The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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South America » Peru
October 14th 2017
Published: October 14th 2017
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September 3 and the Inca trail adventure began with a 6:40am pickup at the hotel. The term “pickup“, is used loosely as Mario met us in the lobby and we then walked a number of blocks to meet the bus. The bus retraced yesterdays route via Chinchero and Urabamba – but then we turned left, bound for Ollantaytambo and km 82 of the Machu Picchu to Cusco railway line – starting point for the trek. We stopped occasionally to pick up our porters and then a short stop at a “tourist” station for last minute snacks, water and a pee. The last stretch of road to Piskacuchu, ( 2,700m) was pretty much one way, and obviously the drivers were used to it and familiar with all the pull over areas. While we were regrouping, we learnt that we had an addition to our group – Nathalie and Lori from New York along with their guide William. Then Kelly realized that he had left his hiking poles on the bus – a quick phone call stopped the bus and one of the porters ran 20 minutes to get the poles and then another 20 minutes back. That earned him a decent tip!!!

For the first part of the trek on day 1, horses are allowed on the trail so our porters were given a respite. Not so other groups and it was our first sight of how laded down some of the porters were. Apparently, conditions have improved for the porters, but over the ensuing days we were to marvel at the loads they were carrying and the speeds they were able to move at.

There was a bit of a process to get through the first check point (lots of permit and passport checking, followed by lots of stamping) and FINALLY, at 11am we were on our way, crossing the Urabamba river and following an easy pathway through small villages, avoiding the occasional horse and mule and just enjoying the scenery of towering mountains and cactus flowers. Along the way, we were able to explore the Incan ruin of Willcarakay and got a great view of Llactapata (primarily an agricultural station used to supply Machu Picchu with maize). By now we had left the Urabamba river behind and were following the Kusichaca stream.

Two and a half hours after we started, it was time for a lunch break
at Tarachayoc, a rather small plateau, dropping off steeply to a ravine on one side. There were already a couple of tents set up for other groups – one of them even had a porta loo AND chefs with white hats and jackets – obviously a higher level of expedition than we were on – but we were totally satisfied with our lunch of asparagus soup, breaded burger pattie with potatoes, rice and a cucumber and onion salad. And Coca tea to finish.

We started walking again at 3pm and got our first experience of moving aside for the porters – this was to be a common occurrence over the next few days. The porters would pack up the camp shortly after we left each morning and then pass us so they could set up the lunch camp. Then repeat in the afternoon so the evening camp was set up well before we got there. Any time we noticed porters rapidly gaining on us, some one would call “porters” and then in case we had forgotten the procedure, a “mountainside” call would follow – and we would move to the inside of the trail, allowing the porters free access to the cliff side. They moved so nimbly, wearing anything from sandals to light weight shoes on the feet. We only saw one porter stumble and that when he was running downhill and his buddy managed to catch him before he fell off the edge of the trail.

2 hours after we left the lunch camp we were at our campsite (Hatunchaca, 2,800 m). With 500 people (including porters and guides) allowed on the trail every day, we were expecting crowded campsites but on day one, all the groups were spread out over a number of different sites. At Hatunchaca, there was only our little group and a large group of Brazillians, but there were a few stone walls separating us and the only nightly disturbance was Mario and/or William snoring. The locals who supervised the campsite sold water at a reasonable price AND cold beer. There was a civilized flush toilet and a permanent structure we used as a dining area. An hour or so after arriving and setting up camp (the two person tents were set up for us but we had to unroll the sleeping bags and mats) we were served tea along with popcorn and animal crackers. We noticed the first priority was getting the porters fed, which was good as they had worked so hard during the day. Tea was followed soon after by dinner of soup and the ubiquitous chicken and rice (quite delicious). Mario and William always ate with us and we noticed Mario always put a tiny portion of each course onto the ground for Panchamama (Mother Earth). No Coca tea as it is energizing so not recommended prior to bed time.

Before retiring, we had identified the boy and girl “peeing areas” as it was a bit far to go to the flush toilet in the middle of the night dark. However, a full moon, meant it was almost like daylight outside and it was surprisingly warm – although I did lie in bed, contemplating for a long time as to whether I really did need to pee. Camping is not high on my list of “things I love to do” and I was very thankful for the extra foam sleeping pad that we had bought in Cusco to supplement the one provided. Still not overly comfortable though.

