The Classic 4-Day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We had been planning to get out there for years now - our last serious attempt dampened by US Visa complications, and every year hence scarce of vacations long enough. This turned out to be the year when it would work.
The Inca Trail is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Peru, and in order to limit the human impact to the ruins, the permit policy is pretty strict. Permits are limited - from what I came to know, about 400 per day. This includes permits for tourists and the tour staff - porters, cook, guides. The dry season sees the most tourists, and permits for the summer months have to be arranged months in advance.
The first decision to take is picking a tour operator. We went with the past experience of friends - Kanishka, Ranjita and Snigdha - and chose SAS Travel. In hindsight, after looking at all the operators and the condition of their porters, I would recommend seriously considering just between SAS and Llama Path - their blue and red teams, respectively, stand out on the trail. Other operators seemed to overload their porters, and equip them with little more than rubber soled sandals and rice bags.
We got in touch with Soledad at SAS Travel - and she was extremely helpful and patient throughout out planning stage. We were doing this hike then spending 6 days in the Manu forest preserve - both of which require going through a tour operator - and decided to let SAS do all the arrangements. The only part we did ourselves was the flight from New York to Lima.
Quick thoughts on the parts before the trail - LAN Peru is an amazing airline. We were pleasantly surprised to find interactive touch screens with on demand movies and a standard electrical outlet at every seat. The airport at Lima looks like any other in the first world. The only word of advise - learn a little Spanish. The English announcements are few and far between, and you keep wondering if those little spurts had everything that they said in Spanish.
SAS's default hotel in Cusco, Marquises, is an old colonial home converted into a hotel. While the rooms are smaller than US standard, they more than made up from the warm welcome and excellent service. Felt different enough to feel like a foreign country while not sacrificing much in terms of comfort.
The 3 nights we spent in Cusco before starting on the hike were spent acclimatizing to the high altitude - where we got used to panting after walking half a block, and our heart got used to beating faster than it ever did before. The good thing about acclimatizing is, as we were told, the body continues to do this even if you are sleeping. So the real idea is just to spend some time at a high altitude, with as much rest and water intake (and coca tea) as possible.
We had an orientation scheduled the night before the start of the hike. We as a group met for the first time in the upstairs meeting room in one of the SAS offices, and came to see what the others looked like. A brief look was enough to make us realize everyone was much more fit than the 2 of us - but that didn't do much to dampen our spirits, at least not yet. We met our guide, Fredd, an archeologist from the University of San Antonio, who does this entire hike about once a week. Fredd gave us an overview of the hike - confirming pretty much all we had read. The only change to the usual was that we would be doing a little more on day 1 and day 2, which gives us a lot less to cover on day 3 - more on that later. Those of us that had taken extra porters to help us carry our stuff were given nice, clean, bright yellow duffel bags. Soma and I were sharing a porter - which meant we had 18kg between the 2 of us. We rented sleeping bags and one sleeping mat - Soma had a self inflating mat. The bags and mats weighed about 3kg a pair, so we were allowed to pack 12kg into the duffel. Hotels in Cusco usually have a spring balance that can be borrowed to make sure you are not packing more than the limit. As we were clearly warned, anything over the allowed limit has to go into your day pack - and you get to haul it across the mountains!
As for our group - we had 4 from England, and 10 from the US (from various ethnicities). The 14 of us would have 2 guides, 1 coordinator, 1 cook, and 19 porters - 37 in all. Assuming 400 permits per day, we were using up close to a tenth of the total for the day! This made us realize why it was so difficult to get the permits - it really boils down to about 150 tourists per day, if all the groups have about the same ratio of tourists to staff.
Fredd gave a very good advise - skip the breakfast at the hotel on day-1. As we learnt on our Manu trip, traveling for a couple of hours on the winding mountain roads with a full stomach is a recipe for being sick. We got together shortly after 6am, duffel bags and sleeping bags/mats in tow, at one of the plazas near the main square, and boarded the SAS bus. The bus took us to the old Inca town of Ollantaytambo, then on dirt roads towards km 82. We stopped for our first meal on the tour - breakfast - just before we left the paved road. The breakfast place also sold coca leaves to chew on the trail (remember to get the little black ball of catalyst), hiking staffs cut to custom lengths, and disposable rain ponchos. We picked up what we needed, and were off.
