Four days and three nights of endurance, exhaustion and excitement
30.07.2012 - 02.08.2012 18 °C
In one of my earlier posts I was wondering about how different it was going to be, being able to get on internet and keep people up to date on what we're doing and experiencing as we travel. My first impression is that it's a more time-consuming activity than I had expected. Part of it is learning how to work with this blog on ancient computers in dinky little internet cafes. I've been sitting here for an hour trying to upload photos, and am only now ready to start writing. I may eventually decide to revert to carrier pigeons, but for now will press on!
So... the Inca Trail! Obviously, we survived, and it definitely lived up to expectations. When we went to the tour organizer to pay the balance, we got a briefing to give us a clear idea what to expect. The gal there broke the trek down into three sections (the 'training' day, the hard day, and the beautiful day) and it's as good a way as any to describe it!
The training day
We were picked up at the ungodly hour of 5am at our hotel and, in the minibus, made the acquaintance of the other people who would be in our trekking group over the next days. There were 14 of us in total - a mixture of Brits, Canadians and Australians besides me and G. It took a few hours to get to the starting point, stopping for breakfast on the way, and once there it also took a while to get our permits checked - but finally, we were ready to start. And it started to drizzle. Not an auspicious beginning, but we trotted merrily on up the valley into the mountains. They call it the 'training' day because the route isn't terribly strenuous - there's a bit of climbing, but also lots of level bits in between - just enough effort, in short, to get you stretched and ready for what's to come. We spent a lot of the first part of it pulling our rain gear on and off again, but finally it decided to stay dry. We had two guides, Juan and Jeanette, and along the way they stopped now and then to tell us something about the flora and fauna we were seeing, or about the Incan culture or history. We also passed a couple of really neat archeological sites. At a certain point we stopped for lunch - along with all the other groups who'd started hiking today (200 people are allowed to every day). The government has a system set up to to maximize both comfort and the ecology. En route, there are clusters of designated spots where people are allowed to stop and eat, and/or camp, each with its maximum number of occupants. Each group has its own specific spots designated in advance. The porters get there ahead of the walking groups (it is AMAZING how fast those guys can cover the trail, even with the loads they're carrying) and set things up for their own groups. That first lunch spot was really idyllic, in a valley next to a river, and the food was great.
I was thinking the whole trek was going to be one big piece of cake until the last couple hours or so when we really started climbing. By the time we got to our campground I was more than beat, and - especially after they pointed out the pass we had to go over WAAAY up in the distance - kind of dreading the next day.
The hard day
With good reason. This may well have been the most demanding hiking day I've ever had in my life. The climbing started with the very first step, and it did not let up at all. It was non-stop 3,600 feet uphill to Dead Woman's Pass, with only a 1/2 hour break for a snack in between.
Despite the coca leaves I was chewing (Nah... they don't really help all that much) I was almost whimpering by thge time I reached the top. And once up there, it was 1,500 frustrating feet back down - frustrating because although you could see the campground down in the valley, it seemed to take AGES for it to come any closer. To compensate, the views going up and down were awesome, it was also a relatively short day (we hit camp by mid-afternoon), and the weather goddess (Pachamama?) was smiling. After the first day, we had gloriously clear skies and cool (COLD at night!) temperatures, which at least made the walking somewhat easier.
The beautiful day
Also with good reason. This may well have been one of the most gorgeous hiking days I've ever had in my life! It was somewhat strenuous - especially at the beginning - but there were enough level bits in between to catch your breath, and the paths were stupendous, winding down through cloud forests and then up around mountainsides with breathtaking drops at your feet, and ice-capped Andes on the other sides of the valleys. We had to go over two passes today, but they were nowhere near as ball-breaking as Dead Woman.
We also hit a couple more amazing archeological sites (they get better and better the closer you get to Machu Pichu), and had a particularly exciting lunch break as a couple of romantically inclined llamas kept trotting around trying to get it on with each other. The last bit of the day after the second pass was the hardest - a series of steps that take you 3,000 feet down (they call it the Gringo Killers). A bloody BITCH on the knees, but I much prefer downhill to uphill. Obviously, the porters do too, as they take it a RUN!
The day we did it all for....
We were rolled out of our sleeping bags at 03:45, and the porters started breaking down before we were barely out of our tents. The walk itself was relatively easy and level, curving way around the back side of the mountain that shelters Machu Pichu. You could feel the excitement in the air as everyone strode on, exotic bird songs cutting through the pre-dawn air, until we reached the 50 almost vertical steps you have to climb to reach the Gate of the Sun.
Once you passed through, there it suddenly was in the distance, looking just like every picture of it I'd ever seen. I almost couldn't believe it was real.
We waited there patiently at the gate to see the sun rise over the mountains behind us and illuminate the site (SO beautiful, I have to confess I actually got tears in my eyes), before hiking the last hour to get down to the site itself.
Once we were at the entrance we were caught up in the MOBS of tourists who'd arrived by bus, but luckily, the site was more than large enough to absorb them all. It didn't feel crowded at all once you were walking around in there. We got a great 2-hour tour from our hiking guide, and were then free to wander around as we wanted. What surprised Gerard and I the most was how much bigger and more well preserved it was than we had expected. When we had seen all we wanted to, we caught one of the many busses heading down to the village of Aguas Calientes (25 minute ride) where we met the others for lunch. Riding the bus back down, I felt like I was coming out of a dream. The trek - and Machu Pichu itself - had been one of those rare instances when reality really DID live up to the imagination!