It’s Halloween today and I’m awake at 4 a.m. waiting for a van or something to pick me up and carry off to the mountains and jungle, off to the unknown.
I tossed and turned all night, a restless sleep tinged with strange dreams.
On the way to the start of the Inca Trail we have picked up two guides, eight porters, a chef and six trekkers other than me.
By 8 a.m. we are driving through the Valle Sagrado, the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley is rich in minerals and fertile soil and grows a lot of corn and other vegetables for the country and the world. The mountains are steep around us and a river runs through the lush valley, corn fields and green farm land surround the river banks and run up to the steep mountain sides. The roads are filled with tuk-tuks and tour buses, locals going to work and schoolchildren hopping rides on the backs of motorcycles to their classes.
The road is lined with small brown and tan brick homes with tiled roofs. Clothes hang from lines strung between small outbuildings and farm houses — each with brick and mud walls, barbed wire fences and corrugated metal gates. Stray dogs walk the streets looking for food and water and other pals to roam the town with. One squats and shits brown water along the side of the road.
A white bird glides above one of the small farms next to the river where a tethered cow grazes. The road runs along the river now, it’s green waters flow quickly toward the Amazon in the direction we are driving.
The river banks are lined with many types of trees, bushes and spiky cacti. Large aloe-looking plants line the road. We continue slowly along this dirt and gravel path for many kilometers.
We arrive and ‘Kilometer 82’ (Inca Trail rendezvous) is a madhouse, lots of groups of trekkers and porters unloading from vans and organizing gear. 500 people a day are allowed on the trail, and I learn that only about 200 of them are tourists. The rest are guides and porters. Finally we are ready to walk to the checkpoint where we show our passports and tickets. There is a separate checkpoint where porters have to weigh their bags — they can carry no more than 25 kilograms.
We are through and after some group pictures we continue up the Inca Trail.
Cesar stops every 15 or 20 minutes to tell us some history about the trail or the Inca people and some plantlife along the trail. We get to an amazing overlook of some ruins, at a crossroads of Inca trails and seated below an incredible glacier.
We continue on up a few steep hills and after about 10 km we stop for lunch. Our awesome porters, Quechuan guys that live in the area, have already set up a dining tent for us and give us a place to wash our hands and some lemonade with sugar. Then we sit down to an incredible meal.
The first course is guacamole with chips and cheese on top. When we finish they take the small metal plates and serve some delicious corn chowder with bread. Then after that is cleared they bring out the main courses on three big plates served family style: cooked trout and sweet potato in a red sauce, rice with peas and carrots, and a vegetable medley with green beans and the big Peruvian corn that is so good and mealy and not too sweet. They served me a small platter of cooked egg to substitute for the fish because I requested vegetarian meals. The food was amazing and everyone was giddy and sharing stories around the table.
Over lunch I was perplexed when Tamara asked me if it was hard being a vegetarian in the United States. I said no way it’s really easy, especially compared to here.
“I just heard that vegetables were really expensive in the US, like lettuce costs $10 or something,” Tamara said.
I outwardly cringed without meaning too.
“Maybe in Alaska or Hawaii,” I said. “We have loads of amazing vegetables and farms all across the country.”
I’m very confused and more than a little hurt that we might have the reputation of having no vegetables in a country the size of the US. How does a rumor like that spread.
After lunch we had a few minutes to chill and we lounged around the lunch spot until 3:10 when we were off up another small hill and through the valley for another hour or so to our camping spot.
We get to the campsite at night and it’s a beautiful little farm and our tents are already set up by our porters and I feel so lucky to just be able to climb inside without having to do the work of building a shelter. What luxury. I have a tent to myself because everyone else is traveling as a pair, and this is the most privacy I’ve had in weeks!
I take off my sweaty boots and socks and all of my sweaty clothes and change into the dry set in my bag. Then I set out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag and relax for a while before we are introduced to our porters or rather familia or amigos or ‘waiki’- Quechua for family or beloved friend, which seems much more appropriate.
