Sept 18: Day 1 of Inca Trail
I woke up early in the hotel this morning, even before our 0530 wake-up knock (no phones in the rooms). I am nervous but excited about starting the trail today. We have a quick breakfast, and get our things ready on the bus for the 40 min drive to the trailhead.
I just realized I haven't introduced you to my group! Travelling with me are Paul and Joan Christie from Halifax, David and Helen Crowle from the UK, Linda Tolmie and Harry Koumorou from the UK, Emma Warmington and Paul Boanas from the UK, Hans Zeurcher from Switzerland, and Walter Pampuch and Ingrid (father/daughter) from Australia. We say goodbye to Walter and Ingrid as we get on the bus- they are not doing the trail, but will meet us at Machu Picchu after taking the train to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, then a bus to the site.
We arrive at the trailhead called Km 82 at 2600m, and meet our porters who will be carrying everything we need for the 4 day trek- and I mean everything! There are 16 porters for the 10 of us and our two guides, Nancy and Rubin. All our porters are from the same village, where during most of the year they are farmers, but this is the down season-planting won't begin for another month or so.
Nancy takes our passports and checks us in at the entrance gate; the trail is regulated to a max of 500 people per day on the trail, including porters and guides, and each group has their own starting time. We pause for a pic for posterity, and start along the trail. I have faith in the walking stick I bought in the market- it is carved with the three sacred Inca animals: condor, puma, and snake.
The first four hours of the trek are fairly easy- moderate gradient, following along the Urubamba river through light brush. There are a few small communities and families living along the trail here, and we take a rest stop here and there. There are no 'bano' facilities however, so we quickly become accustomed to 'communing with nature', ie ducking into the closest thicket or behind a rock!
Around 1230 we stop for lunch in Llactapata (aka Patallacta). Here we get our first amazed taste at our dining experiences on the trail. While we are resting on a small grassy area, a dining tent and kitchen tent is set up. Bowls of water with soap and cloths are put out to wash with. The table is set with a cloth and dishes; and we sit down to a three course meal- appetizer, soup, and broiled trout! I thought I was going to lose weight on this trip! Avelardo, our 'cook', continued to amaze us throughout the trip with his culinary expertise- this all being created in a tent no bigger than a 4-man, with a collapsible stove,grill,etc.
Now that we were completely full and needing a nap, it was time to move on to the more challenging part of the trail; over the next four hours the gradient of climb would dramatically increase. We took a rest break at Wayllabamba, the last community on the trail at 3100m. Some of the group really struggled through this part of the trek- the climbing is difficult if you're not in fairly decent shape, but combined with the altitude, makes it even more so. I did not feel short of breath or anything like that, but you do feel like a little old lady, because you can't move too fast or you will run into problems! You have to keep reminding yourself to stop and look around at the incredible scenery- we would alternately be walking through brushy areas, then emerge onto narrow stone trails along the mountainside. I think I have almost cured my fear of heights!
We finally arrived at our first campsite 'Llulluchapampa' around 1630, elevation 3850m ASL. I had been climbing in just pants and T-shirt, but immediately after stopping, it got very cold, and by 1700 with the sun going down, we were bundled in our thermals and trying to keep warm til dinner. At this level we were above the tree line, and only about 500m below the snow line.
All along the way, our porters were passing us with huge packs on their packs, including the tanks of propane! Our tents were already set up; it is supposed to be double share, and I don't think I mentioned previously that thus far I have been fortunate enough to have my own room, since Hans and I were the only ones traveling solo- he had his own room too. Luckily, Paul and Emma were kind enough to offer to 'split up' for the trek, so that Emma and I shared a tent, as did Paul and Hans. I think Emma may have regretted that decision later that night, when she could've cuddled up to Paul- we froze!! Had almost all the clothing on that I had, incl hat and gloves, and our sleeping bags were 'subzero', but still very cold.
Sept 19: Day 2 Inca Trail
We were awoken by the sound of the porters moving about around 0530; I think I finally got about 2hrs sleep. A little tap at the tent and 'buenos dias amigas', and lo and behold, we are being offered hot tea or chocolate in bed! Tea has never tasted so good.
Emma and I get dressed in our sleeping bags and venture outside- there is frost on the ground. The campsites do have 'banos', just make sure you go before bkfst if smell offends you. Oh ya, and they are the hole in the ground style- more squatting, so that after yesterday's climb my quads are shaking.
An awesome breakfast of juice, hot bevvies, cereal, pancakes, etc, and we are packed up again and ready to hit was is supposed to be the hardest day of the trek- over the first two passes and up and down over 1000m before we hit our next camp.
We set out at 0630 and are again heading upwards steeply for about 2 hrs til we finally come to the highest pass of the trail, Warmi Wanusca or 'Dead Woman's Pass' at 4200m. The air is very thin here, even the porters stop for a quick break. It is called Dead Woman's Pass because the profile of the mountain looks like a woman lying on her back. She looks pregnant too...? I don't know why she just couldn't have been 'Sleeping woman', but that's the Inca's call, not mine.
We then have a very steep downhill- about 800m over about 1/2 km- my poor knees! Grateful I have my walking stick. The trail is all irregular stone steps here, difficult maneuvering, and yet calls of 'porter!' come down the line, and we gringos stand aside to let our porters pass as they run down the hill; when we get to our lunch stop at Runkurakay ruins, they will already have the dining and kitchen tents up, and lunch will be almost ready.
After lunch it's back uphill again, and over the second pass 'Sayacmarca' at 3950m. We are all definitely feeling the effort of today's climb as we lie back on the rocks and comtemplate a hot shower and warm bed!
