Thursday, January 22, 2015

Trekking the Inca Trail

Bucket list item checked off and first major adventure of this trip completed! The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu have been conquered. I flew to Santiago, Chile this morning so I write this with my first bottle of Chilean wine (randomly selected from the supermarket and it was the equivalent of about $4.00) opened and pretty happy to be indoors with electricity and a real bathroom! Serious luxury.

The full day by day details are below but in short the Inca Trail was awesome and highly recommended. But... you've got to be physically and probably more than anything mentally prepared. The trek I did was four days and three nights at altitudes well over 10,000 feet with 13,000+ being the highest point reached and 45 kilometers traveled. It is definitely recommended to get to Cusco at least two days before you start to get as adjusted to the altitude as possible. The mountains, views, and Inca ruins along the way are spectacular and getting to Machu Picchu on the last day is quite special. We didn't even have a perfect blue sky day when we were in Machu Picchu but it was still awesome. I'd prepared myself that it would be cold and rainy everyday thinking the worse given that it is the rainy season here - well luck would have it that we never had any prolonged rain while walking during the day. It would rain at night and then stop by morning. Each night I'd lay in my tent with it pounding down just praying that it wouldn't still be when wake up call came. And sure enough we were in the clear; I think I only wore my rain coat twice.

Keep reading for the full details or if you want to just cut to the pictures you can find some of them here. I'm trying to get the rest of the pictures and a few videos to upload but I'm having some serious issues at the moment. Not sure they do it justice but worth a shot. You really should see it for yourself in person :)

Each day 500 people are allowed to start the Inca Trail (from March through January). This includes trekkers like me, guides, and porters. In our group there were 14 trekkers (4 Americans, 2 Dutch, 1 British, and 7 Aussies), three guides and 18 porters. The porters included a chef, assistant chef, waiter, organizer, and basic porters. These guys are amazing - they carry all of the stuff, including sleeping tents, tents for us to eat our meals in and for them to do the cooking in, table, stools, food, and not to mention most of our stuff. The regulation is that they're not supposed to carry more than 25kilos (55lbs) each - years back they would carry up to 50kilos apparently. I hired a porter to carry 9kilos of stuff for me which included sleeping bag and mat, clothes, and toiletries. I only carried a day pack with layers, water, and my cameras each day. That was a $70 well spent!

The porters have to essentially run ahead of the walkers from campsite to lunch spot to campsite to setup and prepare everything. I'd often hear quick little footsteps behind me and realize I needed to get over to the side to let one or more porters fly by me on the trail. We'd get to lunch or our campsite for the night and all the tents would be setup and the porters were cooking away preparing our next meal. Every day we had breakfast, lunch, tea time (before dinner), and then dinner. The food was absolutely amazing - seriously, a feast of really delicious food every time. Lunch and dinner for example always started with a soup then main course, sides (many sides), and dessert. The catered to special dietary needs too which was pretty amazing - no gluten, dairy, or vegetarian no problem. Special food made each time. Totally crazy!

Here's the day by day - I made some notes each day as we went so some of this is that and some is my reflection now.

Day 1

The first day started with a 6AM departure from Cusco to head by bus to our launching point at what's known as Kilometer 82. This bus ride was quite entertaining down narrow roads trying to pass other buses, trucks, and cars. Our driver was very skilled and got through some ridiculously tight spots - he drove the 30 person bus like a tiny little car. We stopped at a small town in an area called the Sacred Valley for a light breakfast and then we kept going. We reached the starting point and met up with our porters as they packed up all our stuff. I got my day pack ready and we finally began hiking around 1130. We went through the first of four checkpoints along the trail, took a group photo, and were on our way.

In all I think we did about 14 Km of walking - it was nothing too difficult but you can definitely feel the altitude. Saw the first of the Inca ruins we'd see along the way, the grey stone against the green background is beautiful. It started to rain just as we were approaching the campsite for the night, whew! There was a great rainbow over the mountains that I snapped a few pictures of. As the sun set we could also see some of the highest peaks covered with snow and glaciers, absolutely beautiful with the light hitting them.

