired at all when we got to the top. We didn’t count the stairs, but according to my Altimeter app, we had climbed about 400 feet. That’s about 50% higher than El Morro back home. We checked our O2 levels again to be sure, and we were still in the low 90’s.
The view from the top was great, and we didn’t even break a sweat heading back down. After a stop to get our pictures taken with a pair of llamas (another $1 each, but what the hell), we walked up near the base of the falls, then to a more traditional wooden bridge across the river for a less waterspray-soaked view.
We took our time walking back, exploring some of the trails and visiting the camping area before arriving back to the car. We headed off to lunch at a resort on the opposite shore of Lago San Pablo, where we relaxed, enjoyed the view, and tried not to act too cocky. We knew it was not much, but still it was nice to think that just six months ago, it would have been much harder for us. At this point, we were feeling pretty good about our training.
We finished the day off by returning to our room to pack our backpacks for the Main Event, Monday’s hike around the crater lake of Cuicocha. We took a shorter walk around town that evening before dinner, and then came back to get a good night’s rest.
And failed miserably.
Neither one of us slept very well. We were both a little excited and nervous about the coming hike. The route is almost 8 miles, and can take 5-7 hours to complete. We would be starting out at 10,000 feet, and getting up over 11,000 in some spots. Once you get a mile or two in, there’s no quick way to get out or to get help. On our hikes at home, we could always wave down a cab or even hop on a bus if we needed to. This would be the closest simulation to the Inca Trail hike we have tried so far.
Rita told me the next day she had mini-anxiety dreams about the hike, and I was congested and running a bit of a fever with a sore throat, so I didn’t sleep much either. But not to be deterred, we were up in time for breakfast and some more delicious coffee, and on the road to the park by 8:30am.
At 9:15am we parked by the Visitor’s Center, and took one last bathroom break before we strapped on our packs. I checked my altimeter, and sure enough, it read 10,075 feet. We tested our O2 levels again, and started up the stone steps of the trail at 9:30am.
The first section is a short quarter mile or so that most tourists do when they come to see the lake. It has some displays every once and a while, and some places where you can get great pictures of the lake and the two small islands which give it it’s name (they are supposed to look like two small guinea pigs). You also have some pretty nice views looking out the other way at the landscape to the east.
Soon we were at the ranger station where the hiking trail begins. I popped into the station to ask if we needed to register, but the ranger just gave me a shrug and a wave. Kind of “it’s your funeral” kind of thing.
With that blessing, we were off and climbing. In the first section, the path and steps follow right along the ridge wall. We paused frequently, but mostly to take pictures. Every time we got to a place that leveled off a bit, we would check the altitude and our O2 levels. All signs were good. Our legs were fine, our blood oxygen was upper 80’s or low 90’s for the most part, and although I had to keep blowing my nose, my throat was no longer hurting and I had no fever. We were feeling fine and enjoying the scenery.
Onward and upward, over trail and steps, we continued to climb. Through 10,400 feet, where the trail slipped around a rather steep peak taking us temporarily away from the lake, much to our short-lived delight. Short-lived, because the trail still trended upwards, alternating relatively level sections with inclines and sections of stairs. By the time we were comin’ round the mountain where we could see the lake again, we were getting close to 11,000 feet.
The good news was that our legs were still doing fine, no issues with our feet, and we were not experiencing any altitude sickness. Sure, after a set of stairs we would pause to breathe deeply for a few seconds and take a drink of water, but we felt good!
We were in the groove now, and moving along just fine. The trail still ran mostly upwards, and in this section we hit our highest mark of 11,383 feet. We could now see to shelters up ahead, and as it was getting close to noon and almost the halfway point of 4 miles, we stopped at the first one for our packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
We only took about 15 minutes for lunch, as it looked like it was getting a little darker and cloudier to the east. We could move a little faster now, as most of the trail was now trending downhill. Over the next half hour, we gave up most of out hard-earned altitude as the trail winded down almost back to our starting altitude.
We had mixed feeling about that. On the one hand, it was a welcome change to be going down steps and trails. But we couldn’t help but wonder how much of that altitude we would have to reclaim before the trail got us back to the starting point.
Sure enough, we started hitting sections that would climb for a while, level off or go down a bit, only to climb yet again. It was in this section, about 5 miles in, that I started needing to pause to catch my breath more often. Part of it was my ever-runny nose, but most of it was I still need to lose 20-30 pounds.
So we were slowing down, but still plugging along. We were getting a little annoyed that the trail seemed to meander a bit, taking us away from the lake once and a while, but we were making it.
Then things got a little more interesting. First, we both ran out of water in our Hydration Packs. I still had a water bottle, but Rita wisely did not want any of my germs, and I was reluctant to drink water when she was out. Second, we started hearing thunder. When our path would take us up where we could see the lake again, we could see that it was definitely raining in Cotacachi, and heading this way. Soon, we could see the rain had reached the far rim of the crater, and we could see the lightening that was causing all of that thunder.
