For 15 years, I have wanted to hike the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu. The Camino Inka is the most famous of the 40,000+ Inca trails throughout South America. I’ve been drawn to the Inca trail partly for its noteriety and partly because it is 26 miles long, the distance of a full marathon.
The time has arrived!
On Sunday morning, at 5:30 am, a shuttle van picked me up from my hostel. I joined 5 other eagerly waiting trekkers, 8 porters, 3 guides and 1 cook. We drove for an hour and 45 minutes to the town of Ollantaytambo, an ancient Inca town for breakfast. I was very excited and nervous.
There was a lot of chatter in the bus. I heard mostly Spanish, and no English. I sat next to two porters and I couldn’t understand one word that they said. I later found out that they were speaking Quechua.
At breakfast, I introduced myself to the other trekkers. Coincidentally, all 5 were from Buenos Aires in Argentina, however, most did not know each other. There was Lionel and Javier, two best friends of 15 years, Val, an accountant traveling solo (like me), and Maria and Fede, a couple who met while studying to become English translators. Maria had also studied in Minnesota and visited the U.S. many times. She always made sure to include me in the group conversations. I soon found out that Argentinians have a reputation for speaking Spanish very fast (as I speak very rapidly in English).
Our three guides included Miguel Angel Ninancuro Cruz, my personal guide, Rony and Mario. My personal porter’s name was Urbamba. He always had a smile on his face.
We again boarded the bus and drove for another hour and a half to Km 82, the traditional beginning of the Camino Inka.
As we waited for the porters to unload the bus, I marveled at the surrounding emerald green mountains, the sun glistening glaciers and the raging river below.
We were on our way! We crossed a suspension bridge over the Urubamba River and slowly began our trek up the slight incline. I found that I was already struggling to catch my breath, as tens of porters carrying huge packs and wearing only sandals ran past us on the trail (there must be something to the coca thing…..).
I felt like we were walking so slowly, as many other groups passed us, and Miguel patiently said that we should just take our time. I was certain that the other members of our group were already at the lunch destination and that I would be holding everyone up. I tried to relax and just keep walking up the mountain, taking several photo breaks to catch my breath.
We passed several Inca archaeological sites, including Llactapata and Q’ente, and Miguel would sit us down and explain the importance of each. They each varied greatly in size. Some housed 80 people, some in the hundreds. Some were homes with storage for textiles, others had great terraces used for cultivating potatoes and corn. Some had temples to worship the sun and the moon.
After ascending one particularly steep mountain that seemed to go on for days, Miguel and I stopped at a small stand where a woman was selling water, gatorade, and chicha, a fermented corn mountain beverage preferred by guides and porters. Miguel ordered a chicha and he poured some on the ground before taking the first sip. He explained that it is tradition to give the first pour to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) as an offering of thanks for providing a safe journey on the mountain. He offered me a taste. It was sweet and a little sour, and very refreshing. If I weren’t so terrified of altitude sickness I would have bought my own.
Miguel and I hiked for several more hours, up hills and down into valleys, until we reached our lunch spot for the day. To my surprise, we were the first trekkers to arrive! I thought that everyone else had come and gone, and later Fede told me that they thought I was already at Machu Picchu! I stopped worrying about my pace and vowed to simply enjoy the journey.
Our lunch was a three course gourmet meal (and I’d later find that each meal would be like this). We were given basins of water and soap to wash our hands. We then had a private shaded lunch tent. We started with pumpkin soup, then had salmon, rice, potatoes and vegetables. There was sooooooo much food! We followed that with hot coca tea. I felt like a queen and I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m usually happy with Ramen noodles at camp!
We hiked for another 2 hours until we reached our campsite, Wayllabamba. The guides had decided that we would end 45 mins early (because we had hiked so slowly) and make up the time in the morning. I was happy to be done for the day, but extremely nervous about tomorrow, as we had two mountain passes and an extra 45 mins of hiking. Today we had only covered 14 km.
Our campsite was a patch of grass field nestled between the mountains and overlooking a waterfall. We could see a glacier in the distance. Our tents had already been set up for us, neatly in a row. I was given my own tent to sleep in. I’ve never had my own tent to sleep in before! This is truly glamping!
We talked together and with the guides for hours. We laughed over cultural differences and my need to photo document everything. We got to know each more and I couldn’t have been happier. Miguel also took this time to explain the next day’s events, including the two mountain passes, and he suggested that I talk a little less on the mountain. (I couldn’t help myself) 🙂
By now it was dark, and the night sky was clear. I could see the Milky Way, Mars and the Southern Cross. This was my first time in the Southern Hemisphere. I could stay here forever.
The next morning, the porters awoke us in our tents at 5 am with cups of hot coca tea. I walked to the bathroom and was surprised to see two sets of glowing eyes in the dark. They were mules, grazing at the campsite.
Breakfast was another feast. We had coffee, tea, toast, butter, strawberry jam, hot chocolate and omelets. I took my first altitude sickness pill, just in case. I still hadn’t felt any lightheadedness or stomach cramping, but I wanted to be cautious. I had heard two many stories of gringos getting sick.
We packed up and headed out shortly after 6 am. We hiked uphill for 45 minutes and I trailed behind the others. I had eaten too much and was very warm. We reached another checkpoint and Miguel told me to continue ahead. I saw a flock of parrots flying overhead and hummingbirds flitting about in the nearby flowers. My spirit was renewed.