Km 82 looked between the starting point of a marathon and a flea market - there were a few buses parked, lots of duffel bags and other stuff piled on tarps laid on the ground, and lots of people - tourists, porters, staff, bus drivers - running around getting the last bits of organization done. Our bags were weighed by Fredd and the coordinator, and Soma and I got to carry our rain jackets - they went over the weight limit.
Once the luggage was distributed among the porters, we made our way down to the railroad tracks, and a short walk down to the trail entrance checkpoint at the head of a bridge. This is where our passports got matched against our permits, and stamped with the start of the trail mark. It was a little weird to see the airport-like security to start on a trail that would take us far away from civilization - but I guess the passport is the easiest standardized way of managing the limited number of permits.
Passports checked and stamped, one group photo taken at the checkpoint, and we were off.
The trail started out nice and flat. Fredd had warned us not to rush through, as that often leads to altitude sickness - and he went ahead and maintained a nice and slow pace. Little did we know that the same pace would seem to be blazing fast on the Dead Woman's Pass on day-2! For now, we were all chatting and getting to know each other, and generally having a relaxed, easy time. We stopped about an hour into the trail for one of Fredd's informative lectures - and learnt that we would be seeing a lot of the Veronica Glacier today, but would soon be leaving the river and the railroad behind as we go over to the other side of the mountains.
We started climbing around the 2 hour mark - and the pace immediately seemed like a lot to handle. Our group went ahead, their fitness levels clearly showing, as Soma and I took it a little slow, with little stops every now and then to let our hearts catch up.
Fredd explained that the valley we were in was family to over 80 different micro climates - a major portion of the 120 or so micro climates in the world. This meant every hour or so we would see the scenery and foliage around us change. The dry, dusty path along the river changed into a shaded forest walk once we hit the uphill sections. Little shanties popped up now and then, offering benches to rest, and selling water, Gatorade, and sometimes Chi Cha - the mildly alcoholic drink prepared from corn. With the threat of the Dead Woman's Pass for tomorrow, I stayed clear of cigarettes and alcohol.
After what seemed like hours of climbing, we went across a pass to a new side of the mountains - and got to see our first proper ruin, Llactapata. I say proper because there were a number of smaller ruins all along our path - Incan rest stops that are currently being restored by the working groups. Our view of Llactapata was short - no lectures, no detailed history lessons - and we pushed on.
We reached our lunch stop shortly. This was our first meal on the trail - after being on the trail for a few hours and beginning to grasp the remoteness of our current situation, the arrangements for lunch were very surprising. Our porters had carried over a big lunch tent, with tables and plastic stools and proper silverware and plastic plates / bowls / cups. Lunch - and pretty much all our meals over the next few days - were full 3-course sessions, everything freshly prepared and healthy (nothing fried/oily). The porters-cum-cooks boiled water at every stop, and by the time we reached a food stop, they had hot water in hand washing bowls and little towels ready for us. We were the pampered ones - all we had to do was walk the trail in our fancy hiking shoes and moisture wicking clothing and Camelbaks / Nalgene bottles. We even got to take siestas after lunch! Everything else was managed by the super efficient staff. Without them, I can't imagine doing the 4 day hike that we did.
After lunch, the going got tough - it was uphill from now on. There wasn't much to do but put one foot before another and keep going at it, resting every few minutes to let our breaths catch up. It was pretty tiring, and the 2 of us were starting to wonder what made us commit to this hike. With our modified itinerary, it was not enough to reach the checkpoint at Wayllabamba - we had another hour to hour-and-a-half of climbing on the road to the Dead Woman's Pass. By this time, my camera was packed into my bag, and we just troddled along. Our guide on the rear of the group, Edison, was now walking with us - something he would have to do for just about the entire hike tomorrow.
We reached our campground shortly before dark. The 2 of us were exhausted by now. We took rest, washed up and took our boots off. We joined the rest of the group in the food tent as they were winding up the tea session. Oh, now's probably a good time to mention - SAS provided us with breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, tea and dinner. Our Luna bars and trail mixes stayed in our bags till they rotted, at which point we threw them out. So, depending on your tour operator, you may want to adjust the amount of high-tech food you bring with you.
