Having a go at a travel blog entry. I didn’t really read any other takes on this trip for guidance, so pardon me if I get lost in it… Oh, right. It is my story of hiking the Inca Trail last winter. Go ahead and enjoy:
If you are thinking of knocking this one off the bucket list, just try to keep in mind these three pieces of advice: Plastic (poncho material) stops water. Everything else that you think should and looks way cooler, does not stop water. Try to learn a little about what you are really getting yourself into and where you are truly going. Take a guided tour from Cuzco or read a book before you hit the trail. Oh, and also, hiking on a steep trail with a pack at high elevations, really is harder than that training hike you did back home, but that is okay, you got this! For any other real or maybe more practical advice or trip reviews go look it up on the internet it yourself, there is a lot of good stuff out there. So… let me set the scene for you:
It’s very late December in 2012. Summertime. Actually, in Peru, I’m told it is better known as the middle of the rainy season. My buddies and I recently packed away the shorts and flip-flops and caught a flight up from the lowland Amazon Rainforest region of the country where we had the unique pleasure of celebrating Christmas with our fun-loving “5-minute-friends” at a riverside Eco-lodge. Things are vastly different for us now in and around the city of Cuzco, at a staggering 11,000+ feet above sea level. A city known to many as one of the premiere highland adventure base camps, culturally rich in its Spanish/Incan history and its tourist crowds from every reach of the globe. Coincidentally it’s also home to the world’s highest Irish-owned pub and delicious cui (guinea pig), that one we checked out for ourselves soon after arriving. We have spent the past few days exploring by tour van the rolling and majestic Andes mountains, winding river valleys and mystic ruins of what is known as the Scared Valley, previously home to the center of Incan empire of lore. The guided tours have bounced us up winding passes, through still thriving mountain villages of the native Quechua people, to ancient structures still standing and forming the foundation of life in the region. I can already tell that this is on pace to be one of the more memorable trips to date for me personally. I run through our jam-packed itinerary again in my head as I jot some thoughts from the day down in our Twitter-style handwritten journal we had all agreed to keep, and I am still amazed at how much we opted to squeeze in, and how much I am testing myself both physically and mentally. Before this journey I laughed when Ryan told me I could pack for two and a half weeks in one 46L Osprey internal frame pack (and get it through security as just a carry on). What I couldn’t know then, that I know now, is what was to come of the next 4 days of my journey. It is the prime reason we, and most adventurers, take this trip at all. I close the journal and slip it back into it’s waterproof zip-lock and back into my pack. Check the bag once more for weight and contents. Then settle into my dorm style bed for the best sleep I can manage to get, before our 4:30AM wake-up call and 3 hour bus ride to the trail-head of the Inca Trail where our journey continues on foot to one of the world’s wonders, Machu Picchu. The first day was a whirlwind to say the least. We were scooped up from our hotel by more of the Spanish and Quechua speaking guides. This particular morning had us riding a bus out to a town built on Ollytantambo (more ancient Incan ruins of course) for breakfast, poncho purchasing and a quick final briefing. From there to the entrance to the UNESCO park entrance and trail-head we wound along some the most narrow country roads you could imagine, even playing chicken with a local in his pick-up truck for a few minutes on a particularly narrow stretch. We all get out. Our team’s staff show up (very late) and we start making the final arrangements among the hundred or so other anxious hikers. It is already mind-boggling watching how much weight these porters pile on before they run off to take the lead. We herd through the gates and passport stamping, over the suspended narrow bridge dangling over the wildly rushing Urubamba River, and then it starts raining.
I am going to cut away from the story again just for one more second. I wanted to save some time down the road because I am not sure how long this story is going to drag on… Instead of starting every third or fourth sentence with “and then it starts raining” or “while soaked to the bone,” just always assume that it is raining or has recently rained. OK then, carry on.
