Machu Picchu has been a desired destination since learning about it as a kid, but taking four days to hike an Inca trail to get there brought the experience to an entirely different level.
On Monday (3/13) we boarded a bus from Cusco with 14 other hikers to take this amazing 45 kilometer journey over mountain passes, through valleys and jungles, and along sites of Inca remains in order to reach Machu Picchu.
In an effort to avoid duplication of information already available on the internet (and maybe because I’m being a bit lazy and typing on a phone is somewhat cumbersome), a description of the trail and rough daily itinerary can be found of the website of Peru Treks, the company we booked the trip with: http://perutreks.com/inca_trail_04d_itinerary.html
Day 1: Training Day – Our first day had an easy pace with some ups and downs but nothing so strenuous that we couldn’t chat with our fellow hikers along the way. This would also be our first exposure to the speed and strength of our porters, and the acknowledgement that we had to share the trail with other hiking groups. The weather was mostly sunny and we enjoyed clear views of the Sacred Valley and glaciated Andean mountains in the distance. We hiked together as a group throughout the day and made several stops for our guides to provide historical information regarding the Inca remains and landscapes we passed en route to our first campsite. We also hiked through several tiny villages where the locals had established makeshift concession stands to sell drinks and snacks. It was a fun day getting to know the others in our group and having it sink in that we were actually doing this!
Day 2: Challenge Day – This was the toughest day in terms of physical exertion due to a steep, high-altitude mountain pass at 13,800 feet (which is lovingly referred to as Dead Woman’s Pass). At our first rest stop it was entertaining to watch nearly everyone shove coca leaves into their cheeks in an attempt to ward off potential altitude sickness, although we still saw several people from other groups struggling to catch their breath while going up the pass (I think our previous two weeks in the high altitudes of Bolivia must have helped us acclimatize). We also had intermittent rains throughout the day; nothing a little rain gear couldn’t cure. With the exception of a couple checkpoints to make sure everyone was doing okay, we got to hike at our own pace. Although our group got quite spread out, it was nice to not feel pressured or restricted by staying together. Alastair and I both kept a good pace and managed to be among the first to arrive at camp at the end of the day.
Day 3: Historical Day – My favorite day. This was the longest day in terms of distance and it rained most of the time we were on the trail. However, most of my favorite experiences of the entire journey happened on this day. Since Alastair and I kept up a decent pace it allowed for more time to explore the sites of Inca remains we passed along the trail while enjoying the company of the handful of others in our group who had a similar pace. This day also involved crossing over into the jungle and rain forest which meant more vegetation and a more exotic feel. Typically the rain would be a burden on outdoor adventures, but for this occasion it added to the atmosphere and I was strangely enjoying it much more than I would have expected.
At the top of one of the mountain passes we met up as a group to make offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Our assistant guide led the ritual, starting with an explanation of how the important things we need in life come from Pachamama and how health and happiness outweigh money and materialistic goods. Our group then became a “mountain family” by each of us gathering a rock and three coca leaves (to represent past, present, and future; thankfully I hadn’t chewed them all yet) and having our assistant guide place them in a circle on the ground of a nearby grassy knoll. Although I’m not much of a spiritual person, I still appreciated and respected the thought behind this gesture and it made for a unique moment in our journey through the mountains.
For most of the afternoon I was happily hiking on my own, aside from occasionally passing (or being passed by) a few hikers from other groups. Earlier in the day our guide had told us about a fork in the trail where we would take a left and head to an Inca remain called Intipata. Upon reaching the fork, I took the left and hiked alone along the trail. I hadn’t seen or heard anyone else for quite awhile and just when I started to question whether or not I had taken the correct trail, I emerged from the trees and found myself standing at the edge of Intipata. I stopped in my tracks and my jaw dropped, taken aback by my surroundings. The massive terraced landscapes rose high above me and dropped out from below, and the skies were clearing just in time to expose dramatic views of the Sacred Valley. To add to the atmosphere, I still hadn’t seen anyone else which made me feel as though I had the entire place to myself. I took a moment to enjoy the silence and solitude while soaking in the views, then continued around the corner where I found Alastair and a couple others from our group waiting and enjoying this amazing place. We all stayed for awhile, taking pictures and watching the clouds roll in and out of the valley with surprising speed.
At the end of the day most of our group seemed to feel quite accomplished and in a good mood, knowing our most difficult days were behind us. The rain held off for the rest of the evening and we had an early night to prep for an early start the next day.
Side note: On the first day of the hike a fellow hiker asked us what our favorite day of the trip had been. We knew the worst day (which may or may not have involved losing a camera) and knew what some of our favorite moments had been but didn’t really have a favorite day. Now, if asked again, this would be my favorite day of the entire trip.
Day 4: Magical Day – With headlamps donned, we hiked out of camp at 4:30 in the morning and arrived at The Sun Gate in time to watch low-lying clouds lift and expose Machu Picchu in the distance. The clouds continued to drift in and out, playing hide-and-seek with the Sacred Valley below. Although the clouds inhibited the picture-perfect panorama, I enjoyed how it made for a more dynamic and dramatic scene, adding to the mysterious feel of Machu Picchu.
