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The Inca Trail is a cakewalk. It is a most gruelling trek.
You could make both these statements and depending on who your auditors are, you are likely to get anything from wholehearted agreement to a slight nod to vehement disagreement to either of those.
The challenges were certainly there. We'd never hiked in such high altitudes. We'd never hiked for 4 days in a row with only basic facilities. We'd never walked 45 km. in 4 days under even the most favourable conditions. We knew it would be tough for us but we also knew that we had the physical and mental ability to do it. The question was, how much of it would we enjoy or suffer? Our best chance was to prepare for it in the weeks leading up to it to stay in the best physical shape possible so we can enjoy much of it. And follow it up with the required acclimatization, medication and good sense.
We got more than 2 days in Cuzco to acclimatize to the altitude. We had taken a well planned schedule of Diamox to combat altitude sickness. And the locals in Cuzco provided us with enough Mate de Coca and advice (drink lots of water and avoid tobacco and alcohol) to get us better prepared. The Sacred Valley and City Tours are best accomodated during the acclimatization phase as they provide some moderately strenuous high altitude climbing opportunities without inflicting any damage to your well being.
Come Tuesday morning and we were up well before dawn and anxiously awaited the pickup to arrive after the early breakfast. It was almost 7 am when it finally arrived, grumbling about the lack of any name plates for the hotel (it is difficult to find unless you are escorted) and we wholeheartedly nodded at the furious Spanish directed at the poor flunky who opened the door. The next hour was spent driving around the city of Cuzco stopping at all the hotels to pick up the other tour members. When a group of veteran Dubliners climbed aboard, one of them (Colm) memorably exclaimed "Gosh, look at them babes in arms!" referring to the ridiculous (not "exultant and terrible" as Joyce would have put it) youth of the rest of the group. On spotting a rickety van loaded impossibly with overflowing used mattresses, another one of them (Jerry, I think) remarked hopefully "Are we going to be sleeping on those?"
The Cusco-Aguas Caliente train was the most common way to get to the trail head until recently. Past reports indicated that backpackers should look for the sign for the appropriate kilometre and hop off in the few seconds available during the brief stop. Backpackers are no longer allowed to board the regular commuter train and have special trains for themselves (and much more expensive too). However, the tour companies only use the train for the return transport (and that too for only part of the way) and prefer to ferry the trekkers by bus all the way to the Km. 82 trailhead.
The route to the trail head was an exact repeat in reverse of the Sacred Valley return trip from Ollantaytambo. After a brief stop there for purchasing supplies (walking sticks with a brightly colored clothing ornament, coca leaves and water bottles) and toilet, the bus continued through an impossible stretch of road that was mostly agricultural fields with tree branches (possessed no doubt with a deep desire to get away from their rooted existence) threatening to join us through the windows from both sides. The bus made innumerable crossings of the railway track and at times seemed to drive right on the edge of the tracks, rarely ever crossing 20 kph. Every once in a while there would be oncoming traffic and matters would be resolved amicably based on who was driving the larger vehicle. Sometimes the victim (and those behind) would retrace thousands of feet before a large enough clearing became available to pass. It was an agonizing crawl when we were stuck behind a 5 kph land-moving vehicle for a long stretch.
After about an hour of this, we were finally at the trail head with a massive howling wind blowing off the Urubamba which did nothing to allay anxious nerves. While the packs were being unloaded, the guides announced that we would be eating lunch by the river side before commencing as it was already noon. Obviously a sensible move as it would let us hike without any big breaks for the rest of the afternoon.
The support party consisted of 4 porters and a cook. We (2 of us) had arranged for a porter to carry our backpack (we'd left our other backpack at the hotel in Cuzco). This backpack would only be available to us at the end of each day as the porters do not accompany the trekkers during the day. For our daily needs, we carried our own day packs (contents: change of clothing, additional warm layers, hydration pack with water tube, high calorie snacks, trail book, diary, camera, collapsible tripod, binoculars).
Lunch: Peruvian soup, bread, eggs, rice, fruits. The Vegetarians in the group made their presence felt.
Inca Trail: Day 1
The first day is expected to be the easiest involving no steep climbs and the least elevation gain (or drop) of only 400m (1312 ft.). We found this to be a fair assessment and were none too worse off after a 5:30 hour walk over 12 km. We took a brief rest at one of the few communities on the trail and the occasional mini-break.
The trail began with a passport verification at a checkpost against a list of registered trekkers and then we were off, immediately crossing a rope suspension bridge across the raging Urubamba. We waited on the other side of the bridge for the party of 19 to regroup and after brief introductory remarks by the guides, we began (approximately 1 pm).