We had a conversation with Fredd - on the options of going back. Fredd had seen us struggle through the last hour - but he insisted, the only way out was ahead, and that tomorrow will be really, really tough. Basically, he said there was no way out, but if we had any serious health issues, our medically inclined guide - Edison - has everything he needs to help us out.
We couldn't sleep much that night - although we were completely exhausted. The tension for tomorrow was a little too much to handle. Thankfully, our tent was near the rest rooms, and the sleeping bags and mat we had rented from SAS were not in the list of things we were complaining about. Oh - by now we were well settled on the trail, which meant restrooms were of the "squatty potty" type (thanks George), headlamps were essential, and toilet paper was to be carried with you when you went.
We woke up from having slept very little and in bursts, and felt pretty lousy. To make things worse, I had eaten very little the night before - and felt somewhat nauseated. Fredd recommended I take the Acetazolamide I was carrying with me - but I couldn't find it, and assumed I had left it in my hotel luggage.
Breakfast had an oatmeal-like Andean cereal, omlettes and bread. Somehow the Andean cereal made me feel good immediately - I guess I was craving good carbs. Since there was no other way than walk ahead, we put some strength in our minds, and started off on a very slow pace.
My SLR was swinging from my neck the first half of yesterday - and was in my daypack for the second half. Today, it was in the duffel bags carried by the porters, and I just had a point and shoot in my hands. By lunch, the point and shoot would stop coming out of my pocket as well. That gives a good idea of the state I was in.
There isn't much to write about this part of the hike - it was constantly uphill, air was scarce, heartbeats were high, and we were on irregular stone steps all the way. The plan was climb for 2 hours, take a break, climb for 2 more to reach the top of Dead Woman's Pass, then climb down an hour and half to our lunch campground at Pacaymayu. While most groups would be settling here for the night, we were an hour and a half ahead from the extra work we did yesterday - so we would push on to the second pass, climbing another 2 hours to the top, and then descend for another hour and a half into the cloud forest. At this point Soma and I were quite beyond caring, so it didn't make much of a difference what was in the plans. All we could do was to keep on walking slowly, with Edison gently urging us to keep on going.
Looking back, through all the hell that we pushed our bodies through, we didn't do bad at all - we hit all the target points pretty much at the times that were originally laid out. The rest of the group obviously did far better, which is why they had already had an hour long siesta by the time we made it to our lunch camp. Lunch was a hurried affair for the 3 of us (us and Edison) - the place was booked by another group for dinner, so our group had to vacate the area as soon as possible.
So, rushed lunch, no siesta or rest, back on the trail. Walk, walk, rest, rest. We did a quick tour of the ruins at Runkuraquay with Edison - the rest of the group had already rushed forward - and started on the second pass. By itself, the second pass was not bad - but after having done the entire Dead Woman's Pass climb the same morning (well, just a couple of hours back), the second pass was pure evil - we had to stop every 15-20 steps for a breather. Edison would advise us - go slow, and don't stop - and we would stop. Sorry, Edison! He was very patient with us, all the way to the top of the second pass, urging us very earnestly that its a short climb to the top, and then it was all flat. Well, the flat part never came - at least not until we got off the airport at Lima. Nothing on the Inca trail is flat - not any part of the hike, not the ruins at Machu Picchu, not the road from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, not the train ride to Ollantaytambo, not the bus ride from Ollantaytambo train station to Cusco - not even anything in Cusco, like our hotel to the main square or walking down Avenue El Sol. Nothing is flat.
We took a long time to get to the top of the second pass, and it was starting to get dark. Just as we were admiring a black lake close to the top of the second pass, it started to rain - and hail. We frustrated Edison some more by getting our rain jackets out, zipping them up slowly, starting the descend, then taking our jackets off when the rain stopped and we started feeling hot. This is when Edison seriously thought about how slow we were, and said "We need to hurry to the campground before dark, or black squirrels will come out and bite". We would come to know later on that he meant black mosquitoes, known as "Pumawakache" in Quechua - one that makes the Puma cry. Still, his black squirrels description got us somewhat scared - and we tried increasing our speed.
Luckily, within an hour of descend, we heard familiar voices - and saw our entire group just minutes ahead. This was the biggest morale booster for us on the trail. If we could cross the Dead Woman's Pass, then not take a rest after lunch, and then cross the second pass, and finally manage to join the rest of our group- far fitter than us - then surely our bodies are just the complaining kind, and we can push ourselves to do a hell lot more.
