It's February of 2012. Not even 6 months out from our trip to Oktoberfest in Munich, my friend Mason and I are eager to plan our next adventure. Ideas are thrown around and turned down like 19 year old me trying to get a date. Then I mention Machu Picchu. It's near the top of both of our lists of places to see. We could go to Peru and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It's settled. That's what we're gonna do.
After a few weeks of solid research we choose to go to Peru in November, giving us about 8 months to prepare (and wait). We decide we'll make it a two week trip and go over the Thanksgiving holiday to save 2 days of Paid Time Off from work, as we both get the day after Thanksgiving off. By that time we had already enlisted Richie, who was the third member of our trio in Munich, one of Mason's friends in Boise, Cory, and one of my friends in Las Vegas, Sarah, to join us for the journey. Other friends showed interest in going but couldn't make a commitment. And when you plan on hiking the Inca
Trail you need a commitment, as permits sell out months in advance.
I paid the deposit on the trek at the beginning of April and we were ready to go. We just had to wait till November. 7 months of anticipation. I also put down a deposit on a 4 day expedition through the Peruvian Amazon (see "Adventure in the Peruvian Amazon" entry). All my research about the Inca Trail led me to choose Peru Treks as the tour company to book with (http://www.perutreks.com/
). You have to be with an organized group to hike the Inca Trail. You can't just show up and hike, as there are a limited number of trail permits available each day. Peru Treks turned out to be an excellent company. More on this later.
As November approached the anticipation rose. It was starting to get cold in DC. I hadn't taken off a week of work since April. Now I would be taking two and a day. I'd be gone from Nov 9th to Nov 26, the longest vacation of my career. Bring on November 9th!
My first stop was in Houston. I used my United reward miles to book the flight
to Lima and it was 40,000 miles one way from DC to Lima, or 20,000 from Houston to Lima. I had to go through Houston either way, since there are no direct flights from DC to Lima, so I decided that since I hadn't seen my friends in Houston in a while that I would head down there the day before Lima and spend a night with them. I found a flight to Houston on Southwest for 9,000 reward miles, thus saving 11,000 miles. Booyah! From Lima I used miles to book a flight to Panama City (see "Weekend in Panama") for 10,000 miles then a flight back to DC for 17,500, bringing the total cost of my flight to 56,500 miles and about $115. Not bad!
I don't get into Houston till pretty late, and since my friends live about an hour outside of the city, we had already decided to just hang out at their house and play some beer pong. We catch up and share some stories. My friend Stacy had just hiked Mt Kilimanjaro a few months earlier and she gave me an idea of what I'd be up against in the high altitude of
the Andes. We end up playing quite a few games of beer pong and I awake the next morning with a bit of a hangover. Nothing a quick trip to Rudy's can't fix. If you haven't been to Texas, it's almost worth the trip just for Rudy's (http://www.rudysbbq.com/page/home
), though they're also in Phoenix, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, and Norman, OK. I've been to a number of barbecue places across the state of Texas and Rudy's remains my favorite. I fill up on some brisket and potato salad before we head off for the airport.
Richie was flying out of Charlotte so he meets me at IAH. We are on the same flight to Lima. We had United club passes so we head to the club and proceed to drink as much free Shiner as we cand in the 90 minutes before our flight. Mason and Cory are coming from Boise and have a chaotic trip to Lima. Thought they left on Saturday, they wouldn't be in to Lima till Sunday night. Sarah was skipping Lima all together and meeting us at the airport Monday morning for the flight to Cuzco. So it's just Richie and I when we land in
Lima around midnight on Saturday.
This is our first time in South America, but my countless hours of research have us prepared. We had pre-booked a ride from the airport with Go Airport Taxi (http://www.goairporttaxi.pe/en
). Having read countless stories about American tourists being robbed by cab drivers I was sure to arrange a legit ride. If you show up to the airport without a prebooked ride you can also take what's called the Green Taxi, the official airport taxi service. Other taxis waiting at the airport are unofficial private cabs. Those are the ones you don't want to get into, especially if you're by yourself. Most of the time you'll be fine, but I wouldn't take the chance. It's worth the 20 bucks to get to your destination safely.
Our destination is the Miraflores district, by far the nicest (and richest) part of Lima. We have a decent hotel, not far from the shore, but since we got in so late on Saturday night we don't have time to go out. We spend Sunday walking around Miraflores and exploring the Peruvian food scene. We eat at an awesome buffet for lunch and have some beers at a bar
on a pier. There is a huge cliff that separates the city from the beach, so it's actually a pretty cool view. Lima is nothing spectacular, but Miraflores was nice. If you're spending a night in Lima before heading to Cuzco definitely stay in Miraflores. We even found an American sports bar we sat at for a while watching football with some other Americans before Mason and Cory arrived. Yes, stereotypical gringos.
