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Kat & Andrew's Worldwide Adventures

Inka Trail & Machu Picchu 9-12 Dec 11

PERU | Friday, 6 January 2012 | Views [3432]

I was worried about my fitness level (& history of asthma) at high altitude. We had spent 4 days in Cusco at an elevation of 3400m to acclimatize (& to go to Spanish School!). We were told by our guide that someone always gets sick on every trip. Funnily enough, no one in our group was affected by altitude sickness although one had a head cold and two had hints of food poisoning which was cured by tea made from “pigeon balls” (actually vegetables.. hehe…)

 

Each day 500 people are allowed onto the Inca Trail. Usually this is around 200 tourists and 300 porters. You can only go on the trail with a registered guide – there are many companies to choose from. We chose Peru Treks because we’d heard good reviews (including that the food was amazing – and it was!), it wasn’t the most expensive and they take good care of their porters.

 

DAY ONE:

 

We awoke at the glorious hour of 5.30am. I’d been waking up every hour on the hour all night which was frustrating but just as well seeing as I had set our alarm for PM not AM… woops!

An hour later we were picked up by Peru Treks and the following hour was spent collecting the rest of our group from various hostels around Cusco. Our group consisted of 15 people (including us), 2 Guides, 19 Porters and a Chef. We drove 1.5 hours to the tiny village of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley where we stopped for breakfast.

 

As we emerged half asleep from the bus we were instantly surrounded by a group of native people desperate to sell walking sticks, waterproof ponchos, coca leaves, beanies and gloves. We actually needed and brought some of this stuff but it was overwhelming and irritating being victims of such pushy persistent vultures.

It’s bizarre to think that this is these people’s jobs; this is what they have to do to feed their families. Other than farming for survival and living off the land, selling their fruit, veggies and farm animals – tourists are who they rely on. Everyone has something to sell or for a fee, the women offer to pose in a photo with you in their traditional dress with their pet llamas and their baby’s strapped to their backs in colorful blankets.  So many people live without running water, electricity, and all the modern comforts we couldn’t live without yet they are happy and content. It’s a totally different world!

 

At breakfast the task of remembering everyone’s names began. Our guides were Edwin and Juan. In our group were 4 couples – Us, Randy & Lara (USA), Anna (UK) & Miechan (Ireland), Josh (Oz) & Megan (NZ). Then there was the twins – Tiego and Carlos (Norway-Brazil) and 2 sets of friends – Alison & Laura (USA), Vera and Katrina (Oz). Last but not least – Jeff (USA).

As for the porters – forget about it!

 

We were very fortunate to have such a fantastic group. We all bonded instantly and there were many interesting conversations and endless laughs. No loners, cliques or couples attached at the hip, no temper tantrums or disagreements.  I know its cliché to say but we really did become a family - Always looking out for each other with loads of motivation and support. Our group was the fastest on the track – we kept taking over other groups (a little bit competitive maybe hehe).  I don’t think I could’ve done as well as I did without the fantastic group mentality we had going. The group made it fun despite the struggles. I was paranoid that I was always going to be last and holding everyone up but that wasn’t the case. In fact, on almost every section, our entire group took less than the average time allowance.

 

After breakfast we spent another hour on the bus heading to Km 82 where we would begin the Inca Trail. Being such a well travelled place, we were surprised to discover that the road was just a basic gravel road which can barely accommodate two vehicles side by side. On one side was a large rock wall protecting the village and the other there was a big drop down to farm land. This caused a lot of tension when we had to pass a truck… We were literally a few cms away from the truck and the edge of the road on the other side!

 

At Km82 we saw our porters dressed in yellow and black lining up to get all their bags weighed. Before there was a legal limit on how much they could carry, companies forced them to carry up to 40kg plus each! The limit now is 26kg which is still extreme! Some of the bags were bigger than the men and they were still super fast! Andrews bag by itself weighed at least 4kg, and with the help of our sleeping bags and a few clothes it weighed at least 13kg and that still put a lot of pressure on him. I took a smaller bag filled with our snacks and 3 liters of water plus emergency things like toilet paper, first aid kit, sun block, insect repellant etc  It probably only weighed 6-7kg but that was definitely enough for me!!

The porters are so strong, they’re like super heroes!

 

After waiting in line with a few other groups, we got our passport checked and set off over a bridge onto the famous track. It was relatively easy going – it began with a dirt path following the Vilcanota River passing a small town. Here there were large power lines which slightly ruined the feeling of being out in the wilderness & the trail was decorated with donkey droppings. It was mainly flat (or what Peru calls flat).

