The classic 4-day Inca trail
For the rest of my life I will probably never look at a stairs the same way. The Incas must have absolutely loved them and nothing demonstrates this better than the 4 day classic Inca trail. We had done a lot of discussing and deliberation over which trail to hike and ultimately decided on the classic 4 day trail because it appeared to be the most authentic; this was a route that the ancient Incan messengers would have taken, resting at points which we would pass en route. Also the drama of entering the Lost City on foot at the end of the hike appeared more appealing than hiking for miles but completing the last bit by bus.
The evening before we started, we attended a briefing session at the Llama Path office in Cusco. We met our guide who we would call ‘J.J’ for the next four days and a wonderful group of people who would be fantastic companions. There was Manik and Tee- a young couple from Australia, Anik and Shelbie- two energetic French Canadian women backpacking through Peru, Michael and Christa- a father and daughter pair from the States, and us- family of husband, wife and a thirteen year old daughter.
JJ gave us a description of the ‘ups and downs’ to come over the next four days, the schedules of each day, what to pack and an objective view of what to expect. Precise, professional and honest, we felt we were in trustworthy hands. And then it was time for an early end to the day- we would have to be ready to leave Cusco by 4.20 am.
We reached a restaurant near Ollantaytambo around 6:00 am the next morning. This would be our last meal under a solid roof for some time and we made the best of it. Some last minute shopping for raincoats, a woollen hat for my daughter and we were off again this time to the starting point of the famed Km 82.
Km 82 was a flurry of activity. Porters in colour coded teams (ours was the Red team, we would see the green, the yellow and the purple teams along the way) were busy in last minute preparations. JJ and our assistant guide Nimeus guided us through the passport checks and tickets and off we were on the trail, our passports stamped at the entry point. Perhaps to push a point, a train whooshed past us. It would be at Machu Picchu in around 2 hours, we would slog it for 4 days.
The path started with a gentle incline. In a little over an hour we passed the first Inca site Willkaraccay at a distance. By this time the sun was beating down and all the layers we had put on to beat the early morning chill were coming off. As we reached a resting place with tempting cold bottles of water and fizzy drinks on display in a nearby shack shop, we were the last stretch of our energies. It was downhill to the more extensive ruins of Llactapata. JJ also informed us that we were now leaving the Urubamba and Sacred Valley behind. Now it was all uphill to camp 1A for lunch where our Red porters greeted us with claps for finishing the first lap of the hike and greeted us with bowls of hot water to wash up and clean towels.
We stopped for around 2 hours for lunch which was an impressive three course with a starter of chopped vegetables, corn and potatoes, followed by soup and then a spread of chicken, rice, vegetables and mashed potatoes with stuffing. More three course meals awaited us for the next three days but I was soon to lose my appetite! Then we set off for the next camp.
The ruins of Wayllabamba lie near camp 1A. The road to the next camp at Ayapata remained mostly uphill. JJ prepared us for the next day with ruthless honesty, the climb to Dead Woman’s pass would be ten times harder. We reached camp around 5:30 pm.
Dinner was another sumptuous affair, preceded by tea/coffee/hot chocolate accompanied by popcorn. The next day would be the toughest and we all wished that it was this time tomorrow when the hardest day of the hike would be over and we could look back with satisfaction.
Day 2 dawned early as we were woken up at 5:30 am to get ready and leave camp by 6:00, heading towards Dead Woman’s pass.
Dead Woman’s pass is a 4.5 hour hike from camp, broken in the middle at 2 hours by a resting spot at Llulluchampampa. The views in this part become wilder, devoid of signs of villages and habitation which were common on the first day. The mountains rise steep and snow-capped on your right, a prize for the unrelentingly steep uphill climb. After we finished our snacks at Llulluchampampa on a vast spread of a green meadow, it was back on the stony trail looking at the train of climbers tiny in the distance, marking the path ahead. An hour into the climb, my daughter had tears in her eyes from a sprained ankle but there was no turning back here. J.J. kindly took her back pack from her and she hobbled ahead bravely. The last steps to Dead Woman’s pass are sheer relief. As my daughter suddenly surged ahead with renewed energy, I followed her to join the rest who had already reached the point.
I had watched plenty of youtube videos on the Inca trail and seen the Dead Woman’s Pass in pictures. The reality was more ruggedly beautiful and tall peaks and ranges rose around us in a spectacle which was worth the effort. Our porters were waiting with special drinks and sandwiches. We took plenty of photographs and then it was on to a 1.5 hour downhill hike to lunch time camp.
