Nomad Time Machine: The Inca Trail, 2004
October 9, 2014 | Nomad Life
Ten years ago, I was on a nine-month solo trip around the world. Here’s a post I wrote on my RTW blog on October 11, 2004, about the four-day trek I’d just completed on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I was traveling solo for most of my trip, but my friend Jessica joined me for a few weeks in Peru, including the Inca Trail.
The night before the trek, we went to sleep to the sound of rain pounding on the skylight outside our room, and I dreaded beginning the trip in the rain. Thankfully, we woke up at 5:30 to brilliant blue skies and finished packing our things in the duffle bags provided by the agency and which would be carried by the porter we hired.
We left the rest of our stuff in the hostel’s luggage storage, and were the last to be picked up by the agency around 6:20. I was nervous and excited as we boarded the bus, and felt all eyes on us as we took our seats. At the beginning of a trip like this, everyone’s scoping out everyone else, wondering if we’ll get along and whether the group will click.
We stopped for breakfast in Urubamba, about 1 ½ hours from Cusco, and had a chance to talk with some of our fellow trekkers, who all seemed really nice. In all, there were 14 of us—3 Australians, 6 Americans, and 5 Brits. We ranged in age from early 20s to early 60s, although the average age was probably late 20s, and almost all of us are traveling long-term. Our guides, Mario and Emilio, also seemed great.
Now that it’s over, I can honestly say that we had an absolutely amazing group, and I can’t imagine a better group of people to spend 4 straight days with. Everything about the experience was memorable and wonderful. We even had perfect weather—it only rained briefly one night, and drizzled a bit right as we reached Machu Picchu.
We arrived at Km 82, the start of the trail, around 10:00, where we stocked up on last-minute supplies, like bamboo walking sticks. I bought one for 2 soles (about 60 cents), and I think it was one of the most important things I had with me on the trip, helping ease the strain on my knees on the downhills and helping me pull myself up the steep inclines. After a group photo at the start of the trail, we headed off.
The first day was pretty easy overall; kind of training for the more difficult days to follow. There were frequent breaks and even places to buy drinks along the way. We stopped for lunch in a place that seemed like it was in someone’s backyard, where the porters had everything set up and waiting for us. The porters would always arrive ahead of us, and by the time we staggered in to camp, the dining, cooking, and (at night) sleeping tents would be set up, meal preparations would be underway, and we would have time to relax before lunch, afternoon tea, or dinner.
I don’t remember every meal we had, but all of the food was amazing. Some highlights include: stuffed-avocado salad, asparagus soup, quinoa soup, pizza, lomo saltado (a traditional Peruvian dish), apple pie, bananas foster (with Pisco, a local liquor), pork with a garlicky sauce, and tons of coca tea, which is supposed to help with the altitude. I tried chewing the coca leaves like the locals do (you put a wad in your cheek like tobacco), but I started to get queasy so spit it out after just a few minutes.
Instead of detailing every spot we stopped at and every ruin we saw along the way here, I’ll direct you to the PeruTreks website, and this detailed itinerary of our trip. I think we hiked about 11 km the first day, and we arrived in camp around 5 pm. Usually the various groups hiking the trail camp close together, in established campsites where there are flat areas for tents and also bathroom facilities.
There was a woman selling beer at the first campsite, and almost everyone partook that first night, as we braced ourselves for the tough day to follow. It seemed too early to go to bed right after dinner, so a few of us stayed up playing a card game called Cluedo, kind of like Clue without the board.
Every day, the scenery we passed through was amazing. High, jagged, snow-capped mountains enshrouded in clouds, and soft, rolling valleys. Even though many people do hike the Inca Trail, I was struck by the fact that only those who make this difficult trip get to experience the same environment. It felt really special and unique. I also marveled at the small communities of local people we encountered, whose homes can only be reached via the trail, and who live in this magical place permanently, rather than just passing through.
On the second morning, the guides woke us up at 5:45 with coca tea brought to our tents—very civilized! It was about 50 degrees in our tent, and very difficult to get out of our sleeping bags and get dressed and packed for the hardest day on the trail.