We had many breaks and our guide informed us about the history of the area and taught us how to properly chew coca leaves. The taste is horrible and my tongue went numb but it supposedly helps with the altitude and gives you energy. The locals are constantly chewing it.

We passed our first Inca Ruins site – Huillca Raccay. It was the first of many check points on the way to Machu Picchu as many people ventured there when it was still occupied as a very important ceremonial centre. All the check points are strategically placed to have a view of the entire surrounding area. This ruin controlled the Urubamba and Cusichaca Valley. (This valley grows more than 500 different types of Potato!!)

 

We climbed up a small hill that left me breathless – a taste of what was to come! At the top we had a spectacular view of the Cordillera Urubamba (mountain range) and the snow capped peak of Veronica which stands at 5860m. It was stunning and it was only the beginning! The weather had cleared up and was perfect too; we were all in high spirits.

The second ruins we saw were very impressive. We looked down off a cliff onto the Ilactapata (aka Patallacta) Ruins with terraces built into the hill side and a bubbling river snaking its way around it. The settlement comprised of over one hundred buildings & houses for worked and soldiers.

 

After a short downhill slope we climbed another small hill that tested the lungs and the shoulders carrying the weight of the bags. We stopped at a farming area over run with chickens, dogs and donkeys and the porters had set up a dining tent for us in which we got served 3 servings for lunch! Spoilt! After a short rest and an introduction to the toilet conditions in the mountains (basically a squat toilet – a hole in the ground that stinks horribly), we set off on the home stretch up a gradual hill that I could cope with and finally, our 12km was complete after a casual 7 hours.

 

The porters had already beaten us too it and our tents were already set up. After changing into clean clothes (all though we weren’t clean due to no showers), we played Uno until our extravagant dinner was served. We had climbed 500 meters (2600-3100m) to the last farming community on the Inca Trail called Wayllabamba. Unfortunately the clouds began to close in again by this point… We were in bed by 8.30pm and were up again before the roosters could crow at 5.30am. Our wakeup call was Juan delivering hot drinks to our tent. Can’t complain about that!

 

Day Two:

 

Most of the group – including us – decided to get a local porter for the day to take our big bags as it’s the most challenging day being only uphill. No one wanted it to be too much of a struggle that we didn’t enjoy ourselves. Unfortunately I had a terrible sleep which wasn’t a good start but I was still amping to go. After breakfast we had 1.5 hours allocated for the first section but it only took us eager beavers 40-50min! It was a gradual climb so was bearable. 

 

The second section was challenging - Thousands of uneven rock steps climbing steeply through a gorgeous cloud forest. All the trees were covered in moss and there was a stream roaring downhill. We had 2 hours allocated to this section and a lot of the people in other groups needed the full time. I didn’t allow myself to take breaks as that would only increase my tiredness, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, slowly passing other puffing people (a lot with big bags). The porters put us all to shame by powering past with their massive loads, I really don’t know how they do it!

Half of our group (including me – Yay!) managed to get to our rest stop at Lulluchapampa at an elevation of 3680m in only 50 minutes! The porters were surprised and hadn't completed putting up our dining tent yet! As soon as we stopped, our body temperature dropped and it got cold fast. It didn't help that we were soaked wet with sweat. (For those of you who have done the Grouse Grind in Vancouver, it’s like that but at a much higher elevation. Somehow I felt that I coped with this better than that though!)

After being served a yummy snack, we climbed for another 50 minutes (although we had been allocated 1.5 hours). My body was a lot weaker and tired on this part as we reached the elevation of 4200m of the first pass – Dead Women’s Pass. Unfortunately it was a complete white out and it began to rain so we couldn’t enjoy the view.

 

It took over an hour to descend 700m as the uneven rock steps were slippery from the rain. I didn’t enjoy this part…. It put a lot of strain on my knees and my muscles from being so tense and afraid of falling and a lot of the steps were so large, it would jolt my body trying to step down such a distance for my little legs. Despite how dangerous it was, the porters ran down! We saw one slip onto his back but his bag was so big he wasn't hurt; he just looked like a turtle stuck on his back with his arms and legs flailing around! Andrew had to help him up.

(We later found out that 3 people and 1 porter die each year on the trail from bad falls going downhill or from falling off the path down a cliff! Yikes!)

