Finally, the much anticipated climax to our trip, hiking the Inca Trail to the mystical mountain city, Machu Picchu! This adventure more than lived up to our expectations: as promised, the four-day hike was challenging and exhausting, but our efforts were rewarded with stunning views and an exhilarating sense of accomplishment.
We had signed up in advance with the locally-owned Peru Treks, based on their reputation for environmental stewardship, ethical treatment of their porters, and investment in local community projects. And we just can't say enough good things about this company and the quality of the service they provide. The office staff gave us a great pre-trek orientation, so we were well prepared for what lay ahead. And on the trail, our guide was fun and well informed, the porters were attentive and incredibly efficient, the equipment was all top-notch, and the food was out of this world!
It also didn't hurt that we had spectacular sunshine and blue skies all four days, which is almost unheard of here. It occurs to us that Pachamama has really been smiling on us for our entire trip. In seven months of traveling to all corners of the globe, it's hard to remember a single day spoiled by bad weather. (Meanwhile, it sounds as though those of you back home in Vermont have been suffering through one of the coldest winters and wettest summers on record. You have our deepest sympathy!)
Our adventure began before dawn, when a guide met us at our hostel. Following him through the dark streets to the waiting bus, we felt a mix of excitement and apprehension as we embarked on our first serious hike since South Africa. We had decided to leave the kids' backpacks behind, as we knew the high altitude could prove a significant challenge, and didn't want exhaustion or backache to mar their enjoyment. And while we had paid for an optional one third of a porter for each of them (relieving us of 12 kg in sleeping bags and mats), Jeremy and Rachael's packs were still on the heavier than usual, with Jeremy's approaching 20 kg – just 5 kg short of the porters' weight limit as permitted by law here!
A couple of hours from Cusco, we made a brief stop at the historic town of Ollantaytambo, where we (and busloads of other hikers) were served a delicious hot breakfast in record time in a quirky little restaurant at the top of a spiral staircase. Half an hour later we were back on the bus, and winding our way along the Urubamba River valley. The road quickly became a narrow unpaved track, requiring us to back up several times when we met other buses coming in the opposite direction. But fortunately it was only a short way to “Kilometer 82” (the distance by train from Cusco), the starting point of our 43 km Inca Trail trek.
Our first day of hiking was a relatively easy, giving us a chance to get used to the daily routine and settle into a comfortable pace. No doubt it also gave the guides an opportunity to assess whether we all had what it takes, before we passed the point of no return. For the first few hours, we followed the river, with views of the snow-capped Mount Veronica ahead of us up the valley. We passed through a variety of exotic vegetation, including enormous cacti and trees laden with Spanish moss. Our guide, Juan, stopped several times to point out specific native plants and explain their traditional nutritional and medicinal uses, and also demonstrated the red carmine dye that can be extracted from the cochineal insect living on the cacti, once a very valuable export.
Along the way, we met a few mule trains, and stood aside to let our porters hurry by. Just like the porters in the Himalayas, these men seemed to have superhuman strength, seemingly oblivious to their huge packs, and many of them wearing only sandals on their feet. Surprisingly, though, we saw no other hiking groups the first day, and in fact found most of the trail to be far more peaceful and deserted than we had expected. And it was interesting to discover a different atmosphere from our hiking in Nepal. Less developed and commercialized, for the most part the only scenery here was the sky and the mountains, and instead of frequent clusters of lodges and restaurants, we found only rustic camp sites along the way. In place of the rich local culture we had experienced in Nepal, here we were totally immersed in nature, and couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the awesome beauty of the wilderness surrounding us.
At the mouth of the Cusichaca River, we had our first encounter with Inca civilization, and their unrivaled ability to blend their architecture with its natural environment. Climbing to the Huillca Raccay fort, we could see the extensive ruins of the town of Llactapata below us, and Juan sat us down for the first of many lessons in Inca culture and history, full of his personal passion for the ancient traditions and beliefs. We then branched southwards up the Cusichaca valley, heading into the mountains, and away from the Sacred Valley of the River Urubamba, which we wouldn't see again until late on the third day.
