It’s my ten year anniversary of reaching Machu Picchu after an arduous four-day hike of the Inca Trail through rain, sleet, and altitude sickness. Despite my tribulations, the journey and the destination were more than worth it. It’s an experience I will never forget.
My traveling has been on hold since the pandemic—I hope to get back to it again someday soon. In the meantime, here are my journals from the entire Peru trip, culminating in my arrival at Machu Picchu.
This is another one of those afterthought photos that turned out pretty well. I was on a tour that included the salt mines of Maras and the Inca ruins at Moray, which I wrote about in the second chapter of my Peru travel journal.
On our way back from Moray the bus drove through the village of Maras, a town comprised primarily of old colonial buildings, most of which are still in use. We didn’t have time to explore the village since it was only a half-day tour, but when the bus briefly stopped I stuck my camera out the window and quickly snapped this photo so I would have at least one clean shot of some of the buildings. In the process I captured this local woman sitting in the shade, away from the heat of the sun.
This is a video montage of my August 2012 trip to Peru, including my visits to the Sacred Valley and my hike of the Inca Trail. This is the same video that appeared in my journal, so you may have already seen it, but I wanted it to have its own page in my videos section. The background music is In the Lap of the Gods by the Alan Parsons Project, which I thought was a fitting piece to accompany the visuals.
At long last, the day had arrived to make the final trek to Machu Picchu. We awoke around 3:30 am to get in line with the other groups for admission into the final stretch of the trail. This turned out to be quite a long wait, but eventually we were on our way.
As usual, the younger members of the group raced off ahead, leaving me behind with Uncle Kipp and our guide Alex. However, unlike previous days, I was feeling good from the start of the hike, so I raced off ahead by myself (carrying my own backpack for a change), eager to make it to the Sun Gate (Intipunku) by sunrise.
I didn’t take any pictures during this stretch of the hike, opting instead to leave my camera in its case so that I could concentrate on reaching the Sun Gate as quickly as possible. The hike turned out to be a bit longer than the roughly hour or so I was expecting, but I’m sure the faster hikers made it to the Sun Gate within that time frame. However, I did a much better job of keeping up on this day, so I was usually among other hikers, either passing them or being passed by them.
I eventually came to a set of narrow stone stairs so vertically inclined that ascending them was almost like climbing a wall. It was such a difficult climb, in fact, that the guides referred to it as the “Gringo Killer” and there was a logjam of hikers waiting to climb it. Some people hollered in triumph when they reached the top, which led me to believe that this was the end of the trail and that the Sun Gate awaited me at the top, so when my turn came to climb, I went all in, rapidly climbing on all fours like a monkey, making it to the top in record time.
I looked around. No Sun Gate. No Machu Picchu. Doh!
I still had about another 20-30 minutes to hike and I had just expended all of my energy and muscle reserves racing up the Gringo Killer. Additionally, I started noticing a pain in my shin that worsened with each step. It felt like a stress fracture or shin splints or something. Although it was probably the result of the cumulative effect of walking/running and climbing/descending on stone steps for three days, there’s no doubt that the Gringo Killer was the final nail in the coffin. Had I taken my time with it instead of flying up like a bat out of hell, I might have saved myself a lot of pain.
Anyway, I hiked the last stretch of the trail and finally arrived at the Sun Gate, where I got my first spectacular view of Machu Picchu.
When you stand here you are seeing Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains as the Incas did when they emerged through the Sun Gate all those centuries ago. This is the view that the bus tourists never see unless they make the hour-long trek up to this spot. As it turned out, I didn’t reach the gate by sunrise but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because the sky was overcast all day, which unfortunately resulted in some dulled photos, though I was still able to get some nice ones. However, in my excitement over finally gazing down on Machu Picchu, I neglected to take any of the Sun Gate itself.
Shortly after arriving I encountered the guys from Argentina and we exchanged some high-fives. I then walked down a bit from the Sun Gate and found a quiet rock overlooking the trail, where I sat down to eat breakfast while enjoying the pristine view and basking in the feeling of being at the top of the world in the middle of nowhere.
Although I still had another 45 minutes of hiking before I would actually get to Machu Picchu, this moment really felt like the end, the culmination of my four-day struggle. Everything I had gone through had been worth it just to be sitting here.
About 20 minutes later Uncle Kipp and Alex arrived.
After a few more moments of relaxing it was time to make the final trek down to Machu Picchu.
When we finally arrived, we waited in line to get the classic photo taken.
