The start of the trail.
I don´t know why, but both times I´ve been met by someone from home, I´ve found myself trekking through high altitudes, struggling for air. This time around it was the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. Way back in February when my sister and I planned this up (a necessity to do early if you want to score a permit for the actual trail), I really had no idea what the trek involved. I knew that we´d reach 4200 meters at one point and that we had the option of a porter. My sister thought we didn´t need one given the small packing list (thus saving $35), that she would carry anything I couldn´t, and that was that. Months later, on the eve of this thing, I realized that no, we would need a porter as I could barely walk down the street of Cusco with my daypack.
Unfortunately it was too late.
The first archeological site we encountered.
Day one we set off early in the a.m. hours to a town at the beginning of the trail. We were not alone in going porterless in our group, and I was proud of how well we packed as our backpacks were the smallest for sure. There were 14 of us, six Aussie friends, two Canadian jokesters, two French-Canadian sisters, an Oxford-educated English couple and Jen and I. Day one, we were the stragglers. It was supposed to be the easiest day, but yet I could not keep up with the group, nor did I want to. Two of the Aussie guys were just off a 10 day trek at around 5,000 meters, so they were on a mission. Their friends eagerly kept pace, while the rest followed suit. I kept wondering what was the rush.
I didn´t think we should go so fast while trekking in high altitudes. I was frustrated and angry. This was not what I expected. I had heard from others that there were so called runners in every group, but I thought, why did I get stuck with a group of them? And I struggled. It was hard! One of many trains of tourists passed us at the beginning, I wondered, why was I not on that? At every incline I huffed and puffed and stopped for breath, while everyone else seemingly breezed on through. Jen kept saying that I must hate her for not getting a porter, but mostly I knew it was my fault for not trusting my instinct about getting one as I knew what it felt like to trek in high altitudes. Anyway, I couldn´t be mad anyway as she was struggling with me, so I thought it can´t just be me as she is in way better shape than I, running and training at home, unlike my many months of beer drinking, strolls in parks and occasional lifting of my ridiculously large bag.
View of part of the trail.
Jen insisted they´d all crash by day two. At one point a group of eight porters quickly hurried down past us carrying someone on a makeshift stretcher. Not so good for the moral. I went to bed with the knowledge of the days ahead, including the toughest the next day, thinking, there is no way out. I must just continue forward.
This was our whole day, climbing stairs.
Day two was our challenge day. We were to travel basically 1,000 meters straight up to 4,200 meters, Dead Woman´s Pass (called so because it resembles a dead woman), over the course of 4-7 hours, depending on our pace. Our guide Marcelo remarked at dinner the night before that we could hire a porter from the town we were in for 70 soles.
That was the best 25 bucks I´ve spent thus far. We shoved everything we could in Jen´s bag, keeping anything we´d need for the day in my bag, and without guilt I let Jen carry that load. My only burden were three bottles of water and our cameras. It still sucked. I mean, we climbed steep staircases through jungle, eventually breaking through to just rubble stairs and dirt inclines. The scenery was beautiful, but I could barely take it in. Now I´ve asked many a person up to this point how hard this trek was, and generally I´ve heard, ¨It was harder than I thought.¨ No one mentioned this day of hell. Could it be it´s like child birth where the memories of torture and pain fade with time? I don´t know, but this seemed so cruel.
We made it! Dead Woman´s Pass, 4200 meters.
I definitely developed a new appreciation for the mountaineering skills of the Incas. We hit the top of the pass in about four hours, with many breaks along the way. The worst part about going up, though, is the need to go down. Yes, you can breathe, but your knees become the new issue. Down, down, down, we went, to our camp for the night at about 3600 meters. It was only 2:00 p.m. by then (we rose about 5:30 each day) but since we were carrying our own packs, we did not bother to pack a book or any source of entertainment, figuring we´d be getting to camp late each night. Instead, I spent my free time napping in our tent.
It´s hard to see, but we started in the bottom of this valley.
A word about the porters. THEY WORK HARD!! I shouldn´t complain, and felt bad when I did when they zoomed by with a load of stuff for our group, individuals´ bags, and someone, somehow with a propane tank! I tell myself they are used to these altitudes, but mainly, they are strong and work hard.
Thank goodness for them or I would not have had this opportunity.
Group photo at Dead Woman´s Pass.
Anyway, Day Three, the Unforgettable day. Called this because the trail passes some of the best scenery, and well, the trail itself is what I imagined it to be. It cut along the mountain, through jungle vine trees, and the incline was gradual and not unbearable. We still had two passes to reach that day, the first going from 3600 meters to 4,000 meters, this time with me carrying my entire pack. I think I finally got the hang of breathing as it wasn´t as hellish as I thought it would be as I lay awake the night before stressing about it, while tossing, turning, punching and kicking the air, dealing with my restless body syndrome. Along the way, we passed archeological sites that our guide discussed.
