Backstory and Day 1
If you’re reading this, you may have previously read about our exploits to Mount Kilimanjaro in 2009. After that success, my father and I set our sights on trekking the Inca Trail. Along with Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Inca Trail is a classic—constantly voted one of the great “walks of the world.” Built hundreds of years ago, this famous footpath crosses an entire range of the Andes, ending at the fabled lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. After 7 days in Kili, we figured this 4-day hike would be nothing—and could it even touch the out-of-this-world landscapes of Kilimanjaro? The bar was set high.
We’ve been planning this trip for two years. Last year, significant portions of the Inca Trail, including Machu Picchu itself, were closed due to heavy rains and landslides. I was in Lima in March of 2010 and couldn’t go down to Machu Picchu for that very reason. Following that disaster and the mounting damage of constant tourism on the trail and ruins, the Peruvian government began to threaten a long closure of its main attraction to allow it to regenerate. With the threat of a closure looming, we knew we had to go now while it was still possible.
To Peru and Cuzco
I flew home from California and, the next day, my father and I drove to Minneapolis for an early flight to Atlanta, then Lima, Peru. We arrived in Lima after 11 p.m. and stayed at a hotel on the airport grounds. We rose early for our flight to Cusco, one of Peru’s largest cities at 300,000 people and an outpost for tourism in the Andes.
Cusco is high in elevation at around 11,000 feet. Many travelers struggle with altitude sickness upon arrival—many take a few days before doing anything serious. We were a bit nervous about this but, with limited time on our hands, we were off to start the trail tomorrow—sick or not.
We hit the ground running, spending the day touring the Sacred Valley. As the lifeblood for the Inca’s, the Sacred Valley was a deep canyon surrounded by the imposing ramparts of the Andes’ formidable mountains. The Sacred River runs through the canyon, depositing rich soil throughout the canyon along the way. We visited two impressive Inca ruins throughout the canyon and a Spanish colonial church. The guides gave us quite a bit of history and left us wondering how the Inca’s accomplished seemingly miraculous architectural feats. As we heard frequently over the next few days, “We can’t know for sure, but our guess is that the Inca’s… [fill in the blank].” The Inca’s did not create a written language and the Spanish conquistadors destroyed nearly everything in sight, eventually obliterating Inca culture from existence. Everything we know about the Incas now truly is guesswork. Our guide for the day, of course, gave us some interesting hunches, including that the Incas possessed lasers to cut stone so finely or that they had the assistance of extraterrestrials.
By the time we returned to the hotel, my dad had a bad altitude headache. I managed to avoid the effects of altitude—attributing much of that to triathlon training. Back at the hotel, we met our guide, Roberto, and received orders for the morning: Be ready to go at 5:30.
We arose at 4:30 to finish packing our backpacks, fill water bottles, and prep equipment bags for the porters. Our guide arrived and we threw our gear in a truck. It would be a few hours from hotel to trailhead. I fell asleep for much of the ride as we repeated yesterday’s Sacred Valley drive.
After a small, interesting town named Ollantaytambo, our truck entered single lane backcountry dirt roads. We drove through tiny towns where the indigenous people appear to still truly live off the land in a simple way of life. Sometimes we’d meet another truck head on and one of us would need to back up to a place where the road was wide enough to pass. The area was beautiful, wild, and off the beaten path.
After an hour on back roads, we pulled into the trailhead. The trailhead was a place where maybe 150 people (mostly porters) were gathered to start the Class Inca Trail trek. The Peruvian government only allows a total of 500 people to be on the Inca Trail at a given time (200 trekkers and 300 porters). For our team of two trekkers, we had the support of a guide, cook, and five porters. In other words, not too many teams can be on the trail at one time.
We crossed a bridge over the Sacred River and our adventure was under way. This first day was described as the “easy” day. It started out relatively flat, but we began to cross into the mountains and make some steep climbs. I found the indigenous people to be fairly enterprising, starting small rest areas with food, drink, and bathrooms along the way—all at a price, of course. Not far into the day, we took a sharp left and started up the steep sections. At the top of a large mountain ridge stood our first Inca ruins, overlooking a larger ruin that was once an important regional market.
As we continued up and into the mountains, the small towns became more interesting—built along hillsides and steep ravines. We crossed paths with many of the locals using horses, donkeys, and even llamas to transport their wares back and forth up the mountain. This part of the trail still served as an important “highway,” so to speak, for these small villages inaccessible to motorized transportation. The day was clear and crisp, and the views of the Andes were breathtaking.
Finally, nearing dark, we set up camp high above the final village—one of the last campsites. Many groups hiked only half as far as we do, choosing to extend their trek and shorten their daily mileage. The porters had camp set up, tea ready, and dinner on the way. We were exhausted and my dad was concerned that this was the “easy day” while tomorrow was described as “challenging.”
