There are many excellent trekking outfitters in Cusco, from what we gathered from others who made the trek, and the company we used, Waykitrek, was super. Its owners and employees are all from surrounding villages, and we liked that we were supporting local families
. Waykitrek limits groups to eight hikers; ours included ourselves, an American couple, porters (pack animals are not allowed on the trail), a chef and a guide. We would have preferred to backpack with only a guide, but that isn't possible as permits can only be secured through trek outfitters. We feared being stuck for four days with obnoxious hikers, but ended up forming a little family, headed by our guide, Jose Condor. Jose is very knowledgeable and did a great job making us forget our sore feet with his running commentary, anecdotes and jokes. He patiently answered all of Oliver's many questions about everything from how far llamas can spit to Peru's chances in the upcoming World Cup.
Machu Picchu was "discovered" by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, though locals had known of the city's existence, buried in the jungle on a steep ledge high above the Urubamba River, for generations. There are two main routes, and we definitely made the right choice...the vast majority of the 2,000-3,000 tourists a day
come by train from Cusco. Last winter's flooding destroyed the first half of the train tracks, and the temporary single lane dirt road is a traffic nightmare. There are other trails that end in Machu Picchu but only one that follows the original Inca trail the entire way, officially known as the Classic Inca Trail.
Although the complete Inca Trail starts in Cusco, most treks start at kilometer 82 in the Urubamba River valley, and travel the last 43km to Machu Picchu
. Our four day three night trek started with a pick-up from our hotel at 5am, and then a minivan trip through lush valleys and hills to pick up the trip's porters from their villages. It was very cold up in the hills. As dawn broke, a deep frost lay on the ground. Reaching the trail head at 7:30am, the porters got busy packing of food and gear for the trek. Once the bags were weighed, ensuring no load exceeded 40lbs, we were finally on the trail at 9am. Crossing a new bridge over the river (the old bridge had been destroyed in the mudslides, tragically taking a local couple to their deaths), we quickly reached our rhythm for the next four days - walking at an easy pace, with Jose providing lots of information on the trail, scenery and bird life (with opportunities to rest at regular intervals). The first day was a short acclimatisation hike. For many people, the 3,200m starting altitude can cause altitude sickness, especially for those flying directly from Lima or other sea level cities. Since we had been at altitude for several weeks, we were fine, although Michael had picked up a stomach bug in Cusco which slowed him down considerably this first day.
The pattern for each day was a pre-6am wake-up call, followed by a hearty breakfast sitting on camp stools around a table inside the dining tent. The food at each meal was cooked and served by our own chef, the affable Nosario.
(Was this really camping?-- we barely had to lift a finger!) After packing our few things away, we set out on the trail before 8am and hiked for three or four hours to the lunch spot. Our porters meanwhile had struck camp, packed their bags and headed up the trail after us, overtaking us rapidly, as they easily ran up the trail carrying their 40lb packs!. By the time we arrived at the lunch spot, our dining tent had been set up and lunch prepared in readiness for our arrival. After a short rest we were back on the trail for another three or four hours to the campsite. Here again everything was set up in advance of our arrival. All we had to do was lay out our sleeping bags and crawl in after dinner. Each meal was special, and the creativity of the chef seemed to increase the further away from fresh foods we got. Finally, after looking at the southern night sky, brilliantly clear at this high altitude, we retired to our comfortable beds for the night.
A word about porters. These unsung heroes, carrying huge packs and wearing simple sandals, literally run up and down steep hills on uneven stone steps, arriving at camp early and working hard to make our journey easy and stress-free. Each morning, a bowl of warm water and hot tea or coffee were brought to our tent. When we arrived at the lunch stop,porters had set up tabel and chairs, and Nosario had a hot lunch ready. At the end of the day's hike, we found our tents set up in the campsite and a delicious dinner waiting
. The service and quality of meals were superb. We learned that most porters enjoy making this trek, and it is considered good work by the locals. Until recently, porters were carried overly-heavy loads and worked for slave wages. That has changed, fortunately, and now porters are paid fairly, are covered for on the job accidents and carry no more than 40lbs on their backs. Certainly the morale amongst our porters was great. They were a jolly lot, teasing Oliver about his "chica" back home, and embarrassing him horribly. While being pampered by the porters made the trek a lot easier, we felt a bit uncomfortable being waited on (like helpless gringos!).