We then had to actually leave the park, meet up with the rest of the group, and then re-enter. On our way down we began to pass all of the bus tourists entering the park. I couldn’t help viewing them a bit like intruders, like “How dare you enter this sacred citadel that we have expended so much of our blood, sweat, and tears to reach? Be gone!” Or maybe I was just jealous that they looked so clean, well-dressed, and rested in comparison to us. 🙂
After hooking up with the rest of the group (and sadly abandoning my trusty walking stick, which was not allowed back in the park) we re-entered and followed our guide Freddy on a roughly two-hour tour. Rather than detail what I saw on the tour I’ll just let a few of the pictures I took speak for themselves.
My leg pain had gotten progressively worse as we toured Machu Picchu. By the end of the tour I could barely put any weight on it, so when Freddy asked which of us wanted to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu (the taller mountain that looms over Machu Picchu) there was no question that I would be opting out of that excursion. Everyone in the group except for Uncle Kipp and me went on the climb.
We still had about two hours left to explore more of Machu Picchu before we needed to leave, but since I could barely walk, we decided to leave early and head down to the city of Aguas Calientes. We had seen most of the major points of interest during the tour, but there was much more we could have seen (such as the view from the guard house), so having to leave early was a major regret.
We took the 20-minute bus ride down to Aguas Calientes, a town that gives you a taste of both the beautiful (being surrounded by majestic mountains) and the tacky (the touristy shops and restaurants). The pictures below are a couple of panoramas I took with my cell phone, so they’re a bit messed up due to the quality of the cell phone software, but they give you an idea of what the town looks like.
The portion of the Urubamba River that runs through town is filled with giant boulders like these:
We headed to the restaurant where our group would be meeting. Uncle Kipp and I got there first since the rest of the group was still climbing Huayna Picchu. Alex had one of the waitresses show us to a locked room upstairs where we could access our large duffels, which had been carried here by our porters, once again proving what a great decision it had been to hire personal porters. It was a huge relief not to have to lug those massive things through the last part of the Inca Trail, up the Gringo Killer, and all day through Machu Picchu. Overall, I was very pleased with the Dos Manos tour company—they had everything down to a science. Even when I realized that I had left my train ticket back at my hotel in Cusco, they were able to easily secure me a new one, and the various drop-offs and pickups to get us home ran smoothly as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Since we had some free time while waiting for the rest of the group, we decided to try the town’s hot springs. Alex joined us and showed us the way. Unfortunately for my injured leg, it was a very painful, 15-minute uphill walk. We eventually got there and jumped into the hottest pool they had. Words cannot describe the glorious feeling of sitting in that hot spring after four days of relentless physical exertion. We relaxed and enjoyed some cocktails that had been delivered to us at poolside.
Later we returned to the restaurant and joined the rest of the group for our farewell lunch. After lunch we said goodbye to Freddy and Alex, who were getting an early train home, and tipped them very generously for everything they had done for us–they truly went above and beyond. Alex, in particular, had been like my guardian angel during my struggles on Days 2 and 3. Here are a couple of photos in tribute to our intrepid guides:
We then said our goodbyes to the rest of the group and exchanged contact info. Here’s a shot of the group from the previous night enjoying our final dinner on the Inca Trail.
So after four days of living among a group, it was down to just Uncle Kipp and me. We had a few hours to kill before our train left that evening so we walked around town, had some ice cream, did some shopping, etc. Finally we got the train back to Ollantaytambo, where we transferred to a bus back to Cusco. The bus dropped us off in a square in the middle of town and for a minute I thought I was going to have to walk uphill to my hotel carrying all of that luggage on my bum leg, but the bus driver hailed a cab, gave him some money, and instructed him to take us to our hotels. I said goodbye to Uncle Kipp after the cab dropped me off and then checked back in to the Hotel Rumi Punku. Finally, at around 11:30 pm, I walked through the door of my room and, just as promised, found the luggage I had left behind with the hotel waiting for me.
After unwinding and unpacking I collapsed into bed and slept until noon the next day—longer than I had slept in the previous few days combined. I decided to treat myself by renting out the hotel spa, complete with jacuzzi and sauna—I’d earned it. Between the hot springs and the spa, my leg, while still sore, was starting to feel better. I dropped off my rented sleeping bag and duffel at the Dos Manos travel office in the afternoon and then met Uncle Kipp and his friend Yuri that evening for a final dinner. Uncle Kipp was staying for a couple more days to stand as godfather to Yuri’s baby, but I was leaving the next afternoon.