The trail stayed parallel to the Urubamba for a while before it veers to the left. We spotted an Inca ruins site (a politically incorrect term as the Peruvians like to call them "archealogical sites" these days) across the river and a Cusco bound train. After the stop at Miskay, we found ourselves at a cliff overlooking the stunning Inca site of Llactapata (2650m/8692 ft) down below. This is the point where the Classic Inca Trail (starting at Km. 88) joins the Km. 82 variant. There is also a Inca gravesite impossibly located high on the mountain wall.
From here on the elevation picked up at a higher rate than before as the trail paralleled the Kusichaca stream. The trail crosses a bridge over the stream and continues its steady climb on the other side. After initially spotting the peak of Mount Veronica, we kept looking over our backs for the rest of the day at the stunning panorama of the snow covered peaks rising over the V shaped valley. We reached the largest town on the trail, Huayllabamba by 5:30 pm.
The first evening was spent getting acquainted and with a group of 19, it is a big task, but a very enjoyable one. Since the first day's walk was not too strenuous we got an opportunity to talk to some of the others in the group during the trek. Something that would be out of question on Day 2. The briefing given by the guides indicated that Day 2 is generally considered the toughest owing to the elevation. It is expected to take 5:30 to 6:30 hours of strenous trekking and we get to take the afternoon off as we would be starting at 6:30 in the morning. We will be woken up at 5:30 with a cup of Coca Tea.
After dinner, we came out to enjoy the pitch darkness that is more a thicker shade of black than an absence of light. One can see why the Milky Way and the stars made such an impression on the Incas (and other ancient cultures), the night sky is so imposing and mysterious. It is Sept. 2003 and Mars is closer to Earth than it will ever be in our lifetimes. We try in vain to get a good picture of it with the Nikon CP950 on a mini-tripod. It is not easy as you can see nothing but black on the LCD screen and the viewfinder is not much help either. We soon gave up but by this time the porters and cook who finally have a spare moment from their incessant duties, were intrigued by the electronic toy and we had much fun taking pictures in the dark. The strange thing about doing this is that you could only see the result in Play mode after you've taken the picture as it was extremely dark while taking the picture. So one had to aim the camera using the voices of the people in the frame. Hadn't experienced that before.
Day 1: Km. 82 to Huayllabamba
Altitude at Start: 2600m/8528 ft.
Elevation: +400m (1312 ft.)
Altitude at End : 3000m/9840 ft.
Distance: 12 km
Approximate Time taken: 5:30 hours
Inca Trail: Day 2
As planned, the day began early with tea and breakfast. The toilets at the campsite were not as bad as we expected them to be. Once again, you would get varying degrees of agreement or disagreement from the others depending on what they were used to and what they were expecting.
It was not bitterly cold but it was chilly due to the early hour and the altitude. We began to walk by 7 am. Within a few minutes some of us started feeling that we were tired already. However, once we warmed up and got into a steady rhythm, we started to feel better and soon we were into our stride. There was some respite in the form of a soothing cloud forest and a stream by the side of the trail and opportunities for bird watching. However, for the most part, it was all about yourself and how you pace and talked to yourself as you climb. It was hard to suppress the need to quickly cover what you saw in front of your eyes. Or to judge yourself by someone else's yardstick. You had to find your optimum pace and stick to it. One step at a time.
The Llulluchapampa campsite at about half-way up to the First Pass (Abra Huarmihuanusca - Dead Woman's Pass) was a welcome break and we felt grateful for the tea and snacks served there. We spent a half-hour recovering and preparing for the much tougher climb ahead. You could see the top of the pass from the site and the slow progress of the trekkers along the trail. The scenery at this section encompasses a wide panorama. At every mini-break, we turned back and took in the vistas behind us and the foggy pass ahead of us.
After reaching Dead Woman's pass (at Noon after 5 hours), we started our descent quickly as it was freezing on top. This was as much a challenge as the ascent due to the precariously arranged stones, the steep steps and the pressure on the knees and ankles. The stick provided a huge psychological boost in addition to its physical role. You start descending faster as you find a rhythm but the odd mis-step dents your confidence and you slow down again. We made it to Pacamayo by 1:30 pm to a welcome lunch and rest.
Day 2: Huayllabamba to Pacamayo
Altitude at Start: 3000m/9840 ft.
Altitude at End : 3500m/11,480 ft.
Elevation: +1200m (3936 ft.) to Dead Woman's Pass. Then -700m (2296 ft.) to Pacamayo campsite
Distance: 11 km
Approximate Time taken: 7:30 hours
Inca Trail: Day 3
Some would say that Day 3 is harder than Day 2 because it follows it. Your legs are still tired after the ascent-descent of the previous day and you get to do 2 more passes and cover a longer distance. The last leg is a steep 1000m. descent. To make up for it, this day also features the most beautiful scenery and spectacular Inca sites.
