This entry is one that I loved writing because I had done it after completing the famed Inca Trail hike with my friend, Nancy. Four days of some the best (and toughest) hiking of our lives. I’ve revisited this post more than a few times as it brings the whole experience back – and what an amazing experience it was!
“The first time you see Machu Picchu, it will break your heart.”
ARIC S. QUEEN
I DID IT!!!! Well, more accurately we ALL did it which is to say our whole group (or “team” as I prefer to think of us). That’s right, we’ve “Survived the Inca Trail” as the cheeseball t-shirts you can buy here say. So now it’s party time! Send in the clowns! …or maybe don’t because clowns kinda freak me out.
I’m calling this entry “A Walk in the Cloud Forest” as most of the Inca Trail is located in a wet, tropical forest located at high altitudes that often sports cloud cover, even in the dry season – also known as a ‘Cloud Forest’.
Let me begin by saying that the Inca Trail is no cake walk…not by a long shot. And I’ve got to admit that it’s got me wondering about these tales I’d previously heard about 80+ year-old women doing this hike. I really don’t see how they possibly could have made it unless they were a) in truly phenomenal shape, or b) strapped to the back of one of the porters. It was absolutely, positively, without a shade of doubt, 100% the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken. However, having done it now, I feel pretty certain that I could do just about anything. So who wants to join me on my Everest summit attempt?
As much as I would like to, I’m not going to make you relive the entire trail with me as I think it would just be too difficult to try and convey some of what went on over paper (or computer screen, as the case may be). What I will try to do is provide some highlights at least, and honestly I think the pictures will probably speak louder than my words ever could – they’ll probably scream so loudly from your screen, you’ll wish you had earplugs.
Our group was absolutely fabulous. We were comprised of Canadians, Scots, Americans, Australians, and Brits plus our primary guide, Carlos, and second guide, German. Tack onto that 21 porters and 2 chefs and the picture is complete. Everyone was a little quiet at first, but that didn’t last too long on a trail where you’re sleeping about 2 feet away from each other and having to share bathrooms and meals along with blood, sweat, and tears. There wasn’t any actual blood that I’m aware of, but there was certainly sweat and tears at times, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We were starting out to do the trail in the typical 4 days starting at Kilometer 82 (there’s the option of starting at KM 88, but that’s just for pansies). The schedule Carlos was taking us on was to cover 14 km on Day 1 (that’s about 8.7 miles for those of you who might be a little metrically challenged), 16 km on Day 2 (10 miles), 8 km on Day 3 (5 miles), and reaching Machu Picchu after the final 6 km on Day 4 (3.7 miles).
Day 1 – Over the River & Into the Woods
We were picked up at 8am from our lodge in Ollantaytambo (which, appropriately was called the Ollantaytambo Lodge) and taken on what I would venture to call one of the most hair-raising rides of my life. The road was a bit “off the beaten track” to put it mildly. Picture 4-wheeling, but in a bus.
Our ride down this one-lane dirt road which ran alongside the Urubamba River took us over a bridge (that I’m not altogether sure wasn’t just for show as we nearly rolled off of it) but climaxed when a truck that was blocking our path proceeded to dump about 2 tons of dirt on the road before moving. We then had to wait for the workers to clear enough of the mound that we could carry on (I got that part on video).
We finally reached the trail head, crossed the bridge which ran over the Urubamba River, and began hiking just after 10am. We made a couple of stops, including for lunch around 1:30 and then continued on to our first campsite which was at a place called Yunkachimpa.
One of the things that was just amazing was to watch how this whole operation was maintained. Over the course of the trail, you’d watch as the porters who were part of each group literally ran past you on the trail carrying approximately 2,000 times their own weight on their backs, get to the lunch stop or campsite ahead of everyone, and have the tents set up and meals cooked by the time you huffed and puffed your way in at whatever time it would take the people who hadn’t been bitten by radio-active spiders to complete the same distance. Tack onto that the fact that their footware mostly consisted of nothing more than sandals and some of them weren’t even wearing that much! They were positively amazing.