The hotel was nice enough to give me a late checkout to coincide with my afternoon flight without charging me extra. I took a cab to the airport and was soon homeward bound. I won’t detail my misadventures getting home except to say that I will never fly American Airlines again if I can help it. I finally got back to Newark airport the following afternoon and back to home sweet home later that evening. And just like that, my adventure was over.
From the Sacred Valley to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, it truly was the adventure of a lifetime. I don’t know if I would ever again put myself through four days of roughing it like that, but I’m glad I did it. I challenged myself both physically and mentally in a way many people never will. It is an accomplishment I will always look back on with fondness and pride.
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.
Anyone who has ever hiked the classic Inca Trail will tell you that Day 2 is by far the worst, so I knew I was in for a rough day, but nothing could have prepared me for what I actually faced. We were scheduled to make the two highest climbs of the hike, beginning with an ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, followed by a descent virtually all the way down to the elevation at which we started, followed by another ascent to nearly 13,000 feet, followed by another descent. It is such a difficult leg, in fact, that the rest of my group members pitched in to hire porters to haul their packs for the day.
Just a quick note before moving on with the story: there will not be many photos accompanying this chapter because I spent virtually the entire day hiking in a torrential downpour. Speaking of rain, we traveled to Peru during South America’s winter, which is supposed to be the best time to hike the Inca Trail because it is Peru’s dry season. In fact, during the entire two months that my uncle had spent in Peru prior to my arrival, he had encountered a grand total of five minutes of rain. So naturally, when we hiked the Inca trail, it rained all night on Day 1, all day on Day 2, overnight on Day 3, and it was overcast for all of Day 4.
We awoke on Day 2 to a wet tent following the heavy overnight rain. The porters knocked on our door and provided us with a cup of hot coca tea to have before breakfast. By the time we ate breakfast the rain had actually stopped, leading me to hope that, this being the dry season, we had already experienced our quota of rain for the entire hike—how wrong I was.
The day did not start off very well for me. I had managed less than three hours of sleep the previous night, which had followed several consecutive days of very little sleep. On top of that, I awoke with a bit of a sore throat and, thinking that I might be coming down with something, made the colossal mistake of taking the only medicine I possessed that might alleviate some cold-like symptoms: Benadryl. As you may know, Benadryl can cause sleepiness, and combining it with my already sleep deprived state and the beginnings of altitude sickness was a recipe for disaster. As a result, I was already a physically drained, walking zombie before we had even gotten underway.
The hike began with a gradual ascent through the first cloud forest. This was actually the easy part of the day (the steep Inca steps were yet to come) but I was already dragging. The rest of the group had left us in the dust, but our assistant guide Alex stayed behind with Uncle Kipp and me. I didn’t realize how much the high altitude was affecting me at this point; I had thought that most of my problems were related to my grogginess and physical conditioning. While they were definitely contributing factors, I would later discover, after descending back to low altitude and regaining all of my energy, that my biggest issue had been altitude sickness, which manifested itself in breathing difficulty and a feeling similar to being hung over. I tried various local remedies along the way like chewing coca leaves and inhaling the aromas of leaves from other plants that were supposed to help alleviate the symptoms, but nothing helped. Looking back, I should have taken the Diamox that my doctor had prescribed, but now it was too late since it needed about two days to take effect.
At one point we had to stop so Alex could give me some oxygen. Things were not looking good at all–if I needed oxygen this early, what would happen when we actually began the steep ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass? I could tell that both Uncle Kipp and Alex were concerned that I might not make it. Alex offered to carry my backpack to lighten my load, which in the end would turn out to be a life saver, but at the time I couldn’t help but wonder if it was merely prolonging the inevitability of my turning back.
Shortly after my oxygen break it began raining in earnest, but it was still warm, so I was hiking in light gear with a poncho to protect me from the rain. However, once we reached the Inca steps, a set of steep stone stairs that would characterize the trail for most of the next two days, it began raining buckets. At this point it was too late to change into heavier layers because we had reached a stretch of the trail that was open air with no shelter all the way up to and down from Dead Woman’s Pass, so any clothes I tried to pull out of my backpack would have been drenched before I even got them on. Consequently, I was forced to hike the rest of the day in a torrential downpour wearing summer-like gear, even as the temperatures plummeted and it began to sleet. Oh yes, three of the eight hours I hiked this day would be spent in sleet, but more on that later.