It’s really fun and we all introduce ourselves to each other and the guys are all quite nervous to speak to the pasajeros and it’s really cute but so touching to meet the 8 awesome dudes, ages 24 to 59, who are carrying so much gear and cooking amazing meals and all the food to cook those meals.
Afterwards we have ‘happy hour’ in a small dining area which is instant coffee and tea and popcorn and some cookies with jam and butter and we talk about the day and get to know each other much better finally. It’s a great bonding moment and we all feel really accomplished for finishing our first day.
Giulia and Alberto from Italy
Peter and Tamara from the Netherlands
Clair and Cheryl from England
Me from US
There is a great view of the glacier from the campsite and the sun is beginning to go down and the temperature is beginning to drop. The weather is beautiful and this is turning out to be an amazing night.
After dinner (and it’s delicious again of course) and some more tea, most decide it’s time for bed. I talk to Giulia and Alberto for a while because we decide it’s too early to sleep (it’s barely 8 p.m.) and it’s nice to get to know them and hear about their lives in Italy. Alberto owns a pizzeria in Milan with some partners and we connect by talking about food, it just clicks it’s so easy and I’m reminded why I love cooking so much because it’s such an amazing way to get on the level with people from cultures around the world. Food is an amazing common thread between every human that has ever lived, even more so than music and art and religion.
We look at the stars for a bit while they aren’t covered by the clouds and then we decide we’re exhausted and go to our tents in preparation for our 5:30 wake-up call.
I’m totally beat and it feels so late but when I get to my tent I find out it’s barely past 9 p.m. I strip and climb into my sleeping bag and pass out within minutes
“Coca tea? Coca tea amigo?” I hear from outside my tent.
It’s 5:30 already and I was sleeping so well in my private tent, but the hot coca tea and some Tom Petty has me stoked up for a new day and I’m the first one packed and ready to hike.
Breakfast is pancakes with a giant fruit salad and tea and coffee and toast with butter and jam. It’s incredibly satisfying and after we are all fueled up its back to the task at hand — the Inca Trail.
Very steep hiking most of the morning but I kept up with Italians, Julia and Alberto, and we raced to the top up many steep steps through the mist and fog and it starts to look like jungle for a while then finally to the lunch spot around 10:15. It’s a beautiful place, this path is holy and the trees are alive — they crawl up and around the stream flowing down the side of the path. This trail has a lot of energy flowing through it Cesar told us, for centuries many people have walked these same steps. Many people have died here too, he said, in battle and in travel.
I understand the weight his words carry and I can almost feel it at this moment.
After some more incredibly steep climbing we get to the lunch spot, a beautiful overlook in the middle of the valley. And we are surrounded by small, timeless looking farms with animals everywhere: llamas and pigs and sheep and dogs and birds. It’s scenic and just perfect as the fog crawls over the mountains that we are almost at the top of now.
After lunch we sit for a while and drink tea and relax until Cesar says “vamanos.” We strap packs back on and head the rest of the way up the mountain.
The climb is grueling, giant stone steps go up, up and up into the clouds for at least 45 minutes. I stop every few hundred meters to catch my breath and around me porters haul their massive packs with a quickness. But they aren’t totally immune to the altitude and the intense climb and take breaks almost as often as we do. The last bit is about 400 more meters up and is devastating, though cocksure Alberto said later the whole thing was easy. U funny Albie…
Finally I can see the mountain pass and there are a few other groups of trekkers and waiki there but it’s cold and wet and the excitement is muted, but only a bit. After a few photos at the ‘4,200 meter’ sign, we decide not to wait for the rest of the group because it’s very cold and starting to rain now. We put rain jackets on our backs and rain covers over our packs and head down through the clouds and wind to the other side of the valley.
Is it called raining when you are actually inside the cloud? Either way, the trail down is an incredibly steep stair path made of massive granite stones. Down and down, it never ends and the clouds have soaked the stone steps making an already exhausting descent slippery and dangerous.