On the way up we had passed our personal porter with his dog alongside him – he had our bags AND someone elses!! Insane! On the way down, they zoomed past us.

 

It was eerie in some parts being completely enclosed in clouds. It looked like the path led no where – like it dropped off at the end of the world! Through the mist we could see moss covered boulders – it would’ve been nice to have seen it all on a clear day.

Once we arrived at camp at Pacamayo the rain had stopped and it cleared a little. We were greeted by all the porters applauding for us, aww bless! We could see and hear a small waterfall roaring nearby. Over the next hour the rest of the group trickled in and after lunch and much deserved rest, we all hung out in the dining tent having interesting conversations. We got served dinner which means that we had 5 meals that day!!

 

The twins, jeff and I helped teach some english phrases to a small group of the porters. Their enthusiasm was awesome to see. Their native language is Quechua and they are also taught Spanish but they know very little english. In the cities such as Cusco, only Spanish and English are taught at schools so Quechua is sadly dieing except for in the small rural areas.

 

Summary of the day - After another 12km climbing 1100m and descending 700m, I was definitely feeling it and I had a bit of a headache. I had been using walking sticks and i think they really helped.

Another early (and this time, cold) night for us – I slept better this time out of pure exhuastion but camping really isnt suffient recooperating time. I managed to find a way to make a good pillow out of my jacket which really helped my neck.

 

Day Three:

 

Another 5.30am wake up call with hot chocolate. After breakfast we got introduced to each porter – the youngest being 18 and the oldest 57! (the oldest hired by the company is 67!!). Alot of them arent much taller than me.

We set off up hill again for 45min and it absolutely owned me. I had no energy by this point and I was tired and sore, plus we had our bags to carry again. I was a little grumpy that we were putting in all this effort to climb and we had no view of the surrounding mountains and valley because we were in clouds again.

 

We saw the ruins of Runkurakay (another check point) and we got told off for doing jumping photos! Woops... Guess it makes sense that 15 people jumping may just damage an ancient building... I read that due to volume of people going on the trek, each year the trail sinks 10cm.

Then we had another hour of climbing (punishment maybe? Lol) up to the top of the second pass at an elevation of 3950m where we had a break and learnt a wishing ritual that the Incas used to do (and I think the locals still do...)

Downhill for an hour on slippery steps again. Some of the boys decided to run the whole way! The gravity going down made our bags give our shoulders a pounding...

 

We arrived at the ruins of Sayamarca, once a small village protected on 3 sides by sheer cliffs. The clouds parted briefly for us to get a few photos. Its unbelievable that people managed to build these places hundreds of years ago without modern tools or machines.

The next 1.5 hours was on an easier path with small up and down hill parts (perus version of flat) as well as a few flat spots – hooray! Through another cloud forrest with loads of lush flora and fauna. The path drops of steeply on one side into the thick jungle. The clouds actually made it look very mystical and magical. I cant believe the Inka King was carried down these thin, slippery and uneven paths!! (We were informed that Inka means King and that the people were just called Quechas like the language. Calling the people Inkas is supposedly like calling british people – the kings...)

 

We also passed through an impressive tunnel carved out of rock. At the third pass (3670m) we stopped for lunch. It began to rain heavily and it was miserable and cold. So once again we missed out on spectacular views. The joys of the rainy season! We didnt stop at the ruins of Phuyupatamarca due to the weather. We powered down 1000m over a thousand steps (if you can call some of the steps, slippery rocks and boulders more like!!) for over 2 hours down the elevation of 2700m. I had given up being cautious and we were bordering on jogging. It actually made things easier.The clouds began to clear along the way and we were rewarded with glimpses of magnificiant jungle covered mountains.

 

We finally reached the giant terraces and ruins of Intipata and it was breathtaking. The clouds had parted when it mattered most. We all sat together as a group on the edge of the ruins looking out over the grand mountains, the town of Aguas Calientes and the twisting river below marvelling at the natural beauty. In the distance we could see impressive snow covered peaks. At that moment, everything was worth it. Just stunning.

With renewed energy we treked down a further half hour passing pretty pink orchids to our camp at Wiñay Wayna. Another 15km completed and we were almost at our goal!! It was weird thinking that our journey in the footsteps of the Incas (Quechuas!) was almost over – Machu Picchu was hiding on the other side of the hill infront of us!

 

There were showers there but they were freezing and dirty so none of us were desperate enough to try it. We all smelt and felt disgusting collectively!