The second day was to be our steepest ascent, with a climb of 4,000', to the summit of Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman's' Pass), at 4,200m the highest point on the trek. Luckily, the second day was much cooler than the first, and we ascended through a cloud forest to the exposed and windy summit. The last few hundred meters was certainly a slog, but there were ample opportunities to take photos and admire the view (and to catch our breaths!).Once atop the peak, we took a few minutes to savor the moment, and to appreciate the spectacular 360 degree panorama before us. Heading down the other side of the peak via a sharply declining staircase of uneven stonework took its toll on the knees, even with use of our walking sticks. We followed the path through a deep broad valley until we reached the second campground, where we collapsed for the night just after nightfall, and a satisfying dinner.
The third day was to be the longest distance, but with less ascending and more Incan ruins on the way. It started with a steep climb directly from the campground to the second pass at 3,860m, stopping at an Incan guardhouse that controlled the pass in all directions
. Then it was straight back down and on to Sayacmarca, a rest stop for the Inca on the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, with housing, temples and guardhouses. After lunch, Jose insisted on a "siestita" (did we seem worn out?), after which we continued on along beautiful Incan terraced paths that followed the contours of the hills. Here we had some of the best views and were surrounded by orchids, bromeliads, ferns and other flowers. The trail finally led downhill towards our third campsite at Winaywayna, past Phuyupatamarca and more Incan towns with extensive terracing. We fell behind our group, dawdling along taking photos of orchids, tropical birds etc.m to the annoyance of the American couple who were serious, fast walkers. So perhaps we were to blame for our group reaching Winaywayna campground behind schedule. Grabbing headlights, we raced to the ruins in the gathering dusk, and were awestruck by this beautifully laid out city, whose architecture closely mirrors Machu Picchu, clinging to the steep valley wall. As night fell quickly on the steep-roofed houses at Winaywayna, we were sorry we had taken our time on the trail, and such a long siesta after lunch. We did feel a bit rushed on this trek, and if we did the Inca Trail again (and we would love to!), we'd add an extra night to allow more time to explore the Incan sites and flora and fauna along the way.
Our last day on the trail involved a very early start and a short hike to Intipunku (the Sun Gate), the entrance to the fabled city
. After a 3:40am wake-up call and quick breakfast, we left camp, and by 4:30 had joined other groups waiting at the trail checkpoint, which didn't open until 5:30. This left us cooling our heels in the dark for an hour with the 195 other hikers and their guides. Once through the control point, everyone walked quickly, or ran, towards Intipunku, where we hoped to see the sun rise. The morning was overcast, but even if it had been clear, we were too late, ascending the Sun Gate at 6:30am, in broad daylight. So, why did we need to arise so early just to wait an hour at the entrance gate? After some questioning, we learned that the early start is needed for the porters, who have to rush to strike camp and hike down the valley in time for their 5:20am train. Though we missed sunrise, we were far from disappointed. Our first bird's eye view of Machu Picchu was spectacular. We spent many hours exploring the city itself (see next entry). Oliver and Michael even climbed another peak, Waynapicchu, the 1,000' spire behind the city in the "classic" photo of Machu Picchu. Arriving early meant we beat most of the day trippers, but by 11am, there were more than 2,000 people crowding the ruins, jostling for photo ops, hollering to their friends, even making calls on cell phones. This scene came as quite a shock after four peaceful days of reflection and natural beauty along the Inca Trail.
We spent the night in Aguas Calientes, on the Urubamba River at the base of the ruins
. We splurged on a luxurious hotel, and the hot shower and soft bed felt divine after four days of "roughing it". Aguas Calientes itself is not very interesting; mainly it's a hub for the train and buses to and from the ruins. The best thing we found to do was visit the city's namesake thermal baths to soak away muscle aches and swap stories with other trekkers.
The experience of following in the footsteps of the Incas as they pilgrimaged to their sacred city was unforgettable. Viewing the grand scenery and ruined cities along the way, and finally entering Machu Picchu just as the Incas did 500 years ago, was a unique and spiritual experience. The trail is an amazing record of the Incas' skills in stone building, hydrology and knowledge of astronomy. Much of the trail is original and there is no better footpath anywhere in the modern world --it puts to shame trails into the Grand Canyon, for example. Terraced paths edging steep hillsides; staircases built into the sides of mountains, and Inca forts, tambos (rest houses) and temple complexes tucked into valleys and on hilltops. All this was purposefully created and oriented to maximize preparation for entering the spectacular city of Machu Picchu.
One of our highlights on this extended vacation was to be the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. We arranged the tour last December, as only 200 permits are issued for each day, and these get snapped up months in advance. As we were leaving California at the end of January, severe storms and mudslides in the area killed several tourists and locals, stranded 2,500 tourists for days and closed Machu Picchu to visitors indefinitely. We kept worried eyes on the news as we proceeded north towards Peru. Fortunately, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail re-opened in mid-March, in plenty of time for our May 17-21 trek.