Hiking the Inca Trail

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June 30th 2011
Published: June 30th 2011
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The stone street surround the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco
For those of you who are wondering if we ever came back to the States - we did; only to leave again a good 6 months later. This time, it was only for two weeks, not two years. The following is an account of our time in Peru (hopefully with the Chile account soon to follow.)

The main goal of our trip to Peru was to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Our trip started out in the Denver area, where we stayed with some of Justin's family for a few days. We adjusted to the altitude there, since we would begin our hike less than 24 hours of arriving in Cuzco, Peru. Justin's family spoiled us with the novelty of going to a different frozen yogurt shop every evening that we were there. Plus there was a community wide garage sale, which we completely indulged in! But, I digress, the point of this blog is Peru...

We flew out of Denver Sunday evening and, after a layover at LAX as well as in Lima, arrived in Cuzco at 1:00 pm. Immediately the charm of a semi-rural Latin American city overtook us. The airport is in a valley,
Still the PlazaStill the PlazaStill the Plaza

Enjoying the sights
it's walls speckled with ground colored houses, patched together haphazardly. The trek group that we booked our hike with picked us up from the airport and we taxied into town with two of the guys who would be in our group. The two friends were radiologists from the Los Angeles area. It was a relief to meet two others who were arriving and starting the hike in the same short amount of time that we were.

We checked into our simple yet trustworthy hostel, El Tuco, dropped off our bags, and headed towards the Plaza to change money and spend the afternoon exploring. My Spanish was pretty dusty, but seemed to get us by. We ate a late lunch/early dinner around 3:00, ready to launch into the local cuisine. Justin ordered guinea pig, which arrived cooked but still quite whole: teeth, eyes, and whisker pores still very intact. I ordered alpaca, which tasted a lot like male armpit, until I discovered sticking with the blackened pieces, and then it was just fine. We were relieved to find that we felt okay in the altitude of Cuzco. A little heavier breathing, but no nausea or dizziness that we had been
Prairie DogPrairie DogPrairie Dog

Actually quite tasty. Especially compared to my armpit alpaca.
hearing and reading about through our travel research.

That evening, we had an orientation meeting with the hiking group. We had booked a four day hike through Inca Trail Reservations online in late March. This was the last minute for booking a hike, as within a week of our booking, the entire month of June of most of July was fully booked. The orientation meeting reviewed the hike day by day, introduced us to coca tea, and had us sign our lives away in case we died on the trail.

On the walk back to our hostel, the plaza area of Cuzco seemed to have come to life in the darkness. Troops of kids were practicing dances on the wide sidewalks of the Plaza area, small shops selling souvenir items were lit up and welcoming, at the surrounding hills twinkled with evening lights. We spent some time roaming the shops, picking up alpaca blankets, a water color painting, and inquiring as to what the dancing was all about. The best I could piece together is that they were practicing for an upcoming festival.

The next morning, our hiking guide, Victor, picked us up at 6:30 am to begin the hike. We picked up the rest of our group members - the two guys we had meet the day before and another lady from Holland, who was teaching in Bolivia. Content with the small size of our group (I was anticipating around 15), we jumbled down the road to Ollantaytambo, the town from which we would begin our hike.

In the dusty town, we left our small bus to stock up on water and take advantage of one last potty break before the hike began. Justin bought a wooden walking stick for 3 soles - about $1USD. I held off, thinking they would be sold everywhere and knowing that I only wanted the support for the walk down. (I wound up buying one up higher at the inflated price of 10 soles!) Justin and I filled our three water bottles (one for him, and two for this auther aka camel) with bottled water.

We met our porters and cook, who would be carrying our tents, cooking supplies, and food. We could have hired an additional porter to carry other belongings, but Justin and I opted to carry our sleeping bags, clothes, rain gear, and other essentials

A parade was taking place in this dusty little town just as we arrived.
ourselves. Our guides, Victor, wanted our team to have a name. After shooting down Justin's suggestion of "amplexus," we all, rather indifferently, settled on "Pumas." Then, with passports in hand, we passed the first checkpoint that affirmed our hiking reservation to the trail, and we were off. Immediately, the porters set off at a stronger pace than our group and disappeared ahead of us. I would continue to admire the deftness of the porters throughout the hike - their clever way of packing materials with minimal supplies, their simple black rubber sandals (read _Born to Run_ anybody?), and mostly the confident way they took breaks; no hesitation or guilt in their decision to stop along the trail.

The first day of the Inca Trail was pretty flat. I was pleased to find that our group maintained a fairly gentle, yet steady pace. After about two hours of hiking, we came up on a campsite area where the porters had set up a tent for us to eat in and were busy cooking. We little stools to sit on, the luxury of a spoon, fork AND knife - the works! Our meal was a simple stir fry with beef, potatoes,
The beginningThe beginningThe beginning

of our Inca Trail hike.
and vegetables and rice. A few more easy hours brought us to a village that would be our campsite for the night.

