El Camino Inka (The Inca Trail)
November 14, 2013 | By Mitch & Jewels |
All of those amazing stories you’ve heard about the Inca Trail – they are all true. Go. Despite my initial trepidation, it’s incredible and beyond worth a trip. Machu Picchu was spectacular and totally deserves the “new wonder of the ancient world” epitaph it often receives. But in an honest opinion, the experience of trekking the Inca Trail and seeing other ruins along the way trumps Machu Picchu itself – yet one more experience in which the journey can be more valuable than the destination.
Our Tour Company
Based on internet research and availability, we went with a tour company called Llama Path on their 4-day Inca Trail Trek. For reference, you are required to hike the Inca Trail with a group, and 500 people (including porters) are allowed to start the trail each day (and 3,000 people are allowed to reach Machu Picchu each day).
Our tour guides, William and David, were phenomenal. William made Incan history fascinating and knew just how to push us forward (including playing Eye of the Tiger from his phone with perfect timing) or when to give us rests – and just made us constantly laugh and smile. And knowing that you see people’s true stripes during challenges, Llama Path (William and David as well as the porters) handled challenges with extraordinary grace. I noticed a few other hikers who were annoyed that their guides were not letting them take breaks or explaining things enough, and we are so grateful for our experience.
The chef, Carmelo, and assistant chef were incredible. I honestly don’t know how they made such phenomenal food on the trail. My expectations were merely hoping that food would be clean and not make us sick – but the food was beyond delicious. Each meal had multiple courses, not only super delicious but also gorgeously served and garnished (from morning crepes that said “Peru” in dulce de leche to little animals carved from carrots, yucca, and tomatoes). And I am astonished that they were able to make multiple cakes – including two on the last night (in celebration of my birthday and another couple’s anniversary on the trail).
The porters were truly humbling. I have no idea how these men were able to carry such heavy loads (they are limited to 25 kilos each) and still race past us on the trail, and then applaud for us when we arrived huffing and puffing. Llama Path calls their porters the “Red Army” and you don’t realize how awesome it is until you experience it – most other groups, the porters spread out and you see one or two on the trail at a time. For our group, you see the whole group of them carrying along together, and when you are in camp, they work like a brilliantly smooth machine, and you hear them laughing and chatting in the kitchen. Miraculously, when we summited Dead Woman’s Pass (the highest summit), the porters had hot tea (they had carried the water up there!) and cheese sandwiches waiting for us – an invaluable perk from Llama Path. We gave the porters as much appreciation as we could – I am not sure why other groups don’t, but it was so well received and made it a pleasure to give. We learned a few words in Quechua from our guides (the porters loved that we learned how to say “thank you” in Quechua), and we would applaud them or give them a walking-stick-bridge to walk under and cheer – and they said that they appreciated our appreciation. Good lesson for life. =)
Short review… Llama Path = amazing and worth every dollar.
We also totally lucked out with our group. Everyone was in the same age range and at a similar level of physical fitness… and, most importantly, had really positive and supportive attitudes.
Huge thanks for our incredible experience to:
The hikers, 9 in total: Jewels & Mitch, Sarah & Steve, Jason & Katy (with huge congrats on their Machu Picchu engagement!!!), Max & Vicky, and Michael
The guides: William & David
The chef & porters: 15 of the hardest workers and most positive people ever
A Few Tips for Packing
- The sun is intense at this altitude. Even if you don’t think you burn easily, you will burn. Be prepared.
- When you have the option of renting 2 walking sticks from the tour company, it’s worth it. (Some of the ladies on our trip, myself included, used their 1 plus stole their significant others’ walking stick. Probably worthwhile to use 2 unless you’re super happy hiking up and down inclines.)
- Baby wipes (for faces and armpits if nothing else) and toilet paper (one roll per person) come in handy.
- They are not joking about preparing for the weather. A down jacket, wool hat, and warm socks go a long way… as does rain gear if and when necessary. But most of the time, you’ll be hiking in a t-shirt or tank top.
- Bring as little else as possible. No one else is wearing clean clothing either!
The Trek (Notes from our journal)
Day 1, Thurs 7 Nov 2013:
After a 3:30am wake-up in Cusco, we were on the actual trail by 9am. The trail one Day 1 was totally feasible – today was the longest distance but the easiest hike. The scenery (and all the ruins and Incan remnants) are spectacular – every time you round a corner, it is worth stopping for photos.
We had a little mishap when we got to camp for the night because someone had stolen a porter’s personal bag and papers, so 5 of the porters were stuck at a checkpoint. Massive kudos to the tour company and guides for handling that situation beautifully.
Day 2, Fri 8 Nov 2013:
My actual journal notes read as follows: “Too tired to write, but ass-kicking mountains (climbing & coming down), 3 (more?) Incan ruins, super high altitudes, and general awesomeness.”
On Day 2 we hiked over the two biggest summits (both high-altitude passes between mountains) of the trek. The first, Dead Woman’s Pass (apparently named for the shape of the mountain, not human sacrifice or perished hikers), had us climb up to and down from 4,250 m (nearly 14K ft) altitude, where the porters had incredible hot tea and cheese sandwiches waiting for us at the top. It was a pretty immense altitude change, and we did some blood-oxygen checks midway up and at the top. The hike up was challenging to say the least, but coca leaves were a big help, as was our guide William playing Eye of the Tiger from his phone just when we needed a bit of push. Learning how to properly chew coca leaves was interesting as well – right from starting by creating a triad of leaves (the coca quintu) for a meditation and offering to Pachamama.