Shortly after this, we stopped for lunch, and experienced for the first time the amazing capabilities of our chef, his assistant, and of course our team of porters. By the time we arrived, they had already set up a dining tent, and prepared a fabulous lunch including avocado salad, soup, rice, vegetables, and of course hot drinks – using only the equipment and ingredients they had carried in with them! And as with all the meals that followed, there were delicious and creative dishes prepared specially for us vegetarians. Then as soon as we hit the trail again, they were back in action, packing everything up, and hurrying past us to set up camp for the night a few kilometers further on. By the time we arrived there, our sleeping tents were all pitched and dinner was ready to be served, complete with warm water, soap and towels outside to wash our hands before eating. Once again, we were treated to a fabulous multi-course meal of a quality and complexity that defied belief.
Like all our mealtimes, dinner was full of animated conversation, and of course sympathy for each others' aches and pains! We were part of a really fun crowd of sixteen hikers, the others a mix of Brits, Americans and Aussies, ranging in age from late teens to early thirties. Everyone got along great, and Jeremy particularly enjoyed getting to know Charles, a software developer from California, who wasn't entirely enamored of the hiking itself, but determined to make the trip a meaningful spiritual experience. Surprisingly he shared not only Jeremy's professional goals, but also his vegetarian philosophy and political views.
Aside from our kids, the youngest members of the group were two nineteen year olds from Epsom College in England (very near where Jeremy grew up) in their gap year before university, and an Australian couple from Canberra in their early twenties. They had all been traveling extensively, and had lots of fascinating stories to tell, and a great sense of humor. And they were great with Beckie and Luke, going out of their way to include them in everything they did, including endless games of Uno every evening! And on the trail, we'd invariably find the kids up front with them, deep in conversation, and loving being part of the “cool crowd”.
Camp was at Wayllabamba, a small farming community at 3,000 meters above sea level, and the last village we'd see on the trail. Our tents were in a secluded field with a great view down the valley, and farm animals grazing nearby. But we didn't have long to enjoy the scenery, as the temperature dropped precipitously when the sun went down, and we hurried to pull on fleeces, hats and gloves and retreat inside the tent. And after a few games of Uno, we decided to get to bed, knowing we had an early start the following morning, and the hardest day of the trek ahead of us.
Fortunately, the sleeping bags were comfortable and warm, and we all slept well, waking at 5:45 to the crowing of a rooster, and a hot drink in bed, brought to our tents by our porters. By 6:30 we were packed up and sitting down to a hearty pancake breakfast, and soon after 7:00 we were on the trail again.
This was the day many of us had been dreading: the steep and relentless climb to the highest point on the trail, Dead Woman's Pass at 4,200 meters, then an equally steep 600 meter descent down endless steps to our camp on the other side. The plan was to hold out for a late lunch at the end of the hike, so we stopped after three hours in a beautiful meadow right at the tree line for a “second breakfast” to keep us going. This was just a light snack, which suited most of us fine, as we had learned the previous day that overeating in the middle of the day didn't do us any favors! Another thing we'd learned was that it was hopeless to try to keep up with Juan and the youngsters, so we older folks resolved to set our own individual paces – slow and steady wins the race as they say. Well, winning wasn't really our goal, just getting to the top would suffice!
On the plus side, bright sun and cool mountain air created the perfect hiking temperature, so we tried to feel optimistic as we set out on the final slog to the top. Of course, Beckie and Lucas found it all too easy, racing each other to the summit in a record 49 minutes. Rachael wasn't far behind, and within another half an hour most of the group had made it. But by this time the stragglers were in serious difficulty, stopping every few paces to gasp for air. Jeremy was bringing up the rear, struggling desperately with his weak lungs and his 20 kg pack for the final 200 meters. But step by step he soldiered on, eventually reaching the top exactly one hour after the kids.
This was where we wished we had packed a little lighter! Then again, much of the weight was our warm clothes, and having lugged them all the way around the world for this, we were not about to take any chances and end up shivering in our tents at night. It did occur to us, however, that we might have leveled the playing field slightly by distributing the weight more equally between the four of us! But still, this pass was the only place we struggled, and overall we felt very proud of ourselves. As the oldest members of the group, we compared quite favorably with many of the others, most of whom were carrying much less weight.
But no rest for the wicked: a quick team photo, then straight back down the steps on the other side. Now it was all about the leg muscles, and Jeremy was back in his element. Rachael had a little trouble with her knees, but we all stayed together, and made it to camp in less than an hour and a half. Lunch was waiting for us, and our chef Edmundo had quite outdone himself: there were stuffed peppers, goulash, fried egg plant, spaghetti pie, fritters, and endless other delicacies washed down with chicha de maiz morido, a local drink made from blue corn. Unfortunately Jeremy was still suffering from the after-effects of oxygen deprivation, and was unable to find any appetite, sitting slumped in a chair for an hour before he started to regain his energy. But everyone else tucked in, and all agreed it was the best meal so far.