Here I should clarify: it would be about halfway through the second day of hiking before we were actually hiking on THE Inca trail. The first day and a half's worth of trail was destroyed by the Quechua people who did not want the Spaniards to find the ruins of the Machu Picchu area. Once we began on the actual Inca Trail, it would be obvious because the ancient trail was composed of huge granite rocks, worked into submission by a very patient and motivated team of Quechua servants hundreds of years ago.

The guys of the group tasted "chicha" in the village. It was dished out to them from a plastic blue barrel, reminiscent of kava in our Vanuatu days. The guys had intended to buy a cup for each of them, but after tasting one, set their sights on just politely finishing it instead of ordering more. Then, we pumas ate dinner and went to bed soon after the sun, about 7:30. The porters had set up our tents, and we had a pretty

We shared the trail with local people who also used the trail as primary means of transportation.
easy task of spreading out our mats and sleeping bags and just passing out.

The morning of Day 2, we were awoken around 5:30 am by a porter at our tent with hot cups of coca tea. This is the traditional cure all for hiking in the mountains. The tin cups were hot, an obvious fact that Justin failed to realize. He reached for the body of his cup, instead of the handle, and dropped the hot liquid all over his sleeping mat! Victor saw us bring the wet mattress outside to dry and said, "Ay Pumas! The bathroom is over here, no?"

Day 2 is "the hard day." We ascended nearly 4,000 feet that day! This was one of those hiking days where you selfishly gulp down air as if it was water in a drought. Justin and I took it easy, lots of water and laffy taffy breaks, excuses for photos, and just plain sitting and looking. The great thing about the bulk of our ascent was: we could see the "top," the saddle pass, that we were aiming for from the beginning. And, every time we wanted to take a break, we could face the direction we had come from and see the satisfying vista of our starting point fuzzing into the distance.

At this point in the trail, we were overlapping with other groups of hikers and their porters. We kept passing back and forth a woman from New Mexico, with an electric blue pack that had hot pink duct tape stripes around the buckles. Making friends along the trail makes the time pass and little better, so we took lots of opportunities to also stop and take pictures for her as well. Every once in awhile, Victor would bring up the rear and rant "You are doing great my pumas."

At the saddle where we began to descend into the next valley, the elevation is 13,776 feet. From this point on, the trail is the original Inca Trail, with gorgeously unmistakable hunks of granite guiding our way down. Our camp was set up in another little camp site with many flat areas for about 50 other campers with other groups as well. Justin and I braved the icy cold shower and were grateful to have fresh skin when we slipped inside our sleeping bags for the night.

Day 3 is

The guys and the chicha barrel
"the long day" of the hike. I was grateful for the expensive hiking stick on this day as it was all downhill. Uck. Along the way, we passed other ruins from the Incan Empire and began to admire the ingenuity of their architecture. (Just to clarify - the Inca was the name of the head of the empire, though many confuse the title "Incan" as the entire civilization of people who lived in the area. The more correct name for all the people is "Quechua." Quechua people with an Inca as a ruler.) Many associate the ruins in the area with terraces. Not only did the terraces provide flat and manageable space for growing crops, they were also a necessary science project. The Quechua would use the terraces slowly encourage their staple crops to evolve to a point that they could be grown in the mountain tops. Strong strands of potatoes, coca leaves, and quinoa would be transplanted up another terrace each growing season until eventually, the food would literally be growing in their yard. Impressive aqua duct systems were also devised to keep the areas watered.

The purpose for most of the ruins that we visited remains shrouded
Day 2Day 2Day 2

Appreciating how far UP we've come
in mystery. Part of the reason that they are still intact and able to be seen by tourists in the first place is that the Spaniard conquistadors never found them; never had a chance to destroy them. This is good and bad. Good that they are still there to be reveled at today, bad because little is known about them. Common theories are that these were primary built as either military outposts, religious/ceremonial sites, or schools.

We were motivated to reach the campsite at the end of the day by the promise of hot showers at our campsite. There was a lodge built there for hikers and we had our evening meal inside it. Then, there was a tipping ceremony for the porters, where our group put together a tip to present them. They would be leaving our group first thing in the morning to catch a train back to the Cuzco area. Sadly, many of the porters never get to see Machu Picchu, as that would be an extra expense to the company and the hiking portion of the trek is over by then anyway.

