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Tuesday, February 2

Incan Trail Hike & Machu Picchu

Day 1:  “Acclimatizing,” 5:45 AM wake up time

Day 1 of our hike on the Incan Trail with SAS Tours started with a 3 hour bus ride, with a breakfast break in between.  On the bus, we donned our sleeping bags and mats which weighed an additional 5 kg (11 lbs) on top of our own packed supplies. Elias was our guide through this journey to Machu Picchu and there were three other hikers that we met and started to get to know.  Our hike started at the train station at km 82 which sat at 2,680 meters.

Mey was not feeling well on this first day which made it difficult for her to carry on especially with her backpack.  Luckily, we did not ascend many meters on Day 1.  It was mostly for us to acclimate to the altitude.  We did not see many sites or points of interest, except for the beautiful mountain ranges and glacial peaks.

We did see a plant called a Tuna Cactus.  It has small blebs of fruit that grew off the main stalk.  We had a chance to try these at one of our rest stops.  It tasted a lot like watermelon but with less “fruit” part and a lot more “seed” part.  Nonetheless, it was refreshing.  The plant also produces small seeds that can be used to make rich paint colors.  The natural color is dark red, but when added to things like lime juice or salt, the colors change.  There apparently are around 25 colors that can be produced.  Joe wants to steal one of the leaves to be used for painting in his retirement.  

As for other plants, we learned about the “Angel’s Trumpet” which had hallucinogenic properties, the red more than the white.  There were apparently many other hallucinogenic plants that were used along with the Coca leaf to create a more direct spiritual connection with the Incan gods.  We also had a long history lesson by Elias explaining how many routes there were to Machu Picchu and how much of an interconnected web of trails the Incans constructed.

There were 10 porters for the 7 of us who each carried approximately 35 kg of supplies on their backs.  They hiked ahead of us at an alarming pace compared to us.  By the time we got to our lunch site, they had already set up tents and began preparing the meal.  We were all very impressed and surprised with how gourmet the food was.  For example, this day we had ceviche for an appetizer and many dishes for the main course.  They always served tea, coffee, water or hot chocolate.

After lunch, the porters would pack everything up and hike to the campsite for the night.  By the time we arrived, five tents for sleeping and one tent for dining were already erected.  Bathrooms were scattered throughout the trail but were usually a dirty hole in the ground where one would have to squat.  Toilet paper was usually not provided.  Public restrooms usually cost one sol.

Day 2:  “The Challenge,” 5:30 AM wake up time

Mey was still not feeling well on Day 2, and unfortunately this was the toughest day of our trek.  Mey decided to hire a porter to carry 9 kg of her materials.  According to her, “best investment EVER!”  We stumbled upon a scale which gave us a chance to weigh our bags.  Johnathan had 11.1 kg, Joe 11.6 kg, Nick, 13.0 kg, and Mey did not weigh hers.  However, just lifting her bag made it clear that it was one of the heaviest.  Thankfully, she was able to subtract the 9 kg for the rest of the trip.

We met an older man on the earlier part of the trail who spent his time picking up trash left by disrespectful hikers.  John, one of the other hikers, and Joe offered him some Coca chocolate which he graciously accepted.  We made it a point to keep our trash in our bags for disposal at the campsites, and even John and Joe picked up trash along the way as they came across it.

The weather was sunny and dry, perfect conditions for a light hike.  However, fog began rolling in just when the hike started to become more intense.  We reached a part of the trek called “Dead Woman’s Pass” because they found mummies there and the mountain range looks like a woman lying on her side with her arms crossed.  This was a steep climb to the summit of the mountain.  Beginning the day around 2,600 meters, we reached the summit out of breath at nearly 4,200 meters.  Unfortunately, the fog was so dense that it was difficult to make out any views at the peak.  It even rained a little.  We rested for a while to wait out the fog and were able to see a bit more of the distant views.  We took a number of photos here and also had a celebration with canned, first-catch, smoked salmon brought by our new hiking companion, Bobby.  He is a fisherman back in Alaska.

Shortly thereafter, we began the sharp, steep descent to our campsite.  The steps were nearly 1.5 feet deep and seemed endless.  We really worked our eccentric exercises and tore up our quads.  Eventually we arrived to our campsite after about 1.5 hours, located at the bottom of a large waterfall.

Over dinner, Nick began feeling feverish and nauseous.  He decided to retire early to bed and hopefully rest it off.  Mey did also as she was still not feeling 100%.  The rest of us shared a bottle of liquor provided by Elias after dinner.  We toasted to finishing the hardest day of our trek.  Johnathan toasted with a cup of water.  After leaving the tent, we were struck by a vividly clear night sky full of twinkling stars.  We stared in awe at the clarity of all the constellations.  What an enchanting feelings to sleep under such beauty.

