Updated: Feb 26, 2020
a physical, mental and spiritual journey
Have you ever heard the saying that life is all about the journey and not the destination? Well sometimes in life you have an encounter that is both, like four days hiking the classic Inca trail to Machu Picchu. From the outset it becomes very apparent that this is not going to be easy. But from my experience, it is usually the hardest things in life that turn out to be the best.
Day one starts with a leisurely 5am pick up from our hotel in Cusco and following a 2-3 hour drive, breakfast and final preparations, the 12km hike begins at around 10am. About 3 hours in we arrive at the impressive Willcarakay & Llactapata ruins, a nice surprise on the first day and a sure sign this is truly going to be something special. Llactapata was used for religious and ceremonial functions, crop production, and housing for soldiers from Willkaraqay, an ancient pre-Inca site first inhabited around 500 BC. The landscape is much drier than I expected, and although it's almost Winter, it's still quite hot (27C). The guide informs me that the mountains surrounding us all used to be snow capped, but now it's only the highest peaks (the volcanoes) that remain with snow. He's convinced it's due to global warming and has witnessed the changes to the environment particularly over the last 5 years. We continue to discuss global climate, environmental and political issues, a welcome distraction from the climb as we continue our assent to camp, a total elevation gain of 500m. This is supposed to be the easy day but I can tell you that statement has us all reeling when we finally arrive at Wayllabamba (grassy plain) camp at around 4.30pm. The thought on everyone's mind; if this is the easy day, how the hell am I going to do the rest of this?
We rise early to greet the sun on day two and start hiking around 6am. Today is badged as the hardest day and although it's only another 12 km hike, it is basically a steady 10 km climb to Wami Wanusqa or Dead Woman's Pass with an elevation gain of 1115m. There is not much to see on the way apart from dusty trails, tired hikers, Porters rushing by, a donkey or humming bird if you're lucky and ever steeper Inca stairs. Oh and did I mention the ancient Incan burial remains? A stark reminder of just how gruelling this journey is. We are doing a small portion of the trail from Cusco which in the past, brought nobleman to visit the King from as far North as Colombia and as far South as Chile, and not everyone made it alive. The Andes loom ever larger over head, their constant presence has a way of making one feel small and insignificant. At the same time the harsh reality & gruelling physicality of the climb coupled with the effects of altitude ensure an intrinsic feeling of being more alive and present in this moment than I've perhaps ever experienced. My mantra through all this "one step at a time, it's just walking and breathing". It's hard to express my elation as I struggle to catch my breath when I finally reach the summit at 3pm (altitude 4115m). Now it's just a couple of kilometers of steep descent down uneven Inca stairs and winding trail to camp. I arrive totally alone and exhausted at around 5.30pm, after over ten hours of hiking (for the most part on my own) I'm completely overwhelmed with emotion to see my husband waiting for me at Pacaymayu camp, and collapse onto my bed (a roll mat & sleeping bag on the tent floor), "I did it!"It's worthing noting at this point that my husband Glenn, 13 years my senior (52) and a smoker was one of the first in our group to arrive at camp, beating me to by about an hour, plenty of time to roll my bed out. I was most grateful but also humbled by the experience.
So now the hard parts over, just 16km of the most beautiful scenery & spiritual awakenings make up day 3. We depart at sunrise making an impressive climb through cloud forrest to the second pass Qochapata with views of Pashamama and Runkurukay below. We begin our descent to the equally beautiful ceremonial remains of Sayaqmarka. From here the trail winds its way through lush rainforest and caverns and makes its way gently to Chaquiqocha with amazing views of both Mount Veronica & Aguas Calientes below. Having made good time, we sit and admire the majesty of the mountain and our hearts and souls are filled with a sense of oneness. After a hearty lunch, we continue our descent down over 3000 Inca steps, a passage affectionately known as the Gringo killer. Unfortunately this description is far too apt for this Gringo's knees and it's slow going the rest of the day. Fortunately we make it with just enough time to take the alternate route to Intipata farming remains and arrive at Winay Wayna camp as the sun begins to set on day 3. I can hardly believe the trek is almost over and tomorrow we'll be at Machu Picchu.
No rest for the wicked, we leave camp at 3am in the pitch black of night to commence day 4 and hasten to make our way to the checkpoint where each tour group has formed a line at the entrance. We're not allowed to hike until daylight so it's a long wait before we make a move. But when we move, we really move, racing (literally jogging) the last few kilometers, passing multiple groups & scrambling up a rock wall before we finally arrive at Inti Punku (the sun gate) and take up position. There is nothing to see but a wall of fog before us, then all of a sudden the fog clears and there before us, like magic, the magnificent Inca remains of Machu Picchu. There's just enough time for some photos before the fog rolls in again and we make our way down the final part of the trail to the ancient city while bus after bus of day trippers make there way up. Here we commence our two hour tour of the ancient city and learn all about the archeological and astronomical genius of the site as well as the Inca religion & philosophies. But to really know it is to see it and feel it for yourself. So what are you waiting for?
GnTonefortheroad Travel Tips:
Go with a local, sustainable tour company. We used Peru Treks. Plan at least 6 months in advance as permits go on sale in October, first come first served and only 200 trekkers/day.
Pack light, use a porter & hire the hiking poles. This trek is hard, you need a porter to take 6kg of bedding and other basics. They are strict and weigh your gear, if you're over you carry it! In your day pack you need water, snacks, first aid, toiletries (toilet paper, wet wipes and hand sanitiser) and photographic gear. That's all!
Take layers, it gets really cold (-10C) at night & in the morning so you need thermals, a fleece and/or jacket. Unless it's the wet season you don't need a raincoat, take a poncho just in case.
The only way to do it is at your own pace so be prepared to get separated from your friends/partner. But don't worry, that's all part of the spiritual journey and you make fast friends with the rest of your group.
Arrive at least 2 days before the trek to acclimatise to the altitude. Take altitude tablets or even better, a bag of coco leaves. Prepare yourself mentally and physically for the trek (future blog post coming soon).
The food is amazing and plentiful especially given the conditions (3 courses breakfast, lunch and dinner). But take protein bars or trail mix for the trek to keep your energy levels up.
Don't expect to shower but there's basic toilet facilities all along the route.
Take 400 Pesos each for drinks and tipping at the end of the tour. In particular, make sure to tip your porter, they work exceptionally hard!
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