If you have been following our blog for any length of time you know that things do not always go quite the way we plan. Our trek along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu was no exception. We arrived at the meeting spot for our treking group at 4:30am. It was a plaza 20 minutes uphill walking from the hostel where we were staying. The 14 participants in our group piled into a bus with our two Peruvian guides and took off for the trail head. Unfortunately after about 45 minutes of driving we were still in Cusco. We then learned that there was a strike and all of the roads leading out of Cusco were blocked. We spent the next 2 hours taking side streets and alternate routes to try and find an open passage out of Cusco. Despite some of the most impressive bus driving I have ever seen (u-turns in one and two lane roads, avoiding ditches and ravines with a margin of a few inches, etc) we were unable to find a way out of the city.
With nowhere else to go we were driven to a large warehouse looking building that housed an indoor soccer field and lounge area. We did a lot of research when we were deciding which company to choose to guide our trek because we had heard cautionary stories of companies that treated their porters and guides poorly. We eventually decided on Llama Path because of their good reputation and many glowing online reviews. The soccer field, where we now found ourselves, was just one of the ways Llama Path has tried to make life a little better for its employees. It is a building that most trekers never get to see but it is vital to the sucess of the company. Many of the porters come from surrounding communities and don’t have a place to live in Cusco, so Llama Path built a dormatory, kitchen, soccer field and lounge for the men to use before and after their trips. The building also houses an after-school program and tutoring center for kids in the neighborhood. All of it is funded by the fees that tourists pay to trek with Llama Path.
The next several hours were filled with eating, getting to know our fellow trekers, card games, and a game of soccer (tourist vs porters). Even with the effects of running around at 11,710 feet elevation, the tourist were still able to win the match. We had a couple more false starts where we all piled into the bus to make the drive out to the blockade only to be turned around again. Finally, around 2:30 pm we received word that we would actually be able to get through. So with lots of enthusiasm we finally set off for the trail head.
Our group of trekers was pretty amazing. We were a mixture of Americans and Europeans with a Peruvian brother and sister duo who now lived in the US. One of the things we were most grateful about was that we didn’t have any complainers. Even with all the setbacks and at times not even knowing if we would be able to hike the Inca trail at all, everyone remained incredibly positive. So when we arrived to the trailhead as the last bit of day light was sinking below the mountain ridge, our group just strapped on headlamps and cheerfully started out on our adventure.
We walked in the dark for around three hours the first night before breaking to make camp. This was our first chance to watch our porters in action, and they were great. They always arrived at camp before we did to set up our tents and start preparing food. In the mornings they would wait until our group had departed before they would breakdown camp, pile everything on their backs, pass us on the trail and then make it to the next spot in time to set it all up again. The three of us (Kevin, Lisa, and our friend Caroll who is traveling with us for three weeks), decided to carry all our own belonging, clothes, sleeping bags, etc. instead of using a porter for our bags. Our packs weighed less than half of what the porter’s packs weighed but we were still very happy to put our packs down at the end of the day.
Due to our late start the first day we had to hike faster and further the subsequent two days to make up time and reach the desired campsite outside the Sun Gate for our final decent into Machu Picchu. Our first full day on the trail we hiked up and over the highest point of our trek named Dead Woman’s Pass that stands at 13,828feet. We were a bit out of breath but all made it to the top without significant difficulty. The second day was dominated by downhill which was less muscle burn but more joint pain, thankfully we had walking sticks to help us.
We also visited a variety of Incan sites along the way. Our favorite was Winay Wayna (photos to be added once our third musketeer sends them to us). It was a 10 minute walk from our final camp site. We arrived about five minutes before they were supposed to close the gate leading to the site, meaning we had the entire ruin to ourselves. It was an impressive combination of terraces, circular walls, and rooms. Luckily they didn’t shut the gate on time as we explored the site for nearly an hour.
We all did our best to go to bed early on the night before we made our final hike to reach Machu Picchu. The wake up call came much earlier than we liked as we had to get up at 3:30am. Luckily this morning (as with every morning on our trek), our porters woke us up with a knock on our tent, a basin of hot water for “bathing,” and a cup of hot coca tea. We quickly packed our belongings, ate a simple breakfast and rushed to secure our place in line outside the gate leading to Machu Picchu. Our early start secured us the third spot in line, among numerous treking groups. We spent the next hour an a half playing brain teasers in the dirt, laughing and playing the iPhone game HeadsUp. Again we were impressed that our group could spend these exhausting hours laughing and making the most of an otherwise mundane time.
Finally they opened the gates at 5:30am and each group patiently waited to be signed in before passing. Being the third group in line we were allowed to enter within 10 minutes of the gate opening. We decided as a group to try to hike the trail to the Sun Gate as quickly as possible because the platform of the Sun Gate looking down on Machu Picchu is a relatively small area, and if we got there first we would have a great view before the platform was overloaded with tourists. About halfway up the trail to the Sun Gate we decided that it would be best for Kevin to run ahead and get photos while the rest of the group continued at a moderate pace. Kevin arrived to an impressive view of Machu Picchu and clouds descending rapidly over the valley. Kevin got one photo of Machu Picchu and in the time in took him to turn and pass his camera to another hiker to get a photo of both him and Machu Picchu below the entire valley had flooded with clouds, obscuring the ruins completely. The rest of the group arrived in the next 10 minutes, and it took Kevin showing the picture on his camera for the group to believe him that he had indeed been able to see Machu Picchu before the clouds covered it completely.
From the Sun Gate it was about 20 minutes of hiking to get down to the perimeter of Machu Picchu. We spent a good deal of time at a vista just outside the park awed by the beauty and marveling at the architecture of the Incan Ruins. After we had finished taking hundreds of photos the group headed to the entrance to drop off our backpacks and begin our tour. The tour lasted a couple of hours, walking from site to site and learning about the history of Machu Picchu. One of the things that struck us on our tour was how massive the ruins are. It takes the better part of an hour to walk from one side to another, not to mention the tiered gardens that descend from the top of Machu Picchu to the valley floor hundreds of feet below.
After we had finished the tour with our trekking guides and said goodbye to the majority of our fellow hikers, a few of us set out to hike up Wayna Picchu, the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu. Internet research before our trek convinced us that hiking up Wayna Picchu was a must, but after having a 3 day hike condensed into 2, we were feeling slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of climbing another mountain. It turned out not to be as daunting as it looked, in large part possible due to the fact that we were no longer carrying our travel backpacks weighed down with 13 kgs of gear. All along the hike up and at the lookout from the top, we were rewarded with magnificent views of Machu Picchu, the surrounding mountains, and the river valley below.
After enjoying Wayna Picchu we made our way down to Machu Picchu and then into the nearby town of Aguas Caliente to have lunch and say our final goodbyes to the friends that we had made on our trek. After not sleeping the night before we began the Inca Trail hike, and getting very little sleep on the trail we were all primed for an early night of rest in a real bed.
Below are a few of our other favorite photos from the hike.