Monday afternoon is our flight to Cuzco. Our hike starts on Wednesday, but due to the high elevation of Cuzco and the Andes mountains, the trekking companies require you to arrive in Cuzco at least two nights prior to your hike to assimilate to the altitude. At a whopping 11,300 feet, Cuzco makes Denver look like child's play. Anyone prone to altitude sickness probably should skip a trek in the Andes.
In Cuzco we are staying at the Pariwana Hostel. It's in a good location, right by the Plaza de Armas. We check in and immediately head over to the Peru Treks office to pay the remaining balance (total cost was $515 each for the trek) and prove we arrived in Cuzco. Be ready at 5:50
AM Wednesday they us. They will puck us up from our hostel. It's our first night all together in Peru, and with no particular plans for Tuesday we decide it will be our one night "out" for the trip. This isn't exactly a trip catered to partying so we'll use any chance we can get.
After a dinner of Alpaca steak and a few bottles of Cusquena, the most popular Peruvian beer, which is not too tasty, we head off to the grocery store to buy some beer to pregame with back at the hostel. Cusquena and Peroni is all we can buy so we load up. Mason takes it upon himself to buy a bottle of wine and pass on the beer. We head back to the hostel only to be told we couldn't have outside drinks on the hostel grounds. And that's how we ended up drinking at Plaza San Francisco with a pack of wild dogs, who run rampant all over Cuzco. An interaction with a shaggy homeless man tripping on some sort of drug we couldn't figure out kept us entertained for a while. But eventually the beer ran out and it was time to
Walls at Saksaywaman
The precision of the masons was remarkable. How did they get the pieces to fit so perfectly together?
head off to a bar.
For a tourist mecca like Cuzco there really aren't that many bars/clubs to go to. We end up going to a place called Paddy's Pub, mainly because we are fans of Always Sunny in Philadelphia and I mean come on, how could we not go there? As expected, it was full of tourists, which was fine with us. By that time I had already decided that just about everyone who lives in Cuzco makes a living off of selling goods or services to the tourists. You can't walk down the street for more than a few seconds before someone asks you to buy a beanie, or a painting, or some moccasins or my favorite: "massage, massage? 20 soles." That's like $7. For an hour long full body massage. Yes, please!
We drink the night away at Paddy's and wander into a few other places. Mason almost finishes his bottle of wine. Apparently the altitude is having quite the effect on him. The rest of us are fine. But Mason is as drunk as I'd ever seen him, and that includes 4 years of college.
We spend Tuesday wandering around Cuzco. After an
incredible lunch at Cicciolina, which we discovered afterwards is considered the best restaurant in Cuzco (would have never known with the prices), we split up for a bit to get massages. Like I said, we couldn't pass up that deal. When we meet back up we hike up the road to Saksaywaman, an old Inca site that looks over the whole Cuzco valley. The precision of how the rocks were stacked and placed together is amazing. It's not like masonry where all the blocks are the same size. They have large rocks and small rocks packed together so tightly that you can't even fit a piece of paper through the joints. It's impressive.
Instead of paying to wander the site we decide to hike up to the top of the hill where there is a large statue of Jesus Christ. Not quite Christ the Redeemer in Rio, but it's pretty big. The view of the Sacred Valley below is amazing from up there. We take a few photos of each other before heading back down the mountain and into the city. We waste away the rest of the day exploring the city and saying "no" to the hoards of
locals asking us to buy their hats and artwork.
We grab some Italian food that night, deciding to take a break from Peruvian food even though we all love it. After dinner we head over to a little club on the Plaza where we learn how to salsa dance. Well, Sarah and I learn how to salsa. Mason, Cory, and Richie sit and watch me make a fool out of myself. Salsa is not easy. I'd love to stay out and party more, but we've got an early wake up call in the morning. Then it's off to the Inca Trail. The last thing I want is to be hungover trying to hike in the Andes.
My alarm goes off at 5:30 AM. I've got 20 minutes before the bus comes to pick us up. We scramble around getting our last minute things together and eventually we are ready to go. There's just one problem: Sarah's little bag containing her passport, wallet, and phone is missing. It was there one minute, then the next it was gone. So are the two guys from LA that were sharing a room with us at the hostel. They awoke about the
same time as us, both drunk as a skunk still, and packed up and left. Did they take her bag? We search the room furiously. We each empty out our backpacks and look for the missing bag, but it is nowhere to be found. This is going to be a big problem.
