losmorris (losmorris) wrote,

Machu Picchu - The Hard Way

It is 3:40 in the morning. It’s dark, it’s cold, and Richard is shaking me awake. My sleeping bag feels pretty comfy about now but I need to get moving. It is our fourth day on the Inca Trail and we need to get to the Sun Gate to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. This is the goal of what has been a long hard trek so I stir myself and reluctantly face the day.

We have a quick breakfast, don our packs and head out on what – today at least – is a reasonably level path. The clouds are settled into the Urubamba River valley and we are hoping they will lift as the sun rises over Machu Picchu.

We reach the Sun Gate by 6:30 a.m. and wait. And wait, and wait. Today the clouds do not cooperate for yet another hour. I am remembering the comfortable pillow and sleeping pad and feeling deeply desirous of a cup of coffee when the sun finally begins to break through and we get our first glimpse of the Lost City of the Incas from afar.

We scramble down hill for the next hour and get ever improving views of Machu Picchu…..

And the victory shot:

So we finally did the 4 day Inca Trail trek. I am proud to have completed the trek and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. At least I can say that from the comfort of my home while writing this blog. In fact, the Inca Trail was much harder work than I had anticipated. So let me share....

Picking a Trek Guide:

Under current Peruvian law you must use a licensed guide company to hike the Inca Trail. Numbers are restricted to keep down the numbers of hikers down and preserve the trail, so reservations have to be made far in advance. There are numerous licensed trail guide companies, but, after some amount of research, we selected the Cusco-based Wayki Trek (http://waykitrek.net/). The company is owned and managed by Andean locals. We found that prices run from $300 - $600 per person depending on the tour company and can only speak for the group we went with. They were excellent.

The tour company provides a guide, tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bag rentals, meals, transportation from hotel to trailhead and from Machu Picchu back to hotels, as well as park and trail fees. Additionally it provides porters to carry the tents, food and other equipment. For an additional charge the company can provide an additional porter to carry the trekker's personal effects (clothing, sleeping bags and such). I opted for my own personal porter and was happier for it. As I mentioned, the trail is tough, so having someone carry the heavy load was an essential survival tool for me.

Our trip had only two other paying clients besides Richard and me. Our companions on the journey were two singles - Vania, a delightful young Portuguese woman who showed all of us up on all the downhill stretches and provided language tutoring for Richard and I, and Tony, a fellow American with a penchant for wandering the world.

Our guide was Edgar Peralta (who shows up in later fotos). The crew was rounded out by a cook and seven porters.

The Trek - Day 1:

We spent a few days in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley prior to beginning our trek. This gave us an opportunity to acclimate to the altitude. Most of the trail is above 11,000 feet with the highest point being 13,800 feet above sea level. Ollantaytambo seems to be the normal rallying point for most Inca Trail trek operators. Edgar picked us up at our Ollantaytambo hotel on the morning of June 29 and took us to the town square to connect with the porters. The square was filled with porters for many tour operators who were departing that morning, each in different color uniforms. After picking up the porters we all headed to the trailhead.

On the first day we covered about7.5 miles and gained only about 650 feet in elevation. The trail begins at a swaying foot bridge over the Urubamba River and continues along the river a few miles down the Sacred Valley.

Then the climbing begins . . . gently at first, to lull one into expectations of an easy conquest. Along the way the trail passes various Inca ruins, most notably Llactapata an Incan city with at least 100 housing units. This ruin is seen from above on the "standard" 4 day trek. Apparently certain longer versions of the trek include more time spent at this location which did look pretty interesting.

After a few hours of hiking we stop for lunch, and get our first taste of Inca Trail cuisine. It was impressive. By the time we "clients" had made it to the lunch spot the porters, literally running ahead of us, had assembled the kitchen and dining tents, set up their gas stove and were preparing soup and several other dishes.

I was also impressed to see that we would be having fresh eggs along the way - courtesy of a very careful porter.

We became accustomed over the next few days to fresh soup at every lunch and dinner, salad at least once a day, and a wide variety of Peruvian fusion hiking food that exceeded the quality of any hike - or many restaurants - I had been to. And sometimes there was time for an after-lunch siesta.