See more photos in my Flickr Photo Album.
A pitter-patter on our tent woke me up early. This was a bad sign—it had rained all night. It let up as we got up for breakfast, but the mountains were cloaked in a dense fog. After breakfast, we donned our rain gear and cold weather gear, starting the hike around 7:30 a.m.
The word for the day would be “up.” For three hours we hiked from about 11,000 feet to nearly 14,000 feet. There was never a step down. I felt stronger than I expected. I could keep up a pretty good hiking pace, set a rhythm, and not stop. Again, I attributed most of this to my recent triathlon training, particularly the pool where I find I need to do more work with less oxygen. My father, on the other hand, struggled with the oxygen at this altitude. He had to take a few steps uphill, then stop for a few seconds to catch his breath. I would hike higher and wait longer for him to catch up with me. Every stop was like starting over to settle into my pace again.
Finally, we made it to the notorious “Dead Woman Pass,” a ominous gap in the mountains with an outline that resembled a woman lying down. At nearly 14,000 feet, the highest point on the Inca Trail, there was little opportunity to celebrate our achievement—it was cold and wet, and we needed to push forward. After so much “up,” we were ready for “down.”
Down proved to be a fleeting enjoyment. With slipper rocks and an uneven path, the trail was tenuous at best. As with my hike up, I stopped regularly to change layers—it would be cold and rainy at one elevation, then hot at another, then cold and dry. We walked down for nearly two hours. As we approached the bottom, my dad slipped on a rock and fell backwards, tearing his shoulder. Thankfully, it wasn’t a debilitating injury at this point in the trail. A leg injury or more serious problem might have required an evacuation to a lower elevation where we could get an airlift.
We soon arrived at lunch, although we were quite a bit late—the tea was getting cold. Our guide wanted to get back on the trail as soon as possible. We were supposed to eat, then have a 30-minute siesta. I felt exhausted and just wanted to sleep—and I had no appetite. Since we were running late, our guide canceled the much desire siesta and moved us quickly through lunch. I forced myself to eat something and wished we could call it a day and camp at this site along with all the other groups. Our guide insisted it was better that we push ahead. My dad also wanted to go right away, growing concerned about the swelling in his shoulder and increasing pain.
The word, once again, was up. It’s tough taking breaks in high altitude because its hard for your body to get into the rhythm again—your heart beats hard and your lungs hurt. This was another huge hike—nearly as high as Dead Woman Pass. Along the way there were other fascinating ruins, including an ancient watchtower that looked out across the valley. Downhill was welcomed again as we crossed the highest point in the pass. I now had a splitting headache—likely from dehydration on the morning climb when I didn’t take in enough water. This downhill stretch started to wear on us—the compounding steps up followed by the downward force on our knees had us hoping the campsite would soon appear around the bend. As we neared the bottom of this second ridge of mountains, the clouds cleared and we could see our campsite far far away.
At the bottom of the mountain, the trail veered right to camp or left to a nearby temple ruin. My dad went solo on the trail for the remaining 30-minute walk to camp and I went with the guide to the temple. The temple was pristine. It’s remoteness brought little traffic—only those who trek the Inca Trail. The sun was setting and the lighting proved ideal for photography. It was a treasure at the end of a very difficult day.
When we arrived back at the camp, the porters greeted us with cheers and applause. We had just finished the most difficult day of the trip. My dad and I compared it to Kilimanjaro and debated, extensively, which was more difficult. We both agreed that summit day on Kilimanjaro was more difficult because of the extreme conditions—considerably less oxygen and freezing cold temperatures. My dad argued vigorously that, overall, this was a harder trek. Adding up the amount of climbing (elevation increase), we climbed substantially more in one day on the Inca Trail. We agreed that Kilimanjaro was more ominous—no one knew if they were going to make the summit, but finishing the Inca Trail was never a question, we just didn’t know how long it might take. The jury is still out on the comparison, but it is no doubt that both were great challenges.
See more photos in my Flickr Photo Album.
We awoke to a glorious morning—the sun was shining and the mountains were robed in splendor. The first part of the hike was a joy—not too steep. We could keep a good pace and enjoy the beauty and the history of the trail. The views were like no other place I had seen—out of a fantasy movie. Maybe a set for Lord of the Rings. It was truly indescribable and unphotographable. You need to see it to believe it.
The Inca Trail is an amazing feat. It’s no dirt and gravel hiking trail. The Incas paved it with stones. Not sure where they brought the stones from, but they paved the entire path with meticulous attention to detail and organic architecture. In some places, the path could not easily be carved into the mountain, so they raised the trail up to match the proper height. Sometimes you’d look down over 100 foot cliffs of manmade stone. In other places, they carved tunnels through the rock. I imagine the Inca Trail took backbreaking work to build. No one knows exactly how the Incas managed it, but supposedly they had no slaves and the people contentedly engaged in the work.