So we reached the Inca steps and began to climb. The higher we got, the colder it got, and the harder it became for me to breathe. My energy was completely sapped and it did not take long for my legs to feel like concrete. I was moving so slowly that I even lost sight of Uncle Kipp. Alex stayed back to keep an eye on me and would occasionally wait for me to catch up so I could get a drink of water out of my pack, but for the most part he was far enough ahead that I was essentially hiking by myself, with nothing but the sound of torrential rain pummeling the hood of my poncho to accompany my thoughts, which grew increasingly dismal the higher I climbed–if you want to call it climbing. I was so physically drained that I was basically falling upward. I’d bring one leg up to the next step followed by my walking stick, rest for a second, lean on the walking stick to bring up my rear leg, rest again, and then repeat. At my lowest point I couldn’t have been averaging more than a couple of steps per minute.
And then the sleet arrived.
I was already drenched as my poncho, which only came down to around my knees, had obviously not been designed to protect against rain of biblical proportions. I regretted not bringing my heavier, longer poncho, but was also grateful that I didn’t go with one of the cheap throwaway ponchos that I had been considering–it would have been shredded before I even reached the top of the mountain. Not only were all of my exterior clothes saturated, but also my socks, which I had thought would be protected by the Gore-Tex waterproof hiking shoes I had purchased specifically for this trip (apparently, their ability to repel water also had its limits). Once the sleet arrived, my wet clothes and my hands began to freeze. I could not get to the gloves in my pack but wearing them would have been pointless anyway because they would have just gotten soaked as well, so I was forced to alternate placing one hand in my pocket to warm it up while the other handled my walking stick.
All around me, green mountaintops became snow-capped before my very eyes. I was completely exposed to the sleet with still an entire day’s worth of hiking ahead of me. Tired, freezing, and sore, my only choices were to press on or turn back, and the latter crossed my mind several times. I would later learn that some people from other groups did indeed turn back–it was that bad. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I gave up, I would miss out on seeing Machu Picchu, which had been my whole reason for being there in the first place, and I didn’t want to live with that regret.
So I slowly forged ahead, step by methodical step, as the sleet hammered my face. My hands were on the verge of frostbite, I could barely feel my feet or bend my knees, and my legs had grown so heavy that it was nearly impossible to lift them. Yet higher and higher I climbed, my heart racing, my head pounding, and my breathing growing more and more labored. Occasionally I would gaze up in a vain effort to find the summit. With no end in sight, I more than once said to myself, “I’m going to die on this mountain.”
But on I went, and somehow, someway, I reached the top, letting out a long, loud, exhale. Nobody else was around except for Alex–I imagine that I was the last person on the trail that day to reach the summit. However, in what should have been my moment of triumph, all I wanted to do was get the hell off that mountain. The sleet was still pouring down amid a frigid and furiously whipping wind. So here I was at the top of the highest point of the trail, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, and I couldn’t even enjoy the scenery or snap any photos, not that there was much to see anyway with the storm smothering any real visibility. I stopped long enough for Alex to take a picture of me at the top, and then it was time to descend.
The steps going down were just as steep as the steps going up, and in some ways, just as difficult to navigate because of how slippery they were from the rain, so although I was able to go a little faster downhill, I had to be very careful. I frequently stumbled on the slick stones and a couple of times I did, in fact, fall down. This was when I knew I had made the right decision to buy hiking shoes because I would have lost my footing much more frequently in sneakers, and probably would have broken an ankle.
My relief at finally going downhill soon turned to despair when I realized that we were nowhere near the lunch site, that I still had to hike for another couple of hours on legs that had become as rubbery as those of a punched-out boxer. My only consolation was that the sleet turned back to rain once I had descended far enough down the mountain. Meanwhile, Alex continued to carry my bag, for which I was eternally grateful. I would never have made it through that day without him.
Finally, after roughly eight total hours of hiking, I reached the campsite for lunch, one hour after Uncle Kipp and about four hours after the rest of the group. It was mid-afternoon so lunch had long passed, but the cooks were kind enough to fix me a plate. I ate some but I didn’t have much of an appetite.
Since I had arrived so late, our main guide Freddy decided that we would camp here for the night instead of continuing with the rest of the day’s scheduled hike, for which I was once again eternally grateful. Had we continued on, the chances of my completing the climb up to the nearly 13,000-foot second pass were nearly zero; I literally had nothing left. Knowing I could relax for the rest of the day, and that the worst was behind me, was a huge weight off my shoulders.