Back on the trail for a few more hours of a relatively gradual ascent,

finishing up around 4:30 at the Wayllabamba village where various residents rent out their back yards for camping.
This was the last real bit of occupied civilization and the views were quite dazzling so we settled in and enjoyed.
The stars at night were incredible as well.

The Trek - Day 2:

Day 2 was the most difficult. We covered about 7 miles over the course of which we gained about 4,000 feet in altitude and finished up with a pretty serious and steep descent. While these altitude changes are relatively normal in our Rocky Mountains in Colorado, here the climbs are steeper and the altitudes higher. We were glad that we purchased a rustic hiking pole before beginning the trek in Ollantaytambo.

Day 2 began with a steep, non-stop for more than 5 miles.

One item of note. In Spanish the Inca Trail is the Camino Inca - or Incan road. That is a pretty good description since, after the first day, the trail is almost entirely made up of paving stones. The steep inclines are actually staircases with rough stairs of varying heights - from a few inches to a foot and a half. These stairs can be brutal on the knees when descending.

Fortunately, the trail guides are used to soft folks like us and break up the hike with rest stops at just the right moments. After about three hours of hiking on the second day we stopped for a snack of popcorn, guacamole and crackers - all but the latter made fresh by the porters.

Rested and fed we continued on upward to the 13,776 foot summit of Dead Woman's Pass.

And the group grabbed its victory moment for the picture before beginning the final challenge of the day.

The final challenge is the descent from the summit to the campground 2,400 feet below. It was knee-jarring and uncomfortatble.

But we made it into camp at Pacaymayo (all made up in advance by the porters who ran - yes ran - ahead of us). We collapsed for several hours before dinner. Once again, the views were fabulous and dinner was excellent. Mostly though we nursed sore legs and weary bones.

We slept well that night and woke to a frost covered tent the next morning.
The worst behind us, we looked forward to Day 3.

The Trek - Day 3:

Day 3 was spectacular. The trail covered 10 miles and gained 1,300 hundred feet before ending in another long descent. The trail traversed high Andean meadows and tropical cloud forests, and provided views of glacier-covered peaks in the distance.

We started out with a climb to the second major pass, the Abra Runkurakay with a stop en route at the Runkurakay ruins.

The ascent to Abra Runkurakay passed through a dry grassy area with a couple of small mountain lakes. But after after cresting the pass we came upon the next significant Incan site, Sayacmarca. It is a beautiful complex with a narrow streets, residential areas, ancient fountains and altars and irrigation canals running throughout.

We had the opportunity to wander here for about half an hour and enjoy both the ruins and the view.

From Sayacmarca we headed off through the cloud forest and a few hours of blessedly level path.

With a much greater variety of plant life than we had seen in the two previous days...

Including moss gardens sprouting from stone walls

And odd ferny plants....

And views of glaciers on nearby mountains

But we pressed onward until we reached the site of another fabulous lunch at the Phuyupatamarca pass.

Followed by a visit to the Phuuyupatamarca ruins just below the pass.

These ruins, like so many we have now seen, have a system of irrigation and water channels still running through the site:

From the Phuuyupatamarca ruins we headed down 3,000 steps to the Winaywayna campsite. Thank goodness for the walking sticks or our old knees might just have collapsed en route.

While the trail down consisted almost entirely of stairs, some at least were artistically laid out. Even the Incans loved spiral staircases:

And even in the fatigue and pain of our last day's descent we continually had the opportunity to look up to see the wondrous views all around:

As we approach the Winaywayna campground we see to the left the ruins of the same name, built into the mountains. Were there any strength left in our legs we would have climbed up to see the site, but showers and cold beer beckoned.

The showers and beer were the high point of the final night. The campground has a concession with a restaurant and shower facility and we thought it wise to enter Machu Picchu and ride the rails back to Cusco with a fresher smell and perkier attitude. It was heaven.....

The Trek - Day 4:

So we end where we started. The final day of the trek is an hour hike to the Sun Gate, or Intipunky, followed by an hour hike down into one of the 7 Wonders of the World. I will end by sharing some photos of the Machu Picchu site and my strong recommendation that all readers visit it and, that the fit and motivated get there the hard way. You won't regret it.....

My glorious entry into Machu Picchu:

The classic view:

A view from the terraces:

The happy couple:

Andean wildlife:

A view down to the Urubamba river valley - a lovely view since we know that a bus is taking us down and we don't have to hike!

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