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wet feet, the inca road and a donkey

Setting off from Atillo into the hills, during a short break in the rain, my pack laden with food and camping gear I’m vaguely anxious. The way the locals direct me doesn’t match the route description I have photocopied from the guide book and there is absolutely no path to follow on the boggy wet ground. However, I don’t let my anxiety deter me. Off I go.

The way is pathless and uncertain...

... so I just keep heading up.

Sunlight and fog... the lack of visibility as the clouds draw in late in the afternoons doesn't help much with navigation. Eventually I camp on a hilltop somewhere with no idea where I am.

Morning brings a little more clarity and eventually the appearance of some major landmarks. According to my directions, I was supposed come over a pass and walk between the two lagunas in front of me. Oh, well! I try to approach the nearest lake with the idea of circumnavigating it and picking up the route but the going is extremely tough and I decide to abandon the plan in favour of heading straight to the nearby community of Osogoche.

After visiting Osogoche and supplementing my supplies with some hard-boiled eggs and bread, I climb the ridge on the west of the laguna...

... and I soon find myself on a featureless expanse of paramo. It is only the odd cowboy checking on cattle that helps me find my way...

... to the next series of lakes.

It's clear as the sun goes down and I scan the area trying to work out where to next. The instructions are vague...well... actually, the part recommending the use of topographical maps is pretty clear but I wasn't quite organised enough to get hold of them when I was in Quito.

I love this paramo plant in its various shades of pink, purple and red.

Morning sees me wandering the ups and extremely boggy downs of the paramo without a clue where I am. I am sitting on a hilltop in a sunny moment, drying out my tent and my feet, when another cowboy rides by. We both laugh uproariously at the ridiculous fact of my presence before he confirms that I am indeed lost. He airily waves his hand at a distant ridge indicating the direction of Achupallas. I am sort of heading in the right direction but without a proper map I have no way to follow the route suggested by the hiking guidebook. A road is just visible in the distance on the other side of several ridges but I am sorely tempted to walk away from it into wilder, rockier mountainous terrain. But the weather is uncertain and it seems a little foolhardy, so in the end I make sure that I don't lose sight of the road completely. Which turns out to be a good idea. In the afternoon, rain sets in, soon turning to sleet, and I still don't really have any idea where I am. I have a choice between descending a steep rocky gorge or crossing the rolling paramo towards the road. In the end, I decide that caution is probably the better part of valour and aim for the road. By the time I reach it it's almost dark, I'm freezing, and just about everything I own is soaked.

I pitch my wet tent in pouring rain and and get into my sleeping bag in my soggy clothing. The tent floor is swimming in water, my thermarest is wet and my pack, which doubles as my pillow is soaked. I try to keep the sleeping bag dry enough to fulfil its function of keeping me warm and therefore alive and contemplate the fact that maybe I'm really not very good at trekking. Morning reveals a circle of distant glaciated volcanoes and the rocky peaks and outcrops in closer proximity are sprinkled with snow. My stove has given up the ghost again so I pack up my wet camp and set off without coffee and only a handful of muesli for breakfast. The idea of walking on the road isn't particularly appealing but setting off into the wilderness without a map and a dodgy stove is now seeming a whole lot less like a good idea than it did a day or two ago.

After an hour or two I find a short cut through wheat fields and my spirits rise a little...

...but the clouds travelling up the valley soon envelop me, releasing their watery contents, as I rejoin the road over the other side of the ridge, and dampen my enthusiasm completely.

I am pretty pleased to see Achupallus after an all day walk on the road, often ankle deep in water, through relentless rain and hail and distinctly unwelcoming indigenous communities. However, Ines at Posada El Inganan quickly manages to restore my spirits with a long hot shower, a place to hang all my wet things, and the promise of dinner. While I am lounging about in my carefully hoarded set of dry thermals another cold wet walker arrives. Rich, it transpires, has walked all the way from the equator with Remedios, his donkey. Previously he, too, had been riding a bike but knee trouble inspired this perambulation. My grandmother kept a small herd of donkeys when I was a child and I have a great fondness for them so when I hear that Rich is planning on walking with Remedios to Ingapirca on the Inca Trail my flagging zeal for completing the walk is instantly rekindled.

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Reme has spent the night in a paddock next to beginning of the Inca Trail. She betrays little excitement about the prospect of another day as a beast of burden...

...but soon enough she is loaded up and we are on our way. The trail is looking pretty good for a road that is over a thousand years old.

On the other side of the valley there are a few examples of extreme agriculture.

Walking with a donkey turns out to be a slow business. It goes best with me leading Reme and Rich chivvying her from behind. She has an aversion to water and mud and uneven ground and requires a serious shove from behind on such treacherous terrain. At the end of the day she is compensated for such indignities with salted potatoes and alfalfa, followed by raw sugar which apparently has a soothing effect on donkeys.

Looks like she likes it.

Reme is not a beast to be unduly hurried. She takes her time to sniff out what's going on.

Without a lackadaisical donkey the walk could be done in two easy days but what with hauling and pushing and shoving a reluctant beast it stretches out into three. In many places the Inca Trail doesn't appear very different to any ordinary walking track but in places it is paved and over seven metres wide...

.. and on the second night we camp beside the ruins of a smallish structure that was built by the Incas.

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The third day finally brings us to Ingapirca, an impressive complex of Inca ruins next to a contemporary village. This area has something to do with Inca moon magic.

Mortars and pestle for grinding up ceremonial food.

The elliptical structure in the background is the main building. It precise use is not clear.

This functions as a calender of some description but it escapes me how it actually worked.

The temple/ ceremonial house.

Stones taken by the Spanish conquerors to build houses have since been returned to the site.

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The dry mortar-less walls are an impressive example of skilled Inca stone masonry.

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