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Travel story

The selfless porters of Machu Pichu

My recent trip to Peru began as a physical adventure but turned into a humanitarian journey.

My quest for Machu Pichu started in the Peruvian capital of Cusco. It’s here that you become acclimatized for the world famous hike, The Inca Trail. Cusco stands 3,300 metres, or 10,900 feet, above sea level. It’s a bustling town with narrow cobblestone streets, forceful but friendly vendors and welcoming smiles.

You may encounter numerous companies advertising The Inca Trail hike in Cusco. The most reputable company is SAS Travel. They sell a three night, four day, all inclusive package for $80 U.S. It includes transportation to the trailhead, three meals a day, guides and porters for the trek and most equipment. You will need to either rent or bring your own sleeping mat, sleeping bag, water purification tablets and appropriate clothing.

Day one of the adventure begins with pick up at 6 a.m. Prior to being dropped off at the trailhead, we stop in a small village to pick up our Porters. While we "tourists" ventured off to purchase final items, the guides negotiated prices with the line-up of potential porters. These porters are people of the mountains, usually farmers. Their communication is in Quechuan, a language that dates back to the Inca Empire.

At the trailhead, the expedition equipment and the packs from tourists requiring assistance are dispersed amongst the porters. To my surprise, they loaded their backs with 100 pound-plus packs with ease. I also couldn’t help but notice the way they were dressed: recycled rubber tires for shoes, T-shirts and cotton shorts. I did not seen any additional bags for their warmer clothes and basic necessities.

The first day was extremely hot. It was amazing to watch the porters sauntering up the trail effortlessly, wearing a smile ear to ear. Just as I began to make the assumption that the weather might remain this way for the entire trail, blue skies turned grey and a torrential downpour started. We "the tourists", dry in our Gore-Tex clothing, were served hot soup by men looking hypothermic. I asked myself, what is wrong with this picture?

After many hard hours of hiking in the rain, our first campsite appeared. Our tents were assembled, the smell of food filled the air and the private latrine was set up in a majestic setting overlooking the surrounding mountains. Fatigue set in and it wasn’t long after our meal that we all welcomed a much needed sleep.

Departing camp one the next day, we headed for the highest point on the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass, at 14,000 feet (4,200 m). On this day I decided to hike with the porters to learn more about them. I was saddened to hear that a porter had perished on such a pass due to the inclement weather. His poorly clad, bare body simply couldn’t endure the elements.

We hit the top of the pass and rested. From here, you can see the line of people ascending the mountain. As your group appears from the mist you shout words of encouragement. The celebration of the summit lasts only minutes as you eagerly head down to where temperatures are warmer and lunch awaits. After lunch there’s one more pass to conquer. The good news is that you have nearly reached the half-way point, where porters have been sent on days ahead to secure the best campsite for the group.

On our second evening, camp was perched on a muddy ledge. The porters had brought straw to accommodate this messy situation, making the mud much more bearable. Our latrine once again had an expansive view of the mountains and snow-capped peaks.

Day faded into night and we ate ravenously everything that was brought from the kitchen. After dinner, we crept into our tents and slid into our sleeping bags fully-clothed, with an extra llama wool blanket to ward off the cold.

As the days and miles progressed, we hiked past serene lakes, lush forests and many archaeological sites. We pressed on to our final night before our journey’s climax: Machu Pichu.

That last evening was quite a party. The local drink is Pisco Sour, similar to a margarita but twice as potent. Tales and laughs are exchanged with fellow travellers and porters before staggering to bed for a good night’s sleep.

Excitement fills the camp at about 4 a.m. the next day, when we start our journey to the Temple of the Sun to get our first glimpse of the Lost City of Machu Pichu. I took a few quiet moments to enjoy the sun rays passing through the Temple, illuminating the ruins below that are the mystery and the marvel of the Inca Kingdom.

I have seen many photographs of this place, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. This trip is filled with spectacular scenery, unbelievable stories and spiritual awakenings.

Andrea has been a bike/hike guide for 10 years. Her experiences on The Inca Trail have inspired her to aid the Peruvian porters. A slideshow of the magical places and people of Peru will help raise funds for appropriate clothing and equipment. Show time is 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31 st at the Westin Hotel. Donations of new or gently used items such as Gore-Tex pants, jackets, fleece, boots, sleeping bags are also appreciated. Call 938-3540 for more information.