This was a week I had been equally looking forward to and fearing since booking this trip back in January: four days and 26 miles at over 3,800 meters on the Inca Trail, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and my first hiking/camping experience with my boyfriend.
Sean arrived on Saturday to get acclimated to the altitude, and was thankfully feeling fine leading up to our trek. On Monday, we did a day trip to Sacred Valley, a collection of towns and villages near Cusco and on the shores of the Urubamba river where the Inca civilization took hold. We visited Chinchero, home of the ancient weaving traditions of the area, Moray, a wonderfully simple but advanced greenhouse built by the Incas, Maras, known for its natural pink salt, and Ollantaytambo, a town that hosts some impressive Inca architecture.
Our guide, Vidal, came highly recommended, and we brought two friends with us, Reagan and Kameron, who were visiting my fellow Remote, Danielle. It was a really great day and a wonderful introduction to the Inca culture and history.
- Chinchero: We learned about the process of weaving, from differentiating between alpaca, llama, and vicuña fur, to dyeing the fabrics in different colors made from natural ingredients (the most interesting to me was a parasite that lives on cactus plants in the region, and makes a deep red color), to hand-weaving textiles. The best part was, like many women in the region, the woman guiding the presentation did the whole thing with her adorable baby on her back.
- Moray: This was my favorite stop on the tour. We learned about the mysterious perfectly-circular terraces left by the Incas. Alien ship landing area? Remnants of a crater? No, a greenhouse. The different levels of terraces (only a couple of meters’ height difference from each other) had specific micro-climates, that were used to adapt crops to different environments and altitudes. As genius agriculturists, it’s no wonder the Inca tradition has left us 300+ types of corn and 4,000+ types of potatoes.
- Maras: There’s a natural spring in Maras that produces salt water. The Incas tapped into this resource, creating mini-pools that captured the water, and by process of evaporation, left behind pink salt. At the time, salt was a hot commodity, so owning one of the many salt pools was profitable business. Today, there’s little to no money to be made here, with many other ways of harvesting salt more easily and efficiently, but it’s still a sight to behold.
- Ollantaytambo: The last stop on our trip took us into what used to be a temple. We learned about different types of Incan architecture, from the more rustic style used earlier and for common buildings, to the classic Inca walls, used for temples and built in such a way that the stones fit perfectly with no mortar, and have withstood not only time, but earthquakes. We also learned a bit about the Incas’ reverence of the sun, with temple ruins built to align perfectly with the sunrise, particularly on the solstice and equinox.
After getting back to Cusco, we went to rent gear for our upcoming trip and headed to our Inca Trail orientation. We booked the trip with Alpaca Expeditions, a company that has great reviews and focuses on sustainability and social impact. We met our guides, Jose and Filio, and our group of eleven others, learned about what to pack (each person is allowed 7kg, including sleeping bag and air matt, since porters are only allotted a certain weight limit each), and got mentally ready to wake up at 3am and hike for four days.
Feeling exhausted already, we went home and packed, and got dinner at Bodega 138, featuring local craft beer, a beautifully fresh salad, and pizza.
Then, it was off to bed for a couple of hours in preparation for the main event…
The Inca Trail
Tuesday morning, we woke up at 3am and got picked up by our “Green Machine” porters shortly after. (Alpaca Expeditions thrives itself on sustainability, and endearingly calls the porters, who are the backbone of the company and each trek – literally, since they carry everything we use on their backs – Green Machines.) We hopped on a mini-bus to Km. 82, where we would have breakfast and cross the train treks to officially start the Inca Trail. The bus ride was long and bumpy, and I ended up getting sick. I had my first experience with Agua de Florida, which is a medicinal mixture that our guide Jose gave me: you put some in the palm of your hand, rub your hands together and take 3 deep breaths that burn your lungs but help open up air passages, curing a variety of ailments like altitude sickness, nausea, headache, etc. I did feel better after, but was pretty worried, thinking that I had food poisoning from something we ate the night before – especially when Sean mentioned he wasn’t feeling great either. Probably the worst part was that I was too nauseated to sleep on the bus, so never made up those three hours’ worth of rest…
Once we got to Km. 82, we had our first breakfast, complete with fruit, eggs, and general delicious food that you wouldn’t expect on a hike. (This trend continues…) After that, we waited at the check point for a couple of hours, and finally crossed the bridge over the Urubamba river to start our first uphill of the day! (I should pause here to say, there are many kilometers of Inca Trails all over what is now Peru, Bolivia, Chile and even Argentina. This trail is the classic one connecting Cusco to Machu Picchu, and was used as a pilgrimage trail by the Incas, who we learned were actually the ruling class of the Quechua people, often inaccurately called Incas.)
Day one is supposed to be the easy day, but some combination of the heat, lack of sleep and not enough food after getting sick made it really exhausting for me. By the time we got to lunch, I was more than happy to kick off my sneakers and lay down on the grass. Lunch was amazing – we started off with guacamole, had soup, a second course, and some coca tea. After lunch, we continued on, passing some small communities and quite a few locals with gear on their backs or on mules.
We got to the campsite, with our tents already pitched, set up our sleeping bags, and met our group of porters and chefs before dinner. Our porters ranged from 18 to 56, with most in their mid-twenties, spoke Runa Simi (the language of the Quechua people that is often called Quechua) and almost all of them were from the same town. Jose told us that this provides an advantage, since they already know each other and can therefore have a sense of community and fun at work, as opposed to other companies that hire individual porters who we saw trekking alone. We already appreciated how incredible the porters are: they run (literally, run!) ahead with 30kg on their backs, and some in sandals or basic sneakers (even though Alpaca provides gear, including hiking boots, many choose to wear the same footwear they’ve grown up in and was historically worn by the Incas).