The delay would make the next day’s hike more difficult than originally planned, but this would prove to be a blessing in disguise because the next day was sunny, enabling us to enjoy a treasure trove of Inca ruins and beautiful scenery that we would otherwise have zoomed past in the middle of a rainstorm. Thus, my extreme lateness actually benefited the group 🙂
After eating as much as I could stomach, I went to my tent and tried to get dry, which was easier said than done because nearly everything in the large duffel bag carried by my porter had gotten drenched. The only items that escaped saturation were those toward the middle of the bag, but the end result was that most of my clean clothing was soaked and unwearable. I was very disappointed that the duffel had not been waterproof, but there was nothing I could do about it now and I was too tired to care. I tried to arrange some things to dry inside the tent (I couldn’t leave anything outside since it was still raining) and then I collapsed into my sleeping bag, skipping dinner.
I slept through most of the afternoon and evening, though I would not be getting as much sleep as I had hoped because Freddy wanted Uncle Kipp and me to wake up extra early the next morning in order to get a head-start on the rest of the group since we had fallen so far behind that day. But that’s a story for Part 6, which I promise won’t be as long as this epic chapter.
After spending three days in Cusco to acclimate myself to the higher altitude (or so I thought), the day had finally arrived to begin my hike of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The classic Inca Trail, roughly 28 miles of ascending and descending between elevations of 9,000 and 14,000 feet, is very physically demanding, especially for an out-of-shape 41-year-old like me, but I did make it through, as did my 61-year-old uncle, so if you ever decide to embark on the trek, you should be okay as long as you are in relatively decent physical condition, particularly if you are younger. Nevertheless, preparing physically for the hike can only help you (I’ve read posts of some people who went through intensive physical training in the months leading up to the hike); I would have benefited from much more than the two months of yoga and tennis classes I took prior to the trip.
You also have to be mentally prepared to spend four days in the wilderness dealing with the elements, sleeping in tents, getting dirt in everything, going without hot showers, and using restrooms, each of which is nothing more than a stall with a hole in the floor. As someone who is virtually addicted to his creature comforts, this aspect of the hike was even more daunting for me than the physical challenge.
Anyway, I woke up at 4am to get ready for the bus to pick me up. I filled my large suitcase with everything I would not be bringing on the trail and left it in my hotel room with the luggage tag provided by the staff. The hotel was storing my luggage free of charge for the four days I would be gone, a very convenient service. That left me with a large duffel bag (to be carried by my personal porter) and a small backpack to carry myself. I purposefully chose an extra-small backpack so that I wouldn’t be able to fit too much into it and weigh myself down. This made it a little inconvenient to retrieve items because they had to be packed so tightly, but it was better than having the temptation to over-pack.
Speaking of the large duffel, I have to say that hiring the personal porter was the best decision that I made on this trip, totally worth the extra $50. I would never have made it through the trail carrying all that weight. Uncle Kipp and I were the only people in our group who hired the porters, but everyone else in the group was much younger, so I guess the weight didn’t bother them as much. Still, at one point I picked up a pack belonging to one of the other guys and it was like lifting a bag of concrete; I don’t know how he hauled that thing for four days.
So the bus (a disappointingly tiny, cramped one for the long drive) picked up the 12 members of our group and we were off. We stopped for breakfast in Ollantaytambo near the ruins I had just seen the previous day. At the shop beneath the restaurant, many of us purchased walking sticks—the second best decision I made on this trip. I nearly left without buying one, which would have been a huge mistake given how heavily I leaned on it, as this picture of the walking stick’s condition at the end of the hike can attest:
After breakfast we drove to the starting point for the Inca Trail, where we met our guides (the main guide Freddy and the assistant guide Alex) and everyone in the group introduced themselves. The other ten members of the group consisted of one couple from Spain (though the guy was actually a fellow native of the Philly area), two couples from France, a younger woman from Spain traveling solo (though I think she was actually British), and three guys from Argentina. The Argentina guys did not speak English so they were given their own guide and hiked separately from the rest of us. Everyone else in the group spoke Spanish but the guides were kind enough to give the main tour in English (with the occasional humorous slip into Spanish) in order to accommodate my lame monolingual self. 🙂
Following the introductions, we started pre-hike preparations (e.g., stretching, applying bug spray, sunscreen, etc.). Speaking of bug spray, for the most part I was barely bothered by insects at all during this hike, and this is coming from someone who can’t step outside at home without getting dive-bombed by mosquitoes. The spray I chose (a combo spray/sunscreen from Avon) did a great job.
When the group porters had finished packing up all of the tents and kitchen equipment, we made our way to the check-in point to begin the trail, stopping briefly to take the group photo seen at the beginning of this article. We then crossed the bridge over the Urubamba River and set foot on the classic Inca Trail for the first time.
