After a couple relaxing days in Cusco it was finally time to start our 4-day Inca Trail hike. We had a terrible sleep after 8 of our roommates decided to party in our room until 1:00am. Our alarm went off a couple hours later at quarter to 5 and I wanted to die… Good start. We caught our bus without a hitch, picked up the rest of the group and set out towards kilometer 82: the start of our trek. At our breakfast stop in Ollantaytambo is where we first met the rest of our Inca group. There were 16 of us in total; We had a an amazing group of British, Australian, French, Russian and Canadians and even after 4 grueling days of hiking we all got along famously! Everyone spent some time after breakfast buying last minute essentials for the trip: walking sticks, snacks, coca leaves and much needed rain ponchos. Then we drove off to the starting point.
Day one was a relatively easy hike. We trekked from Kilometer 82 to our campsite in Wayllabamba along rolling hills for a total of 12km. We stopped frequently for breaks, lunch and to get a brief history about various Inca ruins and the trail itself. The Inca trail is actually only 43km long, but, it goes up and down over high mountain passes that reach up to 4200m in altitude; that’s why it takes 4 days to hike. And although we stopped occasionally, I can’t imagine hiking it in less time. Turns out, there are actually Inca trail “runs” and “races” that go on during the month of September. Our guide Cesar is actually going to lead one of the runs this year. He and his group will do the ENTIRE trail in 8 hours. When we were told about that, it seemed crazy. After finishing the hike, it seems IMPOSSIBLE! But that’s not even the craziest part: during the Inca trail races they have professional trail runners compete against the local porters for the fastest time. The porters aren’t racers. They are simple farmers that contract themselves out to carry all our things for 4 days in order to support their families back home. The fastest professional runner finished the trail in an unbelievable 5hours! The fastest porter kicked his ass and did it in 3.
The porters are unbelievable! For our group of 16, we had 22 porters and 2 guides. Everyday the porters would race ahead of us, carrying 25kilos of various supplies on their backs: tents, food, garbage, propane, etc. at our lunch checkpoint each day they would greet us with smiles and a warm round of applause for each one of us as we walked into camp. They served us sweet juice right away, then, hot tea. Afterwards lunch was served. This was no ordinary camping; each meal was a three course, 5-star, home cooked meal! We had gourmet appetizers, hot soup, and a full-fledged main course. Sometimes even dessert! On our first evening the chef came in and had banana flambés for each person! We had pizza, fish, fresh salads, beef, and even a baked cake for Rachel’s birthday on the last night. These cooks were really something special. It would be a difficult enough task for two people to cook a hot, 3-course meal for 16 people in a kitchen at home. These two chefs did it while camping! Props to them!
When lunch was over, our group continued on the hike. The porters stayed behind, washed dishes, took down tents, packed up, and raced ahead of us again to have everything prepared for dinner. They were incredible! It is now a law that no porter may carry more than 25kilos on his back at a time. Before this rule went into effect, some men would carry 40, 50 or even 60 kilos of supplies at a time. I have no idea how they managed. Even at 25kilos I would have collapsed on the steeper hills. One porter from the GAP tour group was 69 years old and still pulling his weight. He’d been doing the job, 4 times a month for the past 7 years. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about these men who risk their bodies everyday in dedication to their work.
As I said, day one was very enjoyable. We strolled into lunch as a group, were greeted by a round of applause, and sat down to a delicious meal. Adam got jumped by a chicken that was roaming around under the table looking for scraps and I nearly spat out my tea I was laughing so hard. It came straight up between his legs, jumped towards his face, and stole the garlic bread right out of his hands. This was going to be an awesome day…
The scenery on the way was breathtaking! It sprinkled here and there during the day, but it was nice to keep the temperature down and to not get a sunburn on the first day. We had beautiful views of the Urubamba mountain range, stopped at a few Incan sites and learned a lot about the history of the Incas. A British Archaeologist named Haram Bingham discovered the whole area, including Machu Picchu itself. Although many more improvements have been made since his discovery in 1911, he is the reason so many people hike the Inca trail today. Bingham discovered numerous settlements along the way, all of which gave great insight into the lives of the Incans. The Inca people were a warrior race. They conquered tribes and set up fortresses in order to become the strongest empire around. They captured nations according to their skills. The Nazcan people were used for their knowledge of astronomy; the people that lived deep in the Amazon jungle were used for their medicinal purposes, etc etc. Before long, the Incans were masters at nearly every art. And then the Spanish came.
