Ever since I learned about Machu Picchu while studying Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Machu Picchu it has been at or near the top of my dream travel list. Anna had a picture of it hanging in her cubicle for almost a year, representing her next big “bucket list” adventure. After this past weekend, we don’t have to dream about it anymore. Some people take a one-day train trip to visit the ruins from Cusco or somewhere in the Sacred Valley (so named because the river running through it was sacred to the Incas). Not us. No, we chose the 4-day/3-night trek along the same trail the Incas used almost 500 years ago. This turned out to be the best decision of our trip so far, and wound up being my favorite adventure. Anna thinks it was a close race between this and the safari she did near Nairobi, Kenya in 2010. So it was pretty great. What follows is a day-by-day account of our trek with just some of the photos we took along the way.
Surprisingly, we didn’t have any friends who had done this hike before, so we turned to the Internet to guide us. After days of research, we picked Alpaca Expeditions based primarily on the glowing reviews they got on multiple websites and because alpacas are cute. Spoiler Alert: we LOVED them! More on that to come…
Machu Picchu Eve
The night before the trek our group met at Alpaca HQ for a briefing and to meet both the group and our guide. As our group trickled in, I recognized that one of the 10 people in our group was one of my friends from my old law firm! He and his wife signed up for the same trek on the same day with the same company (there are hundreds of tour companies in Cusco) with no communication between us. No question this was the strangest coincidence we have been involved in. After the meeting we went out to dinner to carbo load on pizza and beer before heading back to our hostel to pack our day bags, our duffel bags, and try to sleep before our 4:30 a.m. pickup.
Day 1: 6 hours and 30 minutes of hiking / 14 kilometers / Camp at 10,829 Feet
Our van picked us up at 4:20 a.m. (apparently Peruvian time is not like Guatemalan time), and we drove around Cusco picking up the rest of our group…with one notable exception. Our guide came back to the van alone after one stop, telling us that my friend and his wife were so sick that they couldn’t make the trek. This was a pretty big bummer, as I was looking forward to chatting with them along the trek. Now an 8-person group, we headed to our starting point.
Day 1 is described as “moderate-difficult,” which we found accurate. The hike begins gradually along the Urubamba River with small rolling hills, views of snow-capped mountains, and one fairly steep hill which looks like a pimple on the map of the trek (crap!).
After 4 hours of hiking, we arrived at our lunch stop and………oh sweet lord the food was amazing! We won’t overload this recap with descriptions of the food because it could fill an entire post, but here’s our first lunch menu:
– Appetizer: guacamole and chips
– Soup: not entirely sure, but some kind of mixed veggie deliciousness
– Main Course (buffet-style): beef and chicken, mixed vegetables, purred hummus-like bean thing, melted cheese on corn on the cob, cucumber/tomato salad, and two heaping plates of rice.
– Tea: mint tea to help aid digestion
After the porters helped us stand again, we hiked up steadily for a couple more hours before arriving at our first campsite. I was tired at the end of Day 1, and was increasingly nervous about Day 2 which is notoriously known as the hardest day of the trek. Now may be a good time to mention that the two of us had bad colds from the minute we got to Cusco, and mine had not cleared up when we started our adventure. Luckily, Anna’s recovery was a little farther along, and she felt much more optimistic about Day 2. This was a very good thing.
When we arrived, the campsite looked like this, with the tents already set up, hot water available to wash up, and our non-alcoholic (we’ll change this later) happy hour was right around the corner. As was the case every night, the 8 of us and our guide, Valentin, gathered around a table and drank teas, hot chocolate, and coffee and snacked on popcorn, crackers, and other kinds of snacks. This is all before our three-course dinner. Obviously, we were roughing it.
Day 2: 8 hours of hiking / 16 kilometers / Highest Point was 13,779 Feet
Our 4:45 a.m. wakeup was much more tolerable since the porters served us in-tent coca tea when they woke us up. After breakfast, we got to meet our team of porters ranging from 29 to 65 (!) in age. All of them are farmers who do this as a part-time job. For the 8 of us and our guide, there were 13 porters and 1 chef.
