Hiking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu
So yeah, we signed up to do the Inca Trail. Stupid me looked at basic figures… like Bogota being a couple hundred feet higher in elevation than the lost city, so figured it wouldn’t be terribly horrible. Until a couple months beforehand we actually watched youtube videos of people who had done it… and the horror dawned on me it wasn’t the end altitude (no biggie), nor the overall distance of the trail (I can put one foot in front of the other pretty well), but rather it was going up Up UP and down, Down DOWN the Andes over and again. And mostly not on a swell dirt ramp trail, but rather Incan steps which mock the hiker. “Hi, we can build lego-stone walls that have survived several earthquakes, but just to f with you, when we built the trail, no step will be within 3 inches height with either the prior or subsequent step.” If you look close at some of the ensuing onslaught of pics, you’ll see steps that go from like 12 inches to 5 inches to 17 inches… thus making each step a strategery decision.
We booked through Wayki, as one of K’s friends had used them the year before and had had a great time. Wayki are owned by a former porter, and thus (unlike some external companies that offer trips) the money stays in Peru. And they also cap the load carried by the porters at 25kg/55lbs … compared to the 8 or 9kg you’ll be cursing at yourself for lugging up. In addition to hosting you, guiding you, carrying most your stuff (or at least the stuff you didn’t bring yourself but will be using, like, oh, sleeping bag, tent, portable chemical toilet, food) they also provide one day of additional, unique experience.
We had a group of six in all, with two last minute cancellations (altitude sickness at Cusco’s 11k ft, good call on their part), 5 of us met the day before – K and I, two young Brits, Chris and Francesca, as well as Loren.
In our case, we left Cusco on “Day 0” and drove half the distance out to the starting point and spent the afternoon and night at the village of several of our porters. We were greeted with smiles and toasted vegetables, then immediately put to work. The ladies were put to work shucking/husking corn. Chris and I started with gathering potatoes before we got put to the hard labor, some 11,000ft up, of wielding a pick axe to dig them up. The labor was no joke. All the locals would gather at one family’s farm on a given day, work their asses off, then the host treats them to dinner. (When you see some hombre bouncing up and down high-altitude Inca Trails with what looks like a Kegerator strapped to his back jumping around like he is part goat, realize the farmers, for a big burlap sack of some 50kg/110lbs of potatoes earn about $17US. No wonder they spend days/weeks on end lugging your stuff up and down mountains. Keep this in mind come tip time… they have earned it.)
After digging up potatoes for about two hours (and thus saving the farmers maybe all of 20 minutes of their own time) we hiked (and hiked, turned out this was a nice warm-up) to the house of the family we’d helped and were treated to a great dinner. And singing. And dancing. And as we found it, it wasn’t dinner and a show, it was dinner with US being the show. We got to dance as well. While was tough on us hombres as one of our hostesses would dance with two of us at a time, whipping her arms around violently like Nolan Ryan winding up for a 100mph fast ball, the ladies had it tougher. One of our future porter’s sons was maybe 8 years old and, if put on a treadmill hooked up to Cusco’s power grid, had enough energy to power maybe 12 city blocks. You go, chico! We returned to the bunkhouse to crash and get some ZzzzZzzZZ’s for an early wake up.
Day One arrives, we get up at 6am at our farm bunkhouse all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Or rather bleary eyed and sans tails. Team Gringo drink up some coca tea and are ready to go. We are joined by Li, our late arrival. After devouring a swell breakfast, load up and are off to Aguas Callientes. After stopping for last second supplies (more coca candies… Jebus, if you drug tested me upon arrival to MP in a couple days, I would have popped “RICK JAMES” on Operation Goldenflow) we got into town to find we’d inadvertently left our chef behind. Sorry, Elias! But it was us gringos who noticed and had the van stop!
Upon arrival we girded up to begin the 4 day/3 night funfest. Sunscreen applied (even in the winter, at reasonable mid-70s temps the Sun will fry you like bacon in a skillet), snacks grabbed, team pics snapped, we began the hike.
First day wasn’t difficult, but certainly wasn’t terribly, erm, fun. While our guide, Jose, had us stop and gave us some interesting lessons on sites, flora and fauna (if you take the white fungus/moss growing on the cacti and rub it, you get a bright red color that can be used to dye clothes… or applied facially to make it look as though you are bleeding out the eyes) … the hike gradually ascended from 8,000ft to about 10,000. The terrain looked like our home state of Arizona, and the Sun started cooking like AZ as well. We also got a taste of the rest of the trail, both the travails and treasures to come. We climbed up and up a slope to get a spectacular view of an Incan ruin below. After learning a bit more about the site, we went down said 1,000ft only to have to ascend again. The scenery was good to great at some points, but was a hot, trudging slog that after some monstrous lunch (more on the food later), I was happy to throw off my pack and collapse when we hit our campsite for the evening.