The Spanish introduced westernized culture and religion into the Incan empire. Those who were against the change were tortured or killed. They also brought influenza and diseases that were foreign to the Incan people. This caused thousands of Incan warriors to die. Each village that was discovered by the Spanish people was changed through cultural transformation and widespread disease… But Machu Picchu was never found. The city was built in the hills, often shrouded in mist and clouds, and a number of false Inca trails were created to lead the Spanish armies astray. On top of that, Machu Picchu was not a common city. It was a sacred sanctuary for the ruling family and special priests. Common Incans did not know the location of the city, and so, they were unable to give hints to the Spanish armies. The men that traveled the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu were messengers and amazing trail runners. These men ran on foot for days at end to pass messages from village to village. They ran up steep hills and along mountain summits at insane speeds, and always beat the Spanish army that traveled by horseback. Where the Spanish took 7 days in their journey from Ecuador to Cusco on horseback, the Incan runners would make it in 5: entirely by foot. (Just as some perspective… This is how many days it took our BUS to do the same trip with the protests).
Needless to say, it still took us 4 days to hike the 43kilometers along the trail… After a nights sleep, camping out in tents in Wayllabamba, we were woken bright and early at 6am. Aldo, our guide-in-training, woke each of us up, with a couple of porters offering hot tea and coffee. What an amazing way to wake up. My standards of camping have just jumped up significantly. We packed our things and sat down to a big breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt, a quinoa and cinnamon porridge and a pancake with dulce de leche. Then of course, more hot tea. We needed to stuff ourselves in order to prepare for day 2 of hiking.
Day two is infamous for being the most difficult day of the hike. The first 5 hours is completely uphill. Giant steps, massive hills and climbing to our highest peak of 4200m altitude. To get our energy up, Cesar taught us how to properly chew coca leaves. The coca leaves helped with a number of ailments: altitude sickness, fatigue, breathing difficulties, and if chewed and rubbed on the body, also with joint pain. What a miracle plant! We chewed up a few leaves with a small amount of charcoal for a couple of minutes until our mouths went tingly and numb. Then, after spitting out the dark green mess, we rolled a tiny piece of charcoal on a ball of leaves and left it in our bottom lip for a couple hours of hiking. The stuff really worked!! For the whole hike my breathing never became rapid or hoarse. Even on the steepest inclines I breathed slowly and steadily and found myself much more energized than usual. After our coca demonstration we started the hike. Uphill we went, in the cold morning, and in the drizzling weather.
The rain was not ideal, but it could have been a lot worse. The trail was partially in the trees so the rain wasn’t a huge problem. The hike was tough, I can’t deny that, but compared to what I was expecting it really wasn’t that bad. We picked a pace, stuck with it, and never looked up and how much further we had to go. I honestly though I was going to have a rough day, but I made it up to the 4200m summit in amazing time, just behind Adam and Rodrigue, about 45 minutes faster than our guide had anticipated! I was pretty proud of myself. I suppose I had expected much worse, but after hiking the Grouse Grind at home, this was not much more difficult.
When we arrived at the top, there was zero view. Rain clouds covered the valley and the fog made it impossible to see much farther than 100m or so. But we waited and cheered on the rest of the group as they each made it to the height of the pass! When everyone arrived we were lucky enough to have a break in the rain, and got a group family photo of us all at the top! From there it was all downhill…
Apparently I’m not as big a fan of downhill as I am uphill. Who knew! Good thing the rest of the 3-day hike was almost entirely downhill. The stairs were steep and uneven, and it was a lot of pressure on the knees. After an hour of descent, my toes began to get blisters from ramming into the fronts of my shoes. The only thing that was easier was breathing. Most of the time you had to walk sideways down the steps because they weren’t wide enough otherwise. After a while, even slight downward slopes were uncomfortable on my joints. But it was only 2 hours to the camp, and we arrived at our final campsite by lunchtime, which was very nice. It gave us a good afternoon to relax our tired bodies for the next day of hiking. When we arrived, I immediately stretched my legs, assuming they would be a little sore the next day. When everyone else arrived, we ate another wonderful lunch, had some down time, an early dinner and then a VERY early bedtime.