So, joining the group, we felt fantastic. From this point on, the trail was much easier - and the group would stay together for the rest of the hike, separating only after reaching Machu Picchu to go our own ways.
The campground at Chaquicocha was supposed to be the coldest night on the trail. Luckily, we had a cloud cover all night long - we were in the cloud forest, so the 'cloud cover' meant we were *in* the clouds. The sleeping bags from SAS were more than warm enough - we ended up not zipping up the mummy bags and letting some of the warmth escape.
My SLR was back out, now that spirits were high and the threat of the Dead Woman's Pass was behind us. Fredd pulled out a bottle of Peruvian rum, which was served with Andean mint tea - a hot rum combination I had never had before.
We were all up bright and early on day-3 - and we all had smiles on our faces. Well, to be frank, the 2 of us had fresh smiles on our faces - the others had never really stopped smiling. Breakfast was done with lots of happy conversations, and on memories of how difficult yesterday was. After breakfast, all of us - tourists and staff - got together in one big circle, and we all introduced ourselves - names and where we were from. We got to know that all our staff came from Pisac, and SAS focused on giving employment to local communities in these trails. We expressed our thanks to the awesome food that our cook has managed all this while, and our thanks to all the porters for making this "hiking in luxury" possible.
We took off around 7am - the usual all along the hike. Today's hike was "easy" - in comparison to what we had already covered. We would be traveling slightly uphill to the next pass at Choquequirao, and then it was all downhill - steep downhill. We would be coming down about 1000 meters by the end of the day, and settle for the night at the most well-equipped campground on our trail, at Winaywayna. Since we had covered extra ground on the first 2 days compared to the other groups, we shall be taking it real easy today - and shall stay as one group.
If day 1 was moderately difficult and day 2 was evil, day 3 was the good life. By now we were positioned just right on the trail, and all we had to do was to hit the ruins one by one, take in the awesome scenery and the utter solitude that the Inca cities/towns were built in, and absorb as much as we could from Fredd's informative lectures.
We had views of the Salkantay range for the first couple of hours, as we went through a densely vegetated cloud forest. The cloud cover that had kept us nice and warm last night was still present - preventing us from a clear view of the Salkantay glaciers. The rocky surroundings of the earlier days were history - this was as green as it gets. We were still on mountain slopes, so the vegetation was interesting - the high moisture in the air allowed thick moss to grow on the rocks, and then other plant life managed to grow through or over the moss, planting their roots into whatever crack or crevice they could find on the rocks. Because of this thin 'soil', large trees were absent - on the other hand, because of the high moisture, barren grounds were absent as well. We also noted that pretty much everything was in bloom - plants, mosses, even some orchids. I don't know if it was the time of the year or things just stay in bloom in the cloud forest, but it was among the prettiest places we've been to.
After many stops for scenery and little lectures, we reached the Phuyupatamarka pass around 10, and settled down to soak in the scenery and our morning snack. Even at this leisurely pace we would make it to Winaywayna by 1pm, so there was absolutely no rush. We had one of our "group photo" sessions at the pass - these sessions meant finding someone willing to take photographs, and handing him the dozen or so cameras (including 2 SLRs) that we had among us. Then there would be 12 calls for cheese - or, sometimes the person was jovial enough to introduce some variety, like chi cha and Machu Picchu, all of which would bring out our smiling faces.
Just 15 minutes downhill from the pass was our first ruin of the day - Phuyupatamarka. This was significantly larger than what we had seen at Runkuraquay. It also gave us much better views than those at the earlier ruin. We could see the ruins at Intipata and Winaywayna on the mountain sides in the distance, and a glimpse of Aguas Calientes far below. Because the group had split into sub groups after the first half of the first day, we hadn't had a chance to have one of Fredd's detailed lectures since the morning snack break on day-1, so we settled down for one. Among the things discussed - Fredd mentioned that Inca mummies were found to have one extra bone in their necks, and some theories suggest they were as tall as 2 meters 20 cm - above 7 feet. People in the Andean highlands don't grow tall, and they develop pronounced chests to allow their lungs to work in the low oxygen levels - so the tall Inca structures were surprising. History records seems to be seriously marred after the Spaniards came in, as they may have propagated their own version of history. It is now believed that unlike most civilizations, the Inca cities were clearly divided into 2 - the royal and the scientific. Agriculture fell in the scientific. The royals mostly kept to themselves, these were the 7 foot tall extra-boned people. The keeping to themselves meant most royalty married within the family, and the in breeding led to gene degradation and eventually might have been the reason the Incas were wiped out.