Downhill does not make one breathless as uphill but the strain on the knees is not to be underestimated. Most guides aim to leave the trail in a couple of years to take to day trip guiding due to the harsh effects. J.J. mentioned that he did not mind the uphill that much, but the downhill was cruel on the joints.
Lunch was shorter this time as we had another mountain to climb up and down before we camped for night. We passed Runkuracay on the way up hill (2.5 hours)and Sayacmara downhill (1.5 hours). In the afternoon the trail had turned greener, fenced by thicker forest, mosses, orchids and colourful flowers. We passed an ancient Inca tunnel. It was around 6pm when I reached camp with J.J. accompanying the slowest member of the group. My daughter seemed to have recovered after lunch. When it was time for tea, I decided to give it a miss and rest till dinner. My daughter decided that hot chocolate and popcorn was too good to miss.
Refreshed after an hours sleep, I decided to go for dinner. J.J. was regaling the group with tales of his most memorable customers, people who almost died on him, honeymooning couples who had rows over the decision to do the Inca trail on a honeymoon. He said the funniest things with a serious face and had us in splits. The group was relaxed after the hardest part of the hike was over and with the prospect of hiking the next day only till lunch. Our 6:30 wake up call to start off at 7:00 am was a lie in!
The next morning dawned clear and beautiful. Feeling better and more alive than I had felt when we reached camp last evening, I took in the views of a snow capped range, touched by a rosy dawn, followed by the first golden rays of the sun. After breakfast (which would be our last in the trail) J.J. introduced the porters and we introduced ourselves. The excellent work Llama path does for the porters was described in detail making us glad that we had chosen an ethical company. Then we were on the road again.
The first part of the hike was only slightly uphill up to the third pass at Phuyupatamarca. It was here that mobile signals would come back and for the first time since we separated, J.J. was able to give me news of my husband, relayed by Nimeus. He had reached Ollantaytambo safely and had a train ticket to Aguas Calientes. Next day this time we would be together again. Our team decided to take pictures with funny poses and lots of jumps. I was gladly the photographer.
We continued downhill and at one point the road forked- one going on straight to camp and the other taking us to the Inca site of Intipata. It was at this juncture that J.J. pointed out to us the first view of Machu Picchu mountain with its distinctive flag fluttering at a distance. The Lost City lay just behind the mountain. He then asked us whether we wanted to go straight to camp or to pay a visit to Intipata. We chose the latter.
We had seen llamas roaming freely on the way but this was the first we saw them really close. The llamas are not truly speaking wild but have been set free in the area by the Peruvian government probably to add more touristic attraction. Here at Intipata we met a group of four friendly llamas who were happy to pose with us and for us. I got a shot of one who looked like he was giving a toothy smile, Shelbie posed with one with a biscuit held out between her lips and daughter and I posed with a mummy llama and baby. We crossed by a huge rock where Shelbie decided to pose like she was being sacrificed. Finally we decided that we should get down for lunch.
We must have been very late as our napkins had been folded into fancy origami shapes. After an hour’s rest, J.J. led us to Winay Huayna, the most impressive of ruins en route to Machu Picchu. It was like a miniature, with houses, terraces and a temple with seven windows dedicated to the sun. The trek had given us a sense of how the ruins fitted into the Inca world, a large networks of staired trails, punctuated with places to rest but many mysteries remain and a lot of what these sites were meant for is assumption. The Incas left no written records. Sitting on an Incan site on a clear breezy evening, surrounded by wilderness and few tourists but fellow hikers is an atmospheric experience.
Back to our last dinner we spent as much time as we could with each other. Our group had gelled really well and we were all grateful for that. We chatted through tea and dinner. Our chef had excelled himself with a cream covered cake made in this wilderness camp, with ‘Welcome to Machu Picchu’ creamed on it in chocolate. Our main course was served with a decor that would rival the best restaurants. Our experience might be of wilderness, but the meals were luxuriously fancy. This night would be less chilly compared to the others. It would be an early start but the hike would finish early in the morning as we entered Machu Picchu. We took in last views of the magnificent night skies which had graced us overhead. Tomorrow we would all be back in cities.
The next morning we were ready to leave camp by 3:20 am. The check point would open at 5:30 am but J.J. wanted us at the beginning of the queue and under a shelter in case it rained. We were there in 20 minutes and had time to doze, brush our teeth and munch through our breakfast pack. As we waited, a crescent moon rose behind the mountains in a yellow arc, a faint circle completing the orb.
At 5:30 the checkpoint lights came on and our papers were quickly and efficiently stamped. It would be an hour to the Sun Gate and our first views of Machu Picchu. The road continued through stony stairs and Inca jungle, the Andes coming into gradual view over rising dawn. The culmination of stairs is a series of 50-60 steps called the Gringo Killer, a staircase of unbelievably narrow, and unbelievably steep stone boulders which signal the closeness to the Sun Gate.
