The Most Epic EAA Yet – Hike to Machu Picchu
I’m so excited about this post…it’s finally time. I’m going to share with you one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. Hiking on the Inca Trail.
I know I’ve been slack, and neglected reminiscing with you all about this part of the trip as of yet, however I’ve been having actual holidays, yes, current ones! So I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry. I knew that this story would be incredibly hard to share, because I would just want to write on and on and on about it, and put about a thousand pictures. But I’ve tried to restrain myself (29 photos isn’t too many…right?).
Anyway, you’ll forgive me once you read on…
“Well, it’s hard to believe that we are still not even half-way through our trip. I feel as though this last week has been such an epic journey. We have been heading to this first culminating experience for the last three weeks, and now that it’s over…well it seems as though any other hurdles we come across during our time away will be a breeze!
Don’t get me wrong – the hike through the Inca Trail was one of the best experiences of my life – but also very challenging. It definitely deserves to be talked about in depth, though, so don’t let me get ahead of myself.
We arrived back in Cusco from Bolivia a few days before the hike. Unfortunately we had to forgo going to see the Salt Flats at Uyuni so that we would be back in time to prepare for the hike (mentally and physically – i.e re-pack our baggage!). It was comforting to be back in Cusco after Bolivia and Puno – Cusco just has a touch more Europe and a touch less South America to it, it is by far my favourite city in Peru. We stayed in another hostel the night we arrived, and the following morning were collected by the tour company that we are trekking with – Valencia Travel Cusco – and taken to our hotel, Casa Andina. So nice to stay in a proper hotel again after weeks in hostels! Don’t get me wrong, the Peruvian people are extremely hospitable (especially in the hostels) but there is just something about having all the reception staff speak English that makes life so much easier.
On Friday we experienced a full-day tour of some of the sites near Cusco that have Incan history. We visited a small town market, and then a Llama and Alpaca farm, where we learned all about the weaving and dyeing habits of the locals and got up close and personal with some very cute animals. Positive things about the visit – I now know the difference between a Llama (pronounced yama) and an Alpaca.
See – this is a LLAMA.
And THIS is an alpaca:
Negative things – I could have done without knowing that a lot of the natural colours in the yarn produced (dyed with plants, crushed insects, etc) are set by submerging the yarn in babies urine. Don’t ask me the whys or hows. Interesting!
We had lunch with a very nice elderly couple from England who were also on the tour, and visited the Incan sites at Pisac and Olantaytambo. This by itself was amazing. The architecture and engineering from the Incas is amazing, especially considering it was all constructed without any modern day equipment. The joins, the carvings, the terracing itself which was their way of combatting the harsh topography – it was just so cleanly done.
We knew we would be returning to Olantaytambo the following day before starting the hike. We purchased an extremely warm blanket from the markets (which Ryan now regrets after struggling to re-pack our now-overflowing bags). Unfortunately we were late back to the hotel, but just made it back in time for our pre-trek briefing and to meet the other members of our tour group…
…Believe it or not, there were only two other members of our trek, not including the guide. That’s right, we were going to be getting a semi-private Inca Trail tour! We couldn’t believe our luck! The two men, Jim and Kellen, were second-cousins from America.
Hike Day 1
The following morning we were up at 3.10am. The first challenge of the hike was upon us – we had to re-pack as we were leaving our big bag at the hotel. We had agreed in the end to hire a porter to carry one of our bags so that the trip was a little more enjoyable and I could share the load of Ryan’s bag if need be. We also hired sleeping bags, as we didn’t want to lug our own sleeping bags from home around for the whole ten weeks – however when we were given the sleeping bags at the briefing we came across a problem – they were MASSIVE. There was no way that we would fit them inside Ryan’s bag and the porter-provided duffle bag, so we ended up also bringing my backpack simply to carry one sleeping bag and the camera – and believe it or not, it was pretty full – that’s how big the sleeping bag was! This meant that we had to squeeze even more stuff into our big bag for keeping at the hotel – a few tense moments, curses and terse words about how much stuff I have bought (forgetting his own purchases!) and Ryan managed to make it fit – just. We made it down to reception in time, hopped into the mini-van, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.
When we arrived at the spot to start on foot, we met our porters – ten tiny men poured out of their own mini-van in a hilarious fashion – Kellen quietly likened it to clowns coming out of a mini car, and I had to agree – I could tell we would get along! The porters would be in charge of carrying our tents, food, and all non-personal equipment (apart from our duffel bag) for the duration of the hike.
