The Inca Trail
The 4-day Inca Trail trek was an amazing experience. We lucked out with a small group of happy and interesting folks, and our guide, Martiza, was really knowledgeable about the plants and Incan history, and did a wonderful job setting a comfortable pace along the way. We hired porters to carry our stuff (except for our day packs which we carried with us with our rain shells, hats and snacks), which was a smart move. The porters in our group were a very shy but friendly, efficient bunch. They marched ahead of us and always had the lunch tent and campgrounds set up for us before we arrived there each day. The loads they carried were impressive (notice the photo down below of one porter carrying a propane tank), and most had only the traditional Andean leather sandals on their feet.
Our arrival on the fourth day at Machu Picchu met all of our expectations, and then some. MP is an incredible, spirtual, beautiful place that should not be missed!
Our trek began when the Q'ente folks picked us up at our hotel in Ollantaytambo at 8:30am. To our pleasant surprise, we discovered that there were only 4 others in our group: 3 fellow trekkers (Susie and her daughter, Mia, from the US, and Susie's nephew Carlos, from Lima) and our guide, Maritza.
From Ollantaytambo we drove to Urubamba and on to Piskacuchu (KM 82) and the start of the Inca Trail. This first day was relatively easy. Along the way we visited the Llactapata archeological site. We got to our first camp site, at Wayllabamba, in the mid afternoon and settled in next to the cornfield and a flock of wild parrots who lived there.
We started early in the morning with a yummy pancake breakfast, followed by a group photo with all of the porters. Day 2 has a reputation for being the toughest day on the trek, since you hike up to the very highest point of the Inca Trail. It turned out for me to be not all that bad - once the rain began I just powered my way up and over and made it to the camp site by 11:30am, just after the porters arrived. Joanna followed an hour later and the rest of the group trickled in some time after. I think that if it wasn't raining and we stopped to do more sightseeing along the way, it might have been another story!
Along the way we passed through various microclimates, including some lush cloudforest areas. It began to rain pretty heavily, so soon I went into "robot" mode and started pacing myself behind the porters. I wanted to get to our campground and out of the rain. We crossed the Warmiwañusca pass (also called "Dead Woman's Pass") at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level--the highest point along the Inca Trail. I definitely slowed down the higher I got, but didn't otherwise feel any adverse affects from the altitude.
From there we forged onward down the trail and finally to the campsite at Pacaymayo. The rain finally stopped, but as the night approached it began to get pretty cold. We bundled up and relaxed for the rest of the evening.
The third day was all about going down. Down, down, and further down the steep Incan steps. That turned out to be much tougher for me, because of my bad knees, than hiking the day before. But I just went at my own pace, thankful for the hiking poles I'd brought with me.
First we hiked about 45 minutes up to the second highest pass on the trail (3,850 meters) and visited the Runcuracay archeological site. We later passed the Syacmarca and Phuyupatamarca sites, finally reaching the Wiñaywayna ruins, where we spent our last night on the trail.
Since pretty much everyone on the trail camps overnight at Wiñaywayna before heading to Machu Picchu early the next morning, it's pretty crowded. There's also a full-fledged restaurant, where we hung out that evening and had a few beers before turning in.
Day 4, Machu Picchu
The original plan was to get up at about 4:30am and try to beat the other groups to the Sun Gate so that we could see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. But it was raining heavily again, so we decided to wait it out for a while at the camp site, figuring that there wouldn't be a sunrise to view this day, so there was no point in hurrying to the Inti Punku site. We were right, and when we made the final leg of the trek to Machu Picchu, we sat in the rain at Inti Punku for an hour waiting for the clouds to break. They didn't (well, only a little), so we made the short hike down to Machu Picchu. We had a good laugh as on the way down we passed a big llama making its way up the path, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Frankly, there, it probably was!
Machu Picchu was, quite simply, extraordinary. There's an indescribable sense of spirituality and history that hangs over the place like the clouds, and the ruins and structures that remain were truly awe-inspiring. For me, the hundreds of agricultural terraces were most remarkable. When we came back the next day I found a deserted terrace far below the main areas and spent an hour meditating there, without a single other person in sight. When I opened my eyes and saw the cloud-encircled mountains in front of me, it took my breath away. What a fantastic, beautiful and mystical place!
It really is hard to put into words how amazing a place Machu Picchu is. The scale of the site is at times overwhelming -- it's really difficult to understand from the pictures above how large the area is. Here's a map:
And to think that this place had been hidden for so long in the overgrown jungle! We were really glad that we gave ourselves time to go back a second day. That way we were able to wander around the first day without worrying about seeing everything that same day. On the second day we returned early in the morning, when it was pretty uncrowded (with only those who had hiked in wandering around in their small groups). I was able to find a secluded spot in which to meditate in peace and silence, and we later hiked up to Waynu Picchu. From there you can see the entire Machu Picchu site.
We also hiked another hour from there to the Temple of the Moon site. That hike was probably more grueling than any part of the Inca Trail! It consisted of many incredibly steep Incan steps and paths...we were both drenched in sweat by the time we got there. And then we had to hike another hour, all uphill, back to Machu Picchu. Ugh. But it was worth it.
So...if you ever find yourself deciding whether or not to go to Machu Picchu, GO! If you have the time to trek the Inca Trail, you should do it. While it's not easy, it's also quite do-able by most folks, especially if you go with a good tour group (we highly recommend Q'ente, who we went with, and others had good things to say about Llama Path as well) that enables you to go at your own pace. And if you do go, be sure to leave yourself the option to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and return the next day after having had a good night's rest in a real bed. We did, and we're very glad we did so. It made our experience at Machu Picchu that much more enjoyable and memorable.