After surviving the trials of the previous day I awoke with a new lease on life, not quite refreshed, but feeling much better. Uncle Kipp and I had to wake up extra early to get a head start on the rest of the group since we had been lagging so far behind, so we had to skip breakfast, though they did provide us with a sandwich in a bag to eat along the way. There would be no time to ease into the hike on this morning–we had to immediately begin climbing the steps toward the second highest pass of the trail at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level.
Our guide Freddy accompanied us while the rest of the camp slept. Although I felt better, it was still a slow slog due to my ongoing altitude sickness. About halfway up the mountain we came to the first of many Inca ruins we would see on this day: the tambo of Runkuraqay.
We explored the structure for a few minutes and took a break to eat. By this time the rest of the group had caught up with us and it was time for Freddy to give another history lecture. However, Uncle Kipp and I were not able to stay for the lecture because we needed to press on in order to keep pace, so we once again left the rest of the group behind (unfortunately, we missed out on a lot of Freddy’s history lessons because of our slower pace).
This time we were accompanied by Alex, the assistant guide who had basically saved my life on the previous day by carrying my backpack for me. He picked up my pack with the intention of carrying it again, and although I was reluctant to make him haul it for a second day, he was insistent, so I gave in. It was probably a good thing since I was still suffering the effects of altitude sickness, which slowed me down to the point where I once again lost sight of Uncle Kipp as he went off ahead. The rest of the group eventually passed me again as well.
So I was on my own again, struggling my way to the summit. Well, I wasn’t entirely on my own because Alex, as he had the previous day, hovered within viewing distance ahead of me, occasionally stopping to let me catch up. He would be my constant companion for the rest of the day, which was nice because it gave me someone with whom to share my adventure, as well as someone to photograph me at various points along the trail.
Finally, I reached the top, and unlike the previous day when the sleet storm forced me to high-tail it off the mountain, I was able to take few minutes to enjoy my accomplishment and snap some photos under the warm sun.
On the way down the guys from Argentina and their guide caught up to us (they had gotten off to a later start), so we stopped for some photos.
Although I was now able to move faster, going downhill presented its own set of problems. I had to keep my eyes focused on the dangerous rocks to avoid tripping or breaking an ankle, and the constant staring down at rocks flying by my field of vision added a bit of motion sickness to my altitude sickness, so by the time I reached the lunch site, I felt like I was in the midst of a massive hangover. However, things would get better later in the day.
The trail next took us past the impressive Inca ruin of Sayaqmarka, nestled on top of a cliff. The name apparently means Inaccessible Town, which makes sense when you see that the only access to the site is a steep set of narrow stone stairs located to the left of the ruin in the photo below. The steps are much steeper than they appear in the photo, and I was still pretty sapped of energy at this point and pressed for time, so I skipped the ruin and remained on the Inca Trail, which veered off to the right.
I regretted not being able to spend more time at the various ruins I passed along the trail, but that’s the price I paid for constantly lagging behind the rest of the group.
Then it happened.
At some point during our descent my energy came flooding back. I could breathe again, my heart stopped racing, and my headache vanished. It was as if somebody threw a switch and deactivated my altitude sickness in an instant–it literally happened that quickly. I felt so good that I even started jogging for large stretches of the trail, in much the same way as the porters did for the entire trail.
We passed by several more Inca structures, including an Inca tunnel carved into the rock and the ruin of Phuyupatamarca, known as the Cloud Level town.
I was able to walk through the outskirts of this ruin but I once again didn’t have time to linger. Eventually we came to a pass where I had my first good view of Machu Picchu Mountain, the peak of which can be seen in the center of the photo below, just beneath the top of my walking stick. To the left of (and just below) the peak, way off in the distance, can be seen the agricultural terraces of the Inca ruin of Intipata. It looks in the photo as if it would take forever to get there, but I would actually be standing at that site by the end of this day’s hike.
As we wound our way toward Machu Picchu Mountain the town of Aguas Calientes became visible in the valley below. This is the town where people come to take the bus directly up to Machu Picchu (i.e., the lazy way to see it :-)). It was from here that we would catch our train home at the conclusion of the hike.
Also visible along this stretch of the hike was the Inca ruin of Wiñawayna. We would be camping later in the evening nearby this impressive site but I unfortunately would not have time to visit it.
I moved much more rapidly through the trail for the rest of the day as it was primarily a downhill hike interspersed with a few uphill stretches. We passed by a few smaller ruins, interesting plants and wildlife, the second Inca Tunnel, and gorgeous vistas of nature everywhere I turned.
Toward the end of the day we came to a crossroad where Alex told me we could either head down to camp or take a detour up to the Inca ruin of Intipata. I decided to visit the ruin since I had been forced to skip so many during this hike, and I’m glad I did.
Intipata, which wasn’t discovered until the 1990’s and has only been open to the public for a little over a decade, offers some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the valley below. In a way, it was actually more special to be here than at Machu Picchu itself because the only way to get to it is by hiking the Inca trail, which means there are no buses dropping off boatloads of tourists every twenty minutes. Along with your fellow hikers, you basically have the place to yourself. I believe that most of my group never made it here (probably opting for Wiñawayna instead), so it kind of felt like my secret place.
My favorite part of hiking the Inca Trail was discovering sites like this along the way that are basically hidden from the rest of the world. And for the first time in two days, I actually had time to relax and soak in my surroundings, to enjoy the serenity of being in the middle of nowhere, that feeling of isolation from civilization that you always picture in your head but are rarely able to duplicate when visiting the ruins of an ancient society.
So we stayed for about a half hour, resting and snapping photos. Even after jogging my way through much of the second half of the day, I felt better than I had since the early part of Day 1.
Then it was time to head down to camp, where I exchanged high-fives and congratulations with some of the other group members before heading to my tent. Our tents were set up so close to the edge of a cliff that it would have been quite easy to fall over. The space was so tight, in fact, that at one point, as I was squeezing past a guy who was leaning into his tent, I knew that if he chose that exact moment to back out of his tent, he would have knocked me right over the cliff. The upside of the setup was that we had amazing views from our tents–not a bad way to spend our last night on the trail.
That night we had our final dinner and a goodbye ceremony for the porters, who would not be accompanying us to Machu Picchu in the morning. They would be heading back home for a couple of days of rest and then turning around to do the whole thing all over again. The porters were truly amazing, running through the entire Inca Trail on shoes that were basically no better than sandals, hauling heavy loads on their backs, always having everything set up before we arrived at camp, and serving us delicious food. We collected money from everyone in the group to tip the porters, and one of the Argentinean guys gave a speech, but since he spoke in Spanish, I don’t know what was said.
There were a few times during meals when the group would all speak to each other in Spanish and I would feel a bit left out, but that’s my own fault for being the only group member who didn’t speak any Spanish. Overall, everyone (my fellow hikers, the guides, and the porters) was very nice and there was a feeling of us all being in it together and pulling for each other . . . even if I didn’t see them for most of the four days 🙂
After the ceremony we tried to get some sleep because we would have our earliest wakeup call yet the next morning (I think it was around 3:30 am). We needed to begin so early in order to have enough time to reach the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu by sunrise. That final part of this story will be told in the next chapter. In the meantime, you can see more photos from the Inca Trail at the link below.