Morning #2. A wake up call at 5:40am with a cup of hot coca tea. It took a bit to get the “pack up quick” routine down, but Kelly and I managed to have everything packed and rolled up in a decent time. While watching the guides roll Vera and 2 Bobs sleeping bags, I noticed that their green sleeping bags were quite a bit longer than our red and black ones. We had given our heights when booking the sleeping bags, but hadn’t given it much extra thought – so Kelly was quite relieved to learn that he would now get a Green sleeping bag that was actually long enough for him. After breakfast of omelet, toast and oatmeal we were on our way by 7am (only 30 minutes behind schedule). Prior to embarking on this adventure, we had read all we could about “recommended packing lists” and as a result we each had 8 power bars to munch on during 4 days of trekking. That is just over 1 kg per couple and was pretty much useless weight as every day we were given snacks (tasteless oranges, yummy cookies and candies) to sustain us.

There was not much that was flat about day 2!!!! A gradual climb for 2.5 hours put us at the lunch stop of Ayapata (3,350m) where a group of enterprising women had stands selling everything from water to snacks to hard liquor!!!!! More pleasant smelling, flushing squat toilets and chicken pasta for lunch. Half our small dining tent is used for cooking so it was toasty warm inside. It seems that we sit around for quite a while waiting for lunch to be cooked then start hiking again on a full belly. Then it was a continual slog upwards to Abra Warmihuanusca (Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215m) via stone pathways and steep and deep stone steps. I never did understand why the Inca and Quechuan, who were so short, built such massive steps. You couldn’t afford to miss your footing so it was all eyes to the ground except for the occasional glimpse up to see if the pass was getting any closer!!! Kelly had elected not to use the high altitude medication (Diamox) and so he was missing out on the “tingling extremities and faces” that the rest of us were experiencing but other than that we were all doing well. Even “out of breath” was of the normal variety not the gasping type we had experienced on Taquile Island. Drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves was the norm for all of us though - it helps with altitude sickness and was great for alleviating pesky headaches. We had been warned about the insects ahead of time and each day put bug cream on after our sunscreen. Most of us still ended up with a few bites on the legs, but overall it wasn’t bad – obviously it was not high season for mossies.

As we approached the pass, we could hear cheers as people ahead of us summitted. We had been concerned about the trail being crowded but despite the number of trekkers and porters, it did not seem overly so. We would play leapfrog with some small groups and we tended to see the same people quite often. We reached the pass at 1:30pm and had time to celebrate (a quick sip of pisco) and put on more layers as it was darn chilly and windy.

And then it was two hours of down, down, down. The lungs got a break but it was slow, careful going with the legs down some BIG, STEEP steps. I think we were all a bit worried about day 3 which was mostly downhill. But surprisingly, all limbs and knees were intact by the time we reached our camp at Pacaymayu (3,500m). All groups were camped here, but were quite spread out so we only saw those groups that were below us on the terraced camping areas. We had already decided that we were happy we were not in a large group as they were limited by the pace of the slowest hiker and we were doing pretty well, keeping to schedule. But I admit to feeling a little jealous when I saw that other groups all had little bowls of water set out for them to wash. We stayed grubby. After stuffing ourselves with popcorn and animal crackers, there was barely room for dinner of soup and Lomo saltado. The squat toilets here were really quite disgusting – making me glad I had no reason for a prolonged visit. And there was a nice little secluded area for the middle of the night, full moon peeing experience. We were in bed by 8pm and asleep shortly after. It was pretty darn cold overnight and despite wearing merino long johns and socks, 2 merino mid layers, a warm hoodie and a fleece pullover, I was still a bit chilly – those short red and black sleeping bags did not quite cut it!!! But I had achieved my goal of wearing ALL my layers at the same time.

At least being fully dressed made getting organized in the morning a bit more efficient. After breakfast of chocolate milk and pancakes, we were given boiled water to top up our hydrator packs and we were out of camp by 7am. Day 1 we had hiked 11km and day 2 was 10km, of which 6 hours was straight up. Today was the longest day of 15 km and started with 2 hours of up to the first pass of the day at 3,950m. On the way, we visited the small circular ruin of Runkurakay. It was surprising how quickly we gained elevation and today seemed so much easier going than yesterday. Already, the footing is easier and we are able to look around and appreciate the jungle we are passing through (we saw 6 of the 300 different orchids that are on the trail along with ferns, bamboo and moss). The pathway is
incredible and is often built along the side of the hills, with rocks being placed in ravines to form a base for the pathways that seem semi detached from the mountain side. However, we are not done with passes yet, and have one more at 3,670m as well as a couple of narrow, dark and steep inca tunnels to navigate through. A final stop at the third pass to hang out with some “wild” llamas, and to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu mountain then we keep going downwards, finally climbing down some very step steps through the lovely Winaywaya Ruins before reaching the last camp.