After the sun set we enjoyed the sky changing from shades of blue to gray to black over the Andean Mountains. After some more Uno playing and dinner we awarded our porters with a tip. I wouldve liked to have given more for their excellant work but the budget was already stretched...

Another early night and a very short sleep....

 

Day Four: The Final Day!

3.30am wake up call. No hot drinks this time either... as soon as we were out of our tent, the porters had it packed up in seconds! They served us breakfast and eagerly waited for us to finish, once we had, in a instant, the tent and they were gone. They had to catch a 5.30am train back to their villages. We waited at the check point in the dark for almost an hour until it opened. We were all exhuasted but very excited. This was the day! Once the gate opened we took off at a steady pace for 2 hours. Thankfully most of the stone trail was relatively flat except for one set of vertical steps that we had to practically climb like a ladder.

 

The sun started to rise and it increased our enthusiasm and eagerness. We arrived at the Sun Gate and got our first view of the Machu Picchu ruins. The location is spectacular – such a precarious place to build a village! Its mindblowing. The village is perched high up on a mountain top at 2400m surrounded by jungle covered mountains and cliffs. Its easy to see how the spanish never found it when they took over Peru in the 1500s. Its difficult to get to and from the bottom of the valley looking up, it would seem impossable that a village was up there! It was only inhabitated by the king and his people in the 1400s and was a very sacred place. When the king died, they abandoned the city and went back to Cusco and it got overgrown with vegetation. In 1911 Hiram Bingham found it in an expedition founded by Yale University. The Uni still has all the religious artifacts and treasure found at all the ruins on the Inca Trail and from Machu Picchu and they wont give them back until Peru builds a musuem at Machu Picchu and can prove that they can look after them properly... Building a musuem there would be sacrilige! Even having a restaurant and ticket office there is bad enough.

 

From the Sun Gate we descended another 20min to the watchmans gate where we got our postcard photo shots. I was a little upset that the weather had packed in again and it rained. I had wanted everything to be perfect after so much effort! I so desperately wanted photos without other tourists in it but like every other famous site, this is difficult. The thing I was most disappointed about was I thought only those who had endured the Inka Trail would be there until 10am when all the tourists from the trains arrived. This was not so. Within 20min of arriving there were loads of fresh, clean and rested tourists everywhere around us. I felt like a rabid creature and I wanted to hsss at them!

 

After checking our bags into coat check (no bags or walking sticks are allowed in the ruins)  and showing our passports (we even got a stamp!) we were given a tour by Edwin. The Incas (Quechuas) were astronomers and so much of their architecture reflects the movement of the sun, moon and stars. They were very intelligent.

Machu Picchu is much bigger than we expected. It has the large rows of terraces for farming, the village area where they lived and in the middle was the most carefully built walls for the spiritual centre where sacrifces were made. I could just imagine the native people living amongst these walls and little children playing in the gardens. There are no gardens, crops or thatched roofs any more but the grass is still a brilliant green.

 

After our tour we had free time and I was so shattered and sore that it was very difficult to summon the energy to explore the place (and its many stairs – NO MORE STAIRS!) But we did and it is an incredible place. I would love to go back one day – by train and well rested – in the dry season to really explore every inch and soak up the atmosphere. Thankfully it didnt rain the whole time and the clouds didnt consume it completely – we could still appriciate its granduer. After a few hours we all headed down to Aguas Calientes by bus to have a final family lunch together and we tipped our lovely guides. 6 of us went to the hot pools to relax our aching muscles. It was full of other dirty hikers that we recognised from the trail drinking beer and cocktails, so afterwards we didnt feel any cleaner!

 

Aguas Calientes is purely a tourist town now, given its location. It consists of large numbers of hostels and restaurants. All supplies come in by train from Cusco and we watched them unload large amounts of stock and wheel them up the train track roads. One guy had his toddler strapt to the top of a load of coke bottles!

That evening we got the train 1.5 hours back to Km82 and a bus another 1.5 hrs back to Cusco.

We arrived at our hostel at 10.30pm and I was absolutely at my limit. I couldnt even shower (yuck, I know....), I collapsed into our large warm comfy bed. 45km completed. Success!

(The fasted time to complete the track is in 3.5 hours! Insane!)

The next morning I had the longest shower in recorded history, lol.

 

It was very sad to say goodbye to our newly aquired family. They will be missed!

Inca Trail – Hard? Yes. Worth it? Hell Yes!!!

 

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