The first challenge is a 400m ascent to the Second Pass. The path climbs very steeply up a series of steps. The views of the valley below (Pacamayo) can be enjoyed at each rest stop. After about an hour we reached Runcu Racay. It is a small, circular site discovered by Hiram Bingham when he was searching out the entrance roads to Machu Picchu. It was explored in more detail in 1940 by Dr. Paul Fejos, who thought it was a tambo, a rest-place for passing travellers.
The Second Pass is not far from there but there are a couple of false summits to pass
before we get there. There are also a couple of lakes on the way. At the Second Pass (3900m/12,792 ft.), we left our day packs down and climbed up a slushy path and rocks to reach the top for a great view of the surrounding snow covered mountains on one side and the valley whence we came on the other. From the second pass, the trail descends and after passing a short tunnel, a series of switchbacks appear on the trail. You can spot the Inca ruin of Sayac Marca from a distance. The trail descends steeply before you reach the portal to Sayac Marca.
Once again, we left our day packs on a ledge and climbed the narrow and steep steps leading up to Sayac Marca. Sayac Marca (Inaccessible Town) was also discovered by Hiram Bingham. No one has come up with a cohesive answer as to what this site was. Bingham thought it was a fortified outpost of Machu Picchu.
After passing another campsite, the trail continues through a beautiful section of cloud forest with an almost even elevation profile throughout. Once in a while the forest will give way to a clearing and spectacular vistas down deep valleys. The crowds also thin out and you can enjoy the trail a lot more. By late afternoon we had passed this section and soon found ourselves climbing again towards the Third Pass. There is an impressive Inca tunnel on the way. We stopped on top of the windy Third Pass (3650m/11,972 ft.) for lunch. We'd run out of our bottled water and the cook boiled us some water from a nearby stream. The bulk of the climb involved in the trail was over. Now comes the massive descent of 1000m through Inca steps for the rest of the afternoon (took us 3 hours).
On the other side of the pass, the impressive Inca site Phuyupata Marca, meaning Cloud Level Town. Also discovered by Bingham - who only noted the baths and tops of the some of the walls of the upper most buildings. It was Fejos who dug further and discovered that it was much larger and a much more important site than was originally thought of. Phuyu Pata Marca's function is unclear but it is felt that it is meant for ritual worship of water (and not baths). From here one can see the back side of Machu Picchu mountain (but not the Lost City) and also the steep hill side terrace steps called Inti Pata
After many more steps and cloud forests and bird calls we came across a fork. Both routes lead to Huinay Huayna, our destination for the night. One is steep and quick but the guides recommended the other as it is easier and more scenic. After another hour or so we descended the steps of Inti Pata in twilight.
We'd almost reached the campsite but we still have to descend endlessly as our tents were the furthest away. The legs were complaining with each additional step. Eventually, we got there with barely a glimmer of daylight left. The campsite had the appearance of a smallish town and there are a few shops, a Trekker's hostel and a dining complex with showers. We were too tired to do anything but sit at table and wait for dinner. This is traditionally the grandest dinner (the last one) and the cooks of the various tour companies vie with each other to put on spectacularly decorated displays of food. There was much merry making and also some sentimental feeling among the trekkers, guides and porters. It had just been 3 days, but the nature of the expedition results in deeper bonds being developed among the entire group and staff. After dinner, the partying continued till late with loud music and dancing, but we returned back to our tents (through steep irregular paths in the darkness) to catch a few hours of sleep before being woken up at 3:30 in the morning for the final day.
Day 3: Pacamayo to Huinay Huayna
Altitude at Start: 3500m/11,480 ft.
Altitude at End : 2650m/8692 ft.
Elevation: +400m (1312 ft.) to Second Pass. Then -400m (1312 ft.) down to Concha Marca. Then +150m (492 ft.) to Third Pass. Then -1000m (3280 ft.) down to Huinay Huayna.
Distance: 16 km
Approximate Time taken: 8 hours
Inca Trail:Day 4
It is unnerving to wake up at 3:30 in the morning and find yourself in full gear with your belongings standing behind a hundred people in the darkness waiting for your passport to be checked. The trek to Machu Picchu has plenty of variants (7 day, 4 day, 2 day) but all of them eventually do this pre-dawn 2 hour stampede on the narrow and windy trail in the morning.
It was a bit too dark initially but we plodded on with much speed taken in by the general air of rush-hour about us. Soon the distances widened and there was the odd clump here and there with the faster folk trying to get past the slower ones only to be stopped by an even bigger clump struggling with a few stairs. The elevation gains and drops were not as steep as those of the previous day, but the peaceful trekking atmosphere had been replaced by a terrible urgency.
Once the dawn broke and if one was willing to slow down and look around,the surrounding snow covered mountains were a beautiful sight.