Our tents were set up right by the lodge and we didn't
Llama ValleyLlama ValleyLlama Valley

Still going up...and finding more reasons to take pictures
sleep well at all that last night. Not that we had much time to anyway, as our wake up call came at 3:30 in the morning. Victor wanted his pumas to get some of the first views and photo ops of Machu Picchu, without the "chicken" tourists, arriving by bus instead of hiking, crowding the scene. We hiked for a about ten minutes in the dark and arrived at our check point, though it didn't open until 5:30. So we sat in line and waited. Our group was pretty close by then, so we were thankfully in good company.

Once past the check point, we had another hour and a half of fast paced hiking. Fast paced because lots of other hikers' guides had the same idea that ours did: to get their group to Machu Picchu ASAP. Even though there was still a nice morning chill, I took off my two layers of fleece to only my wicking T-Shirt for this part of the hike. After a steep scramble up at the end, we could see the Sun Gate, where we would be passing into view of Machu Picchu.

The view, once we got there, was absolutely
Dead Woman's PassDead Woman's PassDead Woman's Pass

The highest elevation we would reach on the hike - 13,776 ft
astounding. Just incredible.

There is something about traveling, especially to ancient ruins, that makes one feel so very small and yet so very connected to something universal and powerful all at the same time. Machu Picchu felt like that for me. Maybe it was the endorphins.

Seriously though, I still cannot fathom what kind of nerve it took for the Inca to look at a mountain made of solid granite and say, "Here we make a building." Another fantastic thing about Machu Picchu, all of the ruins we visited in fact, is the effort put into maintaining the original shape of the mountain. Out of respect for the mountain, walls reflected the original shape and gradient of the cliffs it is carved into. The sheer amount of effort and skill is took to erect this buildings reveals that the Quechua could have built without regard to these details, but they didn't. The smartest way to wield great power is not always by using it.

Victor then took us on a guided tour of Machu Picchu. The most remarkable detail he pointed out was the special attention paid to a building that is believed to be a Temple
THE Inca TrailTHE Inca TrailTHE Inca Trail

Notice the granite stones designating the trail from here on out
of the Sun. It is known that this building is something sacred because there is no mortar used between the stones. Instead, the base of the temple is an original hunk of granite, with perfect horizontal lines carved out of it's top to begin placed granite blocks. The temple is sort of rounded in shape, again respecting the shape of the mountain, but an adjoining room is square. In that room, Victor pointed out the slight inward angle of the walls in the monument. Especially in the corners and window holes, you notice the slight slant, which creates buildings able to withstand the violent rockings of earthquakes, frequent to the area.

You'd think we'd have had enough hiking for the day, but Victor encouraged his pumas to try to hike the remarkable cliff that you always notice in the background of Machu Picchu ruins photographs - Huayna Picchu. The hike is accesible within the Machu Picchu ruins, but limited to only 400 people per day. Tourists, mostly arriving by bus, rush to be one of the first 400 each day, but they usually beat out most of the hikers. However, if we hung around the gate around 11:00, and not all 400 people showed up for the climb (they buy tickets early in the morning, but the last group of 200 starts hiking at 10:00), then we could be allowed in.

And we were. I was number 398, Justin was number 399. So up, up, up we went some more. We had ditched our pack by now and it felt rather like flying up without the extra weight on my back. It took about 45 minutes of constant climb.

The views of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayna Picchu are not that great, but the views of the surrounding mountains are astounding. There are also more ruins to explore in this area. Again, I found myself staring at the sheer granite mountain walls and wondering at the audacity of someone deciding to build the foundations of a civilized area there.

When we were finished romping around Machu Picchu, we took a bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes. Justin and I had extended our stay there one day to stay in a hotel and chill. After hot showers, we met our hiking group for dinner, and called it a night.

The next day, we visited the hot springs, did some shopping, Justin got a haircut, and got massages. Our train at 6:45 that evening took us back towards Cuzco, with a bus taking us the last leg of the journey. Back to our Cuzco hostel we were for the night, ready to crash. And crash we did, because the next day we would be off to Santiago, Chile.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


The cookThe cook
The cook

Yes, he did wear that outfit every time he cooked.
Ruins along the wayRuins along the way
Ruins along the way

Notice the unique shape that results in respecting the original shape of the mountain.
At last!At last!
At last!

Machu Picchu!

Enjoying Machu Picchu with our guide, Victor
Sun TempleSun Temple
Sun Temple

Notice the transition from the original stone to block
Perfect fit!Perfect fit!
Perfect fit!

No mortar needed when the work is this precise
Cliff -> FoundationCliff -> Foundation
Cliff -> Foundation

I can't get over this transition
On topOn top
On top

Of Huayna Picchu

5th July 2011

Can't wait to see it myself!
Sher, I know we talked and talked about your trip to Machu Picchu, but somehow reading it makes it all come together. You've made me excited to go there myself! I need to solidify plans and book a trip in early December. Thanks, as always, for your descriptive blog.

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