We continued on gradual uphill inclines for a few hours. Each time I looked behind me I could see an expansive glacier in the distance, and our campsite had gotten further and further away.
We entered a tropical cloud forest. I felt like Katie Michigan Jones, explorer of the Andes. It was just like in the movies. The trail passed vines, moss, ferns and a rolling waterfall. We climbed hundreds of giant steep stone staircases. My trekking poles were a necessity today, and I noticed that Miguel wasn’t using any.
Hours later, I was the last to reach our resting point. It was the last point to buy Gatorade on the trail. I bought two large gatorades (although I really wanted a chicha) and filled my camelback.
I was the first to head out on the trail, in an attempt to keep up. I climbed the steep steps: counting to 10, rest, and repeat. More porters ran passed me and I dartted to the left, to the mountainside. And then I spotted him! A llama standing next to me! He was grazing along the side of the trail. I pet him and he did not approve. He scurried up the side of the hill and I’m disappointed, until I notice that there are scores more in the valley below. 🙂 I am on cloud 9.
The others have caught up and some pass. I begin talking to Lionel about life and Peru, and before we know it, together we reach the first pass, Warmiwañusca, also called Dead Woman’s Pass. We are at 4200 meters (13,997 ft) and it is the highest point on Eath that I have ever been! The others are waiting at the top and we celebrate, take photos and relax with snacks. I pass around my Trader Joe’s Buffalo Jerky for everyone to try. It gets mixed reviews…
It is very cold on the pass, so we bundle up and slowly begin the loooooong steep descent into the valley below. We crawl down steep stone steps for about two hours into the gorge. There is a tall waterfall flowing down the entire mountain, and our lunch spot awaits us below, Paq’amayo.
During lunch it begins raining, as though the trek weren’t challenging enough. Fortunately, it slows to a mist, and we again ascend toward the second pass.
We climb for a hour before we reach another archaeological site, Runkurakay, and I am grateful for the break. Miguel explains that this site was a resting place (and Inca lodge) for messengers that would run 70 km(!?!) to deliver messages between towns. We are only covering 44 km total! At a snail’s pace!
We reach the second pass. At 3950 meters, this is the second highest point on the trek. An Inca Gold sparrow greets us at the top. I create a mountain top cairn out of respect for the mountain and to God. I am so grateful that we made it safely. It seemed so hard going uphill, and at each pass I kept thinking “Wow! We really did it!! What was I so scared of?!?“
Again, we don our jackets. The fog was rolling in and it was very cold.
We hike downhill, through more emerald green tropical forests, passed mirror glass lagoons and ancient Inca ruins until the sun began to set. We reach our second campsite, Sayaqmarka, after 6 pm. We had hiked for over 12 hours and covered only 10 km. I was starving and tired.
We devoured dinner and went to bed, ready for another early start in the morning. I had to get up during the night to use the baño, and the full moon illuminated the entire campground and sky. The three glaciers in the distance shone brightly.
In the morning, I woke early. I was all packed and ready by the time the porters brought around the coca tea. I journaled with the Andes sprawling around me.
We began hiking at 8 am in the rain. It rained for a few hours as we hiked uphill passed bromeliads and colorful orchids. Then we began hiking downhill into the valley, cautiously navigating the wet stones. I tripped once and caught myself. Many portions of the trail are on the cliff edge and have sheer drops straight down.
We reach a fork in the road and opt for the longer route, which leads us through Phuyupatamarka (City Above the Clouds), the most beautiful archeological site yet. There are tens of green terraces below, and three llamas attend the site. Miguel teases that they are trail Rangers.
We climb down into Wiñay Wayna, our lunch spot. This was to be our third camping site, however it was damaged in a recent mudslide.
After lunch, we have the traditional tipping ceremony, where we tip our porters and cook and offer our appreciation. The group elects me to be the speaker, and I thank the porters and cook in Quechua, Spanish and English. These guys are superheroes and I am in awe of their strength and determination. They worked very hard to ensure that we had a great time. We exchange handshakes and hugs.
We also say goodbye to Maria, Fede and Val, as they have chosen to stay the night at the campsite. The porters will take a shorter route to Aguas Calientes and I will join Miguel and Rony (another guide), Lionel and Javier, and continue two more hours to the Sungate to Machu Picchu.
I can hardly contain my excitement! These last two hours are mostly flat and are gorgeous. At the final checkpoint, we see a group of day hikers, and they pass us with ease. The stone stairs have taken a toll on my knees, thighs and calves, but we continue at a steady pace onward.
We reach the steepest set of steps yet and I know we are almost there. A short distance away we reach Intipunku, the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu and I get my first glance of the foggy site in the distance. I cheer!!! I am so happy! We did it!!!!!
We walk for another 60 mins until we reach the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock where we see tourists placing coca leaves on the altar. It is now almost 4 pm and Miguel says that we will return tomorrow for our tour of the site. He allows me to marvel in the moment and he takes my pictures of the iconic ruins.
I’m sad to leave, but I know that we will return tomorrow for a full day. We board a bus to Aguas Calientes, also known as Pueblo Machu Picchu, at the bottom of the mountain. The bus makes dangerous switchbacks down the mountain, and the remains of a landslide can be seen.
The bus drops us off in town, and Miguel shows me to my hostel. For only 30 Soles, I get a private room with private bathroom and a HOT shower! I clean up and meet the remaining group at a restaurant across the street.
Miguel and I are the first to arrive, and we share a Cusqueño. He presents me with my official Inti Sun Trek tee shirt commemorating my completion of the trek.