We were parked directly under a small Incan site, so after ditching my boots/socks and donning flip flops (to let my feet breathe), hiked up to them and got a great view of our campsite as well as a view to a cool little local football (soccer) pitch as well as some kids who likely never saw Cougartown (amusing show, terrible name) playing Bobby Cobb’s Pennycan.
After a massive feast for dinner, Jose gave us the first of several stellar briefings to prep us for the hell of Day 2. And tuckered out, everyone was in bed nice and early. This would be a recurring trend.
The Day of Doom
Day Two is, arguably, the worst of the hike, strictly from a physical standpoint. You start at 10,000ft or so altitude. The first six miles of the eight-mile hike are up, Up and UP to Dead Woman Pass at 14,000ft. Some a swell ramp, a lot of it are steps, horrible steps.
(Side note: trekking poles were worthless for day one, for the most part. Questioned our getting them. Day Two showed their true value. GET THEM. GET THEM. GET THEM. Most the hike is not a swell ramp up or down, and they more than ‘earn their keep’.)
So I was dreading Day Two.
Turns it out was definitely challenging, but Jose did a great job of breaking it down into three smaller 90/120 minute segments, with rests between each, before descending down another 2,000ft to our campsite. Our group, with me being the oldest and least fit opted to swerve lunch until after completing the entirety of the hike. Which was a smart decision as ascending with a full stomach from breakfast, followed by more food would have been a very tough slog.
I have mentally filed Day Two alongside Navy Boot Camp in the “Most fun I never want to have again” vault. It was tough. The air was thin and getting thinner, thus not only where we sucking in wind, but the side effect was our legs seemed more and more deprived of energy (oxygen) with each passing step, making the trudging of the stairs particularly challenging/draining.
Also lead to some amusing convos.
Li – “Who the hell builds a path that goes up 4,000 feet over six miles?”
Me – “The ancient Inca did…”
Li – “…well, fuck them!”
Li was my partner for this day of the hike. Chris shot ahead, somehow missed the first rest stop and kept pace with a couple porters (until they felt like stepping on the throttle) and ended up at the second stop for the day just as we finished our first. He got to wait 90 minutes or so in the cold. D’oh! Katie, Francesca and Loren spent the ascent a little farther behind us on the trail. Would have liked to drop back a bit and socialize but did not want to slow or relinquish my pace at any time during the day’s festivities.
Our grim gallows humor kept us amused as we trudged onwards and upwards. Towards the very end of the climb as we approached ‘the nipple’ (a rock formation that serves as a defining feature of the woman in Dead Woman Pass) we were reduced to three minutes on, one minute off. But around noon, some 4 hours and 30 minutes after we embarked, we hit the top of the pass, well ahead of schedule.
It should also be noted Li eschewed both porters (he was carrying all his own stuff, including his sleeping bag… ) and trekking poles. Part man, part beast!
The climb certainly was challenging, but with a positive mindset – or in our case gallows humor and grim determination – it was done. It should also be noted as you ascended and kept on, the views became more and more spectacular, especially at the top.
We all had another two miles and 90 minutes to an hour or so of descending down another 2,000 feet before we arrived in camp. Unlike Day One, this time it felt earned when the porters clapped and applauded as we entered camp. Sure, we were easy mode compared to their hike, but still felt like we accomplished something.
And that is another factor. Sense of accomplishment. Whereas with Day One when we got in, it was supposed to be The Easy Day, with the (far far) worst yet to come. It was also largely along the Incan Commercial Route, not the actual trail to the sacred site of Machu Picchu. Day Two different mindset. You’re half way there (take my hand, we’ll make it I swear), you are actually trekking on the road to Machu Picchu, you’ve completed the highest ascent as well as the most continuous chunk of ascending. Sure, a lot more climbing to be done, but not six miles street, nor 4,000 at a clip.
Everyone celebrated the day’s victory by pretty much collapsing for a nap, waking for dinner only to collapse again shortly thereafter.
Easier, yet longer than Day Two. “Easier” didn’t include the first chunk of the day. Only a 1000ft ascent to start, but given you are on jello-legs from the prior day’s endeavor and hiking up 1000ft of awkward and uneven Incan steps made it the most challenging leg of the trip. At least based upon my experience.
After that it “evens out” to several hours of Peruvian flat, up here, down there. While this hike is longer, the mix of uphill and downhill segments make it a little easier. Oh, and it has spectacular views the entire day, including an Incan site you can explore just off the trail.
Following exploring the ruins you have more uphill work to something like 13,000ft before enjoying lunch on a pass with a stunning view.
After lunch you are rewarded with The Gringo Killer. Something like 45 minutes or so of awkward steps going down down down a couple thousand feet.
Was a tough day, but easily my favorite on the trail.