It did not take long for Uncle Kipp and me to fall behind the rest of the group. This would become a familiar refrain over the four days, though on this first day it had less to do with physical demands than with my frequent stops to take photos. As a confirmed shutterbug I wanted to savor and document everything I was seeing, whereas the rest of the group, not sharing my photo obsession, moved through the trail much more rapidly.
The first day of the trail is not overly demanding. You’re mostly walking along the river at low altitude and gradually climbing on trails made mostly of dirt (the more physically demanding stone trails and higher altitudes would come later). There are people living along the early part of the trail, so you see lots of donkeys, horses, mules, cows, and other animals roaming the countryside. In fact, the biggest obstacle to contend with on the first day is the ubiquitous animal dung along the trail.
The first big climb came around the middle of the day and from this point on the trail would become steeper in both its ascents and descents, though still easily manageable on the first day. At the top of the first ascent we came to a plateau with a spectacular view of the Inca ruins of Patallacta.
Unfortunately, the classic trail does not pass close enough to these ruins for a visit, but there is a five-day hike where you camp nearby and visit the ruins. The group stopped here for a rest as our guide Freddy gave us a lecture about the trail and its history. I must confess, after only about three hours of sleep which had followed a few other nights of little sleep, I had to fight to keep from dozing off as I leaned back. Luckily, I had sunglasses on so Freddy couldn’t see my struggle. I wouldn’t have wanted to offend him; the sleepiness had nothing to do with his lecture.
After our break we headed down from the plateau on our first steep descent, passing by another set of ruins known as Willkaraqay.
There are a few places along the trail to purchase water and other things, but after the second morning, you’re on your own. The only water you have from that point on is what the porters boil for you in the morning and at lunch, so you need to carry a good-sized thermos. Speaking of lunch, we stopped for lunch in the middle of the day, though I can’t recall if it was before or after Patallacta. When we arrived at the lunch site, the porters had already set up the dining tent. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of food and I was starving, so when they brought out fresh avocado with some cheese, I fought through my historic aversion to green food and ate it. Little did I know that this was only the first of multiple courses that included soup and a meat dish with various sides (they made an alternative dish for the vegetarian in our group). Overall, they fed us amazingly well at both lunch and dinner throughout the trip, and the food was delicious.
For the rest of the day we made our way along the trail in a casual fashion. Toward the end of the day the trail began to climb again and it started to get dark. At some point, as we were walking in pitch blackness, the guides came back with a couple of porters to carry our backpacks so we could get to the campsite faster. It took about another 45 minutes of walking in darkness for me to reach the campsite, and Uncle Kipp arrived about a half-hour after that. All of the tents were set up and waiting for us when we arrived. I joined the rest of the group in the dinner tent for tea while Uncle Kipp relaxed in our sleeping tent.
A little later we had dinner and then it was time to retire for the evening. At this point it began raining (in the dry season, no less, but more on that later). The guides warned us to keep things away from the sides of the tents because it would cause them to leak, but there isn’t a lot of room for two adults and all of their gear in a small tent, so a lot of stuff did get wet, as we would discover in the morning.
August is in the middle of Peru’s winter, so although the days are warm and almost summer-like, it gets quite cold at night. However, at this time it was still too warm to get into my sleeping bag so I just slept in my liner on top of it, and a couple of hours later I woke up freezing. Overall, I slept horribly that night, getting less than three hours, which would really come back to haunt me the following morning, but that’s a story for Part 5. In the meantime, you can see more photos from the Inca Trail at the link below.
After a brief detour into Middle Earth, I’m back with the next installment of my Peru travel journal, featuring my tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas on the final day before my scheduled hike of the Inca Trail.
The day began with an early morning bus pickup in front of my hotel. We made a brief stop at the Plaza de Armas to transfer to a larger bus. Unlike my previous day’s trip to Maras and Moray, the bus for this tour was packed, and the man sitting directly in front of me had body odor of epic proportions, which was a helluva way to spend an entire day. It was so bad, in fact, that the two British women sitting directly across from him abandoned the tour about halfway through and caught a bus back to Cusco (it wasn’t until I tried moving to their seat that I realized how much worse they had it than me). Thankfully, the man left the tour after the next-to-last stop of the day, so I wasn’t forced to endure the smell for the long journey home.
Anyway, after a couple of brief stops at a local market and a scenic outlook, we made our way to the magnificent, sprawling Inca ruins at Pisac. I still marvel at how the Incas were able to build these large cities on top of and into the sides of mountains–it’s every bit as impressive as anything the Egyptians accomplished–and I would see many more examples of Inca greatness on this day and along the Inca Trail, proving that there’s much more to see in Peru than just Machu Picchu.
