The longest hike I’d ever done was in one day in the Smoky or Appalachian Mountains so it was quite a stretch to think that I would spend 4 days trekking through the Andes Mountains on a trail known for its difficulty. It’s not just the hike that worried me but it was also the altitude. I’d never been very far above sea level and definitely not far enough to know whether I would get altitude sickness. So when I started planning my trip to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail was a route I was more than a bit apprehensive about.
Why even consider it? I learned that the only way to make it to the Sun Gate over Machu Picchu for sunrise was to hike the trail and well, I’m a sucker for a great view.
Having finished the trek, I can't see visiting Machu Picchu any other way. The journey is part of the experience that you just can't get riding in a cushy train car drinking cervecas and its one that if you're just reasonably fit I strongly recommend you take. It tests your endurance, sure, but the sense of accomplish and the sheer reverence for the Incas can only be earned by walking in their foot steps.
Butterflies were flying as I boarded the minibus for the 2 hour ride to Ollantaytambo where the trek was to begin. It felt a lot like the night before the start of Basketball season growing up, where I was really looking forward to the fun but knew I would have to experience a lot of pain before I got there.
I was joined on the trip by 8 other adventurous soles, 3 also from the US, 2 from Canada, 2 from France, and 1 from Brazil. Our eclectic group was one of the things I enjoyed most about the trek. Even though we were from all walks of life we had a great time hiking, struggling, and camping together.
The first day of hiking is deceivingly easy with only a few stretches that were truly up hill. We also stopped at a couple of Inca sites and outside of the homes of locals who have lived along the trail for generations and have set up stands selling water, sodas, candy, and snacks to the trekkers passing by.
Lunch was the first of many times I was truly impressed by our group of porters. The porter community has had a long struggle with working conditions and pay and these guys really deserve every bit they earn and more. While most of us carried medium to small day packs with only the necessities for the day’s hike, the porters carried our clothes, food, camping gear, cooking utensils, along with their own supplies. Their bags would often tower over their small bodies leaving us wondering how they managed to carry the weight. When we arrived for lunch these guys had already set up a tent and were cooking our first meal even though they started the trail after we did.
Since our group took our time throughout Day 1 on the Inca Trail, we arrived at our campsite just after dark. I was happy to hear we’d be going a bit further on Day 1 than normal, reducing the trek for the strenuous Day 2, but by the end of the evening I was struggling to make it up hill in the dark while barely breathing. Our camp was a welcome site.
The 2nd day on the Inca Trail is known to be the most difficult day as you are continuously climbing paths and ancient Inca staircases for the majority of the day. Unfortunately I had already earned some blisters from the day before so I set out already in a bit of discomfort.
On top of the terrain, Day 2 of the Inca Trail takes you to the highest elevation of the trek even exceeding that of the city of Cuzco where most people spend a few days to acclimate to the altitude. Drinking extra Matte de Coca (tea with coca leaves) to start the day helped some but the altitude was still a force to be reckoned with.
For the first 4-5 hours the continuous climb is all leading to the highest point known as the Dead Woman’s Pass. I can certainly understand why the pass earned its name as I felt every bit of dead when I made it to the top. The last hour or so of the climb I was really feeling the altitude and was forced to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. The reward of reaching the top was certainly worth it. Just knowing that I’d endured the most difficult part of the trek and made it was great but enjoying the panoramic view from the top was equally great.
During the first half of the day, we all looked forward to the last half where we would be descending back down the other side of the mountain. I was eager to be able to walk without gasping for breath but was shocked to begin the descent and find that going down was just as difficult as going up. The only difference was that I could breathe better. The steep staircases winding down the mountain placed a beating on my knees with each step I took. This is the point I was very glad I had purchased a walking stick but wished I had bought two.
Reaching camp that afternoon was a huge relief. Because Day 2 on the Inca Trail is so difficult, lunch is reserved for after the full day of hiking, around 2pm. The concern is that if the group stops for lunch, stiffness would set in and further trekking for the day would be useless. I was so relieved to reach camp, peel off my socks and shoes, and throw on my flip flops. We spent the afternoon relaxing and enjoying the success of completing the hardest day.
On Day 3, conquering the hardest portion of the trail seemed like little relief as I stiffly pulled my shoes back on and tried to work out the stiffness in my knees and calves. While Day 2 is the hardest and highest portion of the trek, Day 3 is the longest and not without strenuous stretches. On the other hand it also offers the most and some of the best Inca sites.
When I originally planned to hike the Inca Trail, I didn't realize there would be so many more Inca sites to explore en route to Machu Picchu. The only way to visit these sites is by hiking the trail and only a couple of them make it more than worth it….not to mention the constant spectacular views.
We started Day 3 on the Inca Trail with a fairly steep ascent to the first site of the day. It still seems absurd to me that the Incas made their trails up passes and down into valleys instead of gently around the sides of the mountains. So much of the effort of hiking down the day before we were undoing with our hike on Day 3.
Since we had reached the highest point of the trail the day before, cold weather had set in. I felt like I was constantly changing clothes as you'd be cold going down, hot going up. And then the fun really started with the rain.....mist mostly but it made for a chilly morning. Luckily the weather cleared in the afternoon and we got our first glimpses of Machu Picchu from a distance. Really it was the back of Winay Picchu, the mountain that towers over the Machu Picchu site but it still felt great to see our final destination, even if it was really far away. That first glimpse really boosted our soggy spirits!
Finally the day I had been waiting and working so hard for had arrived. I would finally lay eyes on Machu Picchu for myself. Me and two of my dedicated trekkers decided to be the first in line to start the trek the next day. No one is let on the final leg of the Inca Trail until 5:30am so a line begins to form as early as 3am. We arrived at 2:30am just to be sure we would be first. We beat the next group to arrive by about an hour but unfortunately that didn't ensure we'd be the first boots to hit the path that morning.
Another tour group and their anal guide made a fuss about us being in front of his group and because we were a part of a tour and not all of our group got their first, this guy made a stink to the point that his group of 20 or so cut in front of us to enter the trail. I more than lost it with lack of sleep and the unfairness of the situation. I gave that guide and the guards at the gate more than a piece of my tired mind. I felt bad later but frankly they deserved it. There was no doubt we were first and there was no doubt that they were breaking the rules.
I guess karma got us all in the end as it was so foggy at the Sun Gate that Machu Picchu was no where near visible. That was just a minor set back though. As we descended toward the site, Machu Picchu poked its head through the cloud and my stomach sank like a rock. It's one thing to see the magnificent photos of this grand Inca city, but its a whole other experience to lay eyes on its grandeur for yourself.
More to come on exploring Machu Picchu!
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