We finished the hike with a descent to Machu Picchu, where we were all suddenly struck by a contrast of environment. Machu Picchu is accessible by bus from a nearby town called Aguas Calientes and gets flooded with tourists on a daily basis. We went from several days of living in a serene natural wonderland to being amongst hundreds (thousands?) of tourists waiting in queues and crowding the walkways. It was interesting to see the structures of Machu Picchu up close and to learn more about the Inca culture from our guide while meandering through this ancient city, but I found myself having a deeper appreciation for our time on the trail and the experience of the journey itself rather than the end destination. I always assumed the pinnacle of the trip would be cresting the pass at the Sun Gate and descending into Machu Picchu but, in the end, the preceding three days of hiking the Inca trail and making friends amongst our group members were the most memorable and fulfilling parts of the trek.
The group we hiked with consisted of me, Alastair, and 14 others: a family of four from Vancouver, BC with two teenage kids; a newlywed couple from Texas on their honeymoon; a friendly couple taking a few months to explore South America in a similar fashion to me and Alastair (he is Irish and she is Bulgarian but they are currently living in England); a college student and outdoor adventurer from Wisconsin currently studying in Buenos Aires who consistently outpaced everyone on each section of the trail, and who managed to baffle everyone by using just his small day-pack for the entire trek; three ex-military dudes from Alabama on a man-trip; and a mother-daughter duo from Florida. We had a good group dynamic and (nearly) everyone blended together well. Each day consisted of entertaining conversations and (a few bouts of explosive) laughter and it was nice for us to have other people to interact with. Considering our group was formed by a random luck of the draw, I feel incredibly fortunate that these were the people I got to share this experience with.
Aside from the fact that we were hiking on Inca trails through the Andes with a group of (previously) strangers, this hike was definitely a unique experience from our typical hiking and camping back home. We had an impressive team of porters who hauled all of the tents and other camping equipment (leaving us with only about 20 lb packs with our sleeping bags and pads, clothes, toiletries, snacks, and water) to each campsite and had everything assembled and ready before any of the hikers had arrived. This meant we could arrive at camp, immediately drop our backpacks in the tent, and soon be fed an amazing meal in a dining tent. They even greeted us with drinks each time we arrived at a lunch spot and at the campsites at the end of the day, and woke us up in the mornings with cups of coca tea. When we arrived at camp each afternoon they would give us an applause, which felt a bit silly considering they had hiked the same trail in half the time with a 50+ pound pack and then set up camp upon arrival. Many porters choose to wear sandals throughout the journey, despite the tour companies providing more supportive and technical footwear. These men are seriously amazing and have my sincere respect for all the work they did making sure we had a pleasant time.
Our camp chef was also a miracle worker. The food he prepared put our typical camping feasts to shame and definitely helped to boost morale. Not only was everything incredibly tasty (and not just because we were super hungry), but the presentation was thoughtful, lunches and dinners involved three courses, and we never had any repeat meals. I can’t figure out how he managed to prepare such amazing and seemingly gourmet meals for all of us given the restrictions of cooking in the mountains. He even presented us with a freshly baked cake at lunch on our third day of hiking to celebrate the newlyweds in our group. We’re feeling the pressure to up the ante on future camping trips.
Our “mountain family” also consisted of a head guide and an assistant guide. Although they both maintained their professionalism, they were easy to chat with and joke with. The lead guide was always straightforward about what to expect regarding upcoming trail conditions and the associated level of difficulty, and continually checked in with everyone to make sure we were doing okay. They seemed to genuinely care about our individual well-being and made good judgement calls when our group was getting divided due to a few people having difficulties along the way.
At the end of our journey, the guides took us on a tour of the grounds of Machu Picchu, then let us have some free time to stroll around at our own pace under drizzling clouds. Alastair and I walked along a loop of the main area, then hopped on the bus to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes where we would rejoin our group. Since we had planned to stay overnight in the town, we checked in to our hostel and had a quick shower to wash off four days worth of hiking before meeting the others for lunch. The meal felt bittersweet since we were riding a high of the great experience we had just shared but it would be our last meal together before parting ways, returning to our respective homes and lives. After lingering a while and saying our goodbyes, we returned to our hostel and crashed for the remainder of the day.
The next morning we ventured to the train station to exchange our 18:20 departure tickets for the 13:30 departure. There is not much entertainment to be found in Aguas Calientes and we were more than willing to pay a little extra to avoid a late arrival back in Cusco. Once aboard the train we fully expected to get the complimentary drink and snack which were served shortly after we departed. What we did not expect was the ritual music and dance routine performed by a rainbow-costumed and masked member of the train’s staff. We also didn’t expect that I would be beckoned to become this man’s dance partner up and down the aisle of the train while he made animalistic cooing noises (unfortunately my phone can’t quite handle uploading the video). The experience made me completely forget the meaning and purpose of this ritual, but it made for a good mental souvenir. Once the dance party was over, we were then treated to a slightly awkward fashion show of the clothing items they had for sale aboard the train.
The remainder of our journey back to Cusco was comparatively mundane. Even though Alastair and I had been traveling alone for nearly ten weeks, I had become accustomed to having our fellow hikers around to chat with and it felt somewhat quiet being back to just the two of us. We keep reflecting on what a great experience it was and are so thankful that we are able to end on a positive note as this South American journey comes to a close.