When the sun went down, the camp sight was FREEZING! I wore every layer I had and was still shivering. Luckily our sleeping bags were wonderful and so we all just called it a night early and went to sleep. Night two’s sleep was uncomfortable. The sleeping mat might as well have been the hard ground, and every angle I tried left me in agonizing pain. I tossed and turned, not wanting to leave the sleeping bag to sit up for fear of the cold. By the time Aldo woke us up at 5:30am to start the morning I was exhausted. Not even Coca tea helped. But the worst part was my legs wouldn’t move. My quads were complete jelly from the day before. Stretching obviously didn’t help. I had to use Adam as a crutch just to stand up, and even then it took about 5 minutes for my legs to warm up enough to stop my shaking muscles. Uphill was fine! I had no problem walking UP the hill to breakfast, but walking DOWN the hill to the bathroom was a different story. For those people who say day 2 is the hardest, they are wrong. Day 3 was my nemesis…
We started hiking by 6:20 and went uphill. We had another peak to climb to before everything else was downhill again. I limped along for a few minutes before warming up enough to not be in pain. Then it rained. We hiked up steep stairs in an icy rain that came at you from all angles. No matter which way you turned it was blowing in your face. The wind spun around in circles, chilling me to the bone, even with all my layers on. One of our activities of the day was to make an offering to Mother Earth at the top of the second pass. We each carried a rock up the mountain, and then, waited for everyone to arrive to make the ceremony. This was the low point of my trip… I couldn’t feel my hands from the wind and rain. Sweat and water ran down my face, into my eyes, and no part of my body was dry enough to wipe it off. My running shoes were soaked, and every step I took I could feel my waterlogged socks slosh around. I stood shivering at the top of the pass for 15 minutes waiting for the last of us to arrive. With so many groups all moving at once, the line was slow, and it took longer for everyone to reach the summit. When the time arrived, we all just put our rocks in a big pile and that was it. Not impressed. If we had just kept walking we would have been A. Warmer and B. 20 minutes closer to our final destination.
Today’s hike consisted of 11 hours of hiking, I did NOT want to waste time standing in the rain. I put on the alpaca gloves I bought in Arequipa, but every 10 minutes or so I had to wring them out they collected so much water. Then we went downhill. Each step was agonizing. I couldn’t go fast, because the steps were so uneven, but if I went slowly, I thought my legs would buckle under. I walked for 40 minutes without seeing another soul (apart from the passing porters). I was only a couple people from the front of the group, but everyone went at their own pace, so we rarely caught up to each other. The rain was not helping. If the sun had been shining, it may have been pleasant, but there was no view, no warmth, no end in sight. Just fog, and stairs and aching muscles… Why did I do this trek? We stopped at another Incan ruin but I hardly listened to the explanation because I was trying to keep warm, and not let my quads cool down. Every time we stopped, my muscles cooled and I had to start all over again. As we walked downhill on uneven rocks I began to curse whoever designed this stupid trail. Why did it have to be so uneven?!
Finally the rain slowed and the sun revealed itself by early afternoon, only 6 hours or so of treacherous hiking in the rain. We had a bathroom break, I ate a pack of M&Ms to get my sugar levels back up and I instantly felt better. I was still soaked to the bone, but at least the sun was warm and there were some amazing views to be seen. A few of us walked together until lunchtime. We stopped frequently to take photos (as this was our first good view in three days) and took it slow to lunch. The sun dried almost all my layers, except for my shoes and socks: they were a lost cause. Lunch was amazing as usual, an after a short break of relaxing we continued in our way.
The next part of the trip was called “the gringo killer”. Great. It was named so, because of its steep, never ending, downward stairs. Double great. It was painful to say the least, but at least I wasn’t freezing. We managed to stay more together as a group, so morale levels were slightly higher than our morning segment. As the day grew closer to an end, we had the option of taking the shortcut route to camp, or the 25minute longer scenic route to “the terraces”. Even with all our aches and pains everyone chose the terraces. They were beautifully crafted stone and grass terraces that jutted out along the mountain pass. It was a breathtaking view. We took loads of photos as the sun slowly sunk behind the mountains. Then we made our final leg of the day and hiked the 20 minutes back to camp.