The first day of the hike was fantastic. The weather was sunny, but not hot. It was great getting to know the two guys we were stuck with over the next few days. It turned out that Jim was 72 – 72!! – and he was crossing the Inca Trek off his bucket list. Kellen was 50 years his junior, and it was nice to see two family members so far apart in age, yet close enough to go on this adventure together. Our guide, Victor, was extremely friendly and easy to talk to, and, we soon found out, very knowledgable about the Incan history and traditions. We trekked through small villages and past an array of flora and fauna, including cacti, cows, corn, and of course, crumbling ruins.
We arrived at the lunch spot and were awed when we received a three-course meal for lunch – appetiser, soup, and more food for the main than the five of us could eat. The porters had arrived before us in time to prepare all of this.
I really feel the porters on these hikes deserve some kind of award – the are, in a word, astounding. They carry a max of 20 kilos each on their backs, and they scramble along the trail faster than seems humanly possible. Our group in particular were extremely friendly, didn’t speak any english, and our enjoyment of the entire hike was mostly due to the professionalism and efficiency of these ten men.
Ryan unfortunately wasn’t feeling 100% (some street food he ate a few nights before) – Ryan’s sickened state meant that he was walking at the same pace as me, however he sped up towards the end (just to end the misery I think). After the 12km walk, we arrived at the camp for the night. Exhausted from our early wake up and an ascent late into the hike, and fell asleep in our sleeping bags at about 7pm.
Hike Day 2:
This day was, by far, the most epic. It was going to be 16km, which was not a massive distance, but this was the day we were most worried about – well, the day I was most worried about. A steep ascent for the first section of the hike – at approximately 1km/hr – would take us over the first peak of the day – the dreaded ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’. We would be ascending from an altitude of 3300m to 4250m during this time – the thinness of the air was a challenge back down at 3200m, and combined with the fantastic nights sleep on a foam mat on the ground, it was bound to be a difficult climb. I don’t think you really understand it until you’ve experienced it, but if you’ve ever had asthma that is what I liken it to – the feeling that no matter how much you breathe in, you can never fill your lungs enough, you can never get enough oxygen, and with each release of breath you are gasping for your next. Luckily for us, we had been in Peru at a high altitude for more than a week so had acclimatised a little. Kellen and Jim weren’t so fortunate, so it made for a slow climb (which I was grateful for!). The coca lollies could only help so much!
We left at 7am. The first part of the hike uphill wasn’t too bad, we were captivated by the changing scenery as we changed altitude. The beauty in the forest made for an amazing experience – it was truly astounding to imagine the Incas taking these same paths hundreds of years before, it seemed as though nothing much had changed since then, and we felt extremely insignificant in the enormity of what we were experiencing.
We soon realised that the higher we climbed, not only did it get harder, but the worse the weather became. I have to admit however, I don’t know what I would have done if we had the same sunshine beating down on us as the day before. Sometime after the forest, while climbing the hundreds of steps up, we had to stop and put on our rain jackets and bag-covers. This made for a nice reprieve, however it felt as though it would never end! Ryan and Kellen went ahead and I felt like the hours passed simply by me trudging up the steps, one foot in front of the other, a repetitive rhythm that couldn’t be interrupted, lest I stop and never start again. When I reached the top I just stood with my hands on my knees, gasping for air, until I finally struggled over the where the two boys were and dropped my bag in a pile on the ground. We made it!
We had a brief respite before starting the downhill. Now, you would be forgiven for thinking the worst is over. However, the rain had made the downward section just as time-consuming as the ascent. The stone steps and path were now slick with water, and one wrong step would send you straight on your backside (as I experienced!). It was a little crazy to see the porters (ours and other tour groups’) practically running down the steps. Surely they would break their necks! It took us nearly three hours to make the descent to our lunch spot, undoing all the hard work we had achieved in the first part of our day.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see the porters friendly faces and take refuge in the food tent (yes, we had a dining tent). I went on a trip to find the baños (toilets) – here lay another one of the many challenges on the hike – disgustingly smelly and dirty squat toilets. My legs were getting a workout, that was for sure.
After lunch we started the second ascent – peaking at a much less trying 3950m. This one was a much slower climb, and we reached it with (what seemed like) hardly any effort after the first pass. The descent was a little easier, due to the dryer path, however my calves were still screaming by the time we reached our next camp site at around 4.30pm. This was the coldest site we would be staying in, and it had an eery sense of calmness about it. We were camped among the clouds. I can’t describe the amazing serenity of the place. The sense of achievement and peace was fantastic. It was truly the hardest and best day of the trek. The clouds parted as night rolled in, and the stars made us feel our insignificance once again.