Much is unknown about these parts as the Spanish Conquistadors did not discover Machu Picchu or many of these ruins, thus no writing exists as to what they were for. Best guesses are some of them were storehouses for food, homes for a few, worshipping places and the like. The architecture was similar, with many walls containing altars, corners were carved out for placement of doors, and these sights were always terraced for crops. I find that the most fascinating part. A lot of these sights have been restored so sometimes it is hard to know what is original, but each one is like a gem in the mountains, hidden away but out in the open for all to see. It was a truly unforgettable day on the trek. Plus, I had reached the point of enjoyment. My emotional rollercoaster took me from anger and frustration, to outright denial, eventually acceptance and finally enjoyment.
Posing at the top of another pass.
Plus it just takes some time to adjust to the groove of trekking. It also takes some time to adjust to the groove of your trekking companions. As mentioned, we had some ¨runners¨ in the group. They basically stayed at the head of the pack, but the lady Aussies that tried to keep up on day one with them also started lagging behind, despite the fact they hired porters. The French-Canadian sisters were struggling as well, having hired a porter for day two as well. The English couple kept pace with us and we got to know them the best. The annoyances presented by some were tolerable to me by day three and I was just glad to be there. By the way, day three also involves descending almost 3,000 stairs to the last camp, topping off a 10 hour day of trekking.
Another archeological site, probably another store house.
Everyone was struggling to walk about camp that night, the eve of our reaching Machu Picchu.
A deer drinking from a pond high up on day three.
Before I forget, we had the best weather possible the entire trek. Blue skies every day, no rain, great temps for trekking, and clear views, even on the passes. I don´t know how we got so lucky, but we did. Another reason I told myself to quit complaining.
To reach Machu Picchu by sunrise required a 3:30 a.m. wake-up and a 4:30 breakfast. We ate good on the trip. Three big meals a day and snacks. This is why I never lose weight on these tours despite all the hard work! After eating, we strapped on our bags and headed out into the darkness on the trail to the Sun Gate.
A few in our group insisted on applying make-up and arriving to breakfast late, meaning we were the last group of about 15 in camp to get to the entrance for the last bit of trail. You can sense the frustration there. Anyway, I was expecting an easy course, but as we neared and as the sun rose, we went faster and the trail got steeper and I got sweatier and on arrival at the gate, I collapsed into the fold of trekkers taking pics in their jubial manner. I tore off a layer as I gazed out into the distance and caught sight of our goal these last few days: Machu Picchu. It was shrouded in mist. No lie. Clouds were ebbing and flowing, giving you a glimpse here and there. We posed for pictures but our stop was brief as we still had to descend down to the actual sight, trying eagerly to get there before the countless tourists taking the train for the day.
View from the top.
One of the larger archeological sites we encountered.
My first excitement there were the llamas, munching on the grass on the terraces. You could pet them as they had no fear of us. Oh they were soft and cute. Then time for the classic Machu Picchu photo you are all so familar with. Jen and I crouched down in agony from sore muscles and smiled for the picture we´d been waiting to take since February. Jen had a photo of Machu Picchu on her desktop at work and had noticed a lone tree growing on one of the terraces. By now it had grown much larger, but she was excited to get to see it.
Some people are moved to tears at the sight of Machu Picchu, especially the trekkers that work so hard to get there.
I don´t know what I felt. Part relief on arrival after having survived the last few days, but then shear astonishment really. You just have to look at the surrounding landscape of rock mountains and wonder, how the hell did they do this? They carved out all these terraces, homes, places of worship, irrigation canals and everything from a rock mountain up in the Andes! That itself was what was truly amazing to me, not just the actual beauty of the place. Our guide took us on a tour for a while, explaining what they know, or think they know about the place. Again, since the Spanish never found this spot, all there is scholarly speculation. Some believe due to the amount of female skeletons found that it was a home for sun goddesses, while others believe just second class citizens lived and worked there.
Chilling on the site, overlooking the valley.
Others say it was a summer home for the Inca. The architecture and the way they constructed the homes, food storage areas and temples resemble that of others places that have been written about, so less mystery surrounds the reasons behind some of the buildings. It is believed the sight took 30 years to build and dates to about 1420. That again is just speculation. It looks like more than a 30 year job to me.
View from a window.
After our guided tour we had a few hours to roam on our own. First up a brief rest to take in the view, and then I weaved through parts on my own, taking pictures and wondering about what life must have been like there. Truly magical.
Despite the fact I found this to be one of the most physically challenging treks I´ve done thus far, I really enjoyed my journey.
But, it was over. Months of anticipation and it was over in what seemed like a flash. Jen was truly sad about this but I couldn´t be. Perhaps I´m just a little melancholy right now as this has been the story of my last year, which too has come to its end. But I have to think forward. We have a four day jungle adventure beginning tomorrow. My last hurrah before heading back to Lima and boarding a plane home.
One of my favorite parts of the trail, Day 3.