I had heard that Day Two was a killer, and I was really nervous and apprehensive as we started out that day. The literal high point of the day was Dead Woman’s Pass, and it was a long, difficult climb to get there—I think we gained about 1,200 meters and took 5 hours to get to the pass. I’d been expecting the worst, so thankfully it wasn’t as difficult as I’d feared, but it was still really tough.
I fell into a rhythm with Leanne, from Australia, and we took a slow and steady approach, with many frequent stops, to get to the top. Once we could see the top, it seemed so close, yet it still took us over an hour to reach the sumit. Most of our group was already there, and they cheered our final steps to the top. It was a great feeling to reach the top, and to look back at the trail we had taken to get there. Bundled up against the frigid winds at 4,200 meters (13,776 feet), we took some pictures and relaxed a bit, then started downhill towards our lunch stop.
I was feeling a bit queasy, but some Pepto, chamomile tea, and a small lunch seemed to help me recover some strength so I could make it another 1 ½ hours downhill on stone steps to our campsite. My foot bothered me a fair amount on Day Two, but I just tried to stretch a lot—almost every time I stopped—and took some anti-inflammatories. That night at the campsite, I stuck my heel in an ice-cold stream, which was painful but worked wonders. Thankfully, I didn’t have many problems in the days that followed.
We had quite a bit of time to relax at the campsite that night, having arrived around 4:00, so we played a bunch of card games and some people napped. I learned to play Shithead, a game I lost almost every time, so I spent most of the trek giving up and gaining back my Shithead title (also changed to Supreme or Uber Shithead at times). It rained briefly before dinner, but thankfully it cleared up later and we were able to see some amazing stars.
The next morning, they brought us tea in our tents again, and the view from our tents was incredible, with the clouds slowly revealing the striking peaks across the valley.
Day Three was the longest day—16 km—but the most interesting. Mario, our guide, had promised us a day of unforgettable hiking, and the trail delivered. After crossing a second pass at 3,900 meters, we descended to the ruins at Sayaqmarka, which were really interesting, with a very strategic location and an impressive drainage system still in place. After the ruins, we headed into the cloud forest, and also started hiking on the original Inca trail, paved with stones and sculpted with steps over 500 years old. The environment became more lush and green, full of interesting plants, and at times we were literally in the clouds.
From the ruins at Phuyupatamarka, we could see the back of the mountain on which Machu Picchu is situated; as well as the Sun Gate, where we would first glimpse Machu Picchu the next morning; some very well-preserved Incan agricultural terraces; and our campsite for that night. The camp at Wiñay Wayna is the most developed on the trail, with hot showers and a small cantina where they sell beer and play music, and all the groups stay here on the final night.
Some of us went for a beer before afternoon tea, and sat on a patio overlooking the mountains. It was strange to be so close to Machu Picchu and not be able to see it. After a great dinner that night, we gathered the porters together to thank them and give them a tip from the group, then some of us went to the cantina to play cards, where I passed on and regained my Shithead title a few more times.
The next morning, we awoke at 3:50, and Jessica and I sat in our sleeping bags, waiting for our morning coca tea. We kept hearing murmurings outside the tent, and even thought we heard the word “coca”, to which we quietly replied “Si, si, si!” We slowly realized that there was no tea coming, despite, or perhaps because of, the early hour and the importance of the day.
Finally rousing ourselves to pack and head out to breakfast, we found that ours was the only tent still standing and we were running a bit behind schedule. Everyone was ready to leave shortly before 5:00, and we made our way to the gate for the final portion of the trail. This section is heavily monitored for some reason—maybe so people don’t go camp out at the Sun Gate?—and the gate doesn’t open until 5:30. Mario wanted to be first in line at the control point, and we were, but we had to wait 30 minutes for the officials to show up.
It seemed kind of silly to hurry up and wait, but a huge line of other groups quickly developed behind us. Even though we were the first to pass through the gate, there were plenty of others in a hurry to get there first, apparently, and it felt like a stampede as we headed out. I was in front of two people from my group and about five people from another group, and I felt that if I slowed down for even a second I would get trampled. I was really uncomfortable and unhappy—this wasn’t a race, I thought, and I didn’t take all this time to get here to rush through the last section.