Most of the day was gorgeous – sunny and warm… I even found myself wishing that I had brought some of my tank tops with me on the trail (I had left them all back at the hotel in Cuzco). But, as Carlos warned us, the weather can be very unpredictable especially during this time of year and in the altitudes we were hiking at. So it came as no surprise when it started raining sometime around dinner and cooled down considerably at night so that I was in my sleeping bag wearing 2 layers as well as my hat and gloves to keep warm.
It was a long day, and relatively trying physically – at dinner we discussed how some people had been told that Day 1 is the second hardest day. We had no idea what we would be dealing with on Day 2.
Day 2 – Over Dead Woman Pass
Day 2 started with one of the toughest climbs I’ve ever done. Our porters made sure we were awake at 5:30 by greeting us at our tent door with hot water and our choice of tea or coffee to give us a kickstart. Breakfast was at 6 and then we were back on the trail by 6:30 heading up Dead Woman Pass.
We actually had 2 major passes to get through on Day 2. The first was Dead Woman Pass which sits at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) which is the highest point on the hike. The elevation of our camp had been at roughly 3,500 meters (11,483 feet) and so we were setting out to climb almost 2,300 feet first thing in the morning at a higher elevation than most of you reading this have probably ever been – this height was a first for all but one of us in the group. It’s almost impossible for me to try and relate to you exactly what this hike was like and how difficult it was – not so much because of the muscular effort involved, but because of the elevation. When you’re trying to do extreme exercise in thin air like that, you wouldn’t believe how quickly you get out of breath, and it’s that more than the effort involved with taking steps up the mountain that completely undo you. For example, personally I don’t feel like 2,300 feet is not that bad of a climb – I’ve done more than that hiking in Alaska, but climbing 2,300 feet when starting at sea-level is a completely different undertaking than 2,300 feet starting from almost 11,500.
We were told that Dead Woman Pass is called that because the mountains resemble a dead woman lying on her back.
I mostly climbed with Kirsten (one of our new Scottish friends) and Nancy. Kirsten and I kept pretty much the same pace which was to go about 50-60 steps, and then stop to catch our breath. 50-60 more steps, and then stop. And so it went until we finally reached the top of Dead Woman Pass. Oh, and did I mention that it was raining the entire climb as well as being cold and windy? Fabulous! (I’m sure you’re all reading my sarcasm there, but the fact is that I even turned to Kirsten about 3/4 of the way up the pass and said, “You know, even as hard as this is and as wet and cold as I am, there is still absolutely no place else that I would rather be right now” – and I honestly meant that).
But getting to the top of Dead Woman was only a portion of what we had to accomplish for the day. As soon as we reached the summit, we started the rocky (read: death-trap) descent into utter madness down 1,968 feet (where we stopped briefly for lunch) before climbing another 900 or so feet up the second pass (Runkuraqay), and then descending down the other side to our camp at Chakiqocha, just past the ruins of Sayacmarca.
At some point when coming down Runkuraqay Pass, I got ahead of the rest of our group so I hiked on my own for awhile which I enjoyed. I didn’t really see all the Inca ruins of Sayacmarca as they were located up a steep staircase that I just couldn’t talk myself into climbing after what I had just put my legs through, but I did pause briefly and considered it before decided to just continue on to camp. Thankfully the rain had stopped by that point and the sun was even threatening to come out, so I couldn’t help but sing a few rounds of “Here Comes The Sun” to myself as I plodded along (eventually I got tired of hearing my own voice so I took out my iPod and let the professionals take over).
Dinner that night was the quietest meal we’d yet had as a group. Everyone was absolutely exhausted – in fact, I wish I had done some video of our first dinner because the contrast of that to our second night was really almost comical.
Carlos also congratulated all of us at tea after we got into camp on having completed the toughest part of the hike. It was at this point that he told us that often times on trips one or two people in the group need to turn back on Day 2 – either having not been prepared for the level of physical fitness required to complete the hike, or just overtaken with altitude sickness. We were discussing this later and all agreed that it was a REALLY good thing he didn’t tell us about this prior to Day 2 as it could have really had a negative psychological effect on some if not all of us… But telling us AFTER the fact was great as it only further enhanced our feelings of accomplishment at having made it that far.