After a while a sheer wall of steps suddenly appeared in front. The well informed would've known that this was the last hurdle before the appearance of the picture postcard view that one had seen so many times. This is Intipunku (The Sun Gate) and now we had to coax our tired legs to perform a final dramatic burst of climbing. Might as well let it rip. And on reaching the summit, try and get a vantage point to rest your bones and let your fresh eyes taken in the sight of Machu Picchu in the dawn twilight and wait for the first rays of the sun to slowly bathe the city. This is the culmination of days of walking (well, not quite, there was still another half-hour's descent into the city itself); You've arrived at Machu Picchu as the Incas did 500 years ago.
In a few minutes the obliging sun does its bit with the spot light. A few well deserved photographs later, we started the final descent and are soon walking down the steep terraces that lead to the main complex. You are not allowed to carry heavy backpacks or walking sticks in the complex, so we step down to the entrance gates (a strange experience - the first thing we do at Machu Picchu is to get out through the main gates (which are used to let those who come in by bus from Aguas Calientes, in) and leave everything but our daypacks there and then turn right back and enter the site through the gates.
When Hiram Bingham and his party discovered Machu Picchu in July 1911, Bingham was actually searching for the ruins of Vilcabamba, the remote stronghold of the last Incas. Bingham was a Yale graduate (and later a US Senator) who became fascinated with Inca archeology while in Peru studying Simon de Bolivar's independence struggle. Since then, Machu Picchu has exercised a power of fascination over all those who visited the site (and those who heard of it or saw pictures of it). The combination of the intricate and magnificent architecture and the surrounding mountainous countryside make Machu Picchu a magical place to be in.
Machu Picchu - Ancient Peak - was what the local people called the mountain above (from where we descended) and the mountain behind the city (that figures in the most popular photographs) is Huayna Picchu - Young Peak.
Some argue that the theory that Machu Picchu was a secret refuge that the Incas carefully hid from the Spaniards is false, since the Spaniards had many allies among the natives. Yet, we know that the Spaniards did not know of its existence (the intact Intihuatana is one indication). The only possible conclusion being that the Incas at the time of the Spanish Conquest did not know about it either. How did they lose its memory? The Incas had a caste of oral history recorders who kept detailed accounts of the Inca past, and the Incas were notorious for wiping inconvenient details off the record. Is this what happened to Machu Picchu? Why?
That was just one theory and there are plenty others. But what is certain is that nothing can be said with certainty about Machu Picchu's past. The building style is "late imperial Inca" and there are no signs of post-Conquest occupation. So the whole settlement was built, occupied and abandoned in the span of less than 100 years.
We spent about 2 hours walking around the city with our guide, Oscar, who earnestly described the various sections - occasionally demonstrating special sound effects. The picture postcards make the place appear very small but it is quite a task to move from place to place, particularly if it involves ascent. The most important parts are the Intihuatana (Hitching post of the Sun), the Temple of the Sun (the only circular wall in the entire complex), The Tomb of the Princess (beneath the Sun Temple), the Fountains, the Temple of the Condor.
The Temple of the Sun appears to be an astronomical observatory. It features a wall with three adjacent rectangular holes which are perfectly aligned with the Sun's angle on the 2 Solstices and Equinox at a certain time of day early in the morning.
Some visitors also climbed Huayna Picchu, an hour's climb and a much tougher one compared to any encountered in the previous days, sometimes requiring the use of hands and ropes to climb and descend. One of them commented that he felt physically afraid at some points during the descent. The reward for this additional effort is a view of Machu Picchu totally unlike the one seen from the other side. No one is allowed to start climbing Huinay Picchu after 1 pm.
Day 4: Huinay Huayna to Machu Picchu
Altitude at Start: 2650m/8692 ft.
Altitude at End : 2400/7872 ft.
Elevation: -250m (820 ft.) with ups and downs.
Distance: 6 km.
Approximate Time taken: 2:30 hours
What we took with us
Camera/Collapsible Mini Tripod
Insect repellant (never used on the trail)
Water purifying tablets (never used those as we had bottled water except at one place where the cooks boiled some water for us)
High calorie snacks
Rain cover poncho
Layers of thin thermal clothing
Change of clothing
Plastic inner liner for daypack and backpacks in case of rain
Large plastic sheet for tent floor in case of rain
Hydration pack and tube
Warm clothing (Jacket)
Convertible trousers (can remove portion below knee in case of warm weather)
Hiking shoes (broken in and tested!)
Sandals (to wear at campsites)
Inca Trail: The experience
The Inca Trail is a magical experience and is much more than a test of physical endurance or a means to get to a Lost City. There is a sense of the historic, that you are taking the same path that the extraordinary people who built it took to get to where you are going. The magnificent scenery of the mountains, the cloud forests, the stunning ruins of Llactapata, Runku Racay, Sayac Marca, Phuyupatamarka and Intipata are unforgettable. We can remember individual details of the trek weeks after being there and that is a testament to how memorable the trek actually was.
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