A friend of mine recently went on a trip to Manchu Picchu and it made me nostalgic about my own trip there in January 2011. I went to Peru for 2 weeks as part of a 2 month trip to South America to escape the horrible winter in Calgary. It turned out to be the perfect opportunity to hike the Inca trail, also known as the Camino Inca, in the Andes mountains to Manchu Picchu as there were still tickets for the trail available even though I booked my tour on a Thursday and flew to Lima the next Monday, which was surprising as only 500 permits are allowed per day and this limit includes both hikers and the porters. I found out that tickets were available because it was the rainy season and therefore not the most popular time to hike the trail, a reason that became very clear to me by day 2 on the trail. As you need a guide and advanced booking to do the Inca trail and I was booking last minute, I decided to join a tour with Gap Adventures (now G Adventures) for the Peru portion of my trip. This way Gap organized my trail tickets and all of the gear I would need to hike the trail as well as my transportation from place to place in Peru. Since I was traveling for 2 months the last thing I wanted to do was have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, hiking poles etc. for the rest of my trip.
The group flew into Cusco, the old capital of the Incan empire, which is a required stop before hiking the Inca trail to allow everyone to acclimatize to the altitude as the trail itself can be as high as 13,828 feet (4215 metres) at Warmiwañusqa (“dead woman”) pass and the elevation in Cusco is 11,200 feet (3400 metres). We spent 2 days there, touring and relaxing, to try and avoid any altitude sickness on the trail. According to the guides, the best way to acclimatize is to move slowly at first, drink lots of water and eat light. Some also say that drinking coca tea or chewing on the coca leaves helps, and whether it helps or not the tea is tasty. Cusco is a wonderful city, especially if you are interested in Peruvian history. There are many sights to see both in town and around the area, mostly Incan buildings, some in use and other are ruins, but also Churches, such as the Cathedral in Plaza de Armas (the main square), and other buildings from the Spanish era.
Although prior to the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 Cusco was relegated to a less important role in Peru than it enjoyed during the Incan empire, with the thousands of tourists heading to Machu Picchu the city has taken on a new significance. On our first day we toured the Incan sights of Cusco. We went through the Qorikancha, an Incan sight at the base of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. During Incan times it was covered in gold, but now all that is left are the Incan walls and the distinctive Incan doorways and windows which are not rectangular but instead narrow in at the top.
Next we went to Saqsaywaman (also referred to as “Sexy Woman”), an Incan archeological complex in north Cusco. The massive boulders that were used to build the zigzagging walls were put together without mortar and have stood for hundreds of years. Saqsaywaman is a three tiered complex over 3000 meters in area, although today visitors only see a fraction of what was once there as many of the stones were taken away by the Spaniards to build homes. One of the bloodiest battles between the Incans and the Spaniards was fought here, where thousands of dead were scattered around and the Incans defeated. From the top there are great views over the city. We then drove on to Tambomachay, a ceremonial bath which still has springs of water coming from the rocks. The final sight we stopped at was Q’enqo, a sacred area used for ritual sacrifices and other ceremonies.
Aside from the tourist sights, Cusco has many shops, many geared towards supplying hikers but there is also a market with traditional items such as sweaters, gloves and scarves made from alpaca wool. We also had some great meals out in Cusco, particularly at Fallen Angel, a restaurant and guest house with some of the most interesting room designs I’ve ever seen.
From Cusco we took a bus to the start of the trail. Don’t we look happy? Ready for anything? It was sunny and beautiful. The start of the trail is a nice flat path with only a gentle incline. How quickly both those things changed!
Once we crossed the bridge we were officially on the trail. The weather started out lovely but as the day wore on it started to cloud over and eventually rained. The Inca trail includes 3 days of hiking for 43 km over 3 high mountain passes (plus other small ones), which is hard enough without the added delight of rain. And there was lots of rain, almost constant rain. Unfortunately for us that meant the clouds covered some of the best sights on the trail. We still saw some amazing ruins, such as Llactapata, Sayaqmarka, the Inca tunnel and Phuyupatamarka, along with many other smaller or more distant ruins, but views like that of the mountain Nevado Veronica were almost completely covered by clouds.