That night after dinner as we were getting ready to head to bed, we noticed that the sky had finally cleared and stars were out with a vengeance. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw that many stars… I’m sure I probably have in Alaska, but it’s been years. They were positively breathtakingly spectacular. Apparently it’s too early in the year to be able to see the Southern Cross which I didn’t mind so much since I got to see it in Thailand, but what I did find fascinating was that Orion was visible, but in a position flipped around from how I usually see him at home – really drove home exactly what our location on the globe currently is.
Day 3 – Is It Much Further, Papa Smurf?
Day 3 really was an absolute pleasure cruise after what we had been through on Day 2. We didn’t have to get up as early (which translated into something like 6:30, I think).
We hiked for only about half the day overall, and took our time more so than on the previous 2 days. We stopped to see the ruins of Phuyupatamarca (“City in the Clouds”)and Intipata (“Sun Place”) along the way before reaching our camp at Wiñaywayna.
Wiñaywayna means “Forever Young” which I enjoyed finding out. Some of us had trouble remembering exactly how to say it, so one of the guys in our group (Jason) just started calling it “Willy Wonka” because it sounded pretty similar.
The campsite itself was more crowded than the others had been as it is the final campsite before reaching Machu Picchu. As a result it also had a little more in the way of modern conveniences (if you can call them that!). For 5 solés you could have a shower (a huge treat!) and there was even a bar where we all happily settled with a beer or Pisco Sour (local drink that I’ve really taken to), feeling clean and fresh in time to see the most perfect rainbow form over the mountains.
At 4:00 we met back at our camp to walk over to the ruins of Wiñaywayna with Carlos. Having seen other ruins along the way, I was pretty much figuring that these would be similar. I was not prepared for the scale and beauty of these.
I’m attaching pictures, but believe me when I say that they don’t even come close to doing it justice. They were just magnificent and surrounded by such utter beauty as the Andes as well just was almost an overload of gorgeousness (remember, of course, that I hadn’t seen Machu Picchu yet).
Coming down the slope into the actual ruins, they looked almost fake – like someone had superimposed them over a mountain backdrop. (I think someone also commented that it kinda did remind them of Willy Wonka´s Chocolate Factory). Carlos walked us around and discussed the ruins some… There’s a waterfall that sits right behind the ruins which feeds water both to Wiñaywayna and then continues on to Machu Picchu. Wiñaywayna was also the last stop to wash before reaching Machu Picchu.
We lingered awhile, took some pictures, were treated to yet another rainbow over the mountains (our third in almost as many days which I think is more than I’ve seen in my life up till now), and then wandered back to camp for tea.
It was starting to get dark, but Nancy suggested that I go and get the video camera since it would be our last tea together and she wanted to try and get some video before it got too dark. I thought nothing of this and ran to get the camera. When I got back, Carlos asked Nancy to step out of the mess tent for a moment, and when they returned, they did so with our chef and a birthday cake made out of super-thick pancakes covered in an orange-flavored icing with “Happy Birthday Deborah” written on it with candles a-blazing! I could not have been more surprised – especially considering that my birthday isn’t until Tuesday, but what a treat to get to celebrate it on the Inca Trail with this group of people who we really seemed to have bonded with pretty well given the short period of time we’d all been together.
I blew out the candles and Nancy gave me a card which she’d managed to get the whole group to sign. Then the curtain parted again and another cake emerged as apparently it was Carlos’s birthday the next day (March 26).
After the second blowing out of candles, Carlos told me I had to come join him for a Peruvian tradition having to do with blowing out the candles, making a wish, and taking the first bite of cake. I got up and went with him to the head of the table as they re-lit my candles and (I SO should have seen this coming) when I leaned in to take the bite of cake – keeping a close eye on Carlos to try and anticipate some sort of joke, the assistant chef shoved my face directly into the cake!! (See what I mean by I should have seen that coming??) Nancy managed to get the whole thing on video which I’m looking forward to watching – I’m sure it must have been a riot to see – and I was laughing pretty hard as well.
After dinner we had a final ceremony to say farewell and gracias to our porters and cooks (many were to leave us the next day with most of the gear, with only a few remaining to carry our duffel bags down to Machu Picchu for our final trek back to Cuzco). There was laughter and singing and dancing (the porters sang and pulled a few of us girls in to dance with them, myself included).