I let the others go on without me, and after getting passed by a few other groups in the next 30 minutes or so, things calmed down considerably and I even had the trail to myself for a while. I took my time, enjoying the view, and the fact that I was traveling the same path as the Incas who’d headed to Machu Picchu all those years ago. It truly felt like the culmination of a pilgrimage.
After a climb up some steep Incan steps, I found myself at the Sun Gate, with Machu Picchu slowly revealing itself through the fog below. I sat down on the rocks to take in the unreal sight. I couldn’t believe I was really there, seeing it in person, after so much time and effort to get there. I got a little choked up, thinking about all it took to finally see those famous ruins nestled on the mountain below. The surroundings are absolutely incredible, with high mountains all around, and the Rio Urubamba coursing through the valley below.
I understood immediately why the Incans chose this spot, why it remained hidden for so long, and why it still retains such a mystique. The standard brochure pictures simply cannot prepare you for seeing it in person, especially for the first time. I whispered to myself, Machu Picchu.
Many of the structures weren’t particularly unusual, but especially from above I was struck by the size of the site, and its unique setting, which I think is the most powerful thing about it. We hiked down to the ruins, and spent the next few hours seeing it with our guide from the trail, Mario. I hadn’t seen any other ruins with a guide, so it was nice to get some more explanation and hear the varying theories about what some of the buildings were for, and about Incan practices and beliefs, since so little is really known about the Incans.
A few highlights: the Temple of the Sun, an amazing room with perfectly fitted together rocks and several walls made of smooth rocks still in their original position; and the Temple of the Condor, featuring a carved rock in the abstract shape of a condor’s head, neck, and body, and the huge jagged rock walls also mimicking the condor’s wings.
As we explored the ruins, I kept reminding myself that I was at Machu Picchu, and tried so hard to internalize it all so I’ll never forget. It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and yet I was somehow confident that I’ll be back.
A group of us found some cool caves on our own, and wandered around the backside of the “commoner’s area” (as opposed to the “royal area”) as we made our way to the path up to Wayna Picchu, the tall peak that towers over Machu Picchu. This hike, or climb, would have been tough even if we hadn’t just hiked 26 miles in 3 ½ days, but we were determined to make it to the top. It took about 45 minutes, almost all of it clambering over big rocks and tall steps, with a rope tethered to the side to help you keep your balance and pull yourself up.
The view from the almost-top was great, and we took some pictures (of course) and soaked it all in. Then we took a trail through a dark, narrow tunnel to get all the way to the top, where about 20 people sat around on the rocks, taking pictures and being rowdy. It wasn’t exactly a meditative environment, but it was fun, and great to see Machu Picchu from that perspective, along with the surrounding mountains, which didn’t seem nearly as high as they did from below. The walk back down was quite brutal with all those steps, and we weren’t allowed to bring the walking sticks that we’d relied on so much during the trek. By the time we got back down to Machu Picchu, it felt like my legs simply weren’t following my directions any more.
We all met down in Aguas Calientes, the nearby town, for lunch. On the bus ride down the mountain, I stared out the window, savoring each glimpse of Machu Picchu as it receded from view, and feeling sad to be leaving already. I saw a trail along the side of the road, and even though I could hardly imagine taking another step, I think it would have been cool to hike down from the ruins, taking the trip full circle—it felt a bit like cheating to be on the bus.
Jessica and I weren’t able to get on the same train as everybody else for a number of reasons, but we still headed back to Cusco that night instead of staying in Aguas Calientes. I suddenly found myself surrounded by middle-aged French package tourists, clapping along to a traditional dance being performed in the aisle of our train car. It was a jolt back to a different world, and the experience of the last few days felt like it was quickly fading away, so I rushed to fill my journal with as much as I could remember. I couldn’t believe how much we’d crammed into four days—the trip felt much longer—and I didn’t want it to end.