The trail is well-preserved and mainly covered with stones, although the stones are a bit slippery with the rain (I took a lovely tumble going down the stairs, cracking my elbow on the rocks and giving myself some huge bruises along my right leg and arm, I was not loving the trail at that moment), and much of it is made up of stairs up and down the mountains. With all those stairs make sure you bring hiking poles, they are invaluable for when you are going down, and also nice to have when going up. The guide ensured there were regular rest breaks, either at ruins or in sight of some amazing views (some of which we saw, others were covered in clouds), where he provided information on the trail, the Incan lifestyle or the ruins encountered along the way. Even with the rain the cloud forest, ruins (made all the more eerie by the mist and clouds) and mountains provided a stunning backdrop to a difficult and exhausting hike. It is a tough hike, even without the rain it would have been a tough hike, and the lack of oxygen at that altitude makes it even tougher whether or not you are in good shape before starting the hike. Of course if it wasn’t tough it wouldn’t be such an accomplishment to finish it. Since I booked so last minute I did nothing to prepare for the hike and my legs burned most of the way. I recommend bringing icy/hot or some other muscle pain cream to use each night, I’m not sure if I could have walked after the second day without it.
It is hard to tell since the rain was pouring down, but we are all very happy and feeling we accomplished something great when we reached the Warmiwañusqa pass, the highest peak to climb on the trail and obviously the most grueling with the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of steps up to the top.
On my tour, the porters were amazing, they would run ahead of us in flip flops carrying all of our gear (making me feel even more pathetic as I huffed and puffed my way up the trail using my walking poles), and had each meal prepared in advance of our arrival and the tents set up for us at the end of the day. The food was surprisingly good, almost gourmet, and there were snacks provided in the morning to have on the trail and each evening when we arrived at the campsite (my favourite being the hot popcorn). Each morning the porters provided warm water to wash our faces and hot tea before we had to head to the breakfast tent. On the trail you wake up early (before sunrise) and go to bed early. After 10 hours of hiking, an early bedtime is welcome. The only downside is the bathrooms, often a hole in the ground, or one night a tent that a single person can barely fit into, they are all unpleasant until you reach the trekkers lodge which is a mild improvement.
Unfortunately all of that rain had another consequence as well, the campground at the sun gate was washed out and we couldn’t stay there. Instead we had to hike an extra few hours on day three along a different path and then follow the train tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes. Many people would be very disappointed about this, and while I felt a small twinge of sadness over missing the sun gate, my overwhelming feelings were of jubilation at the thought of being warm, staying in a bed in a hotel, and having a hot shower. Most of our group felt the same and when asked if we would be ok with that option it was a quick “yes, yes yes!!” shouted in answer. So after we finished our cake (yes, they baked us a cake out on the trail in honour of our last big day of hiking) we headed out for our final hike into town. At that moment, despite the extra hours of hiking, I stopped feeling the pain in my legs, forgot the bruises and the general unhappiness of being completely soaked by rain and practically skipped the last few hours. It was a pretty walk and once we reached the train tracks it was also nice and flat, a welcome change from all those stairs.
Because we couldn’t camp our last night, we had to head to Machu Picchu by bus the next morning. Since we had early access we left while it was still dark to board the busses. When we first arrived at Machu Picchu it was still covered in mist, which I actually loved as this gave it an even more mysterious quality. Our guide provided us with a tour to start our visit and the mist stayed, although it rose a little every so often. However, once we finished our tour the sun started to burn off the mist and the views were incredible. Visiting Machu Picchu is worth the trip to Peru, it has become a major tourist destination for a reason. There are lots of tourists there but you can still find a less crowded corner to soak it all in, taking in the history and the mystical feel of the place. We had hot sun and clear skies for most of our visit and we spent our free time up on the higher tiers looking out over the mountains and ruins. An amazing end to an arduous, challenging and overall exhausting trek through the Andes.
The Inca trail is a grueling, often frustrating, in my case constantly wet, and draining hike. While I’m glad I did the trek as it was always something I wanted to do and, in retrospect, it was an amazing experience, unless you really feel the great need to make the hike (or are an experienced hiker) I would recommend taking the train to Machu Picchu. It is worth seeing and you get to enjoy it without all that hiking. Still, hiking the trail is an accomplishment, something rare, and an experience you can always look back on with pride. So, if you do decide you want to hike the trail all I can say is don’t do it in the rainy season and make sure you have some really good hiking poles.
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