After our tour guide finished his presentation, we were free to explore. I started to climb up toward the highest buildings but I did not have time to make it all the way to the top, so I settled for the plateau beneath the final climb, where I enjoyed this spectacular view:
At one point I encountered a woman in a New York Yankees hat and thought, “Cool, a fellow tri-stater.” I gave her a smile in greeting but she just gave me a dirty look. Perhaps it was my Philadelphia Eagles hat. 🙂
The next stop on our tour was the actual town of Pisac and its market that featured, among other items, many of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes cultivated in Peru. While in the market I bought some things for my wife and bartered with a merchant for a hand-carved stone chess set depicting the Incas versus the Conquistadors.
After Pisac we stopped for lunch. Actually, I was dropped off at a restaurant to eat by myself because everyone else on the bus had apparently booked with a different tour company and were eating elsewhere. I didn’t mind, though; it was relaxing to sit outside and enjoy a quiet lunch by myself while a band played Peruvian tunes on windpipes. It was a nice place with a good buffet, totally worth purchasing the lunch option as part of my tour.
After lunch we made our way to the Inca ruin of Ollantaytambo, another impressive, large complex, complete with ground level buildings and terraces leading up to more buildings on the top of the mountain.
Across the street from the complex there is a mountain with the face of the Inca god Wiracochan carved into its side, as well as Inca storehouses built into the mountain. These and the other ruins on the Sacred Valley tour are nearly as awe inspiring as Machu Picchu itself. If you can only take one local tour from Cusco, this is the one to take.
After our guided tour and some free time we returned to the bus for the ride home (this is the point where Captain McStinky left us, so I had a pleasantly smell-free ride back). Before returning to Cusco we made a stop in Chinchero to view the church and had some nice sunset views of the countryside.
I finally got back to my hotel in the evening. It was too late to meet my uncle for dinner given how early we had to be up the next morning for the bus ride to the Inca Trail, so I went out to a place nearby and had some pizza, half of which I brought home to have for breakfast in the morning. Then I finished packing for the hike and tried to catch a few hours of sleep before my 4am wake up call. In retrospect, scheduling an all-day excursion the day before the hike was probably not the best idea because my subsequent lack of sleep would come back to haunt me later, but that’s a story for another day.
Stay tuned for Part 4, which will cover the first day of my Inca Trail hike. In the meantime, follow the link below for more photos from my tour of the Sacred Valley.
When we left off in Part 1, I had arrived at the Hotel Rumi Punku in the early morning and proceeded to collapse in bed. I awoke from my slumber in the afternoon and explored the hotel grounds. The Rumi Punku is designed in an open air format similar to a motel with a courtyard in the middle, but calling it a motel does not do it justice. I found it to be quite gorgeous, and for roughly $80 a night, I couldn’t have asked for more.
Although some might balk at the basic amenities of the rooms, and the fact that the heat does not turn on until after 5 pm (I was there in winter, which is the preferred season to hike the Inca Trail for the best chance of avoiding rain, though it didn’t work out that way for me, but that’s a story for another day), my room was perfectly fine to use as a base of operations: I had hot water 24 hours a day (not always the case in Cusco hotels), a flat-screen TV, and a safe, not to mention a free American-style breakfast every morning and 24-hour access to coca tea in the lobby.
If you’re looking for a five-star hotel, you’ve come to the wrong place, but I was very pleased with everything the hotel offered and will definitely return if I ever find myself in Cusco again. The Rumi Punku primarily caters to Inca Trail hikers anyway, so for those of us preparing to spend four days in the wilderness, staying here was practically the lap of luxury, and I was very grateful that the hotel would be storing my luggage free of charge for the four days I would be away on the trail.
After touring the hotel I headed into the city of Cusco. I first visited Dos Manos, the travel company that was arranging our Inca Trail hike. I paid for the balance of that trip as well as for two other excursions they were arranging for me. For an extremely low fee, I would be taking a half day tour the next morning and a full-day tour the following day (lunch inclusive) to visit Inca ruins and some other sites in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the surrounding area. I would be taking these tours on my own because Uncle Kipp had already been on the tours.
Dos Manos was an uphill walk from my hotel, which led to my first experience dealing with physical exertion and the high altitude. It was a little difficult to breath and my heart was racing a bit, but overall it wasn’t too bad. My doctor had prescribed some Diamox for me but I had decided to try going without due to some of its side effects, which would later prove to be a mistake when I was climbing to over 13,000 feet on the Inca Trail. At this time, however, the altitude effects were minimal so I thought that I would be okay.