After lunch, Juan gathered all the hikers and staff together to introduce us to each other. Some of the porters were clearly very shy and nervous, but it was interesting to hear their stories, and their roles on the team. They also seemed interested to hear where we were from. At the end we learned a few words of their native language Quechua, and then greeted each other and shook hands. It was a nice touch, and had a noticeable effect the following days, when the porters seemed more likely to greet and make eye contact with us, and recognize us when they passed us on the trail.
By now it was close to 5 o'clock, and getting brutally cold. This was the highest altitude camp, and we could certainly feel it! We sat outside talking a little too long, and all ended up shivering, in spite of wearing every piece of clothing we had with us! The porters lit a gas lantern inside the dining tent which generated a little heat, but as soon as dinner was over, we headed straight for our sleeping bags!
The following morning we were up bright and early again, hitting the trail around 7. It was another beautiful day, and a spectacular hike with stunning views and some very impressive Inca ruins along the way. This was also the first day where almost all of the trail was paved with original Inca stone. The first couple of hours was a steep climb past the ruins of Runkuracay to the Abra de Runkuracay pass, but at 4,000 meters, this wasn't high enough to cause anyone serious breathing problems, and we all made it without much difficulty. At the top, Juan explained that the “Inca Trail” we were following was in fact one of many similar paths built by the Incas, including three running from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The trail we were following was used specifically by religious pilgrims, which explains why it takes such a difficult route through high mountain passes, instead of following the Urubamba River valley: the mountains were considered sacred, and this path brought them closer to the high peaks, where they believed their prayers would be more powerful. Juan then performed a traditional offering of coca leaves, and offered a prayer asking the mountains for our protection, which was quite a moving experience for all of us, regardless of our religious beliefs.
Descending from the pass, we had some of the most beautiful mountain views of the day, as we traversed a steep hillside towards the ruins of the Inca town of Sayacmarca, built into the cliffs ahead of us. Then, just as Rachael and Jeremy were commenting to each other how perfect the day was, disaster struck! Losing her concentration for an instant admiring the view, Rachael lost her footing on an uneven paving stone and twisted her ankle badly, collapsing onto the path in agony. Fortunately nothing was torn or broken, though of course the ankle started to swell immediately and was in serious pain. But Rachael was a trooper, and decided that the best course of action was to keep it moving and to start immediately down towards our lunch camp at whatever pace she could manage. Leaving her pack behind, and wearing a sturdy ankle brace she had been carrying with her for just such an eventuality, she headed off down the trail with our assistant guide Raul, while the rest of the group finished exploring Sayacmarca.
We caught up with her half an hour later, and found her in good spirits, resting her leg. But right after lunch, she was off again, getting a head start on the last stretch to our final camp site at Winay Huayna. Amazingly, we didn't see her again until dinner time, as she kept ahead of us the entire afternoon, arriving an hour before anyone else. Meanwhile, Beckie stepped up to the plate and carried Rachael's pack the whole way, struggling a little with her knees on a long series of over a thousand downhill steps, but determined to make it without any help. On the bright side, it was fun for Jeremy to have her company for a change! And the trail continued to be spectacular throughout the afternoon, passing through magnificent cloud forest full of flowers, mosses and ferns, over a third, lower pass with fantastic views of snow-capped mountains, through an Inca tunnel, and past the impressive ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the “Town in the Clouds”.
When we all finally arrived at camp, we found that we had been nicknamed The Incredibles, with rumors that Rachael could fly, Beckie had superhuman strength, and Lucas could run at lightening speed! And amazingly, Rachael's ankle was already feeling much improved, thanks to the ministrations of Ollie, one of the other hikers who just happened to be a pharmacist, and the porters, who brewed up a magical green potion using traditional herbal remedies, which when applied to Rachael's leg immediately relieved both the swelling and the pain!
Most importantly, we had all made it to the final camp site, just one hour from the Sun Gate and our first glimpse of the fabled Lost City of the Incas! The camp was crowded and dirty and noisy, but we didn't care. After a celebration dinner including beer and a delicious cake Edmundo had somehow managed to bake for us, we climbed into our sleeping bags full of excitement and anticipation, ready to wake at 4 o'clock for the final push to the ultimate goal of our trek: Machu Picchu!