15km of hills and 11 hours on the road we finally arrived at camp: the last of our long days behind us. Total number of stairs to date: over 4000! Fortunately, from here, we only had a short 5km to make it to Machu Picchu, and the walk was only rolling hills, much like day 1. What a feat! The last morning our wake up call was at 3:50am. This time there was no room service of hot tea and coffee, just a dark, cold morning and another struggle to get out of bed with sore muscles. We forced down a tiny breakfast and started walking by 4:40. It was still dark, and I was definitely still disoriented about whether I was awake or asleep. As the sun started to come up, all we could see was that we were completely surrounded in clouds. We walked along cliff edges, but looked out into a blank white sheet of air. Who knows how deep the valley went, or what the view was like. Occasionally the top of a mountain would peek out from behind the fog, and then disappear just as quickly. We passed two different landslides on the two-hour walk, one that had happened only a week earlier, the other, two weeks earlier. A makeshift path was created, but our guide warned us not to linger to long on it.
After 2 hours of walking we made it to the Sun Gate. This is where you are supposed to see the first glimpse of Machu Picchu… All we saw was white and rain. We hung around for a while, hoping that the fog would lift, but to no avail. So we continued hiking downwards towards the ruins. It took only another 20 minutes or so before we reached the stereotypical “postcard” view of the ruins. We had finally made it below most of the clouds and could make out the city fairly well from where we stood. The place was massive! An entire city, at one point housing over 1000 people, almost fully intact! Unfortunately, the clouds mostly covered Huayna Picchu, the mountain that sits behind Machu Picchu, but we snapped some shots anyways before continuing down to the main tourist gates.
It was definitely surreal being surrounded by hundreds of clean, fresh looking people. After 4 days of hiking in the rain, wearing the same outfit, being excluded from civilization, not showering, and limping with exhaustion, it was very weird seeing clean, well-dressed people, chatting on their cell phones, in dry, uncrumpled rain ponchos just hanging out for the day. Just a short couple hours on the train, or a vigorous 4 day trek through the wilderness: almost seems unfair that there is another option. Even with my jelly quads, I’m glad we hiked it. It makes the whole place so much more magical and amazing!
After a quick bite to eat, Cesar took us on a 2-hour tour of the ruins. We saw the priests’ temples and the royal family’s living quarters; we learned how knowledgeable the Inca people were with astronomy and construction. All of the Inca structures were built to be earthquake proof. By building the walls and doors at a slight angle, and keeping some of the natural landscape to fortify the walls, these structures could withhold almost anything.
When we finished the tour, the rain and clouds lifted, the sky turned blue and the sun shone down, warm and welcoming. We had a couple hours to explore the ruins on our own, and this is where I finally realized how gorgeous the place really was. I said before that Rio was a dramatic city, but the landscape surrounding Machu Picchu is absolutely dramatic in every sense of the word. I’ve never seen mountains like this before. Ones that are huge peaked hills, each completely separated from the other in looming towers of green. They are steep and dangerous looking and majestic in the misty clouds of morning.
Machu Picchu itself is built on a steep mountain. The backside of the city drops off into a dangerously vertical cliff, and it is believed that many people were killed during this part of the construction. Gorgeous terraces spread upwards along the side of the city, and at one point were used for crops and gardens. The structures of Machu Picchu now are only stone walls, but when the city was in use, each of the buildings had dried, straw thatched roofs, smeared with llama fat in order to make them water proof. They say that when the sun shone down on the city, it lit up like gold with the beautiful, light tan structures. When you picture this, the entire city is even more surreal than before.
While the sun was shining, we hiked back up to the viewpoint where we first spotted Machu Picchu. It was spectacular now that Huayna Picchu was clearly visible in the background. We snapped some more photos and then finally trekked back in the bus to Agua Calientes (a town about 30 minutes from the ruins). We ate lunch, had a few beers in celebration, then spent the afternoon playing pool until our train left at 6:45 that evening. A few of us celebrated our successful hike with a bottle of rum back on the train, and by the time we arrived in Cusco we were dead tired. But all in all, SUCH an amazing experience; as well, another world wonder off the list… Check!