The first rays of the sun touched the Lost City as we reached the Sun Gate. It would now be an hour downhill to the City itself. We were beginning to meet day tourists, hiking out in the other direction towards Sun Gate. One of them asked Shelbie (our fastest and most energetic member) how far the Sun Gate was. She also added that they had been walking for 20 minutes. When Shelbie mentioned that we had been walking for four days, our concerned tourist wondered if we had lost our guide!!!
As we reached Watchman’s hut, the classic photographic point, the crowds seemed to overwhelm us after three days in the wilderness. As we queued for our spot, we were suddenly conscious of our dusty shoes and slightly dishevelled look amidst the wafts of perfume and fashionable attire. We had reached civilization again. Thank Llama Path for our new t-shirts distributed the evening before which we all wore for our last photograph together.
We entered the Lost City with emotions which are difficult to describe. We had walked an ancient trail and entered a city much like the ancient Incans hundreds of years ago. We had made fast friends, shared an experience that would be in our memories forever.
Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain
Deciding to climb Machu Pichu Mountain after four days on the classic Inca trail was a foolish thing to do. Finishing the four day trail should have been enough to make me feel satisfied, climbing Machu Pichu mountain after doing the trail was possibly akin to making toast and eggs after having cooked a Michelin star meal. So it felt like as I climbed stairs and yet more stairs, lagging behind my guide for whom this seemed like a stroll (I was later to learn that in his youth he had run the Inca trail marathon, completing the 4 day trail in six hours).
Planning a trip to Peru had sent me into an overdrive of excitement. I had packed in so much adventure that it was to leave me and the family breathless- for a number of reasons though. In the thin air of the Sacred Valley, it does not take much to start panting. Reserving the climb to the summit of Machu Picchu Mountain had been one of those adrenaline charged decisions.
To start with, my daughter and husband said absolute no’s, reservation or not. They had had enough of stairs to last a lifetime. So it was my guide and I who set off for the mountain after a two hour tour of the City. We entered around 11:00 am, which was the latest one could enter the mountain site. We had to leave by 2pm which gave us roughly 3 hours to climb up and down.
The first half an hour was incredibly dull. Thick vegetation fenced the route, offering no vistas to view and I was shifting from doubting my decision to frankly regretting it. After half an hour, the views opened up exposing steep cliffs to the left of the trail and our first view of Machu Picchu city from a height. The views were dramatic and the cool breeze brought some relief until I noticed a line of hikers way ahead, zigzagging to the summit, looking ever so tiny and ever so far away. I also noticed that the route was not straight up to the summit which is marked by the rainbow coloured flag fluttering almost directly overhead, but a zig zag shaped trail which went on forever.
Around 11:40, my ever-smiling, ever-calm guide Percy told me that we had passed the midpoint of the route. If I just managed to keep up the pace, I might make it to the summit by 12:30, leaving enough time to make it down before 2 pm. Slightly encouraged, we started off with renewed vigour. For a while it appeared as if we were walking further away from the flag which marked our destination, and then suddenly the path curved sharply and we were facing the summit in one straight line.
The stairs had become narrower and steeper, with no protection to the right where the cliffs plunged to a sheer drop. Hikers were hugging the wall on the left for dear life before sighing with relief; as the narrow stairs end, the summit comes directly into view ahead.
As we headed for the usual photographs (I have one on the board which proclaims the summit, resting my chin on it, hands clinging on the sides. I look like I am waiting for the guillotine), Percy pointed out to a view on the right. It was the base camp for the last night of the Inca trail. It seemed unbelievable that only the day before we had been standing near those corrugated sheet huts, looking at the mountain that we were standing on now. Our Inca trail guide had pointed out the first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, the distinctive flag and told us that the Lost City was just behind it. Percy now pointed out with a sweep of his finger, the route of the trail and the mountains we had walked in the hike of a lifetime. A snapshot of the trail on one side of the mountain, a view of the Lost City on the other-suddenly the climb was worth every Inca stair.
Over a 3 course lunch back at Aguas Calientes, Percy told us about youth in Peruvian highlands, drawn by the quick money of business and disinterested in academic professions. It was here that we heard his story about the Inca marathon he had completed in 6 hours, years before in his youth.
We collected our duffel bags where they had been left in a nearby hotel and headed for the station to wait for the expedition train back to Ollantaytambo.
The El Albergue Hotel is right on the platform of Ollantaytambo station, a quaint hotel with large rooms which have a colonial flavour and gardens with colourful flowers. We needed hot showers and a change of clothes.