We estimated we were still about two miles from the end of the trail. We were passing some farms on the edge of the parkland now, so we found some stumps we could sit on, and quickly changed into bad weather mode. This means putting on our rain pants (designed to be taken on and off without removing boots), getting out our rain jackets, putting the cameras and anything else to keep dry into the packs, and then putting the rain covers over the packs.
Although this was our first weather gear change, we did it pretty smoothly and quickly. We were putting our protected packs back on just as the first drops started falling.
Now began an interesting adventure. Fortunately things were pretty level in this section, but we were doing a fast walk along the trail as rain poured down. Every once and a while, to keep things lively, lightning would strike somewhere close enough that the thunder was right on top of the flash.
I slipped in the mud going down a hill once and went down on my left knee and side, but fortunately I did not injure myself. Getting up reminded me of the first time I tried to get up wearing skis, but with Rita’s help and my trusty hiking poles, we were on our way again.
Mother nature started easing up on us a bit, but then the local farmers started throwing in obstacles. In two different places, farmers had placed barbed wire across the clearly marked hiking trail to keep their cattle in their fields. At the first one we were able to push it down with our poles low enough to step over, but the second was trickier. There we had to take off our packs, set them over the fence, then lay flat on the ground and roll under the wire.
At least it had stopped raining by then, but the grass was pretty soaked. But of course, so were we. However, I’m happy to say that inside all of those wet clothes, we were still dry. Our rain gear was protecting us as it should, and our boots were keeping our feet dry and warm.
By this time we were pretty tired of it all, and we had had enough drama, thank you. So it was a relief to see the boat dock area up ahead, which we knew was just a hundred meters or so from where our car was parked.The trail of course took a roundabout way of getting there, and there were some pretty muddy down-slopes to contend with, but finally, we emerged victorious onto paved road, and walked the short distance up to our car, completing the circuit at 4pm, six and a half hours and 7.84 miles after we started.
We ate our backup peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the drive home and got back to the hostal exhausted, but glad we had managed the hike. We took off the wet and muddy clothes, and took much needed hot showers.
I however was still cold, even in the shower. I soon realized why – my fever was back, with a vengeance. I was throwing off heat, and could only get warm under my sleeping bag. If I got out, say to use the bathroom, I would shiver violently until I was back under covers.
Rita was not sick, but was happy to call it a night and stretch out in bed. I took the last of my ibuprofen, and somewhere around 9pm the fever broke, and I was able to get some sleep.
We had planned to do a 2-3 hour hike at Fuya Fuya this morning, but it rained all last night and most of today. Frankly, we were happy to have the excuse to just relax a bit today.
So what did we learn? Well, on the positive side, all of our gear and clothing works as expected. We were able to hike through a variety of terrains and conditions, and went from having to take off our rain pants because it was too warm, to having to change back into them quickly as the storm came up. Very important also, we did not experience any problems with the altitude, spending most of the day between 10,000 – 11,000 feet, peaking at 11,383. We were both able to get up this morning without any lingering aches and pains (although when we walked up some stairs today to take some pictures from the roof, you could here our legs say “not this shit again!”).
On the down side, this little trial run has brought home the fact that the Inca Trail is going to be hard! I mean, we knew it would be difficult – that’s why we started training for it almost a year ago. But shit! This is going to be really hard! We tried to imagine if we had finished the hike today and came home to a tent in a field at 10,000 feet, with no hot water shower and a sleeping bag on an air mattress on the ground to welcome us. Imagine struggling to get the wet clothes off and do something with them in the tent, then go to bed that night knowing you will get up before dawn to do it again! And this will go on for four days.
I have to say though, that overall we are cautiously optimistic. After all, we had no problem with altitude, and our stair climbing back at home is definitely paying off on the leg muscles, so we will keep that up and even accelerate it a bit. We learned some things about how our gear works, and learned what things we should keep handy and easy to get to on the trail. I personally learned that I do need to get my weight down to at least 200 pounds, 190 if possible, by the time we start the Inca Trail. I think it was carrying the extra weight that made the second half of the trail so much more of an effort for me. Lastly, I managed to do this while I’m fighting some kind of illness! So I have to believe that a healthy me. weighing 20+ pounds less, has to have a decent shot.
Tomorrow we head south to the village of Chugchilán, near Lago Quilotoa. The Inn where we are staying for the next four nights is at 10,500 feet, and the lake trails start at 12,000 feet. I’m feeling better, no sore throat, very little congestion, and I picked up more ibuprofen, so by the time we start our next serious hikes on Thursday morning, it should be a whole new ballgame.
Stay tuned …