It’s not even “The” Inca Trail really. That is the first thing everyone tells us. It has been commercialized as such but in reality is one of the many of a massive unbelievable network of trails and roads crisscrossing what was once the great nation of the Incas. Many tour sites and online explanations will refer to Day One the “easy day” and said in so few words, it is. Just be careful not to let this lead you to believe that it is a blow-off day. You put in some miles and gain a bit of elevation, but more importantly, if you pay attention, you truly do get a sense of your journey beginning. You very clearly see yourself go almost through a portal into another dimension, the world of an ancient time, separated through time from even the new and foreign Peruvian world that has welcomed you so far on your vacation. Throughout the day, roadside farms, concession stands and shops with children and livestock watching from the roadside, slowly devolve into an occasional passing farmer or a simple watering hole for use as a rest stop. You are still a hiker, still exploring as you set out to, there is no magic or literal transformation here, it just really helps to understand where you are and who may have been walking these paths throughout history. Already you will see some incredible sites and ruins along the trail. Most are views from a far at this point but it’s still only the beginning. You get in to “camp”, really just a clearing outside of and above a small village, and that’s when you first realize the value of the porters and staff. It really is incredible how conditioned they are and prepared to help anyone and everyone on the journey. They have a dinning hall, kitchen, everyone’s tent and even water for hand washing all in place before we even see where we are stopping for the night. Showing up at that first campsite, the first view of snow-capped mountains in the distance, and a little winded, it finally set in for me. Day two they call “the challenge.” Again I will not argue with this. If you need to chew some coca leaves, now is the time. Here’s the thing. This is the day you were probably training for when you went out on those two practice hikes back home. I am not going to pretend that I am some super hiker and that I am normally ready for anything and then this bad boy took me by surprise. I do enjoy day hiking in my Appalachian mountains when I can, but admittedly I am not in the greatest shape of my life. That being said I will say, for the sake of the average reader of my blog, this is an intense bit of hiking. I will offer this: I met a guy back in the rainforest from Australia who was traveling the world with his buddy. He told me a story and we all laughed. It was something along the lines of him getting near the notorious highest point of the Inca trail (they had hiked it about a week before meeting us) and he was so exhausted and hit by the elevation that he was literally choosing landmarks 10 and 15ft ahead, hiking to them and then stopping for air (the punchline of his story was funnier, sorry, but those are the facts that stuck in my head). I sized him up and figured him for about my activity level and then wrote it off thinking he was over-dramatizing for effect. Nope. That was me, embarrassingly enough, pretty much exactly as he had described. I have heard it said that working your body to a point of near total exhaustion, heart pounding, short of breath, muscles weak, in order to accomplish a personal self goal is one of the greatest feelings in life. I am not sure I am on this train 100% but now having experienced the feeling at times such as, among others, sprinting the last 300 meters of my first cross-country race, making it to the top of Sharp Tooth after nine days back-country packing in New Mexico, and now hiking up and through Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail in the freezing wind and sleet at ~14,000ft, I can see where they are coming from. I think it has a little to do with the eerie silence and self focus near the top… but I digress. The pass is like both the halfway point in the 4-day hike and the hike’s crest that lets you know it’s all downhill (not exactly) from here. If you take this same hike and don’t get winded, I am not sorry. You are missing the point. It’s about personal achievement. You can read all the sites and blogs online and be perfectly ready, even over-prepared, for a trip like this but if you aren’t going to mentally immerse yourself into the adventure, if you aren’t going to push yourself a bit past your goals now and then, this blog is probably going right over your head. You don’t have to be out of breath. It doesn’t have to be at 14,000 feet. You don’t have to be in another country. Just get to where you want to be, and then go just past that. It’s worth it, I promise. Where I wanted to be was at the top of pass and not be bringing up the rear. Where I pushed myself beyond that (cue the blog’s theme music) was 100 meters higher than the guide will take you, and off over a ridge to a lock & lock normal size geocache hidden in a great clearing, fully exposed to the ripping cold and freezing rain. Again this is my personal achievement, make yours yours. The day truly does run all downhill from there. It’s noticeably colder on the other side at first though. We have now apparently crossed from the Brown Andes to the Green Andes (we will