As our porters were not making the trek to Machu Picchu with us in the morning and would instead be going straight back to Aguas Callientes with the gear and our extra stuff to take back to town, we celebrated after another wonderful dinner by sharing cake with them, them laughing as we couldn’t remember all their names (Valerio uno! Valerio dos! Elias! Uh… Uh…) then us all laughing when they couldn’t remember our names and I stepped in with “Gringo Uno! Gringo Dos!”. I also was elected by the group to do a short speech to thank them for all their help. I kept it simple and honest. “Thanks for your hard work. We could not have done this without you. Thank you.”
As in AM.
So Day Four is Machu Picchu Day. Day Four also starts at, oh, about 4am. (Note the watch above.) Get up, pack up fast so you can join the line of people waiting for the trailhead to open. Some get there an hour before it opens… Hoping to arrive at the Sun Gate just as the Sun rise.
We started the day pretty much walking on air, blowing past all the people who lined up well before us. Just chewing up trail. Got to pass a 28-year-old woman standing in the middle of the trail, just bawling her eyes out like a 5 year old less than a KM from the gate… Ma’am, you’ve made it this far, so little to go, just Bear Down and finish!
The Monkey Steps were fun. Named such as so tall/steep you need to use your hands to help you climb them, just like a monkey. Not as much fun for Li trying to do it with a full pack and one handed, as his left was trying to shield his camera from crashing into the rocks.
We were rewarded for our early start and efforts by a simply astonishing view of fog. We had been lucky with weather the entire trip, so this was the one drawback. Asked if we took a wrong turn and were at the Fog Gate of Mistu Picchu.
From there we were only a short walk, down hill towards the famous city.
It was during this rather leisurely stroll we passed two middle-aged American women coming up from the lost city headed up towards the Sun Gate conversing loudly enough for us to hear as we passed:
“I don’t think it should count if you hike it. I mean the porters carry all your stuff… and even some of the people.”
Probably something someone who hasn’t enjoyed either a shower or warm bed since the am of Day Zero and who has completed all of the travails noted above is in no mood to hear.
I uttered intentionally loudly enough to be heard by anyone within the general vicinity, “I don’t think you should be allowed to see it unless you first complete the hike.”
FFS, you don’t want to say that to someone on Day Four of the trail who you can smell from 100 yards out. Would honestly love to hear her thoughts just carrying my pack for the Day Two ascent. Provided she could even make the six miles while the Sun was still in the sky.
We made it to the city maybe 10 minutes later. It was weird, almost anticlimactic in a way. I was up front of our line with Jose, we see a wall to our left and he states succinctly “we’re here.” What!? That’s it? No more 1000 meter ascents followed by treacherous descents? Not another 5 hours of Peruvian Flat?
We stopped at the trail’s entry point, donned our Wayki “I Survived The Inca Trail” t-shirts and had group and couples pics on a dramatic ledge overtaking the city. The same fog which obscured our view early had largely receded to the background making the view even more magical and dramatic.
The place itself was as wonderful as you might imagine. We did have to actually exit it first to then go in the primary entrance. As we were leaving we passed a bunch of others who also had bussed up from Aguas Callientes.
One group of American seniors (citizens, not high schoolers), wondered aloud why we were leaving so soon. A woman noted our shirts and said “I want one of those.” Their tour guide informed her “No, it means they just got here after completing the four day, 27 mile hike.” Suddenly that group was looking at our ragged, motley assemblage with expressions from respect to even awe.
Damn skippy. I’ll be signing autographs after I re-enter.
So once back in the park we Jose gave us a wonderful tour, explaining the significance of several of the sites within the city, including the quarry, the most sacred temples near the top and perhaps my favorite, the Temple of the Condor.
After about 90 minutes we headed down to catch the last 10 minutes of Peru’s final match of the World Cup (went out on a high note, winning 2-0) while awaiting our bus into town. We settled in at a nice restaurant, ordered our well earned Piscos and, in my case, a nice Alapaca steak. Our waiter at the restaurant was still pumped up after the match, even with Peru having already been eliminated from the World Cup, yelling out “VAMOS PERU!” maybe every 10 minutes, followed by whomever was in earshot at the time clapping and hooting.
We had another 90 minutes or so to check out the town, look at the markets, enjoy some ice cream and cerveza artesenal (well earned cerveza artesenal) before we boarded the train back to Cusco. Katie and I sat across from a nice woman from Costa Rica who was living in the US. We talked for a good 10 minutes before both K and I zonked out and slept most the ride. And once checked into our hotel hours later, most the rest of the night. And most the following morning.
Kudos to Team Wayki for an excellent trek. Every member of the team was brilliant, simply could not have done it without them. Also kudos to Li, Loren, Chris(atello) and Francesca for providing such excellent compatriots for the hike. As with the porters, chefs and guide, good people to pair up and hike along made the wonderful journey that much better.