Only another 2 hrs brings us to our camp for the night at Chaquicocha 3680m. This is a bigger campsite, and there are a couple of other groups here, but no one feels like socializing- just another great dinner and hit the sleeping bag.
Sept 19: Day 3 Inca Trail
Thankfully we have made it through the two longest days of trekking already, and Nancy and Rubin have promised us a short day today- only 4 hrs hiking. This meant we got to 'sleep in' til 0600! Hot tea to wake us again after another chilly night. It is raining lightly this am, but the sun gradually comes out and clears.
We are on the trail by 0755 and have a moderate uphill for the first 2hrs to the third pass at Phuyupatamarca at 3670m. Prior to this we pass through a 'cloud forest'- an isolated area of trees and ferns that is shrouded in mist today. Far, far down in the valley, we can see the Urubamba river, and hear/see the train going to Aguas Calientes,looking like a miniature. This train brings in the people who can't hack the trek like us!
We then start downhill again- ow my knees and calves!- passing the ruins also named Phuyupatamarca, and on to our camp for the final night at Winay Wayna 2700m. We arrive in time for lunch, and have the rest of the day to relax and explore. This is the largest campsite yet with 18 camps, and also the Trekker's Lodge, which used to be a hostel, but now is comprised of shower and toilet facilities, and a bar!!
We have lunch then there is a race for the showers- only two stalls per gender, and hot water is said to be limited; in my case, nonexistent by the time I got in, but still felt good to be semi-clean. We then take advantage of the first real sunny day and warmth, and sit on the patio by the bar and have a few drinks- after the last three days and the altitude, it only takes 1-2 drinks to make you feel a little spinny!
Avelardo has prepared 'tea' for us (all the Brits are ecstatic) at 1700- hot drinks, juice, crackers, cookies, hot wontons with either sausage or caramel! Should tide us over til dinner at 1900, no? We amuse ourselves then with card games for a bit until dinner, our last one. Avelardo outdid himself- quinoa soup and grilled alpaca, and a birthday cake for Nancy! Afterwards, we invite Avelardo and all the porters into the dinner tent, and Joan-who speaks the best espanol in our group- makes a moving speech, thanking all of them for making our journey so incredible. Avelardo returns his own speech, and everyone (well, me at least!) is teary-eyed. The porters then sing us a song en espanol, but I pick up enough of it to know it is about travel and friendship and togetherness and life, and I am going to cry again! We all shake hands with 'muchas gracias' over and over.
It is only 2100 when we fall into our sleeping bags, exhausted and not believing that tomorrow will finally bring us to the goal of our journey, Machu Picchu.
Sept 21: Day 4- Final day of Inca Trail
Finally slept well last night- much warmer at this altitude. Still, it is hard to wake up at 0400, but the porters are already taking the tent fly off, trying to pack up as much as possible. Emma and I get up, and meet everyone in the dining tent for our last bkfst. We have to get going soon, because the access gate to the final trail to Machu Picchu opens at 0530, and with 18 camps here there will be a lineup.
We leave camp in the dark at 0500, and make our way by flashlight to the gate by about 0520, where a line has already formed. This is the first point where I am somewhat disillusioned by the relative 'commercialism' of what this trek has become...thus far we had seen only one or two other groups on the trail, but to see about 100 people lined up seemed strange.
Anyway, we pass through the gate and start our final 2hr trek along the trail. The sun is coming up, and the view of the Urubamba valley is magnificent; we let several 'agenda' hikers pass by so we are not rushed and can enjoy this final journey. I have long forgotten that I am walking along a metre-wide trail on a mountainside, and am stunned by the views. Machu Picchu mountain itself is now ahead of us, although we cannot see the ruins yet.
At last we climb up about 100 steep stairs and reach Intipunku, the Sun Gate. It is 0730, and the sun is breaking through the clouds and shining down on Machu Picchu. I can't describe in words here what this was like; surreal, to say the least. For most of us, we just stopped and sat down where we were for quite awhile, and comtemplated our journey and our final arrival here.
Eventually we continued on, as the ruins themselves were still another hour away, despite being in view. As we reached them, we saw Johana, our GAP leader, and Walter and Ingrid cheering us on- it was like a welcome home.
After we rested a bit (my aching legs!), we had to officially 'check in' and then Nancy took us on a tour of the site. Machu Picchu is impressive in it's size and location. There are a few different beliefs on what is was- some believe it was a monastery and/or nunnery; others say it was a place for the Inca nobility; or that it was a sacred place where water and mountains were worshipped, as they provided that needed to sustain life for the Incas. It is divided into the 'living' area and 'agricultural' areas, ie housing buildings and terraces. There are also many temple areas and a sundial of rock. I can't possibly describe everything to you here, but suffice to say you could spend days and months exploring and you would never cease to be amazed at the architechture, the forethought, and sheer manpower that it took to create this place. In a way, however, it was almost anticlimactic to be there after the three day trek, and then see the place crawling with tourists, most of whom came up via the train and bus.
Following our tour, we were ready to relax! We took our lives into our hands and grabbed one of the buses down to the town of Aguas Calientes, also called Machu Picchu town. The road to town is like a snake winding down the hillside, we almost had a head-on with another bus! Made it in one piece, however, and made our way to the local thermal baths- cheesy version of the hot springs we were in at Chivay. Felt great after our trek though. We then had lunch and waited for our train at 1700 to take us to Ollantaytambo, where we would catch our private bus back to Cusco and civilization!