A few minutes later our tour guide, Willfredo, arrives to pick us up. We explain the situation to him and he is understanding and helps us look. If we don't find it, Sarah has a huge problem. Losing your passport in a third world country is bad enough, but the Peruvian government doesn't let you on the Inca Trail without a valid passport. Sarah has come all the way from Las Vegas for this trip and now her passport is gone, we can't find it anywhere. There are only two options: the LA guys took it, either on purpose or accidentally since they were hammered, or it disappeared into thin air. But at this point it doesn't really matter. It's gone, and they're not going to let her on the Inca Trail.
Willfredo to the rescue! He's been doing this for years and assures Sarah that
she'll be able to get on the trail. Luckily she has a photocopy of her passport and ID (something I really need to do...). Willfredo says that we just need to file a police report. That along with the photocopy will give her access to the trail since we already have all the permits. Incredibly long story short: we get the police report and Willfredo explains the situation to the guards at the start of the trail and she is allowed to hike. First crisis averted.
The bus ride to the start of the Inca Trail takes about 2 hours through beautiful Andean scenery. Along the way we pick up some of our porters, who will carry food, cooking supplies, and tents for us. We have a total of 21 porters for our group of 16, including two cooks. We arrive a bit later than scheduled to the trail due to the passport issue. Our guides and fellow hikers are sympathetic though. No one wants to be in Sarah's situation right now. At least she's on the trail and has a temporary bank (me). There are Peruvian women trying to sell us things like straps and candy bars as
we get off the bus. It's time to suit up. We'll be carrying our packs around for four straight days. I try to make my pack as light as possible, but with the amount of water I require to operate (a lot) my pack is probably the heaviest in the whole group. But I've hiked the Grand Canyon with a 45 pound pack so I'm prepared to carry the 30 or so pounds I have with me this time.
We're through security and start on the trail around 11:30. We're at 8,923 feet in elevation. Machu Pichhu, 26 miles down the path is at 7,873 feet. But this is no walk in the park. The highest point on the trail is Dead Woman's Pass, a whopping 13,779 feet above sea level. It will be up and down the whole time on steep Inca stone paths. We pose for some photos by the large "Inca Trail" sign and we are ready to go. 8 Months of waiting is finally coming to an end.
After a few minutes Willfredo stops us so that everyone can introduce themselves. In addition to Willfredo and the porters, there is another guide named Eddie.
Eddie will hike with the slowest of the pack while Willfredo hikes with the fastest. There are 16 of us in the group. On top of my group of 5 there are three other Americans: Amy and Nathan from LA and Martin from Chicago. The other eight group members consist of Christy, Mikie, and Keith from Ireland, Danny, Dee, and Georgina from Australia, and Els and Nick from Holland. It's an eclectic group with some folks with no hiking experience at all to some folks that have been backpacking numerous times before. The 16 of us are going to be pretty close for the next four days. Sure hope everyone gets along.
The first day is basically a warm up for the second day, which looks daunting. We will be on the trail for about 7.5 miles today. Luckily, it's not too hot as the late morning sun glares down on us. We meander down some shallow slopes through a large valley. The group remains fairly close to each other, as we haven't started any uphill portions yet. After a mild climb to the top of a small hill in the valley Willfredo stops us to tell us some
history of the Incas. Entire books have been written about the Incas and I could talk about them for hours, but I'm not going to do that. If you are interested in their culture I recommend doing a little research about them. The Wikipedia article is a good start (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inca_Empire
). To summarize, they ruled central Peru, in what was and still is called the Sacred Valley, as well as a vast stretch of South America, during the 1400s and 1500s before the Spanish came across the Atlantic and conquered them. The Inca Trail was a path made by the Incas through the mountains from their capital in Cuzco to the Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, where around 1000 Incas lived. And not just a dirt path through the mountains. It's almost fully "paved," meaning the path is totally made from stone in most places, including all of the stairs. It's quite an impressive work of construction.
We stop for lunch in a gorgeous valley with a river running through it. By the time we get there the porters have already set up our large dinner tent and started cooking. We eat under a tent about 10 feet wide by 25
feet long. It's cramped, but hey it's better than I was expecting. They even have little folding chairs for us to sit in. When I originally saw that all the meals were provided for the trek I wasn't too excited. I've backpacked before, and the food you typically eat on those trips is nothing to be excited about. But then again this wasn't a typical backpacking trip. The food on the trek was incredible, way better than I eat at home. We had different traditional Peruvian dishes served to us each day. And everything was delicious (except the one thing that had olives hidden in it, I can't eat olives). It was like being at a 5-star restaurant in the middle of nowhere. I suddenly realized why we needed 21 people to carry our stuff - they had a lot of food!
