The Inca Trail may have been one of the most incredible hikes I’ve done despite the fact that I prefer to hike in wilderness, avoiding other people at all costs, which is the exact opposite of what one gets on the Inca Trail, even in the low season. However, it was still a remarkable journey, and having to meet new people and share a sometimes arduous trip with them is an interesting experience in itself. I recently published a photographic chronicle of my trip.
The Inca Trail is the ultimate in ‘glamping.’ I’d call it luxurious glamping. Again this isn’t how I prefer to hike, but there is no alternative. It is mandatory to go on a guided tour for this particular trek. Tour agencies don’t cater to people like me. I don’t need the comforts they offer. They cater to people who don’t backpack for fun. Most of the people who do the Inca Trail wouldn’t even refer to themselves as hikers. So, it was amusing to hear the things people would complain about. Mostly it was the toilets, but in my opinion a *flushing* (with water) squat toilet is awesome. Better than a vault toilet, and easier than digging holes. I don’t know what these people were expecting. Whatever.
The traditional Inca Trail is hiked over 4 days — mainly so hikers can experience the sunrise over Machu Picchu on day 4. The trek is about 45 km. I hiked with my husband, for whom this trek has been a life-long dream. It was something we decided we would love to do as a honeymoon, but when we got married (over 4 years ago) it wasn’t financially feasible to go. We chose to hike in the rainy season, partly because there are less hikers then, and partly because it was a convenient time for us.
We fully expected to be rained on — poured on, even. One of our hiking companions (besides us there were only three other people in our group — lucky for us!) bought some rain pants at one of the stops on our way to the trailhead, and by doing that he sealed our fate of being hardly rained on at all. Best fifteen dollars he ever spent, I bet.
Before I get into the hike, I need to say a word about the food. It was amazing. Better than restaurant food. Plentiful. We were greeted with hot coca tea every morning our tent. Then there was breakfast. Breakfasts were the smallest meals we had on the Inca Trail, but were still very plentiful. Toast accompanied by either rice porridge (delicious), omelet, or pancakes. Lunch was huge. Both lunch and dinner started with a vegetable soup, then many different dishes. The side dishes were all veggie stuff. I’m not sure if that is because I requested vegetarian meals or not. Before dinner we had ‘tea time,’ where we got hot tea and popcorn. All served in a tent, with a table and stools, which were all carried by porters. On the first day and half of the trip I feasted at every meal, but then I had to cut down on portions because it was just too much food.
On to the hike. Day one is billed as the easy day. The trail rolls up and down with a total ascent of 620 meters, hiking a total of 10 km. I don’t have much to say about this day — it wasn’t particularly spectacular. The views were beautiful and we saw some ruins along the way, but the grandeur of the trek was yet to come.
Campsite of day one was en route to Dead Woman’s Pass. Below I have a crappy picture taken in drizzly weather after we got our first glimpse of it. You can see a profile of a face, and, as our guide would say “do you see the booby?”
Dead Woman’s Pass in the distance.
We didn’t get as far as we were supposed to on day one. That could have been my fault, as I totally lolly-gagged the whole time, determined to enjoy every last view, flower, and ray of sunshine. So we had about 1100 meters to climb the next morning. This took us about 4 hours, and we even got a sandwich for a snack partway up. In the first two hours we covered about 700 meters, and in the second two hours we covered only 400 meters. Yeah, it was steep. We were pretty well acclimated for the hike (the pass was about 14,000 feet elevation), because we had already spent 5 days in Peru above 12,000 feet, and we live at 5000 feet , but the lack of oxygen made any uphill hiking go slow.
At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, looking down the way we came.
Dead Woman’s Pass was the summit of the trail, but there was still a lot more hiking to do that day. We first had to descend several hundred meters (500?) to our lunch destination. Naps were taken. Then we had to hike up another pass — this one only 3950 meters tall, and then hike down again to the third camp, which was at 3400 meters. This sounds like a strenuous day, which it was, but the third day was the most difficult day for me.
After dinner on day 2 we were treated to a ghost story, which must be a standard feature for all tours. We were told that people often had strange dreams at that camp, such as being pulled out of one’s tent by the legs, or of a man or a woman sleeping beside solo travelers. We were told that 20 or 30 years ago a man and a woman were camping there, and the man murdered his wife before killing himself. The knife was never found. Porters have reportedly heard a man and woman arguing at night, and those who go to investigate have found them to be dressed in wedding clothes. Supposedly they are looking for the knife. Needless to say, we didn’t have any bad dreams.
On day 3 we descended 1000 meters. Almost all of it was by stairs. In some ways it was incredible. The trail was built into the mountain cliff. We traveled through two small tunnels. The cloud forest was breathtaking — when the mist lifted. When we arrived at the third camp, which was around 1 pm, my knees were useless. After all the stairs, I was reduced to hobbling. Rest helped, however.
Having the time of our lives.
There were two archeological sites by our camp. We visited one on the way to the camp, then the second later that afternoon. By then I was more mobile. The website of our tour group says otherwise, but I swear the second site was called Winyawayna, which means ‘forever young’ (website says first arch site before camp 3 was Winyawayna). Talk about terraces!
Just a small part of the Winyawayna ruins.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing and eating. After dinner we had the always-awkward tipping ceremony, where you are introduced to the porters and chef and then give them tips as a group. No matter what you give, you will feel guilty about not giving more, and it will always be awkward.
The next morning we woke up at 3 am. No, 3:30. The porters got us up late. We were supposed to be up so early and get our stuff out of the tents and eat breakfast so the porters could catch a 5 am or 5:30 train. The bad part about this was that there was a checkpoint hikers had to pass through literally right by the camp that didn’t open until 5 or 5:30. So, we walked half of a tenth of a mile and waited. In the dark.
After passing through the checkpoint the race began. We were (literally!) the last people to go through the checkpoint because, well, we got there last. At first I figured it didn’t matter, I would go slow anyway. I wanted to take it easy. But the Sun gate was only 5 km away! I found myself hiking faster and faster, passing slower folks. At one point, near the Sun Gate we climbed the most impossibly steep staircase. It wasn’t quite vertical but most people, myself included, climbed it as a ladder. Though my heart was pounding and I was breathing heavy and sweating a lot I kept pushing myself, as if I was running a race. It was exhilarating.
When we at last reached the Sun Gate the sun had already come up over the mountains and was just beginning to kiss Machu Picchu good morning. We were finally there! And it wasn’t raining. We saw sunrise at Machu Picchu, one of the most breathtaking experiences I have ever had.
Machu Picchu at sunrise.