The magical hike along the original Inca Trail is a nice mix of some stunning nature walks, moderately challenging climbs and a back-to-basics camping experience
One of the best perks of working in a big company like eBay is the chance to go on a sabbatical for 4 straight weeks when you stick around for 5 years. So when my chance was approaching in 2014, i started planning well in advance. Usually it is Smitha who researches extensively about our holidays, but this time around i took over quite early in the process as i had some specific interests i wanted to cover. We decided on S.America very early and then it came down to combining our primary goals of covering the Inca Trek in Machu Picchu for Smitha and Amazon rain forests for me. We also added Buenos Aires and Iguazu falls to complete our 4 weeks.
We were both slightly nervous about the 4-day long hike as neither of us had done something like this before and with this altitude climb. So we decided to do that first and “get it done” so we can relax for the next 3 weeks. Given the touristic popularity, we also needed to book this nearly 6 months in advance. So after researching many operators, we decided to go with Peru Treks – they had a good reputation and were competitively priced. Looking back i would definitely recommend them.
After completing all the logistics for the entire trip , we were on our way to our first month-long vacation, in May of 2014, super excited. One additional logistical recommendation is regarding flights within S,America. Given the size of the continent, you will end up flying everywhere. S.America has all sorts of flight passes that make this relatively cheaper than buying each leg separately. However they also make it very difficult to buy this online. So i highly recommend going via a local travel agent (local, and NOT someone in Europe) – in the end it made for significant savings for us. For reference we used exito travels (recommended by the guy we booked our amazon trip with) – everything went smooth, so yes i would recommend them as well.
So we arrived a couple of days ahead of our trek, to acclimatize with the altitude at Cuzco. The difference was immediately evident. Due to the altitude and hence the lower oxygen density, you could feel needing an effort to even walk at a decent pace. After a few hours of walking around, you kinda get used to it – still jogging or walking at brisk pace immediately told on your breathing. So i highly recommend atleast 2 days of acclimatization. Anything more does not help much (i think).
We got up at 3:30ish and had to get ready with our backpacks to be picked up around 6. The pick up was a bit delayed adding to our nervous energy. We just waited chewing the cocoa leaves, supposedly really good for altitude sickness. I think it helped, but our adrenaline was high enough throughout the trek to keep us going without issues. When the bus finally came there was already 12 other fellow trekkers in the bus. It almost felt like we were some sort of sacrificial lambs on our way to unknown territory. Thankfully we were all in the same boat so to speak and that was reassuring. We drove for an hour and a half and arrived at olantaytambo where we had a bfast and bought some last minute stuff like walking poles ( in hindsight an excellent idea and again recommended).
After what seemed like eons we finally started our trek at around 11:30 – at a nice and easy pace over reasonably flat terrain. The starting elevation was 2600m above sea level. Besides a few stops for story time and lunch and heavy rains in the latter half of our trek, the walk was uneventful and we reached our camp at around 5 pm. Day 1 does not prepare you for what is to come later but it definitely puts you at ease:). Anyways we had reached an altitude of 3000m – a gentle climb of 400m.
At the camp site we were introduced to the 20 porters who are carrying all of our stuff (20 kg each) and moving like mountain goats between camps. Very impressive and it was not surprising to see their super strong legs. Many of them do the trek around 3 times a month. They were all very shy when asked to introduce themselves. Since none of them knew English our main guide translated and also taught us some basic words in Quechua- their local lingo.
After a delicious and sumptuous meal we all crawled into our tents hoping for some decent sleep before the big day after.
The most challenging part of day 1 was getting used to the lousy toilets in the camp site. The stink, lack of locks in some of them and wading through that filth in darkness all made us avoid them like plague (well not just figuratively I guess!).
The big day – supposedly the most difficult of the 4 days. It did not start well for smitha as she was suffering a major stomach upset and the poor thing didn’t have much of sleep and couldn’t eat anything in the morning or rest of the day. The fighter that she is, she managed to push through the day successfully – very proud of her!
