Inca roads, coca leaves and Machu Picchu

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April 27th 2015
Published: May 14th 2015
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Before we went on our trip, there were a few things we knew we definitely wanted to do. Of those, there were only two we had to book in advance: the Inca Trail and diving in the Galapagos. We are about to start on the second tomorrow, but this post will be about the first.

To be honest, we didn't really know what to expect from the Inca trail. We knew it is a guided four day hike to Machu Picchu, and that it would be in a group, but that was about it. On arrival in Cusco we went to the office of the tour operator (Peru Treks) to pay for the trip and get the briefing. Our group would be 16 people in total. Also, it turned out that due to heavy rains we would not be able to camp in one of the campsites that was part of the original plan (Winay Wayna). As a result, we either had to hike the 42km in 3 days or, if the group could not manage, go slower and arrive in Machu Picchu on the 4thday, after a 6-hour hike.

The group size and the change of plans made us a little worried about the success of the trip, but luckily there was no need to be concerned. 16 people makes quite a large group, but the group turned out to be really awesome! Most people were from the U.S., except for a Dutch couple and ourselves. The ages varied between end 20s, to early 60s. We enjoyed a really good vibe in the group, and many interesting conversations. Always really nice to meet people from different backgrounds!

When we started out, we mainly had as our goal to see the ruins of Machu Picchu. It turns out though that there are many other beautiful Inca ruins along the Inca trail as well: Llactapata, Runkuraday, Phuyupatamarka, Intipata and Winay Wayna. Each Inca site had different purposes: cities, messenger relay point, granaries and agricultural sites. The scenery along the way is stunning and very diverse. We walked over high mountain passes, through cloud forests, up steep Inca stairways and past rushing rivers. Some ruins we saw bathing in sunlight, others shrouded in the clouds, like Phuyupatamarka which means “city above the clouds”.

Before and during the hike we learned a lot about the Inca empire. The most remarkable achievement is that they united such a large empire, encompassing what is now Peru, Bolivia, large parts of Ecuador and the northern parts of Chile and Argentina. The Incas achieved this in less than a century, with a combination of a strong army, great political skills and very effective socio-economic structures. As an example, if a conquered tribe was not very cooperative, they would take away the strong (and potentially dangerous) men and boys and send them to other parts of the empire to do forced labor. While doing this they would make sure that these workers would end up in a climate zone similar to their home. Sending a jungle person to the mountains could make them very ineffective.

The hike is as challenging as it is beautiful. We ended up doing the hike in 3 days instead of 4, walking an average of 14km per day with 1200m altitude gain on the second day. A great opportunity to give coca chewing a try! Coca has been used in the Andes for centuries: in the time of the Incas for religious purposes, later for every day use by the mountain people. In Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile coca is legal whereas the rest of the world has marked it as an illegal substance, mainly because it is the raw material used to make cocaine. Chewing the raw coca leaves is not addictive, and has a similar intensity as caffeine, though a different effect. They are generally chewed in combination with “selvia”, a mix of vegetable ashes and natural flavoring, which is added to activate the alkaloids in the leaves. I chewed several handfuls of leaves on the way up to Dead Woman's pass (4200m); shortly after doing so, my cheek and tongue became partially numb, a sign that it was working. All the way up it kept me energized and it dimmed out the tiredness and kept motivation high. A very effective way to keep you going on an intense hike!

The arrival in Machu Picchu on the evening of the third day was amazing. Due to our adjusted schedule we arrived at the lookout over Machu Picchu after the site had already been closed. But the entrance via the Inca Trail does not have a guarded gate, so we entered the “city” without any other tourists. Really nice to see the site completely empty. We especially appreciated this the next day when we got the full tour of Machu Picchu, while it was flooded with fellow tourists. Our guide gave us some interesting insights into the discovery of Machu Picchu and the history of the site, after which we explored the remnants of this ancient Inca city on our own.

The evening we spent in Aguas Calientes, followed by the evening train back to Cusco. An amazing hike that we can recommend to anyone who has the opportunity!

Additional photos below
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14th May 2015

looks awesome
Great to hear you guys had good time there! Its a mystical place.
16th May 2015

Great experience!
Noce story and pics, Hylke mingling in with the crowd of lamas or sisterspecies :)

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