Traveller's tale 1. Inca Trail
THE INCA TRAIL
Walked by thousands every year, the Inca Trail is the most famous hike in South America, and one of the best in the world. 26 miles long, it passes through beautiful mountain scenery and cloud forest with long stretches of Inca paving stones under foot. Hikers either get to the start by taking a vehicle to the road end at km 82, or get off the train at km 88 on the railway line to Machu Picchu.
When I was a tour leader with Journey Latin America in the 1980’s I did this trek more than 10 times, and another two or three times without the responsibilities of leadership. Back then you could hike it independently, without guides and permits, but now there are quotas and restrictions to try and deal with the growth of tourist numbers. Only 500 permits are issued per day – about 200 for trekkers and the rest for porters, guides and cooks. You get three hot meals a day, your pack carried, and the tents are set up before you reach camp, but I still think I’d rather eat dehydrated food and carry my own gear, and save at least $600 as well.
Tour leaders were encouraged to save the company money by using the black market as much as possible. The unofficial exchange rate was sometimes double the official one, and as we paid for transport, hotels and most of the excursions over a two month period big savings could be made. We therefore carried many thousands of dollars in cash, hidden in waist money belts, pouches that hung from the neck inside the clothing, and in elasticated bandages on legs and arms. Peru was notorious for theft, and on every tour at least one member of our group lost something: a backpack, a camera, a wallet picked. The thieves were good, but violence was rare.
Getting off the train, and leaving the Urubamba river we headed up through humid woodlands to the bare mountainside of Llulluchupampa, where we made our first camp. I made sure all my clients had all their gear stashed inside the tent, because I remembered one morning the year before when 6 hikers had their boots (their only footwear) stolen here in the night.
The next morning we climbed for a couple of hours up the hardest section of the whole trail to ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ or Warmiwanusca at 4200 metres, sucking at the thin air, pressed down by our packs, before flopping down on the damp grass at the top. Unfortunately mist had obscured the views and reduced visibility to 50 meters. I flopped back and worsened my oxygen deprivation by puffing on a cigarette, which was the silly sort of thing I did back then. Two more small groups were sitting nearby, and I heard American accents and French, chatting cheerfully. I closed my eyes and contemplated a little nap. At least there was little wind. Sometimes it could make any lingering on this pass unthinkable.
‘Hey, he’s got a gun!’ I heard an American say, and one of my group nudged me urgently.
Sitting up I saw a skinny Peruvian, wearing a poncho, threadbare trousers, a woollen hat with ear flaps and with a bandana over the lower part of his face. True enough he was waving a gun in our direction.
‘Dame su dinero!’ he shouted. ‘Money! Cameras! Rápido, quédase quietos!’
‘There’s another one behind us!’ and sure enough this one had a large knife that he swished menacingly.
My first thought was whether I could hide any of my cash by unbuckling a belt and sliding it under a rock or something. Sorry tour company, but I wasn’t going to risk my life fighting them off, and I suspected the thieves would frisk us.
‘You can fuck off,’ drawled an American voice, and our heads all swivelled to observe this rather ordinary middle-aged hiker, who sat reclined against a boulder, seemingly without a care. ‘I’m not giving you arseholes a fucking cent,’ he added
‘Qué dice?’ said the gunman, stepping closer. ‘ Speak Spanish gringo. Hablé español.’ I could see that ‘money’ and ‘camera’ and ‘speak Spanish’ had taken him to the limits of his English.
‘Who speaks Spanish here?’ asked the American.
I foolishly nodded.
‘Well tell the little wet-back spic that he can fuck off.’
The gunman turned to me, the gun swivelling with him. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the knife man was less than 10 meters away.
I gave a very approximate translation that went something like ‘He says that he’s not giving you any money, so why don’t you leave us in peace?’
‘Well you tell him that he will be the first to die.’
‘He says he will kill you first,’ I told the American.
He just threw his head back and laughed. What was it with him? I remember passing him on the ascent, and he’d been slumped on a patch of grass, and his wife had asked me how much further it was to the top. He was stocky, but sort of intellectual in appearance with wired glasses and an expensive haircut, and I doubted that hiking like this, or being held at gunpoint was a regular occurrence for him. His wife and two children seemed surprised at his behaviour too.
At this altitude his brain was getting about 40% less oxygen than it would at sea level, and maybe hypoxia could explain his recklessness, because there was no stopping him. Slightly glassy-eyed, and seemingly sprawled out in exhaustion, his voice was nevertheless strong and defiant.
‘Well you can tell the little weasel that even if he shoots me I’ll still have time to rip his fucking head off, and cut his dick off.’
The Peruvians were waiting for my translation.