The second summit was smaller, and just amazing to look back and see the first summit and see how far we had come. When you wake up before dawn and summit a pass by 11am, you can cover a big distance in a day. Through those first two days we saw some awesome Incan ruins – terraces are a regular sight in this region (even from the trains and buses traveling around) – and spectacular natural landscapes. By the time dinner was done, I could barely keep my eyes open.
Day 3, Sat 9 Nov 2013:
We totally lucked out on the weather – there was a fierce storm while we slept between day 2 and day 3, which started literally the second we went into the tent and ended just before we got up.
On Day 3, we hiked down 3000 stairs, which was aided by a lesson in stepping sideways, especially after Day 2’s discovery that going down can be much more challenging than going up. (Thank goodness for walking sticks, my new best friends.) By lunchtime, we had done all the hardest work of the trail, but our bodies felt like total jelly – even walking down to the toilets was humbling. Speaking of, it’s only fair to note that the toilets are really the only major downside of the whole Inca Trail. We’re not sure how the bathroom situation could realistically be improved, but they left something to be desired.
We spent the afternoon of the third day at Winay Huayna, the last of the Incan ruins before Machu Picchu. I particularly loved this one because it had the feel of a small city (some of the other ruins just were for one purpose or another) so we had lots to explore but none of the crowds of Machu Picchu… and lots of magic in the air.
At night, in addition to the regularly epic meal, on silver trays as usual, we had 2 cakes – for my birthday and also the 10th anniversary of Katy & Jason (who got engaged at Machu Picchu!). Also to note, there were little animals carved out of food as garnish at many meals – incredibly impressive. Tomatoes as roses and octopi, squash as a turtle, yucca as a rabbit, cucumber as a bird. And a carrot llama that we named Dalai and carried with us as a little totem mascot for the second half of the trail (Sarah made him into a final offering to Pachamama at Machu Picchu).
Day 4, Sun 10 Nov 2013:
My birthday! We woke up at 3am and were the first group to the checkpoint – we arrived at 3:40 and waited until it opened at 5:30. It’s a bizarre experience… everyone wants to get to the Sun Gate first, but since they let you through the gate one at a time after checking your papers, and the trail is too narrow to pass in many places, you have to line up early to be the first group through. Once you get through, you hike as fast as you possibly can until the Sun Gate.
To use that time from 3:40 to 5:30am, we had an epic pre-dawn dance party. I spun a staff walking stick with head lamp glow ends, and we had a yoga stretch session. We were the first ones out the gate and literally hiked faster than I have ever hiked, reaching the Sun Gate in 35 mins (instead of the estimated hour). The first people in our group (Steve and Sarah) arrived at the Sun Gate first of anyone, and I was only overtaken by 2 Aussies, impressive since I don’t consider myself to be a fast hiker (note to self: I need to stop comparing myself to Mitch, who we decided is an Andean mountain goat when he hikes). It is a bizarre experience – this race hike to reach the Sun Gate. When we were panting our way up this section of steep (70 degree grade) stairs that the guides call the “Gringo Killer,” I could hear the Aussies just behind me panting away too, and I just climbed as fast as my little legs would go.
The first view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate is otherworldly… and we were taking a group photo as the sun rose into the gate, a blindingly beautiful moment that lights up the entirety of the city.
From my personal perspective, Machu Picchu was not as great an experience as the other ruins – just because the huge number of people (3,000) was overwhelming… especially after a few days of meditative hiking where you didn’t encounter that many people. But the city is truly remarkable… and “awesome” in the most true definition of the word – it leaves you feeling full of awe of the Incan empire, the city, the history, the culture, and the landscape into which it was built. There are so many phenomenal details – from the sun dial (crazy energetic force when you hold your hands near it), the compass, the temples, the terraces that span all the way down to the river.
Before we forget…
Here are a few notes from the trail:
The Incan stonework was incredible – it’s impressive that they carried, smoothed, sanded, and fit together those stones without mortar or anything breaking loose in generations of earthquakes and storms. But, their stonework appears to be all very industrial architecture and practical (compared to some of the Mayan ruins I have seen where they carved into the stone).
The drainage and irrigation systems are impressive. Along many parts of the Inca Trail, there is actually a water drainage channel alongside it which helps the trail from flooding or washing out. At points, there are even little holes that channel water down and out the mountain below you. Similarly, the water systems and fountains in the cities themselves were impressive.
Terraces are everywhere!!! You can almost see how the Andean mountains naturally are terraced, but the Incan terraces are seen from bus rides, train rides, and on so many different mountains as you hike along. It is astounding that they were able to build these up.
The Incan’s understanding of and ability to dial into the sun and stars is really impressive… From the Sun Gate to the sun dial, to the compass, to the little flat rocks carved into water-mirrors for star-gazing.
Messages were carried so quickly! Chaskis (the Incan messengers) could relay race a message round-trip between Cusco and Machu Picchu in less than 8 hours (estimated) (also note: chaskis sacrificed their tongues, and carried messages in quipu or textiles). A few years ago they did a marathon along the Inca Trail (which is a bit over 26 miles) among several porters, and the fastest porter did the whole Inca Trail in 3 hours and 45 minutes. It’s unbelievable. Apparently when the Spanish took Cusco, the Incans evacuated Machu Picchu and headed to the jungle, which is why the ruins of Machu Picchu were not found by westerners until 1911.
The Incans formed their religion and societal guide around the Chakana, which is this interesting diamond-cross with a circle in the middle of it. They apparently saw the Southern Cross stars as a diamond (not a cross) and made their compass as a diamond instead of a cross. The chakana also held their only 3 societal rules: Don’t lie, don’t be lazy, don’t steal – when you think about it, it’s a pretty impressive way to define all the rules that a society needs its citizens to follow.