Following my visit to Dos Manos I backtracked to the hotel and then made way toward the beautiful Plaza de Armas in the center of the city, an easy ten-minute walk from the hotel. I was supposed to meet Uncle Kipp for dinner but he wasn’t feeling well, so I was on my own. I walked around snapping photos and dodging the incredibly aggressive merchandise peddlers (they will follow you all over the plaza). By the end of my stay I had learned that the best way to keep the peddlers at bay is to avoid eye contact, never stand still, and turn in the other direction when you see one approaching.
I wound up at a cozy restaurant overlooking the plaza called the Bagdad Café, where I had an excellent dish of beef, onions, chili peppers, rice, and fresh cilantro. There was also some type of stewed tomato, which I would normally not eat, but everything was so good that I mixed it in (it would not be the first time on this trip that I would consume a previously taboo food). They also served me the best glass of blended orange and pineapple juice I’ve ever tasted.
After dinner I walked around the city in search of a churro (alas, I would never find one on this trip). Instead, I discovered a tasty Peruvian fried dough pastry topped with syrup called a picarone that I found in a hole-in-the-wall joint on my way home. I also tried a popular soda called Inca Kola, which looked like Mountain Dew but tasted more like vanilla cola.
That night I had intended to get to sleep early since I had an early wakeup for my first excursion outside of the city, but those plans were thwarted when I stumbled onto Braveheart on television, and it was actually in English. Yes, I’ve seen it dozens of times and have the blu-ray at home, but I was weak. Thus began my six days of Walking Deadness (I would not get another good night sleep until I returned from the Inca Trail).
The next morning a small bus picked me up in front of my hotel for our half-day tour of Maras and Moray. There were only a handful of us on the bus, which was nice. We first stopped in the town of Chinchero to see a demonstration of the process of cleaning and dying alpaca wool for garments. They provided us with complimentary coca tea while we watched.
After the demonstration I twisted my ankle badly walking down the steps to where they were selling their goods. My first thought was that I had just screwed myself out of the Inca Trail, my entire reason for coming to Peru. Thankfully, there wasn’t any real damage, though I did walk with a limp for a while and remained in some pain for most of the rest of the trip.
Following Chinchero we had a long ride to our next destination, the Maras Salt Mines, which are actually a series of evaporation ponds that apparently have been in operation since Inca times.
Our next destination was Moray and its famous circle terraces. Moray is thought to have been an Incan agricultural station due to the large increases in temperature the further down into the circles you descend. The Inca steps used to climb down the massive circles were built into the sides of the terraces as jutting stones in order to maximize the available farming surface.
By the time the guide stopped talking, we only had fifteen minutes before the bus was to leave, which was not enough time to climb all the way down and back up, but I decided to give it a go and race down, figuring it would be good practice for the Inca Trail. I made it about two-thirds of the way down before turning around and running all the way back up, seriously huffing and puffing by the time I reached the top.
On our way back to Cusco we drove through the town of Maras. Most of the buildings in town are old colonial structures still in use. We didn’t stop, so I snapped this photo from the bus. It turned out to be one of my favorite shots in spite of being almost an afterthought.
We arrived back at Cusco in the mid-afternoon. The bus dropped us off in the Plaza de Armas and I walked back to my hotel to freshen up before my scheduled meeting with Dos Mano that evening, where they would be briefing us about what to expect on the Inca Trail hike. I met Uncle Kipp there; it was the first time we’d seen each other in the two days since I arrived. We listened to the briefing and they gave us our rented sleeping bags. They also provided us with the large duffels that our personal porters would be carrying on the trail. The personal porters cost us an extra $100, but it was the best decision we made–there was no way I would have made it through that trail if I was carrying all of my own belongings. I’ll elaborate more on that when I get to the hike itself.
Later that night, after a brief stop at my hotel to drop off the sleeping bag and duffel, I returned to the main plaza to meet Uncle Kipp and his friend Yuri, a resident of Cusco whom my uncle had met and befriended during his stay. We met Yuri’s family and we all went out for a nice dinner to a local joint where I had some tasty chicken and my first glass of Chicha Morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn.
After dinner I headed home and did some preliminary packing for the Inca Trail before heading to bed. The next morning I would be waking up even earlier for an all-day excursion into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which I will be covering in Part 3. In the meantime, you can find more photos from Cusco, Maras, and Moray at the link below.