Day 3:  “Cultural and Unforgettable,” 5:00 AM wake up time

With Mey and Nick already feeling under-the-weather, it was only a matter of time for another member of our group to fall ill.  Joe woke up at around 4:00 AM with intense nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  He tried to take Azithromycin antibiotic but was unable to keep it down.  We soon after, began our hike with a steep ascent.  Joe was lagging far behind feeling as if he were going to get sick after every few steps.  Eventually he did and felt somewhat better, but for the rest of the day, felt borderline nauseous and weak.  He slept at every resting point.

Throughout the day, we came across four separate ruin sites.  The first was named Runquracay at 3,800 meters.  Here, we talked about the “quipu,” a knot system used to communicate by runners (chasquis) traveling between cities.

On this day's trek, we passed through a number of high jungles.  We noted that as we ascended/descended to various altitudes, the foliage changed.

The next ruin, Sayacmarka, was atop a set of high stairs off the path.  Here we learned about the Incan fountains and rain drainage systems which kept the cities from sinking.  The ruin was a temple used for animal sacrifices, specifically llamas.

The third ruin, Phuyupatamarka, was an angled terrace structure.  Here we discussed the importance of the three “Pachas” (Worlds): (1) Hanaq Pacha (“World Above” aka “Heaven”), (2) Kay Pacha (“This World”), and (3) Ukhu Pachu (“World Below”), symbolized by the condor, puma and the snake, respectively.  Incans believed that there was a continuum between these “worlds.”

The last ruin, Wiñaywayna, was a beautiful terrace structure on the side of a mountain face at 2,700 meters.  Here, we marveled at the view, traced the course of the journey by looking across the valley at the trail, and observed llamas grazing.  After a long three days or rigorous cardio, we enjoyed this final ruin before making our way to the final campsite thirty minutes away.

Day 4:  “Magical and Mystical,” 3:30 AM wake up time

We woke up very early in order to get in line for the Inti Punku, “The Sun Gate,” which is the entryway to Machu Picchu.  Even though, we joined the line at around 4:30 AM after packing up and finishing breakfast, we were still the last group in line.  Fortunately, we were able to rid of our sleeping bags and mats since it was our last day.  Surprisingly, 5 kg off our backs made it much easier to hike.  With this lighter load, we were able to pass by a number of groups on the trail to Machu Picchu.  It began raining approximately 1.5 hours in, and most of us were so determined to get there as soon as possible that we were pretty wet before putting on our ponchos.

Just before reaching Inti Punku, we came across a steep “staircase” that was coincidentally coined “Gringo Killer.”  The steps were nearly two feet tall and slippery due to the concurrent rain.  We saw a number of fellow hikers literally crawling up the stairs, but we made it up unscathed (mostly).

As we reached the Sun Gate at 2,750 meters, the clouds had completely engulfed our view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains.  We continued to hike on while we waited for the rain to pass.  Upon reaching Machu Picchu at 2,400 meters, it was still raining heavily and the view was obscured.  We found the entrance to Machu Picchu where hiking averse enthusiasts would enter via the train.  Here we deposited our backpacks in lockers and attempted to dry off.  The rain still did not let up, and thus we began our tour of the site.  We were freezing and tried our best to listen to Elias describe this ancient architectural exhibit.

Five of us bought an extra ticket to climb a nearby mountain, Huanyapicchu, which overlooked Machu Picchu.  Of note, Machu Picchu literally means “Old Mountain” in the Incan language Quechua whereas Huanyapicchu means “Young Mountain.”  Fortunately the rain had begun to slow as we entered the Huanyapicchu trail.  It turned out that this trek was more rigorous than any of the other trails we had faced thus far, unbeknownst to us.  There were wire ropes that helped us climb at certain points, but otherwise, it was a straight drop down to the valley, hundreds of meters below.  The clouds began to dissipate before we had to descend the mountain, giving us picture-perfect views and photo opportunities to capture Machu Picchu.  We thought the ascent was bad, but the return trip was even more terrifying.

Around 1:30 PM, we grabbed our bags from the lockers and hopped a bus to Aguas Calientes, a nearby town that flourished due to local tourism.  Here, we enjoyed our last lunch together and boarded the PeruRail toward Ollantaytambo.  From there we took a SAS Travel bus back to Cuzco where we arrived around 8:30 PM.

In all, we walked over 50 km in four days with around 25 lbs on our back and up and down between 2,400 to 4,200 meters.  What a trek, eh!?  A great sense of accomplishment!

1 comment:

  1. Salkantay trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.