When we arrived at our first camp site to find all of the tents set up, our bags carried by the porters laid out, a tent to dinner set up, and the chef cooking away.  Our first meals by the chef and crew was amazing - we were all in shock. The evening meal started with tea time - hot water for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, cookies, and popcorn as a snack. Then dinner came out and oh my god we were blown away. Soup, mains and sides were all served in front of us to dig in to. It was delicious, more than I could have ever expected. After dinner it was pretty much straight to bed around 830. I took a nyquil and knocked myself out. My biggest fear was having to wake up in the middle of the night and need to pee! I did not want to have to get out of my tent and deal with that. This place had a sort of functioning toilet, it would be one of the better ones along the way! Given that I'm not really a tent or sleeping bag kinda gal I did quite well for my first night's sleep. By the end of the trip I became increasingly obsessed with the sleeping bag liner (thanks JesseB for the tip and Stokes for my Christmas gift)!

Day 2

This is advertised as the most difficult day and I'd say it was pretty accurate. It's mostly because it's a massive uphill and elevation gain to what's known as Dead Woman's Pass and then down a crap ton of stairs to the campsite for the night. I did come to learn that it's not called Dead Woman's Pass because that's where people died or they sacrificed women :) but rather that from a distance the area of the mountains looks a bit like a woman laying on her back.

We started the day with a fantastic breakfast - who knew quinoa porridge was so delicious. And they made pancakes too!  Lunch and dinner again were great too. At breakfast we did introductions to all of the porters - they said in Spanish or their native Quechua language where they were from, age, and family in (wife, kids, etc). We then introduced ourselves. It was a nice thing to do considering they were lugging our crap and making sure everything was set up and that we had great meals for the trip.

The actual hiking itself was tough but taken relatively slowly so it was manageable. Getting up to Dead Woman's Pass at 4200 meters (an additional 1000 from where we started the day) was quite a climb. This is where it was definitely mental toughness to get yourself through it. We had some folks in the group struggling and needing support from the guides throughout the day - everything from encouragement to carrying their bags to providing oxygen. The altitude was affecting them quite seriously. Most people in the group were chomping away on the Coca leaves which are supposed to help and a lot of them had some type of prescribed medication for adjusting to the altitude. I didn't take anything and I'm thankful that I was never more than anything short of breath and probably a slight headache due to dehydration - fear of having to pee at an inopportune time limited my water intake :) I did discover though that using an eco-toilet (aka just peeing in the woods somewhere) was often a much better option to the nasty (and i mean make you gag) smelling bathrooms with squat toilets along the way. Enough about the toilets since that could have it's own blog... I made it up to the top of the pass with no problem. Because folks in the group were moving quite a bit slower myself and some others had to wait forever and it became very cold. The fog and clouds were rolling in and out so I was eager to get moving down the backside. Shortly after the last two arrived at the top we were allowed to begin the descent down. At this point I was really cold and my hands were freezing. This was my only moment during the four days of being cold and unhappy and it only lasted about 30 minutes so it wasn't all that bad! I booked it down the hill (mostly stairs) as fast as I could to warm up and get to the next campsite.

This was the highest elevation campsite so it was quite chilly. I layered up while we at dinner and then made myself like a mummy in my sleeping bag liner and sleeping bag. I was eventually too hot in the night which was quite a surprise. It poured over night but as would turn out to be the case each night it stopped by the morning and we were all nice and dry.

Day 3

This was the longest day distance wise but it wasn't too bad. I think we covered 16 Km. There was lots of downhill which made my quads pretty tired and just took a lot of focus to not slip on my ass. The trekking poles really came in handy. This day made me wonder just how many stairs are along the trail - there were definitely too many for me to count! We saw three, maybe actually four, different ruins throughout the day - I came to realize that while they were interesting to look at up close it's really the view from a distance that makes them even more impressive. From above or across you get a better vantage of the shapes and layout. Most of what we saw along the way were resting spots, like a hotel essentially, for Inca travelers along the trail. Some were for farming which are the terraces along a hillside that look like steps. Late in the day we got to a vantage point where we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu mountains in the distance. The Machu Picchu village sits between them and is of course our final destination. The plants were noticeably different along this portion of the trail. As we came down in altitude we were into the jungle so it was more ferns and lush green with lots of tiny little bright flowers. I stopped multiple times along the way to take photos.

When we arrived at our final camp we went to see one ruin that totally blew me away. This one was called Winaywayna and is known as the little Machu Picchu. A group of us got to this location just past our campsite shortly after 5 and we had it to ourselves. The views across the mountains, waterfalls, and just silence of the place was beautiful. There was something about walking around this place that I really enjoyed - perhaps even more so than Machu Picchu.