Hike Day 3
Today seemed like a breeze after Day 2 – only 10k! We would be hiking over a short pass, and be at our next campsite by lunchtime – we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves! We even had a sleep in, a relaxed start to the day, and very welcome after yesterday’s ordeal – my legs were aching and shaky after the freezing night’s sleep (in an effort to stretch out during the night my sleeping bag had touched the side of the tent, and the end was soaked through by morning). This day’s short hike was made spectacular by passing through several Inca ruins. We would be walking through the forest and all of a sudden find ourselves in the ruins of a village big enough to house 70 people. The history of the place was so fascinating – the way the Incas lived their lives showed how much a culture could make the land their own, despite only being in South America for a mere 400 years before being taken over by the Spanish. We arrived at our campsite amidst a sun shower, had lunch, and then went searching for some nearby ruins – upon arriving there we were delighted to find a male llama and three females. The male was also excited…a little too excited, much to the females llamas enjoyment. Ahh, nature!
We passed the time playing cards and talking about our time back home before retiring early for an early start the next day. We would be up again at 3am.
Hike Day 4
We were up even earlier than our guide (pancake breakfast finished and all), surprisingly refreshed. It was apparently a race to the next checkpoint – all the people at the campsite would be up just as early to get to the checkpoint first. The one catch – the checkpoint was only 5 minutes from the campsite and not open until 5.30am. So why the rush? The reason for this was that the porters had to pack up, and get down the path to the town below Machu Picchu – some two hours hike for us – before the one and only porters train at 5.40am. If they missed it they had to face a 5hr hike back to Olantaytambo – we didn’t want to be responsible for the porters running late!
The other reason was that the hour march from the checkpoint to the mountain peak above Machu Picchu, the Sun Gate, would decide who got the privilege of being the first to look down upon Machu Picchu. It wasn’t necessarily the site which cultivated the race, however, it was the need to get down to Machu Picchu early. The problem with the site, as our guide explained it, was that you didn’t have to hike to reach it. You could arrive for the day, by train, or by bus if you slept in the town below the ruins the night before. We wanted to arrive before the hordes of ‘lazies’ (the tourists who simply caught the train or bus to the ruins) arrived after 8am (we nicknamed ourselves the ‘crazies’). The site welcomed 3000 people a day, and the 400 or so of us who had camped and hiked and EARNED it over the last 4 days wanted to get there before it became overrun.
So the early morning became a test of willpower, strength, and sheer desire to see the culminating point of our efforts before those who had waltzed their way to the site in the luxury of a train carriage arrived to spoil it. Our legs shaking, our backs aching, we hiked in single file for two hours. The Sun Gate, unfortunately, was still shrouded in cloud when we reached it, so we didn’t dilly dally before heading down to Machu Picchu.
Finally, finally, after 4 days and 45kms of hiking, we made it to the site.
You probably don’t want to hear this, but Machu Picchu itself was a little bit of an anti-climax. We had experienced so much, seen so much, over the last 4 days, that while the enormity of the site was impressive and the history of the site itself was amazing, we didn’t like having to share with the other tourists. We had seen ruins still covered in the jungle that had claimed them when they had been abandoned hundreds of years before. We had experienced the spirit-lifting feeling of being the only people to sit on the steps of huge stone terraces that had been built centuries before any kind of mechanical aide had been made available.
The serenity we had felt in the past few days, the peace and feeling of being part of something much greater than ourselves, was ruined with the arrival of hundreds of careless, inconsiderate tourists, crawling all over the ruins like ants in their make-up with their high heeled boots and their bored children. Here we were, sore, tired, and filthy from our amazing experience, and we felt such ownership for the ruins – we didn’t want to share with people who didn’t deserve it! We got over this a little during our tour of the ruins, but by now were just tired and wanted to get back to being clean and civilised. I won’t go into the history (I’m sure there is enough information about that on the internet), but safe to say Machu Picchu was the stuff of legends.
We finished our hike with a pisco sour (a traditional Peruvian cocktail) and a group lunch in the town below the ruins (some interesting food – our friendly neighbourhood guinea pig never looked so unfriendly). This trip has been something I will never forget, as long as I live. For good reasons as well! Even with the pain, the rain, the stinky toilets, and the mildly disappointing ending, I haven’t done anything this self-fulfilling in a long time (wedding aside). The tour company was absolutely phenomenal, and I’m sure that had a lot to do with how enjoyable it was. On the bright side, we have been told about another hike that takes 5 days to some newly discovered ruins – so newly discovered that they are not yet accessible by any mode of transport other than foot. The next adventure, perhaps?”