So it was a good day. Finished with a final beer at the bar and then in bed ready to be up at 4am to prepare for the final trek to Machu Picchu – the whole reason we were doing this in the first place.
Day 4 – The Unveiling
Up at 4am, in line for the checkpoint just below camp at 5am, and on our way to Intipunku (“Sun Gate”) and Machu Picchu by 5:30 or so. It was going to be a long day, but the excitement from the past 3 had been building and I think we were all ready to see what we’d been hiking all this way for. Naturally there was a partial fear of it being anticlimactic, but we had nothing to worry about.
We reached the Sun Gate at just about 6:30am. This is the location where you’re supposed to get your first magnificent view of Machu Picchu. SUPPOSED to, but don’t always because – as we’d been learning – the weather is incredibly unpredictable in the rainy season especially, and so we were aware that, should there be much fog and clouds around the mountains, our first view might be of nothing…and indeed it was. We were met at Sun Gate with loads of white and not much more. In some ways, it didn’t matter – we knew we were still on the true homestretch and we found it rather funny that there was nothing to see.
Not in any particular hurry to get down (and waiting for the entire group to make it to the top) we all settled in and had a quick snack, drink of water, and just chilled out. Over the course of the next few minutes, we got the best surprise… A break in the clouds!
All of us at Sun Gate (including the other groups that had come up around the same time) watched as the clouds slowly began to move apart and Machu Picchu appeared… Ghost-like, at first, but becoming more and more clear by the minute. The reaction from those of us there was unanimous – and cheer went up and everyone applauded. It really was as if someone had seated us all in an auditorium and then slowly drew back the curtain.
Machu Picchu – the city that the Incas had successfully managed to hide from the Spanish for over 300 years sat just below us on the side of a mountain. Even though it was still far away at that point, I was still stunned by its size and beauty. Again, the pictures fail to do it justice to the point that I almost don’t want to post them… I will, of course, but really just make sure you attach that disclaimer to all of them. This is really one of those things that must be seen with your own eyes.
The clouds began to move back in and hide the city again, so we started down towards it, stopping at another area just above the city where we had a couple more breaks in the clouds. It was almost 7:30 at this point and we were hungry so we stopped and had our snack bags they had given us before leaving and watched the city drift in and out of visibility like an ancient version of Brigadoon.
The final descent to Machu Picchu came around 8am and Carlos took us in to begin our tour with him at 8:30. I have to admit that it was hard to concentrate on everything he told us – partly because I was so tired, but then also because I was so distracted by the city itself.
The clouds had lifted off the city almost completely by then and it was almost impossible to take my eyes off of it. The enormity of this city, let alone the natural fascination with how exactly the Incas managed to build something of this size and complexity in the highlands just baffles the mind.
After our tour, we were left to our own devices until 1:30 when we were to meet Carlos at a restaurant in Machu Picchu town (Aguas Calientes), a short bus ride down from Machu Picchu.
We wandered around a bit, saw strange little animal living in some rocks that I think may have been a chinchilla, but I’m not sure – looked like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel. Then we met at the restaurant for lunch and finally caught our train back to Ollantaytambo at 4:20 where a bus was waiting to take us back to Cuzco.
After taking proper showers and putting on clean clothes (both novelties for us), we met in the lobby at 9pm and headed out to a final dinner together at a restaurant called “Fallen Angel” – kind of a funky little place with seriously good steak.
So in summary, we walked from KM 82 to Machu Picchu which was roughly 44 KM (or about 27 miles), over 3 passes – the highest one at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet), reaching Machu Picchu in 4 days. Without a doubt one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done – and I think most (if not all) of the group would say the same.
Many of our group have flights out Monday morning with a few others leaving on Tuesday. Nancy, myself, and 3 others from our group are joining 3 people from a different group and heading to the Amazon on Tuesday (my official birthday) for the second leg of our trip which I’m really looking forward to now. As for Monday, I think the day will be spent rather lazily with the most well-deserved massage of my life.
Next up, the Amazon!