After each meal we were served tea. I absolutely cannot stand the taste of tea, but they had hot chocolate for me. Some of our group put some cocoa leaves in their tea. The cocoa leaves are supposed to help with elevation sickness. Never having had a problem with high elevations before, I passed on the cocoa
leaves. And yes, it's from the same cocoa plant that makes cocaine. According to Peruvians Peru has the best cocaine. I cannot vouch for that though.
The second half of the day 1 hike is just about all uphill. This is where the group starts to separate. For the most part the girls lag a bit behind the guys, but Els keeps up with Nick at a pretty good pace. Richie, Mason, Cory, and I stay together. The Irish boys are fast up the hills too, even though they smoke and have no prior hiking experience. Must be all the soccer. We take a few breaks during the uphill portions to regroup. This means that the people at the front of the group get extra rest, which is kind of nice when you're climbing hills. As the hike nears and end we pass Llactapata, the first significant Inca ruin on the trail. I'll point out here that there are a number of Inca sites along the trail, it's not just a path through the forest to Machu Picchu. We can't get close to Llactapata since it's down low in the valley, but we have a great view from the
trail. And there will be more ruins as we go.
We reach Wayllabamba, our campsite for the first night, around 4:00 in the afternoon. The girls arrive about 45 minutes later. Willfredo introduces us to the porters and we are given the task of telling the porters our names and where we are from in Spanish. Good thing I took three years of Spanish in high school.... The porters are mostly farmers from small villages in the Andes who porter part time for some extra money. These guys are unbelievable. They fly up the trail, carrying twice as much as any of us are. Some of them are as old as 45!
We have some free time before dinner. Some people takes naps. Some people drink beer, which a little Peruvian lady that lives in Wayllabamba is selling for 7 Soles, or about $3. I take this time to wander down to the little village where there is a church and a medical office. I need to charge my phone. No, I don't get any signal up here, and the last thing I want to do is make a call from Peru. But my phone has become my
only camera. My camera broke the night before we left for the trail. I have no idea what happened, but it just stopped turning on. I have a backup camera, but I didn't bring the charger, thinking I might only need to use it for a picture or two. The first day on the trail burned through that battery. Now I am down to just my iPhone, so I need as much battery as I can get. I have it in airplane mode to conserve battery, but I know I have to be careful with the pictures I take. There is a man in the medical office and I ask him if I can charge my phone with hand gestures. He shows me to a room and I plug in the phone. Peru has the same outlets as the US so I don't need a converter. It's the slowest outlet in the world and it takes forever to get to 100% from 85%. I'm gone for about an hour with people wondering where I am. In that time I do manage to get chased by some wild dogs though, so that was fun.
Dinner is served and doesn't disappoint.
We share stories about other trips we've been on, our lives back home. Everyone seems to get along pretty well. One of the Irish boys actually worked on the demolition project for the site in England where my building is going to be constructed in late 2013. Small world. The beer runs out as the sun finally sets leaving us in complete darkness. It's only about 8:00 but it's been a long day, so we're ready for bed. And we're going to need as much rest as we can get. Wake up time is 4:50 AM, and we have another 7.5 miles to do, but this time it's straight uphill for the first 6 miles. And it's going to be steep, the most challenging day on the trail. I pass out in no time, ready for the challenge that awaits me in the morning.
The sun is just peeking over the horizon when we awake. It's very foggy and we can't see the top of the mountains, some of them peaks over 20,000 feet. The porters pack up our gear and get on their way. They will be waiting for us at our lunch spot. In anticipation of the
strenuous day, Sarah and some others have enlisted the help of a personal porter to carry their bags. These personal porters are local villagers who make some extra money carrying bags up the mountain. The cost for the day is 80 Soles, about $30. In the grand scheme of things it's a small price to pay for a more comfortable hike.
In the 7.5 miles today we will be climbing 4000 feet up the the highest point on the trail before descending 2000 feet to the campsite below. Why couldn't they just build a tunnel? Damn Incas! It's just before 6 AM when we start to hike. It's a good thing we're doing this in the morning, because it is not going to be easy. I've got a enough water to last me until we reach the last stop on the trail where we can buy water from the villagers, where I will have to load up again.