As I walked the trail, I contemplated its history. The trail is original—untouched since the Incas built it. It was a major highway walked by thousands and thousands of people include the Incan leaders (and who knows, maybe some extraterrestrials!) and dates back hundreds of years (built between 1200 AD and 1500 AD). I’d guess that it’s one of the oldest original roads still in existence—to walk a path with such rich history is amazing in and of itself.
We made it to a spot for our short break two hours later. From here we could see the mountain ranges all around, the Sacred River, the Sacred Valley, and the backside of Machu Picchu mountain (the city was strategically hidden from view).
After the break, we embarked on our possibly largest downhill of the trek, descending way down from the top of the Andes to the lost city of the Incas. This downhill is known as “Three Thousand Steps” since you take a staircase of nearly three thousand steps. Despite also being known as “Gringo Killer”—it destroyed my father’s knees and blistered his toes. Yet, thanks to the scenery, this downhill became my favorite part of the trail. We descended almost immediately into the cloud forest—the elevation where the clouds typically rest creating a lush, rainforest-like climate.
The trail took us first into an ancient ruin that we learned was a astronomical observatory. One could tell the season and other astrological dates by the shadows that the sun cast through the windows. After the ruin, we descended further into the cloud forest where we beheld amazing views, walked through remarkably thick vegetation, and witnessed the air teeming with butterflies.
Around 1:30 p.m., we walked into our final camp. This camp was built on a steep hillside and even had a sparse lodge where we could take showers. After some downtime, we took a very short walk to “little Machu Picchu,” a beautiful ruin architecturally similar to Machu Picchu, but much smaller in scale. I toured the ruin and it had some amazingly advanced architecture, including a working fountain that provided running water to every room.
We turned in relatively early to prepare for our 4:30 a.m. departure for the Machu Picchu gate.
Four o’clock a.m. came early. We got up, had some tea and bread, and prepared to go. Most of the groups ran out to be first in line at the gate to start on the trail when it opens. The goal is to get to the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu for the sunrise. Unfortunately, the clouds were dense and made our morning foggy.
Two hours later, we arrived at the Sun Gate in the time for the sunrise, but the clouds didn’t part and no one could see Machu Picchu from this vantage point. We started down the 40-minute walk to the Guard House immediately above Machu Picchu. As we got there, the clouds started to clear and we got a perfect view of the structure. We sat on a hill and marveled at the brilliant feat of ancient engineering before us.
Like all Inca ruins, Machu Picchu creates more questions than it answers. No one knows why it was built. Some say it was a resort for the king. Others say it was an “Inca University” where they experimented with new farming techniques and taught architecture, among other things. Another explanation is that it was a very sacred temple. Additionally, no one knows why it was a abandoned or where the contents (such as mummies and treasure) were taken. It also poses the question of whether Machu Picchu is the last “lost city.” In Inca culture, there are three worlds (world of the Puma—our world, world of the condor—the heavens, and world of the snake—underground world). Cusco is the city of the Puma. Many believe Machu Picchu is the city of the condor. But, no one has found the city of the snake. It’s not known whether it exists at all, yet many speculate it’s somewhere in a giant cave, maybe in the jungle. When the conquistadors began their conquest of the Incas, the Inca people ran with as much of their treasured gold and silver as possible. Those treasures have not been found—the city of the snake may be the final resting place.
After a break, we toured Machu Picchu and it’s many rooms. We saw areas for astrology, farming, religious functions, and housing. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones there. Hundreds of other people came up on buses to make the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. The site felt like more of a circus. It was impossible to take a photo without someone else in the shot. There were no parts that one could explore alone. In some ways, the ruins along the Inca Trail were more enjoyable as an opportunity to explore due to their remoteness. The size and scope of Machu Picchu, nonetheless, makes it a remarkable “must see.” With the expectation that you won’t be alone.
We took the train from below Machu Picchu back to Ollantaytambo and bussed back to Cusco from there. We flew out the next morning to Lima, where we were met with delayed flights and traveling woes, but made it back to Minnesota only a few hours later than anticipated.
Overall, the trip was amazing! The Inca Trail truly deserves its spot among the best walks of the world. I would commend it to anyone as a great feat for life’s list. My recommendation does not come without reservations: it is a significant challenge and you must be in great shape. I don’t repeat too many trips more than once, but the Inca Trail is one that I would do again. It’s amazing to finish knowing you’ve crossed a great mountain range of the world, walked a piece of history, and ended in one of the most beautiful and mysterious places on earth.
See more photos in my Flickr Photo Album.