km 82 starting point
Up until now, all had been a prelude, albeit interesting preamble, to the Inca Trail.
We started at 8am as everyone was ready and raring to go by 7 am, anxious and excited for the imminent physical and mental challenge.
I had been worried about not being able to complete it, and was almost glad to be able to blame altitude sickness for failure instead of being out of shape. I'm happy to say,
despite falling on my culo three times on Day 2 and very sore leg muscles on Day 3 and 4, I made it to Machu
Day 1: Headed out from the famous km 82, starting point of what has been known as the Inca Trail (although the Inca Trail or the Inca Royal Highway system actually has more than 20,000km).
The easiest day of the hike, day 1 was warm and relatively flat. Everyone was super-charged and anxious about Day 2's infamous climb to 4,200m. This was the first day that we were exposed to the incredible superhuman strength of our porters. There were 14 tourists, 2 guides, and 22 porters to carry all the tents, our duffel bags, and cooking gear for us. They were really amazing. Carrying 50-75 pounds on their back, they would race by us (actually running in some sections) with humungous packs, while we would be panting walking at a snail's pace with just day packs. It took us 3.5 days to do the Inca Trail...the record for a porter without a pack was 3hours and 45 minutes. 3 hours and 45 minutes! Most of them had shoddy looking sandals and didn't drink water (thanks to the marvelous coca leaves).
And when we'd finally arrive at camps (usually hours after them), they'd applaud us, having already set up our personal tents, pitched the big eating tent, and cooked a 3-course meal for us. I wanted to take one home with me!We were also introduced to the thoroughly disgusting squat toilets, which were like Eastern hole-in-the-ground toilets. I won't say more about it except that I took every opportunity to pee in the nature, esp. at night. Me and my overactive bladder!
There was a beautiful full moon that night and very loud barking dogs nearby.
Day 2: Dead Woman's Pass was the big climb. I think I OD'ed on coca leaves. For the last lung-torturing climb, I chewed coca leaves until they were little pulpy bits and then chucked them out to start with fresh leaves.
View of part of the trail
I felt very Incan and a little druglord. I later had a headache, but I'm going to chalk it up to altitude instead of the coca leaves.
The climb was pretty taxing but I think coming down was even harder. Even though we had walking sticks, the descent was hard on the knees. I also hadn't gotten the skill down of not picking the slippery rocks that sloped downward, and consequently fell on my ass a few times. Not fun. But it became a big joke and I would eat a lot at meals to pad my culo for the next day's long and steep descent.
Peruvians celebrate Christmas with a big Christmas Eve dinner. We had a live chicken brought in an old rice sack by one of the porters. Not sure where it came from, but I patted it on its head when it passed by me on the hike up.
Me and the first ruins at Llactapata
I hate to say I was then paranoid that night of getting bird flu. In any case, the chicken, maybe from hardy living in the mountains, had very rubbery, tough meat.
After dinner, we had an interesting cultural exchange moment when the porters sang us songs in Quechua, and some of us sang carols in English, Spanish, French, and Czech. Then there was an impromptu dance sesh to the Quechua songs and this was only after very little celebratory champagne. The tourists were all tired and turned in at 8 am (with a 4:30am wake up call for the next morning). At midnight, we were woken up by fire crackers popped seemingly dangerously close to our tents...another Peruvian tradition.
Day 3: We walked 16 km (10 miles), climbed 2 mountain passes (including a "false pass" which nearly killed my resolve) and descended 2000 steps through a Cloud Forest jungle at the end.
All our meals were beautifully set
There were a couple cool Incan ruins but by the end, all you wanted was to sit. Suffice to say, I was exhausted and in major pain that day. The whole time I was thinking..."I paid to do this to myself? Merry Christmas!" But at the last campsite, there was a bar (yes, Cusquenas!) and hot (lukewearm) showers! Christmas brunch after 3 hours of hiking of course involved fruit cake.
Day 4: We woke up at 4:30am to get a good view of Machu Picchu at sunrise after a "short" 2-hour hike up to the Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The gates from the 3rd campsite open at 5:30am and then it was a mad dash as all tour groups converged towards the Sun Gate.
Day 1 campsite
Other than a few annoying hikers who sped past, it all was kept it pretty good order. The view from Sun Gate was beautiful as well as during various viewpoints on the way down to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu itself was amazing...just the genius of the carefully constructed buildings and advanced understanding of astrological events like solstices. After a 2-hour tour, some of us willed ourselves to climb the mini mountain (not the famous Wayna Picchu), but even that ended up being another physical challenge...at one point, a rope was hung to help scale a steep portion of the mountain. I was thinking, "Oh, f*ck." Another one of those, "how did I get myself into this?" moments. But it was a great feeling to climb it (and even better to get back down).
Then, I went to relax on one of the many grassy terraces of Machu Picchu.
A note about ancient ruins in Peru: it really is amazing how little of the ruins they rope off. There were many places along the ruins where a misstep would plunge you literally straight down the mountainside to your death thousands of feet below. In America, that would never fly. They'd have built a clear wall in that opening for sure and posted a long disclaimer in huge block letters about how they would not be responsible for any tragic plunges. I always lean towards the unadulterated...
We took the bus down to the town Aguas Calientes to rendevous with the others. There was this boy who ran all the way down the snaking mountain with us, every time bursting in front of the bus and running ot the other side of the road to stand and yell hello.
He got on the bus at the end, cocked his head at a level that made me think he had something wrong in the head, and yelled "Good byeeeeee! Adiooossss!!!! (and a farewell in Quechua!)." But that definitely deserved a few coins, so I dropped in the equivalent of 60 cents, a suitable donation.After a calorie-filled pizza and beer, I had a great hour massage for only $20! Loving Latin American prices. After another train ride (I really missed the porters on the walk to the train station, which though not long, almost made my legs collapse) and a bus ride, we arrived back to Cusco
. After much needed showers, we grabbed dinner at an Australian pub (don't order the "Get some oriental inside you" stir fry) and called it an early night at midnight.