soon see once we come down out of the clouds) and the mood of the trip really does change. That theme of the devolving environment, started on day one, has continued to a point nearly unrecognizable. Aside from porters, a wild llama or two and bits and pieces of other trekking groups, we see no signs of modern civilization. Over the past two days almost all of the few structures that we do still see are 500+ years old and long left to the wrath of the highland jungle. And it does get greener. We descend into a beautiful green, almost rainforest type fauna. The mist rolling over every view is as the pictures you have seen on the internet suggest. Camp tonight is exhausting to say the least, but there’s still time for some delicious food, warm tea and a few quick rounds of Farkle (our trips game of choice). The third day is deceptive in my opinion. And also very very wet, but I guess that’s circumstantial. I forget what “they” call this day but I would have to say that is was one of my least and most favorite periods of the trek. We are all being honest here so I will just come out and say that the morning of day three was not fun. Sure when it rains it pours, but also in the mountains, when it rains you see nothing. It’s a lot of “here’s where there often is an amazing panoramic view of –insert some awesome naturally gorgeous thing here–” and we all pause to rest our legs and sort of gaze off into the grey fog and imagine what could be, sort of like reading a scene in a book with not enough adjectives, describing something that isn’t really very well tied into the main plot. I would still recommend that this trek be attempted during or maybe ideally just after the heart of the rainy season though. The steep green vistas and rushing waterfalls everywhere you look make it all worth the boots that never seem to dry out. It sort of became a running joke for us then, and in the end it hardly took away anything from the trip. Then by lunchtime it was like the sky and the world opened up. Thank you sun. I think I have some idea as to why the Incas might have worshiped you. I wont go into huge detail here as I am sure you catch my drift. The ruins get cooler at this point too. Cooler, I guess is a word for it… more involved is a better description. Suddenly you aren’t stopping on the side of the trail listening to your guide point out a temple or some irrigation terraces over there on that hill and explaining their use, but instead find yourself climbing over and through temples, navigating stepped terraces sill maintained somehow and wandering past or under ancient stone guard posts set up on the route to the Lost City. It is hard not to be reminded of what all this hiking is really for. The feeling of nearness to the conclusion of this journey that you have Googled (Bing-ed?) a hundred times over the past few months sets in. You can tell already that all those pictures, and words like “Quechua,” “Inka” and “llama” will forever ring a different and secret tune to you and you are about to find out why. Just one night away now. Camp comes again as a relief. I forgot to explain why I call this day deceptive, but you will very quickly figure out that little riddle. The challenge day may cross that 14,000ft pass, but combining the insanely steep ups and downs of day three (did I mention to definitely rent walking sticks?), I wouldn’t be surprised if the terrain is actually a bit tougher overall, minus the oxygen deficiency of course, and that is a huge minus. It makes it fun though. At this point you have proven yourself. Doubts of not making it or losing yourself are becoming a memory of the past. Now it’s more about showing off to an invisible audience (yourself?). “Look what I have learned I can do. I can hike the Inca Trail! I’m going to get that world-famous Facebook picture of me standing at Machu Picchu, bitches!” The guides, now your latest “5-minute-friends,” have walked you through the early wake up and the final approach. Then it’s the day. Of course we all decide to take the optional super early side hike to watch the dawn’s early light creep over the gorgeous ruins of Winyuwana, nestled in the mountainside basically across the river from the still invisible peak that is Machu Picchu. If you’re doing it at all, do it all, right? It makes for a nice final tease before the finale, but also a difficult shot to capture in low light conditions with a smartphone, as if any of the photos that came back on my Android truly capture any of the true essence. And then we head out. Compared to the lengthy trails we have just conquered, the final leg seems like a walk in the park. Floating mostly on adrenaline and excitement we practically run the 1 1/2 hour trail to our final destination. By the time we reach the entrance, perched high over the ever famous vista, I truly feel like I have earned the right to check this one off the list. We wait for the last stragglers to catch up and write a few thoughts and comments in the twitter-journal (140 characters or less of course), while the morning mist is still fresh. Then, at last and together, we step through the literal finish line to our four-day journey, the Incan Sun Gate, the entrance to the Lost City in the Clouds. Watch out, you fresh of the bus, one-day tourists. Thru hikers, coming through…
* except for the elevation trail map, all pictures taken or drawn myself. hope you like!