Every night there had been thunder in the distance along with some very black clouds but we had been so lucky with the weather – until tonight. Shortly after setting up camp it started to rain heavily and our tent started to leak – most likely because it was very flimsy AND the fly was not put on correctly. Kelly ranted and raved and finally got a tarp put over the top so we were snug. Lori and Nathalie were the only ones who had a sturdy, waterproof tent. Final dinner was amazing – lasagna, rice, delicious cauliflower and other vegetables. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the toilets – just plain disgusting.

Day 4 and Machu Picchu here we come! We woke to a brilliant clear sky at the ungodly hour of 3:10am. No breakfast – just a cup of coca tea and some snacks for the morning – then it was a 5 min walk to the check point where we had to wait til 5:30am when it opened. There were a couple of big groups ahead of us and once we were through the checkpoint it was a mad rush to the sun gate (Inkipunku) approximately 6 km away. This was a relatively easy hike – apart from having little sleep, no food and very few stops for water - and besides, by now we were down to a fairly “normal” elevation of 2,400m. Just before reaching the sun gate there was a set of 50 nearly vertical steps and suddenly we were there. Time for high fives, photos and then move on a little further down the trail and watch the sun light up the ruins of Machu Picchu. A beautiful sight. Another 40 minutes saw us mingling with the crowds of tour groups and vying for photo opportunities that had the minimal number of tourists in them.

Next major stop was the official check in point where we had our passports stamped and we got to experience clean, sit down, flushing toilets. The things you learn to appreciate. Mario then took us on a two hour tour of Machu Picchu – I must admit, it was all a lot more spectacular and picturesque than I thought it would be. No one seems to know the exact former use of this 15th century Incan citadel. It is known for its dry stone walls that fuse huge blocks without the use of mortar (standard Incan construction) as well as buildings that are astronomically aligned. Prior to the trip I read a couple of books about Hiram Bingham, who supposedly discovered MP. Well, the local Quechan people already knew about the site and some farmers lived there, but he brought it to the attention of the Europeans. And because of his intent to excavate, the Peruvian government brought in very stringent rules so they would not lose any more artifacts to foreign museums. So much had already been lost to the Spanish when they conquered the Incan Empire in the 16th century. We had heard many rumours about the trail and site being closed down, but after seeing the infra structure in place and the positive effects on the local economy, closure is doubtful. However, the trail is closed every February for maintenance and there is a daily restriction of 2500 visitors to the site from Agua Calientes (they arrive by bus or train) as well as the 150 or so who walk the trail.

Included in our overall tour were tickets to climb Wayna Picchu – the tall, skinny and STEEP mountain that is the background to all classis photos of Machu Picchu. Tickets are limited to 200 people starting the climb at 7am and another 200 at 10am (our group). What can I say about this climb? Switchbacks with steps carved out of the mountainside and a vertical drop off the cliff side, steep sections requiring and hand and foot scrambling, a tunnel and a near vertical ladder. It took us about 45 minutes of lung busting effort (for me anyway) to reach the top which is about 300 m higher than Machu Picchu. Inspiration was taken from the older, large people who were descending with canes – if they could do it, so could I. The view from the top provided a completely different perspective of the MP site. The return trip was surprisingly easy despite the deep steps.

The next adventure was standing in the LONG lineup to catch the bus down to Agua Calientes along a tight switch backing road. Apparently, some people had waited over two hours for a bus up to the site in the early morning. We met up with William, Lori and Nathalie at the Hot Springs #1 restaurant for our first real meal of the day and a foolishly ordered Pisco Sour – and thus really begins my down ward slide. I blame it all on being dehydrated from the previous days easy hike, and just not drinking enough water today. By the time lunch was over I had zero energy but dragged my butt after the others to the hot springs where we had a welcome soak in rather scummy water.

Our train was at 7pm and shortly before 6pm we had found our way through the Indian market to the train station. The signage was horrible and we kept getting conflicting reports as to what platform we should be on. (India is so much more organized). Suddenly there was a rush to door #6 then a rush to door #7 then back pushing and shoving to #6. The attendant was checking tickets (upside down) but we were finally directed to the correct train – executive class which would have been nicer if the air con had not been turned to deep freeze temperature. Two hours later we were in Ollantaytambo, where we were met by a Cusco Explorers mini bus for the trip back to Cusco. Aggressive driving, many speed bumps and hairpin bends – and just when I was thinking I should get a plastic bag from my pack, it was too late and I barfed over Kelly and myself. Not my finest hour! The van stopped and I emptied my stomach and felt great for the rest of the drive.


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