Friday, January 7, 2011

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

I'm back in the US now and I have a lot of blogging to catch up on!  Let me cut straight to the chase and present to you the amazing sights to be seen on the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail was used by the Incan civilization from the 14th to the 16th centuries to communicate between Cusco, the Incan capital, and Machu Picchu, what is believed to have been a sacred religious site.  We weren't going to traverse the entire 120km (75 mile) distance, but instead were going to pick up the trail starting at km 82 and hike over the mountains for 4 days to our destination.

On Sunday morning the 26th of December, my group of 3 stumbled out of our hostel on almost no sleep after an evening filled with loud Christmas fireworks to catch a 6:30 bus from Cusco, Peru.  A couple hours on a bus put us in Ollantaytambo, the last major town before the trail head, where we picked up breakfast and snacks to sustain ourselves between meals on our hike.  Another couple hours ride on a narrow dirt road put us at the km 82 starting checkpoint.  We did introductions with our group of 24 hikers, 3 guides, and numerous porters, shifted weight around in our packs, and used the last decent restroom to be found for the next 4 days, then we were off on the Camino Inka, the hike of a lifetime!

After passing through the initial checkpoint (passport required), we hiked on the flat terrain along the raging Urubamba River between small villages dotted along the trail, observing cacti and local flowers alleged to have hallucinogenic properties.  Given that we were already at 9000 feet, we needed a good warmup day to get acclimated to the altitude, and no one was complaining about the simplicity of the hike -- there were mountains to climb later.  We stopped for lunch in a scenic mountain valley, then began a gradual ascent up to our campsite in the small village of Wayllabamba (9800 feet).  Along the way we observed the impressive Inca city of Llactapata and some terrific mountain views.

Day 2 started with a bitterly early 5 AM wakeup call from a rooster.  Never had woken up like that before!  In the morning drizzle, we rushed for the dry safety of our dining tent, where we pounded down a breakfast of bread with jam and butter, crepes, oatmeal, and tea. We would need all the carbs we could pound down in preparation for unquestionably the toughest part of the trail, an abrupt and steep ascent climbing 4000 feet in 4 hours!  A couple stopping points along the trail gave us a little bit of rest, but not much.  The climb was as grueling and relentless -- nothing but steps, steps, and more steps.  Even without the high elevation this would have been painful, but throw in the lack of oxygen in the air and it was downright tortuous.  Somehow our whole group made it to the top of the mountain pass, 4215 meters (13829 feet) above sea level!

Chased off the peak by a quickly approaching rainstorm, we trekked down the treacherous descent to our campsite in the Pacaymayo valley (11800 feet), next to a steep waterfall and what would have been an amazing view of the mountains were it not for the persistent fog.  Guess that's what you get for hiking the Inca Trail during rainy season.  After 6 hours of hiking I could barely move, and was hardly filled up by another meal of quinoa soup, potatoes, and a small piece of chicken.  From 1PM onward we rested -- I discussed American politics with Dutch hiker Joop and took a nap in my tent.  In the evening the clouds finally broke and after dinner we were treated to one of the brightest starry nights I have ever seen.

Having expended all of my energy on the Day 2 climb, my body could not get going for Day 3.  After a climb again to 13000 feet, my mind was drifting and all the candies I had packed were not saving me.  I turned to the coca leaf, legal in raw form in Peru and chewed by all the porters and guides.  Bitter-tasting but providing a mild stimulative effect, the leaves gave me the pick-me-up I needed for the incredible Incan ruins and beautiful views we would see during the day.

After the morning climb the trail thankfully was almost all downhill from there.  We stopped at the well-preserved Sayacmarca where our guide Valerio told us the story of the three sacred Incan animals, the snake, the puma, and the condor.  Again views were obliterated by fog, but we were descending into the rain forest, so all was lush and green as far as the eye could see.  After lunch we reached Phuyupatamarca, which translates to "town over the clouds", and almost caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu mountain.  Another 90 minute hike down a long series of stone steps and we reached the most fantastic views from the agricultural terraces of Intipata.  Wow.  The 9 hour hike felt totally worth camera could not get a bad picture of the valley below.  We set up camp in the valley below, next to the impressive archaeological site Wiñaywayna.  If the hike had ended at day 3, it would have been totally worth it.

But no, we had come to see Machu Picchu, and on day 4 we would get our view of the lost Incan city.  Or would we?  Awakened extra early at 3:30 AM in the middle of a pouring rainstorm, our porters hastily cooked breakfast, took down our tents, and dashed down the mountain to catch a 5AM train back to civilization.  I was all of a sudden grateful for the $1 poncho I had purchased back in Ollantaytambo -- it was going to get used today.

At 5:30 we set out for the slow hike to Intipunku, the Sun Gate, where on a clear day one gets his first glimpse of Machu Picchu.  But in the rainy season, not so fast.  We couldn't see anything.  Even after another 40 minutes of hiking down, the pouring rain continued and we could barely see anything.  Even walking through the ruins of Machu Picchu we were covered in fog and a damp drizzle.  Clearly disappointed, Anoop Michael and I retreated to the dry sanctuary of the touristy Machu Picchu lodge, where we feasted on restaurant food for the first time in days and waited hopefully for the clouds to clear.

Did our patience ever pay off!  By early afternoon the skies had cleared, and glorious sunshine had arrived at Machu Picchu!  We couldn't believe our eyes, couldn't even believe that we were visiting on the same day.  The afternoon views were absolutely breathtaking.  One could have stayed up there for a week and not been bored by the sights.  It's no wonder the Incans placed Machu Picchu where they did -- the ruins are in the middle of the most amazing lush mountain valley.  Simply incredible.

Again, the journey to Machu Picchu was incredible in itself, but that final day provided the perfect cap to our hike.  Do yourself a favor and visit.

1 comment:

  1. The Salkantay Trek is a famous trekking in Cusco and is a great alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Going this hike, you’ll be able to see some of the most beautiful places in Cusco - Peru and see the snow covered Mountain