The group really starts to separate on this hike. We are climbing up hills and stairs at about a 45 degree slope in some places. There are no breaks in the terrain, no short portions of downhill to rest the
legs. It's a constant uphill grade till we reach the pass. If you want a break from the climbing, you have to stop and rest. We have three official meeting spots: about 1/3 of the way up the climb, about 2/3 of the way up the climb, and the campsite down in the valley after the pass. At the first meeting point we regroup and wait for all our fellow hikers before setting off again. I should note that this was the busiest day on the Inca Trail. Hiking at a fast pace, I pass probably 50 other people from other groups. The Inca Trail permits allow 500 people to be on the trail at any given point each day. There are probably 12-15 other groups doing the same itinerary as us.
The second leg of the uphill portion is more challenging than the first. We are now in a dense rain forest going straight up stairs laid by the Incas 600 years ago. I'm by myself now. Mason and Cory are constantly about 30 steps ahead of me. I see them but they never stop long enough for me to catch up. Richie has fallen back somewhere. We're
at about 12000 feet now and Richie has never hiked in altitude before so he is taking it slow. Mason and Cory live in Idaho so are used to hiking at high altitudes. I also have quite a bit of experience from Nevada mountain hikes, but I've never surpassed 12,000 feet. This is a first. I feel okay but I'm starting to get tired and have to stop more than I'd like to rest my legs and lungs. Sarah is trekking along somewhere in behind us with Georgina while Eddie keeps an eye on them, making sure they make it.
I finally catch up to Mason and Cory as we reach the second meeting point. The porters have laid out a snack for us and we are definitely hungry. This is also the last stop with real bathrooms. I go to take a leak and notice that I've never seen more yellow piss in my life. I must be seriously dehydrated. I buy a big water from a Peruvian woman and down the 2.5 liters in about 1 minute. I was very thirsty. 30 minutes later I'm back in the bathroom, this time properly hydrated. I buy a few
more waters and a candy bar from the last Peruvian villagers we'll see on the trail. Most of our group has arrived at the meeting point, but we are still waiting on a few. They are with Eddie though, so we know they will be okay.
We are at the meeting point for about an hour before we head off for the final push up the mountain. Sarah and Georgina haven't arrived yet but we know they can't be too far behind so Willfredo tells us to get going. If the second leg was tough, this stretch makes it look easy. It's not necessarily more steep, but the combination of the elevation and the work our legs have already done lead it to be one of the most strenuous hiking stretches I've ever been on for sure. We are out of the rain forest and now ascending stairs that carve out the edge of the mountain. We can see the valley below us. It doesn't look that far down, where we just came from, but my legs and lungs disagree. We can almost see the top of the pass, but some rain clouds have rolled in, and it's not
entirely visible. Sure enough it starts to rain as we trek along the stairs, Mason and Cory a few steps ahead of me and Richie somewhere behind me.
The last couple of hundred steps is grueling. It's raining (I hate rain) and I'm almost up to 13,800 feet, an altitude that some people get really sick at. I push the last few steps and arrive to the top of Dead Woman's Pass. The air is thin up here, but it feels amazing to have finally made it to the top. But as I look around I notice that while we are at the highest point on the trail, we're nowhere near the top of the mountains. We're still in the valley! The peaks on either side of us rise way into the clouds. It goes to show the incredible magnitude of the Andes. I've never been this high up in my life and in order to reach a summit I'd have to climb another 5000 feet or so. Good think I'm not doing that. The mountains are steep and green. In the US, the tree line is at about 11,000-12,000 feet. Above that no trees will grow and the
mountain will be just rock. But in the Andes the tree line appears to be close to 18,000 feet. We are still in a lush forest. It makes it even more breathtaking. I can even see some alpacas roaming around the valley by where we just came from.
Mason, Cory, and I spend some time admiring the view from the pass, but it's raining and cloudy as hell, so there is no need to spend too much time up there. We look down the other side of the valley and can see some huts way down at the bottom of the valley. That is our campsite for the night. It doesn't look too far from here. But as I've learned, looks can be deceiving in the Andes.
It's still raining so we want to get down the mountain as fast as possible, but the steps are slippery and the last thing we want to do is sprain an ankle in the Andes. I manage to slip only once and fall straight back on my backpack, which breaks my fall. The porters rush by us as we carefully descend the stairs. It seems like we are going down these
stairs forever, the rain adding to the drama. The campsite crept closer and closer, but it's always just out of reach. The rain finally subsides as we make the final descent to the campsite around 1:00 in the afternoon. We have been on the trail about 7 hours and it gives us a comforting feeling to know that we don't have to walk any more that day.