We spent a good hour at Phuyupatamarka over lectures and questions. We resumed our downhill hike around 11, reaching a junction point at 12:30. Here we had to choose between taking a little diversion to the ruins at Intipata, or head straight to Winaywayna. By now, all distances were in minutes rather than in hours or half days - so we headed out to Intipata.
Intipata is really, really beautiful. The lush greenery we came into since entering the cloud forest really shone out in the spectacular location that Intipata was built in. The Incas managed to transform entire mountain sides to stepped grounds for cultivation - so we now have these wonderful high steps to swing our legs from, and flat areas of soft green grass, overlooking miles and miles of green forest, and the Urubamba river far below us. Photos don't do justice to this place - definitely not the ones I managed to take. Fredd explained that the relatively narrow steps of Intipata were likely to have been used for experimentation than food production. The Incas were afraid of the plains - floods, avalanches, and the like- and wanted to move their essential vegetation - crops, medicinal plants - to the highlands. You can't move a low altitude crop to a high place and expect it to grow right away, so they were carrying out a primitive gene modification by gradually moving the crops up the steps across generations (of crops).
Winaywayna was located right under Intipata on the same mountainside - we reached by 1:30, and got to be among electric poles, Western toilets, chilled beer and hot showers. We started with lunch - the food tent was no longer required, as the campground had a rather large dining hall. Then we all took turns in the paid showers - 5 Soles each for a shower and a towel rental. Showering after 3 days felt awesome. We got together around 4, picked up a beer (or soda) each, and headed out to the ruins at Winaywayna right next door to the campground.
Fredd gave another of his talks. He mentioned that no one really knows what happened to the Incas as the Spaniards had never found Machu Picchu and everyone lost contact, but it was possible that the Inca advances in science lives on in remote indigenous tribes in the rain forest. Machu Picchu lies on the boundary of the cloud forest (mountains) and the rain forest (plain lands), and the Incas were among the last people to have bridged the gap in communication - the tribes deep in the forest do not like to keep in touch. Current government policies respect that decision and keep people away from the deep interiors of the jungle. Fredd also mentioned one of his professors had gone to live with the tribes deep inside the forest for a few years - when he was assumed to have died by the outside world. When he came back, he brought news that the tribals had the skills to perform a lot of advanced medical procedures - including blood transfusion and brain tumor removal - using nothing but the materials available in the jungle, like hollow bamboo reeds and the Dromelia plant. There's a lot of mystery still hidden in the old Inca ruins.
Dinner on day 3 was grand - really grand. Our cook had gone overboard with his skills. We had 6 types of main dishes - little pizza slices, stuffed peppers, crispy yukka, vegetables, salad and rice. We also had soup to start with and dessert to finish up. After dinner, we got together with the staff for "appreciation time" - we had pooled up our tips, and had that split for the cook, the coordinator and all the porters. Our guides had informed us right on orientation day that tips are a delicate matter, and its best if the tourists directly pool the money and hand it over (rather than giving it to the guides). It was nice to be able to personally thank the people who had made the entire trip possible.
This was it - the last day on the trail. Machu Picchu is easily guarded - be it at Inca times or now - because there are only 2 ways to get to it, one from the lower gate at Aguas Calientes and the other via the mountain pass (Inca trail). Entrances on both of these avenues open at 5:30 am, just as the sky starts getting light. We were all up at 4, had a quick breakfast, and were lined up at the entrance checkpoint a few minutes from Winaywayna. Apparently, we were the slow ones - most of the other groups were already lined up. We crossed the checkpoint around 5:45, and started a brisk power walk to the Sun Gate.
We covered the slightly undulating terrain from the checkpoint to Intipunku (Sun Gate)in about an hour. Fredd and George had started a power walk that Soma and I managed to keep up for a while, and we made good time. The rest of the group was behind us until they broke into a run - and we all reached the Sun Gate at around 6:45.