Our final campsite was incredibly luxurious - there was an inside area and a real flushing toilet that had a sink, mirror, and some soap. By this point having these things felt amazing! We got to eat dinner inside and when we were waiting around forever on the 4th morning I felt lucky to have shelter. For our final night's dinner the chef made a cake - totally ridiculous. The meal was delicious as always and then out came a cake with frosting and 'Welcome to Machu Picchu' written in it with caramel sauce.

After dinner we thanked the porters for everything over the few days (with tips and thanks) and headed to bed. The wake up call for the next day was at 330!

Day 4

It poured rain all night - I mean came down! I woke up about 2, knowing we had to be up at 330, and it was raining and I thought for sure we were going to have to spend some time getting soaked. However, by 330 it had pretty much stopped. We had to get up super early so that we could eat and the porters could get everything packed up and they could be off to catch a train down to outside Machu Picchu (the porters are not actually allowed in). We ate a pretty sparse breakfast which was surprising, not sure if they just didn't have much left or that was purposeful to get out of there more quickly. But I was starving not too long after and our lunch wasn't until 2PM. Luckily I had one last little bar and they gave us a snack around 11.

Despite being up at 330, eating breakfast at 4, we didn't actually start walking until just before 530 to get to the final checkpoint when it opened and wait in line with the other groups. This was the start of a fair amount of waiting around we'd do on this day - not ideal. Having the inside space here made a huge difference, I'm not sure what we would have done for over an hour sitting outside!

We finally started walking for the final day and it was crowded and slow with everyone basically going at the same time. We arrived at the Sun Gate where you're supposed to be able to catch your first glimpse of Machu Picchu town - it was completely fogged in and we never saw it. The most I got were some foggy pictures as we waiting and thought it might lift. Eventually we heading on our way to finally get to Machu Picchu. We finally arrived and it was massive, bigger than I could have imagined! It really is amazing that the Spanish never actually found this place and it wasn't until 1912 when it was first discovered.

When we finally entered Machu Picchu it was still pretty foggy so our initial pictures aren't great. But whatever, we made it! There was a girl in another group in tears and we think it was because it was foggy not that she was so relived to have finished the trek. She was part of the questionably prepared group mentioned earlier so perhaps not surprising. The weird thing is that you have to go outside of the entrance gate and then come back in. So after a few initial pictures we exited, waited around for at least 30 minutes for who knows what, and then went back in. Our lead guide then gave us a tour of some of the grounds and then we had about two hours to do whatever we wanted. Some folks had paid to climb Wayna Picchu which I regret not doing, but I hadn't bought a ticket so I just wandered around a bit, sat on the grass almost falling asleep, took more photos, found llamas and observed the loads of tourists. From the vantage points that look down on the structures it doesn't seem that there are too many people but good lord in certain places it felt really crowded. In addition to those who come in via the Inca Trail every day there are over 2,000 who come via train/bus.

After I'd had enough, and almost fell asleep in the grass(!), I headed out to catch a bus down to the town of Aguas Callientes where we had lunch and then had a train back to Cusco. Aquas Callientes is essentially a little tourist town with hot springs, shops, restaurants, a few hostels and hotels. Lunch wasn't prepared by our porters so it was actually probably the worst meal that we'd had, but it was food and I was starving. With time to kill before the trail some folks went to check out the hot springs and I planned to wander into the market and just waste time but ended up getting a drink with three of the folks who I'd been hiking with. A beer and a pisco sour tasted pretty amazing at this point. We then sprinted to the train station to catch our ride back to Cusco. Due to the rainy season and potential landslides the normal four hour train ride was a two hour train and then almost two hour bus ride. The bus felt endless! We finally made it to Cusco just before 9PM, said our goodbyes, and I headed to the hotel for a shower, packing, and then a real bed. The shower and bed were so nice!

The trek was one for the record books and definitely a trip of a life time. It's amazing to me to realize that this was just the beginning. It was a fantastic way to kick off three weeks here in South America and these six months. I feel incredibly accomplished personally but also in awe of the work that goes in by the porters. Taking the bus and train to see Machu Picchu is definitely cheating! The nature was stunning - though I think what I'll see down in Torres del Paine in a week or so may surpass it. Being disconnected from everything and just engaging with the people around me and all of the sights was a great change of pace.

Now I'm looking forward to some down time and checking out Santiago and hopefully seeing beach and ocean! I'm glad not to have to think as much about rationing my toilet paper and tissues and wondering what the next toilet is going to be like :)

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm I posted a comment but it disappeared. Thats such a nice pic of you walking on the trail! Glad you are having fun!!