Richie arrives about a half hour after Mason, Cory, and I and just in time for our late lunch. We have everybody by lunchtime except Sarah and Georgina. I was a bit worried it might be too strenuous for her, but Eddie was keeping an eye on her so she was in good hands. They finally make it to the site about two hours later to a round of applause from the rest of us. Getting to the campsite early gives us some time to rest and relax. I take a quick nap and wake up in time for teatime, which is hot chocolate time for me. More stories are being shared under the large dinner tent. By now it's like we've all known each other forever. I ask Amy her thoughts
on Proposition B in Los Angeles County. We disagree on which way to vote, but mine doesn't matter since I don't live there. You're looking up Proposition B now aren't you?
Dinner is served to a relaxed group of tired hikers around 7:30. Willfredo shares some more knowledge with us and goes over our next day on the trail. It will be the longest day of the trek, almost 10 miles, but luckily mostly downhill. The worst part will be in the morning. Better rest up.
We're up at the crack of dawn again for the third day of hiking. Fog is blocking vision of more than a few feet ahead of you. The trail is busy up to Runkuracay, a small ruin that looks over the valley. We look down to the campsite below but the fog blocks our view. Then suddenly it's gone. The fog is fast moving in the Andes. One minute it's there, one minute it's gone. We regroup and head up to the next pass, back up around 13,000 feet. Our next meeting point is Sayacmarca, a medium sized Inca fortress on the side of the mountain. It is preserved remarkably well, but
the fog prevents us from seeing the whole site at once. On a nice sunny day it probably looks amazing. From there we descend down the path to our lunch spot.
Llamas are roaming around our lunch spot. I try to make friends with the little one, but he wants nothing to do with me, probably because I'm not food. He's kind of a dick, actually. As we finish lunch it starts to rain. It's not coming down too hard, but it's enough to be annoying. I get out my backpack tarp and my umbrella and we are off. This part of the trail is mostly flat with some uphill portions and some downhill portions. It's a nice change in pace from the morning, but the rain is coming down harder now. And just like that it's pouring. I'm not someone who looks on the bright side of a rainy day. Rain sucks. Especially when you're hiking the Inca Trail trying to enjoy the scenery, which is nonexistent in the clouds and fog. I try to stay positive as I hurry down the path. The faster I go the faster I'll get to the campsite and the longer I'll
be out of the rain.
We reach the last pass in the early afternoon. Some of the clouds have subsided and we can see some of the other side of the valley. Somewhere down in the valley is the campsite. Most of the group meets at this final pass, though some are lagging a little behind. We don't stay too long since it's still raining, though it has slowed down a bit. Willfredo tells us that it's all downhill from here. That's the best news we've heard all day. As we start down we see Phuyupatamarca, an impressive Inca site built right into the side of the mountain. The path takes us right through it and we descend it's steep stairs. From there the stairs just get steeper. We are going straight down. They twist and turn and wind around as we take careful steps trying not to slip on the rocks. As we get lower the rain stops. My spirits immediately rise.
The porters pass us running (yes, literally running) down the stairs. The Irish boys are trying their hand at running too. It seems to work for them but now that it's not raining I'm not
in that big of a rush. As we get closer to the campsite the stairs give way to a dirt path with a much shallower grade. It's a nice change in pace from the constant pounding on the knees from the stairs. We finally get to Winay Wayna, the campsite, at about 3:30, another full day of hiking in the books. The clouds are starting to clear a bit and I can see some snow capped peaks above us. I can also see the little town of Aguas Caliente, where we will eat lunch tomorrow after Machu Picchu.
The last members of our group arrive around 5. We have an early dinner tonight so we can get to bed early. Our wake up call the next day is at the ungodly hour of 3:40 AM. We want to be one of the first groups through the gates so we can get to Machu Picchu as early as possible. At dinner the porters present us a big cake to celebrate our last night on the trek. We return the favor by presenting them with their tips, which we all pool together. Martin speaks the best spanish, so he is given
the job of thanking the porters on behalf of all of us and giving them their tips. We are very grateful for these men. Without them this type of trip wouldn't be possible. Well, it would be possible, we just wouldn't have ate and slept so comfortably. I can only handle beef jerky and trail mix for so many meals in a row. I pass out immediately as night falls, looking forward to tomorrow.