But finally we reach the camp in the valley below, and below the clouds and rain. Some other tour groups have already arrived, but we are the first from our group. I take the time to rest in my tent and unpack my things and change into warm, dry clothes.
We eat dinner and night falls around us in the cool valley, still thousand of meters in the sky. Sleep comes quickly.
I wake up exhausted to coca tea at 5:30 again. I barely slept. It was very cold and maybe the altitude and lack of oxygen made it harder to sleep. Either way I tossed and turned all night on my foam sleeping pad until it was finally light outside and I knew it would be time to wake up soon. Funny how the early morning hours are always the best sleep — right before you have to wake up.
After I packed my things I realized my sleeping pad was soaked from the bottom up and I had a slight panic moment, some leftover trauma from Patagonia. It was so cloudy and dank in the valley still I was nervous that the pad would never dry before sleeping tonight and there was no way I would try to sleep on a wet pad. The exhaustion didn’t help…
But after some breakfast we started walking and immediately the sun was out and bright. It was the first we had seen of the sun since the first day of hiking and it was welcome. At the first Inca site we arrived at, shortly after we started walking , I unrolled my pad and set it on some stones to dry as Cesar talked about the ruins.
It was a messenger post for the Inca network of cities, Cesar explained. At the small structure high in the mountains, messages were passed between citadels and regions of the kingdom. We took some pictures and rested for a minute and when I went back to my pad it was bone dry. Relieved, I rolled up the pad, strapped my pack on and headed out.
This third day featured a lot of interesting Incan ruins and even more stairs going down,down, down. After a mountain pass and a beautiful overlook, the rest of the trail was mostly down these steep steps. We crossed from the foggy mountain tops to a stone path that ran alongside of a mountain for a few kilometers and the terrain began to change to jungle with lots of thick green vegetation like bamboo and ferns.
After a delicious lunch (surprise) we carried on, up and around the side of a mountain to an overlook where we could see Aguas Calientes and the mountain that Machu Picchu citadel is on. The home stretch!
Alberto, Giulia and I flipped into gear and hustle down the last few kilometers of steps towards an amazing ruin called Intipata. It featured large agriculture steps and an amazing view of the valley below. We took some pictures while waiting for the others. But after 30 minutes we saw no one and eventually walked down towards the last camp a few hundred meters below us.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains the others began to show up and we sat for some coffee and tea and popcorn before dinner.
There is a full moon out revealing a spectacular view of the valley and an endless jungle of jagged Andes mountains.
After dinner we collect some money to tip our waikis and we all have a special moment together. It’s amazing how much work they’ve done to make this trek possible for us and I’m really touched by the scene. After we all shake hands and say thank you, Cesar plays some pop music from his boom box and talks his broken record talk that he’s been spitting and laughing about all week — ‘Mucho wow’ and ‘Macharemos’ and his funny little laugh. His energy is relentlessly positive. Then by 8 p.m. everyone is in their tents trying to fall asleep.
I am exhausted and we walked nearly 20 kilometers today on very little sleep. The weather here is much warmer and we have all been talking about our fantasies of crawling into sleep bags and passing out as soon as dinner is over. But it’s hard to sleep so early, it’s like Christmas Eve at Machu Picchu base camp. All around the side of this green mountain, about 200 people are trying too hard to sleep so they can wake up early and catch their first glimpse of Machu Picchu. The guides have done this hundreds of times. The porters will wake early and break camp and take the train back home with all of the camping equipment before sunrise.
We will wake up tomorrow at 3:30 in the morning and begin the short trek towards Machu Picchu by 4 a.m. if everything goes as planned. Then we will pass a checkpoint by 5:15 and walk a few kilometers to the sun gate and spend the morning in Machu Picchu.
It’s 8:46 pm now and I am going to try to steal a few hours of sleep before the early wake-up call. Hopefully I can get some, tomorrow will be a long day! To be continued…
The fourth day starts like a dream. We are all awake at 3:30 and it’s definitely still nighttime outside. We pack up and get ready with headlamps and head down to the checkpoint to get in line.