The trek was nicely split into 3 phases building up in intensity. The first one was already more challenging than day 1 but we were well aware that we were building up to something big. So we trekked smart and took it easy. The greatest tip I could give is to take much shorter steps than normal when climbing. This greatly reduces the stress in your heart. The phase lasted around 1.5 hrs and we finished that with limited damage. We then had a very heavy lunch (a trend that was common in all our dining times) which made it all the more challenging to start again on an uphill. Nevertheless we kicked off for the most difficult climb of the trip – to the dead woman’s pass at 4200m. The challenge was multifold – very rocky path, very steep steps or climbs and most difficult of all the low air density and oxygen. Apparently at that altitude the air density is about a third lower than at sea level. My poor heart has never experienced working in those conditions. It was pumping hard to keep up with the falling oxygen content in the ever-thinning air while the legs demanded more and more of fuel to climb the steep steps. The steps became progressively more steep as we approached the summit almost daring us to overcome it. My poor lung capacity and stamina meant I felt like an old man walking up the stairs. Surprisingly though I never doubted that I will be able to finish thoughI had to take frequent breaks.
Finally we reached the summit at around 12:30ish with a huge sigh of relief ( and a great sense of achievement in good measure).
Physically this portion was the most difficult and hence the expectation was that we have passed the difficult stage. However for the next nearly 2 hrs, we had to go through lot of steep rocky downhills with no interesting scenery to enjoy. So mentally this was exhausting and frustrating. We were constantly thinking of when it would end and that made the trek longer than it actually was (u know “the watched pot never boils” phenomenon).
Finally we reached our camp at around 3 pm and after another hearty dinner most of us hit the sack for a power nap.
Despite the difficult day the body was not carrying much of lingering pain – just tired muscles requiring rest.
This is the longest day of the trek – involving 15 km and a climb down of more than 1000m. The famous knee-killers (or what the guides called gringo killers!). Unexpectedly though we started off with a fairly strong uphill – again a heavy bfast didnt help. However the day was also important for ruins exploration and some stunning paths and views making it the best day so far for hiking. Most of the path was covered with stunning canopies and we were walking at times in or even above the clouds covering the surrounding mountains – was very dreamy and fairy tale-like at times. You will have to see the pictures to understand what I mean. I am not a big romantic but even I was blown over by the path, filled with rich vegetation, beautiful narrow “caves” created by trees while overlooking massive mountains covered by a cloud forest.
With these beautiful distractions the steep downhills were less painful than envisioned. Towards the end when we knew we had enough time to make it to the camp before darkness we just wandered at very slow pace taking in the peaceful location with not too many folks to bother. Finally we reached our camp at around 5:30ish.
Since this was technically the final evening with the porters we decided to thank them in Spanish and give some tips. Yours truly volunteered to show off my poor Spanish skills to make this speech – did not come out pretty but hey it’s the thought that counts isn’t ? I am nothing if not courageous to volunteer for things:)
After another sumptuous dinner we all hit our tents knowing that we have crossed the most difficult portions of the trek and the next day was just a formality to reach our goal 🙂
The big day. We had to get up and be ready by 4 for bfast not because we could start early but because the porters needed to leave early to catch their only subsidized train back to Cuzco. So after getting ready we had to wait until 5:30 before we were allowed to start. Due to a combination of adrenaline and easier path, people were flying to get to the sun gate. After a few more rocky climbs we reached the sun gate by 6:30 and caught the first glimpse of the Macchu Picchu site – famous view of the ruins in between giant mountains. Wonderfully clear blue sky made the view even more stunning.
The only disconcerting thing was the number of tourists in the site – looked like a big market, taking out some of the charm of the place for me. By the time we reached the ruins (another 45 mins walk from the gate) the sun was at its peak and the place looked like an overcrowded fish market with many guides looking like the pied piper with so many tourists in tow – have to say it sort of killed my enthusiasm – usually in such a beautiful natural setting I prefer to have some peace and quiet – not that day. So after some standard tour stories we all gladly boarded the bus to Aguascalientes to escape the brutal heat and have some much-needed food. This was also our time to say goodbye to the guides , porters and fellow Trekkers. After all the formalities and goodbyes we eagerly headed to our hotel for a warm bath and an inviting bed to take a nice long nap!! Boy did that feel good. Never enjoyed the bath and the bed more in my life 🙂
To catch the sun-rise at the Machu Picchu, we planed staying overnight at Aguascalientes and took a very early bus back up. Although it was relatively quite, the whole place was fully covered by clouds. Although we couldnt really get a sunrise look, we really enjoyed sitting in the cloud forest before being swarmed by tourists. Glad we stayed overnight to catch this magical moment just for ourselves. Very highly recommended for those like me who like to enjoy nature in silence.
After enjoying the last glimpse of the ruins and collecting long-lasting memories, we headed back to Aguascalientes to catch our train back to Ollantaytambo from where we had to take a local taxi back to Cuzco.