The last day on the Inca Trail is by far the shortest. We only have about three miles to hike, mostly downhill, as Machu Picchu is actually the lowest point on the entire trail. We're up long before sunrise, but so is every other group. In fact, we're actually one of the last groups up. There's one last security checkpoint on the trail right after Winay Wayna, and this creates a backup as the groups line up to go through the checkpoint. Our group is second to last, so we are waiting at the checkpoint for over an hour. Damn. Got up that early for no reason.
The first hint of light appears in the sky as we proceed through the checkpoint and on
towards Machu Picchu. We wind along the trail that follows the curve of the river below and it's not long before we arrive at Intipunku, the sun dial. From here we get our first view of Machu Picchu in the valley below us. Well at least we're supposed to. When we arrive all we can see is fog and clouds. But by now we're familiar enough with the Andean fog to know we just have to give it a few minutes. And sure enough a few minutes later the fog dissipates and there it is. Machu Picchu, in all its glory.
My first thought is "damn it's huge!" (that's what she said?). I wasn't expecting the sheer size of the city. The pictures don't do it justice. It covers almost the entire valley between two steep peaks. Our excitement spikes and we want to get going down the rest of the trail to the site. We wait for the rest of the group to catch up, snap a few group pictures, and dart off down the last of our 26 miles on the Inca Trail.
We arrive at the edge of Machu Picchu around 8 AM with most
of the other groups. We stand in awe of it for awhile as we wait for the rest of the group to show up so we can go get our tickets that actually allow us inside the site. We pose for a group picture in front of the site, that famous picture with the peak of Huayna Picchu in the background. The picture you see on people's online dating profiles. The picture on the postcard you got from me. There's a reason why this one view is used so often. It's frikin' gorgeous. From there its down to the entrance to the site, where the tour buses are unloading group after group of tourists who chose to forgo the hike in favor of the train. There are literally thousands of additional people here. I see tour groups from almost every country. I hear Italian, Japanese, German, the list goes on and on.
Willfredo serves as our tour guide for the site and gives us about a two hour tour. Machu Picchu is incredibly well preserved today and there are two primary reasons for this. The first is that the Spanish never found Machu Picchu. It was simply abandoned when
word came that the Spanish were taking over the Sacred Valley. The second is that a massive excavation took place after Hiram Bingham III discovered it in 1911 and made its existence known worldwide. Since then it has grown into one of the most famous ancient cultural sites in the world, in a category with only a few other places, such as the Egyptian pyramids and the Acropolis. Today, Machu Picchu sees almost 5000 visitors a day. In my opinion it's too many. The place was packed. Luckily there were locations on the grounds where I could get away from most people. And I don't see them limiting the number of visitors anymore than they already do since it's a huge money maker for the government.
After our tour we are left to explore on our own for the next hour. I wander the maze of walkways and passages on the grounds, climbing up and down stairs as I snap pictures of everything with what's left of my iPhone battery. I'm amazed by the construction of the buildings. The roofs are all gone, as they were made from wood, but the majority of the stone remains. It's amazing how
these unreinforced stone masonry walls, held together by mortar made from an ancient recipe, have withstood the elements and remained standing for hundreds of years. These buildings wouldn't meet our current building codes, but here they are, in tact and looking pretty damn good. I've always said that people in these ancient societies were far smarter than most people today. If you took two completely random people from each state and gave them the task of constructing a replica of one of the little houses at Machu Picchu they wouldn't be able to do it. I'm sure of that. And don't even get me started on the pyramids...
By the time we leave Machu Picchu I've explored just about every nook and cranny of the site. I leave incredibly impressed by the Inca people. Their workmanship, their talent. I almost forgot to mention that they used to do the whole trail in one day with no shoes. The fastest time ever recorded on the Inca Trail is less than four hours, by an Inca descendant living in the mountains. Think about your marathon time then think about if you had to gain almost 8000 feet of elevation on that
marathon. Yeah. The Incas had it going on.
We board a bus that takes us down winding switchbacks and follows the river to the town of Aguas Caliente. I look up to the top of the mountains in awe of their size. There is a cliff that must drop 4000 feet to the valley below. The mountains are so steep I don't see how anyone could climb them, especially 600 years ago. Aguas Caliente is a little tourist trap, but it's kind of a neat place. There are no cars, only buses that go back and forth from Machu Picchu. The only way in and out of the town is by train, which we have to catch at 5:30. That gives us an entire afternoon in the town. The group meets for lunch at a little pizza place, where I devour an entire large pizza, because come on, I'm frikin' starving. A few liters of beer is a nice touch too. After lunch some people head off to swim in the hot springs. I was planning on going too but now we have another big problem. Willfredo doesn't have Sarah's train ticket back to Cuzco. Her luck, huh?