The Sun Gate was without the Sun, however. We got a few quick looks at Machu Picchu in the valley below - and a thick cloud cover closed in, hiding the picture postcard view from all who reached the Sun Gate shortly after.
Without the view in place, we thought it better to start for Machu Picchu - after all, we wanted to get there before the deluge of tourists swarmed the place. Took us about 45 minutes to get down to the site. A few pictures - and a round of group photos later - we walked down to the lower checkpoint. It felt really good to see all the overweight tourists panting their way up the steps around the ruins - some were even commenting on "checking out the Inca Trail for a quarter mile". It felt really nice to not belong to the lazy tourist crowd, for once.
We got together at a covered rest area, and got our certificates from Fredd. It was a little ceremony - he called out our names one by one, and the person would go up, get Fredd's arm on the shoulder and get congratulated for having successfully completed one of the most difficult (mainstream) hikes around. We also had our morning snack - sandwiches and fruit drink packets. We freshened up in one of the paid restrooms - seemed like weeks since we last saw one of those 1 Sole restrooms. We also lined up at the checkpoint to get our passports stamped. The Machu Picchu stamp went right next to the one at Km 82 - indicating a job well done.
The next hour and a half was spent in a guided tour - Fredd took us to a few major points around the old Inca city. A full description of Machu Picchu is way beyond the scope of a trip report - this was, after all, an Inca city, next only to Cusco - and far larger than all the ruins we had seen on our trail. The heat was strong - we were at a lower altitude than Cusco right now - and we tried to keep to the shades.
After the tour, we were free to explore the site on our own. On reaching the Sacred Rock, we found that the permits for climbing Huana Picchu were still available - and half our group decided to go up. The other half - as it happened, everyone who was staying the night in Aguas Calientes - decided to explore the ruins for another hour or so, using the site maps we obtained from the entrance point. Around noon, we all came down to the bus lines - and took a bus down to Aguas Calientes by the Hiram Bingham Highway.
Lunch was at Hostal Viajeros, which was also where those of us who selected the extra night at Aguas Calientes were staying. SAS has tie-ups with the hostel, just like Hotel Marquises in Cusco. The porters had already delivered our duffel bags to the hostel, and our rental equipment - sleeping bags, mats - were already on their way back. As I have said before, this is the most luxurious way of living it rough.
Lunch was the last meal as a group - Fredd and Edison would be heading back soon, and half of our group - 7 people - would be taking the trains back to Cusco the same evening. We spent the rest of the afternoon taking a long siesta, then heading out to the hot springs. The springs are nothing like I had imagined - completely built up places with pools of hot mineral water, and tons of people in each of them. I was thinking of something a little more raw - like an actual spring from a rock or something. But soaking in the hot water did help calm our aching muscles.
Here's another positive point about Viajeros - though it cost us less than half per night compared to Cusco, dinner was already included in the room rent. Which saved us the trouble of finding a place to eat. Aguas Calientes seemed to have 4 major merchant streams - hotels, restaurants, laundry and towel rentals (for the hot springs). All the restaurants looked pretty much the same, so Viajeros it was for us.
Day-5 was just our travel back to Cusco. We got up at a leisurely 7 o'clock (had been getting up at 5 or earlier through the trail, so 7 was nice), packed up, had breakfast at the hotel (also included), and walked all of 5 minutes across a pedestrian bridge and through a market to get to the train station. We were really happy with the location and services at Viajeros. Our train tickets had our passport numbers - and assigned seats - printed on them. It was fun to see the trains arrive with more of the overweight tourists - and then it was a simple task of finding our seats and settling down.
The train got us down to Ollantaytambo - the scenery was absolutely nothing compared to what we had seen on the Inca trail, day-3 in particular, so we were glad to not have paid for the Vistadome upgrade. The train station at Ollantaytambo had a bunch of private bus operators crowding us - thanks to Jesus and Cecelia, the rest of us didn't have to struggle with our broken Spanish to communicate. The 7 of us got a 'private mini bus' - in the sense that it didn't make any stops for other passengers - and arrived at Calle Garcilaso about 2 hours later.
That was it - a brilliant 5 days and 4 nights spent in the company of 12 excellent people. Its a small world, and we do hope to cross paths again!