After dinner, we went to sleep almost immediately and I caught up on some much-needed rest…
Day two is touted as the hardest day, as mostly uphill and with the two biggest summits of the trek (4,215m) happening on this day. We hiked for about 10 hours, and altitude started being a bit of a problem for Sean on this day. We took the whole day nice and easy, (“take it easy” was probably the phrase we heard most from our guides during the trek) and made it!
We saw some incredible architectural sites (“they’re not ruins,” Jose told us early on) on day two, with the last one, Sayacmarca, being the most spectacular, especially at magic hour. After crossing a small bridge (we started associating all bridges moving forward with being almost there), we blissfully made it to camp. We also learned interesting traditions of the Quechua people, including making bridges from straw. They braided the straw to make it durable, and the bridge would last a year, with villagers re-making them together annually. One bridge still exists today, and there’s a yearly ceremony during this re-building process.
This was probably the most rewarding day, with both meals feeling like you really earned them, and amazing views from both summits. The campsite was also more open, so we had great views of the Salkantay mountain range, and even saw a wildfire in the distance.
Dinner was once again amazing, and sleep came easily.
Day three is the easiest day, with the trail being mostly downhill/“Inca flat” (i.e. not actually flat, but rather a gradual incline) and the day ending after lunch so we can relax and get ready for another 3am wake-up call for Machu Picchu day.
By day three, though, your knees are shot, your legs are sore, and you’re generally tired and weary. I always finding it harder to go down than up, and we ended up being one of the last people to finish out the day.
On this day, the landscape starts to change a bit as you descend into the beginnings of rainforest conditions. There was more vegetation, and one of my favorite moments was Jose playing for us as the long grass swayed in the wind…
After arriving at our campsite, we had lunch, took cold showers (still worth it, even as you’re gasping under the cold water, to shower after three days of hiking…), and then took a sunset stroll to a nearby architectural site, Wiñay Wayna, which was suspected to be a hospital/clinic, with smaller terraces to grow medicinal herbs, and beautiful views of the Urubamba river and the commercial version of the Inca Trail, which has since become the railroad.
We had our last great dinner, including a birthday cake for one of our group baked from scratch by our chef, Julian – no easy feat at altitude as is, and made in a pressure cooker on top of that! It was amazing! We then had a ceremony to thank our chefs and porters, tipping them and writing them a note of appreciation that Jose translated into Runa Simi.
We woke up at 3am to hike 15 minutes down to the check point to enter the trail to the Sun Gate. While we waited for the check point to open, we worked on some riddles as a group (the one where if he had seen the sawdust…) and tried to stay warm. This is where the trail starts to get a little crazy, since everyone wants to get to the Sun Gate early. We were thankfully the first group in line, but there were hundreds of other trekkers behind us very shortly, many of whom ended up passing us on the walk.
Getting past the checkpoint was a frenzy, with many people rushing in pitch black. Sean and I took it easy, stopping to appreciate dawn waning and give our tired legs a rest. After an hour and a half and a few minutes of “gringo killer,” or extremely steep and tall stairs, we made it to the Sun Gate and saw Machu Picchu! It was awesome to see the sun rise, standing above the ancient city, with Huyana Picchu menacingly overlooking it (we signed up for the extra 2-hour vertical trek up Huayana Picchu for later in the day).
We made our way towards the site, took pictures, got high fives from Jose and Filio, and started our tour with them. It was here that we learned how Hiram Bingham, the American explorer, discovered Machu Picchu while searching for the lost city of Paititi, covered in vegetation but mostly intact, and what it was used for (mainly religious activity).
We saw the remains of the Sun Temple, complete with half of a Chacana (southern cross), a working compass (which we compared to the iPhone compass – it was startlingly accurate), and learned about how the Inca rulers would have lived during their solstice and equinox stays at Machu Picchu.
Then, Sean and I said bye to the group and started our trek of Huyana Picchu. It was not easy, especially on tired legs and with little protecting you from a treacherous fall, but we made it! Overlooking Machu Picchu from the top, we could really see the hummingbird shape the city was designed in. We slowly made it down, got on the bus to Aguas Calientes, and met our group for lunch.
We walked into the restaurant to the sound of cheering and clapping from our supportive group, had a well-deserved meal of alpaca, chicken and beer, and said emotional goodbyes to Jose and Filio, the guides who made all of this possible.
A sleepy train ride and two-hour bus ride later, we were back in Cusco. We had planned on meeting the group out that night, but between dropping off rental gear, showering (HOT WATER!) and unpacking/repacking for our flight to Lima the next morning, we ended up late to meet them and had dinner on our own at Kion, a Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese fusion) restaurant.
Going to bed that night in a heated room, with pillows and blankets, felt like a real treat.
Overall, this was an amazing journey and experience, and one where the journey really was the destination. While Machu Picchu was incredible and beautiful, the Inca Trail, “flats” and all, was my favorite part. There’s something so special about walking the stone steps without seeing other trekkers for hours, experiencing ruins when they are empty, and reaffirming what your body is capable of time and time again. We got lucky with great guides, a supportive and fun group, and having each other. It was an experience I’m grateful Sean and I shared, and one that I know awakened the travel/hiking/camping bug in him. Maybe one day we’ll come back and do the Salkantay trek, a less historical but more nature-focused 5-day hike that many Remotes did this month.
But for now, up next: Lima.