There's a long story behind why Sarah's train ticket is missing that involves a cancelled and rebooked trek, and apparently the train ticket back to Cuzco was not rebooked. Willfredo starts working on getting Sarah a ticket so she isn't stranded in Aguas Caliente while Sarah and I are using the computer at the restaurant to look up US Embassy information in Lima. We haven't had access to internet in four days so we can finally start to look into what she has to do to get out of Peru. After multiple phone calls Willfredo comes through and tells Sarah he got her a ticket for an earlier train back to Cuzco. She'll have to leave soon. Second crisis averted. We'll see her back at the hostel.
By this time Richie and some others have been at the hot springs for a while. Mason, Cory, and I decide to go get massages down the street. It's a bit pricier than in Cuzco, but still ridiculously cheap for an hour long body massage. They even have showers, which thrills us, since we haven't showered in four days, and we're kind of gross. There are two showers and Mason and Cory
go first. I'm left to sit in the room with an old woman who doesn't speak English and a hairless dog that was not cute. After Cory is done I hop in the shower. There's no hot water, but the ice cold shower feels invigorating. Clean for the first time since four nights ago, they escort me into my massage room. And that's when things get weird.
There are two massage tables in the room. Mason is laying down on one of them in his underwear. Apparently we don't get private rooms in this place. "Didn't realize this was gonna be a couples massage," says mason. Nor did I. We can hear Cory laughing at us from the next room. We take it with a grain of salt, though. I've been in a locker room before. I strip down to my boxers and lay face down on the table. We are quiet as we wait for our masseuse to come in. We hear them come in. Alright, time to relieve some stress in our tired muscles. Then there's a tap on my shoulder. I look up. It's the guy from the front desk. "We have no more girls, it's
OK?" he asks.
Great. Now I'm getting a massage from a dude. My first thought is the Seinfeld episode where George is all excited about getting a massage until he finds out that Rafael will be performing his massage and not a woman. Oh god, it better not move! I'm already there, half naked, and laying on the table. "OK," I say, comfortable enough with my sexuality that I shouldn't be afraid. I hear Cory laughing again in the next room. I will punch him in the balls later. An hour later I am happy to report that it did not move, and to my surprise, it was actually a very good massage, much better than the ones in Cuzco. So yes, I got a massage from a dude in Peru, and it was not bad. Awkwardness over, we head back to the restaurant. It's almost time to board the train back to Cuzco.
The train actually doesn't take us back to Cuzco (Sarah's did). We get off at Ollantaytambo and board out bus for the final part of the journey. We arrive back in Cuzco at around 10 at night, capping one of the longest, but most
enjoyable and fulfilling, days of my life. We say our goodbyes to Willfredo and Eddie and tip them generously. The group has all exchanged email addresses to keep in touch. Most of us become friends on Facebook. There are hugs and goodbyes, then we all go our separate ways. Sarah is already back at the hostel waiting for us. Richie goes to join the Irish boys in a night of drinking. I'd love to join, but our trip is only halfway over. Tomorrow we head off to Manu National Park in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon jungle (See Adventure in the Peruvian Amazon). Richie will be flying home instead leaving Mason, Cory, Sarah, and I to trek the jungle. We are being picked up just after 5 AM. So much for a relaxing day after the culmination of the Inca Trail.
I get to bed as soon as I can and pass right out. The bed feels like heaven. Much better than the bare earth I've been sleeping on. Our time on the Inca Trail has been truly amazing. Thousands of people see Machu Picchu every day but nothing compares to walking the path of the Incas through
We were given the choice to climb this peak or walk around Machu Picchu more. After four days on the trail I didn't want to climb one more foot. Everyone else felt the same way.
the gorgeous mountains and forests of the Andes. I'd recommend the Inca Trail to anyone, unless you have problems at high elevations, don't like nature, or don't like getting a little dirty. If you need to stay in 5-star hotels on your vacations this is not the trip for you. But if you're okay with sleeping in a tent and climbing endless stairs through the mountains this might be the greatest trip of your life. We have some great mountain ranges in the US, but the Andes is in an entirely different league. Add to that the history behind the ancient Incas and their ruins and you've got a recipe for an amazing adventure. Do some research, read more stories about the trail, and decide if it's the trip for you. If you end up going, you won't be disappointed. Have fun!
Read about the remainder of my time in Peru in "Adventure in the Peruvian Amazon."
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