A week and a half ago, as I boarded the last leg of my flight home from Peru, I felt there was something different about me. You see, I had just successfully completed the four-day Inca Trail Trek, which culminates at Machu Picchu. I had experienced a shift. A transformation. There is no other way to describe it. Are you reasonably fit? Do you love the outdoors, can get lost in nature, and all things history related? Add the Inca Trail to your travel bucket list!
To prepare, I joined a new gym in late December. The old one wasn’t doing it for me anymore. However, it wasn’t until January, that I got serious. I worked out 2-3 days per week. Day two of the trek is the most difficult. You NEED to be fit. I researched and watched videos. There wasn’t much I could do about altitude sickness. As it turned out, I am allergic to Sulpha, an ingredient in the only prescription available. I had to go the natural route. I arrived in Cusco a few days before I joined the group, and start of the trek. Travelers don’t know how, and if, the altitude will affect them, until you arrive. Cusco is 11 k+ feet above sea level, time to acclimatize is essential.
No Inca Trail Trek, considered one of the top ten treks in the world, would be possible without the tremendous effort of our Porters. I heard so many stories of how hard they work to make sure hikers have an amazing experience. I was not disappointed! One of the girls in my group, said she was expecting sandwiches. Nah! Initially, there was seven people in the group; four took on the Quarry Trail, and the rest of us, the Inca Trail. A team of twelve porters, who prefers to speak Quechua, the language of their ancestors, ranged from 18 years to 50+, an incredible chef, and a guide, were assigned to take care of our group of three. We felt particularly blessed.
Each morning, we were greeted with our choice of hot drinks at the door of our tent. As there were no shower facilities for three days, a bowl of hot water was also waiting for us. We had very early risings, but, the porters were already up at least an hour before, working to get breakfast ready. Following a filling meal, and once we were on our way, porters would dismantle the camp, and set out, always passing hikers along the way. Hours later, upon arrival to camp for lunch, we would be greeted with cheers and applause, for a job well done. Once lunch was over, porters would wash, rinse, and repeat.
Llactapata Inca Ruins
Day one is often called “Training Day/Inca Flats”. The guide jokingly told us, once we got completed this day, we would most certainly make it through the others. Starting at km 82, the trail of 7.5 miles adventure, took us 8,629 ft above sea level, through some of the most magnificent views on the planet. Passing through quaint small, rural villages, admiring Inca ruins, and ending the day at Wayllabamba. I found out, if you see hikers heading back on donkeys, it’s most likely because they’ve been overcome by heat, exhaustion, or the altitude
Stunning views from Dead Woman’s Pass
Day two tests your mettle, perseverance, and commitment to the trek. We hiked uphill for more than four hours, to the formidable Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the trail at 13,829 ft. The air is even thinner at this level, oxygen is in short supply. I lost count of the number of times I stopped to catch my breath. The break at Dead Woman’s Pass was relatively short, temps were cold, so we had to keep moving. Next up, another three hours of downhill trekking over sharp, uneven, large rocks. After lunch, hours of uphill hiking took us to another pass; Abra de Runkuracay. The final hours of the day, would have us taking on savagely steep, sometimes dangerous, arduous downhill hiking. There is nothing, no safety barriers, nada, between you and a sheer drop to death (which has, unfortunately, happened to some). On this incredibly difficult day, you go from burning calves and hamstrings, to burning quads! By the time we arrived at camp around 6:30 pm, we were done for. Having been up since 5 am, hiking for more 10-12 hours. Sleep never really came that night. We camped at 12,829 ft, in frigid temperatures. I wore my extreme weather long johns, fleece pajamas, a puffy coat, hat, used a sleeping bag liner. ..all which did very little to starve off the temps! When I awoke the next day, it had rained the night before, I touched my hat, to find it mildly damp from condensation. Twice on this night, I woke up, struggling to catch my breath.
Example of the beautiful trails and Phuyupatamarka Ruins
Day three was more manageable. After the day before, we felt confident and empowered. As it turned out, we had to hike straight through after breakfast. The highest point for the day was almost 12k feet. We were so grateful to end the day at 2 pm at a ranger’s station. By this time, we had not showered for three days. I took the plunge with a cold shower in 50-degree weather. My team thought I was brave. No, just sticky! I was encouraged to see a few others doing it too. The last night meant a small ceremony, thank you’s, goodbyes, tips hand off, photo ops, and even a bit of dancing. I will never forget the porters. Ever.