Oh, what the hell. ‘He says that even if you shoot him he will still have time to rip your head off, and take your friend’s knife and cut your balls off.’ I thought balls were likely to be even more sacred than dicks in the macho Latin world.
I was merely the translator, so it was becoming enjoyable in a scary way. However ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ has entered the lexicon for a reason.
‘Stop provoking him!’ cried a girl in my group, and the French hikers nodded in agreement. Even the guy’s wife grabbed his arm and whispered angrily.
One right-on French guy even berated him for his use of racist phrases and insults, but that argument lost some sympathy when the victims of the racial slurs were threatening to rob and kill us.
‘It’s not worth getting shot for!’ shouted one guy.
Most certainly not.
I sneaked a hand under my belt and fumbled with the buckle of my money pouch. That held over $2000 and I might be able to hide it, but my hand froze when the gunman strode close to me. His eyes were flashing angrily above his bandana, and from close up I could see he was young. Early 20’s maybe, and getting nervous and agitated. His robbery wasn’t going to plan.
‘Give me your money, you sons of bitches, and I won’t have to shoot anyone! Translate! You better start taking us seriously or you will die.’
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘Maybe it’s not a good idea to wind him up any more? He’s getting a bit jumpy.’
‘What’s the matter with you all?’ shouted the American. ‘You going to let these two punks rob you? They’re kids, and I can tell that they won’t shoot anybody. It’s just bluster. Stand up for yourselves!’
‘Qué dice? Qué dice?’
‘What do you want me to tell them?’ I asked the American.
‘Tell them that they should leave now before they get hurt. If they do we’ll forgive them.’
I translated that word for word.
‘You’ll forgive US!?’ shouted the gunman with a mirthless snort. ‘You won’t be able to forgive anyone when you’ve got a bullet in each of your fucking heads!’ He was trembling with anger, spinning around and pointing the gun at everyone.
‘You seem to be the trouble maker,’ he said, walking up to the American. ‘Translate!’
‘So if I kill you I think everyone else will learn the lesson and do as I FUCKING WELL SAY!!’
He stepped up to the American and held the pistol a foot from his head. His wife and children whispered urgently to him, their faces terrified.
I felt a stirring of relief. It was time for him to back down, cool the tensions and for us to hand over some money. The clip on my money belt opened with a click that I thought echoed around the mountains, and I hoped that when I stood up it would slide down inside my trouser leg and escape detection.
‘Tell the arsehole that I don’t think his gun is real.’
‘What? Oh come on! This is getting crazy.’
‘I think he’s got a replica gun. Tell him that.’
I sighed. ‘He thinks your gun isn’t real. That it’s a fake.’
Even the gunman raised his arms to the sky in disbelief.
‘Just shoot the fucker,’ urged the knifeman from behind us.
‘The guy with the knife has urged him to shoot you,’ I warned.
‘No. That gun’s definitely a fake. I’m sure of it.’
The gunman was pacing around ranting and swearing in a frenzy that didn’t need translating.
He walked past us all shouting in our faces.
‘You think you can make us look stupid, and laugh at us, and get away with it. That bastard is going to get you all killed because we’ve had enough!’
I translated and appealed for a bit of common sense. Nearly everyone else on that exposed mountain pass was crying out for the American to drop his provocation and be conciliatory.
‘Well, they’re not having my money. Tell him that I bet they are not real bullets in that gun. It’s either unloaded or they are blanks. Tell him!’
“He says your gun isn’t loaded or the bullets are ..’ I didn’t know the Spanish for blanks, ‘..aren’t real.’
‘Oh yeah? Does he? Then I’ll show him.’
Then he did something stupid. Instead of proving it by shooting over our heads, or the American between the eyes, he tipped all the bullets from the revolver into the palm of his hand, held one up between finger and thumb and said.
‘And what does he think this is?’
But by then several of us had seen our chance and raced forwards with walking sticks raised, and both of the would-be robbers were last seen scampering down the trail into the mist pursued by a hail of rocks.
The American had earned the right to be a bit smug, I suppose.
‘There! I told you that they were cheap street hustlers and little Latino punks. You guys would have just handed everything over to them, though! What a bunch of pansies and cowards.’
It hadn’t been our finest hour, admittedly, but his wife had the final word.
She had tears running down her cheeks, and she stepped up and slapped him hard on the face.
‘What the hell came over you? You could have got us all killed, playing your tough-guy games! We left nearly all our money at the hotel in Cuzco so the most we would have had to hand over was a couple of hundred bucks. And for that you’d risk your family?’ She slapped him again, then shook her head in disbelief.
‘You’re an advertising executive Jim, but suddenly you think you can act like a gangster?’
My group and I shouldered our backpacks, and shuffled away, leaving them to it.