These guys are inspirational. Every day after we started our hike with only our day packs on our backs, they stayed behind and packed up all the tents, our sleeping gear, the kitchen gear, and everything else, loaded it on their backs, and still beat us to our next break site. As our guide, who used to be a porter, told us and we were happy to learn, in 2000 porters’ lives changed for the better. Presumably because they formed a union, laws were passed to limit the amount they could carry to a still Herculean amount and they were given health benefits while they worked (but only while they worked).
On with the trek. We hiked up or down all day, starting with the hardest part of the whole trek: Dead Woman’s Pass. No, this isn’t where a lot of women die, but the shape of the mountain resembles a dead woman. For example, tune in Tokyo:
Before we started our ascent, the whole group tried the Peruvian tradition of chewing coca leaves to lessen the effects of the altitude as we climbed. Maybe it’s psychosomatic voodoo, but we felt much better as we climbed. Compared to our hike to Tajumulco, which was 4220 meters, this climb to 4215 meters was a cakewalk.
To be clear, this was not easy. Far from it. We took many breaks and huffed and puffed like crazy going up, but we made it to the top well ahead of our guide’s projected time and we felt pretty darn good.
Once we finished Day 2, we treated ourselves and our guide to some rum and tea drinks, much like hot toddys. They were delicious and well earned!
The rest of Day 2 is better expressed through the majesty of photography, so here they are:
Day 3: 5 Hours of Hiking / 10 kilometers / Descended 3,000 Inca Stairs
Do you know what’s surprisingly hard? Hiking down 3,000 uneven stone stairs (as counted by Lonely Planet) and cobblestone walkways. Do you know what’s even harder? Doing that in the rain. Fortunately, it only rained for an hour of the 3 that we descended, but still. We reached our final campsite early in the afternoon to rest up for the next day.
Now, a quick word about our group. In our short trekking experience, we have learned that the group makes a trek much better or much worse. From basically minute one, this group got along beautifully. We couldn’t have hoped for better. The group consisted of 5 women and 3 men, ranging in age from 22 to us, coming from Canada, New Zealand, India, and the U.S. When we could breathe during the hike, we were singing terrible pop and/or Lion King songs (Anna and the ladies), making light-hearted fun of each other, or otherwise acting as happy as we were with our experience. During meals, we were constantly joking about one thing or another, and sharing stories about our various pasts or travels. To say we were lucky would be an understatement with this group, and it made the trip that much more memorable. It helped that our guide picked up on our dynamic and ran with it very quickly, giving our group a team feel and even a team name (Team Puma) throughout the hike. Some photographic examples of our exploits:
We also visited the Intipata ruins on our last night, and our guide arranged for a surprise for the group after he finished explaining the significance of the ruins for us. Four of the porters trotted in with cups and tea and I supplied the rum, and we toasted the Incas in style before heading back to camp.
Not only did they bring tea, but they also brought us surprise t-shirts to commemorate our hike!
Day 4: 2 Hours of Hiking / 5 kilometers / 86,973,342 Photos of Machu Picchu
We woke up at 3:30 a.m., but who cared? It was Machu Picchu day! Everyone was at breakfast at 4 a.m. excited for the last push. I don’t know about the train experience, but I can say that one of the best features of the hike is the building excitement for Machu Picchu. You finish each leg, each climb, each step all knowing that you are that much closer to your goal. By the time you get to Day 3, it is hardly bearable. You can see Machu Picchu mountain for a good portion of Day 3’s hike, which only teases you further. For our group, this manifested on Day 4 after we crossed the checkpoint at 5:30 a.m. The 8 of us blew past group after group stopping for breaks during the first hour of our hike to the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu, walking at a pace we hadn’t even approached any day previously. It was almost a jog we were walking so fast. When we got to the Sun Gate we were greeted by…fog.
But we could still see it! We knew we had made it, and we were giddy. Only one hour more and this is what we saw:
The rest of that day was a happy blur of Inca education, llama playing, and quiet reflection. Our photos capture this better than my words can:
After 4 hours at Machu Picchu we met for lunch at our last stop, and got our tour guide Valentin a birthday beer.
It was a breathtaking experience in every sense of the word and we will be hard pressed to match or even approach it for the rest of our travels. Luckily, we don’t have to. We will be able to treasure this memory forever.