We Made It
On Day four, we were awakened at 3:30 am, given sack breakfast, while the porters dismantled camp, and got ready to catch the 5am train back to Cusco. Once the Rangers checked documents, we were on our way, in the dark, using headlamps. About one hour into the trek, the large group of hikers ahead of us came to a stop. It had rained the night before, causing a large boulder became loose, blocking the path. We sat around trading stories, listening to songs, as men worked for about an hour, to break it apart, and clear the way. Right before we got to the Sun Gate, our walking poles served no purpose. Everyone had to crawl on hands and knees up a steep hill (known as the Gringko Killer). Upon arrival at the famed Sun Gate, we let out a massive hoot and holler!
Machu Picchu; we had enjoyed gorgeous weather the previous three days, except for today. About twenty minutes after arrival at the Sun Gate, the heavens opened. Fog and mist abounded, making it hard to get decent shots. We certainly tried! We would walk another mile or two before arriving to the impressive Inca ruin. Everyone was in agreement; while the site was breathtakingly beautiful, the four-day journey there, is what we would remember forever. On our way down, we passed many tourists, who took the train and bus, huffing and puffing their way up to the Sun Gate. Some asked “How much further to the top?” I managed their expectations. Later, we laughed together at the questions; they really didn’t know what weariness felt like!
Many people attempt to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Some don’t finish. During my time there, one chap, who obviously underestimated how tough the trail would be, turned back on the first day. According to our guide; hikers suffer heart attacks, on several occasions, porters had to evacuate people in the middle of the night off the mountains, due to medical emergencies. The trail is often steep and dangerous, some have fallen to their deaths, which is harrowing! Several tourists, through total stupidity, ignore the safety strings at the Sun Gate; in efforts to take ultimate selfie, also fell to their deaths. The day I left, I asked family and friends to send me travel mercies, and the universe was listening.
There are other several traditional ways to get to Machu Picchu; the less difficult and shorter Quarry Trail (which also doesn’t have the views and as many ruins), and the combination of train and bus. Question is, where is the fun in that? You will miss the breathtaking views, amazing history, striking natural beauty, stunning scenery, which sets the Inca Trail apart! En route, we passed by so many Inca Ruins, which served as resting shelters for weary Inca travelers, look out points, ceremonial religious sites, and farms on the way to Machu Picchu, which was discovered in 1911, and subsequently restored.
The story is, the Incas built treacherous Inca Trail, not because it was the easiest way to get there (no, there are quicker, shorter routes), but because they believed one must work hard, and suffer before entering the most sacred city. Word is the Inca Trail was reserved for VIP’s of the times.
On the Inca Trail, you will most certainly go through several stages; the acclimatization and shock of “why did I sign up for this?” Just go with it, and live in the moment! Pain; your legs will hurt; you will suddenly be acutely aware of extra nerve endings. You might not be able to move after most long days of hiking, but it starts all over again the next day. There is also a small bit of guilt: “Why do normal people put themselves through this?”. Bargaining and acceptance; you’ve made it to Dead Woman’s Pass? Anything else is possible. Acceptance, and Triumph; you’ve come this far, Machu Picchu is the prize. You got this.
We would spend another full day in Cusco, seeing the sites, before parting company. Peru has a rather homey feeling about the place. I got to practice my limited Spanish, on some very accommodating locals. Now, how did I chose the title of this blog piece? We were late getting to camp a few times, which meant the porters would get behind schedule, by an hour at the most. So many photos to take of our surroundings. In other instances, going downhill was painful for a member of the group, so we went at a slower pace. The cooks and servers didn’t know what to do with us. On day two, we were later than usual. The server, Antonio, whose nickname is Antonio Banderas, took sight of us arriving at camp, and exclaimed “We are gonna have to reheat the soup!” We spent our Happy Hour that night, reliving the look on his face.
More than a week after I returned home, my knees were still aching. I didn’t care too much! I take the NYC subway stairs better now. I remain very grateful for all the moving parts, especially the hardworking people who gave so much, so I could have this once in a life time experience. I will never forget Peru. I wanted to end the hike on my birthday, it didn’t work out this way. Circumstances meant, I had to change my dates. I now know, the people and experience, made the trip exactly what it should be.
Many of my work colleagues, upon my return asked: “Why do you want to go hiking on a vacation?” Of course, admittedly, they enjoy all-inclusives when travelling. I didn’t give much of an explanation, because we are obviously very different people! I’ve got Mount Kilimanjaro in my cross hairs now, with more time to prepare of course! We will see.
Until the next post,