After waiting in line for an hour and a half, we are through the checkpoint and into the trail at 5:30 where it feels like a mad dash to get to the sun gate and Machu Picchu as early as possible. The sun starts to peek over the mountain tops. Maybe that’s all in my mind but it feels like everyone is racing there… I pass by so many exhausted hikers on the trail, especially when it starts to climb back up the side of Machu Picchu mountain and the crazy-steep stairs grossly called ‘gringo killers’ — but it certainly did the trick and I fly past everyone. They are sweating and hunched over as I race up the intense steps trying to catch Alberto who later told me he was running to get to the sun gate so he could take pictures before any other tourists arrived.
We take some pictures and I eat a snack and then we are off down to the citadel which is already filling up with buses in from Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town down in the valley.
We spend a little while taking early morning photos before everyone else from the group shows up about 45 minutes later. We take a group photo and then head outside the gates to grab a coffee from the most expensive snack bar in Peru and use the restrooms (the most hygienic in days). Then we all get our tickets and show our passports and head back into Machu Picchu.
The tourists are now pouring into the stone city and it feels so late but it’s only 10:30 a.m. and now we have some free time to explore Machu Picchu on our own. But we all sit in the shade for a while and rest — it feels like yesterday when we woke up in the middle of the night and waited in the queue.
This is a special place but I think I expected too much. It almost feels like an amusement park because of all the tourists here. The Inca Trail was special though and I feel a real sense of accomplishment arriving here after the incredible hike instead of on a bus like most of the people here. I feel better than them for some reason, like I deserve to be here and they don’t. It’s silly but it’s how I feel. When I overhear them talking about how tired they are after walking up one flight of stairs or needing to take a break on the way up into the citadel I feel some serious pride.
Some obnoxious Americans near us talk about their photography careers and advertising and their family business and who owns which parts and then how good the McDonalds movie is. I’m embarrassed and kind of disgusted but mostly just annoyed. They are clean and have expensive cameras. We are filthy. We stink. We’re exhausted. We’re starving.
Then the llamas, of course! One of my favorite parts of Peru has been the llamas and alpacas and there are a few of the elegant beasts around here and they are amazing and so fun and well adjusted to being around people. Tourists selfie with the animals as they relax and feed on the grass around the city and everyone giggles and coos at them. It’s almost like they know sometimes because they stare into the distance like royalty or straight into the cameras like models. Show offs. Primadonnas.
They are incredible.
Tour guides pass us by as we still sit in the shade grabbing some more much needed rest. It’s only 11 but it feels like late afternoon by now. We will catch one of the many buses back to Aguas Calientes where we will meet up with Cesar and the others at a restaurant for one last ‘macharemos!’
I will be back in this citadel tomorrow because I have a ticket to climb Huayna Picchu, the young mountain, the little brother of Machu Picchu. The mountain looks ominous though and my legs are exhausted. They burn with every step, down or up, and I’m kind of dreading climbing this monster in front of me now. But first some food and a hot shower and warm bed in Aguas Calientes tonight. I will be refreshed I’m sure and I could use the peace and quiet and alone time after spending so much time in the group.
I wake at 6 a.m. out of habit and try but can’t possibly sleep any later. After breakfast and a hot shower I ride the bus back to Machu Picchu around 9 and enter the park again just before 10. I head through the maze of stones to the entrance to Huayna Picchu.
It’s a tall mountain with lots of stairs and I begin huffing and puffing immediately. I feel incredibly fit for the challenge after hiking the Inca Trail — I’ve already done this once and survived!
After about 45 minutes of hard climbing without stopping I’ve made it to the top of the peak. The view is incredible and I’m drenched in sweat.
After sitting for a while I decide to leave and make the walk back to the bus. The clouds are covering the sun. I wanted to reflect on my trip or come up with some really meaningful conclusions but I just can’t.