When I first set my eyes on hiking the Inca Trail, I truly had no idea what adventures awaited. I only really knew that at the end of it, I would get a chance to marvel at the wonder of Machu Picchu. And that was enough for me.
Since the Inca Trail is protected, the only way to actually do it is to sign up with a tour company that provides guides, porters and all the necessary information to make for a successful trip. I decided to go with Peru Treks because they are no only the highest rated company in the area, but I also had insider information from my brother who had recently done the trail with them. They were so responsive and offered so much information that I never felt like I was left in the dark. From how to prepare beforehand, what to bring, what not to bring, information about everything you could ever imagine, they had it all – must have been all their years of experience on the Inca Trail.
Getting to Cusco after a short two-day layover in Bogota, Colombia was a breeze and the hotel, tucked away just a few minutes away from the Plaza del Armas in the Old Town Center, gave me an unique insight into the lives of this wonderful community living and thriving at over 11,000 feet altitude. In accordance to my previous experiences of mountain people, they were all extremely nice, welcoming and attentive as if somehow I was a guest of each and every one of them. They were eager to invite me into their little restaurants, their little shops and explain things I didn’t understand, with a grace reserved for people who have learned to embrace the spiritual beyond the material.
Walking around Cusco felt like a blend of cultures and it wasn’t just the Incas and the Spanish cultures, but I found myself reminiscing about things I had experienced as a child in the villages of Romania or traditions that I remember from my grandparents. Plus the people at Amaru Hostal I, where I was staying always made sure that everything was ok, that I had drunk enough water and coca tea (two very important things when you go from sea level to over 11,000 feet) and that my room was exactly to my liking.
After two days of wandering around Cusco, getting used to the altitude, enjoying amazing food, petting all the stray dogs, llamas and alpacas in sight, it was time for the great adventure. Hiking the Inca Trail: 4 days, 26.2 miles, sleeping in tents, waking up at 5am (and at 3am on the last day), multiple climbs in the high jungle all bundled into one breathtaking experience – and it wasn’t just because we were going to climb up to over 13,000 feet.
Day 1 Cusco to Wayllabamba (7.5 miles)
I got picked up at the hotel by our guides, Manuel and Edwin and got on the bus. Along the way we picked up the other 12 members that were part of the same hiking group along with the 20 porters that were about to become our lifeline in the jungle. After a couple of hours in the bus, passing through the villages of Chinchero, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, a quick breakfast, a pre-hike briefing and making sure our backpacks were all set, we went to the first check point, also known as Km 82. From then on, we would be on the trail for 4 days. The trail started off somewhat easy, there were some ups and downs, but nothing too crazy and we made a lot of stops to admire various natural beauties or for our guides to gives us a little more insight.
We made it to the lunch site only to notice that the porters had gotten there way before us and they had already set up a mini camp where we could enjoy lunch, not to mention that Benedicto, our cook had already prepared the food. It was quite unbelievable to see how fast they were on the trail, blazing away as if the climb and the altitude was nothing for them. After we ate and we set off to continue the trail, they packed everything up and rushed ahead again to make it to the overnight camping site before us. Once again the porters were faster than us even though they were carrying on average twice the amount we were.
Walking up the mountain was a mix of rain, sun, wind. It’s like the weather was throwing a fit and we were just trying to handle it as best as we could. We’d go from walking around in t-shirts to putting on rain jackets and later on slathering on sunscreen so as not to get burned.
At the end of the last day we were tired and happy, yet getting to the campsite in Wayllabamba and seeing our tents aligned reminded us that we had trusty people to take care of us. Before dinner the thunders and lightning started and soon after the rain came. Living in LA, I’ve definitely missed that kind of tropical rain when you can’t even see two feet in front of you, but up on the mountain, it made me wonder if we would wake up to a tent full of water. Needless to say that wasn’t the case. Even though I woke up a couple of times during the night and I could hear the rain pounding away outside, the tent was warm, cozy, and most importantly dry.
Day 2 Wayllabamba to Pacamayo (7.5 miles)
I woke up to a crystal blue sky and a view of glacier Veronica in the distance. As I was lying in the tent, tucked away in my warm sleeping bag, it finally dawned on me. It was my birthday. A quite unusual birthday for me as I had none of my friends and loved ones around. Yet as it turns out, my tent mate, a Canadian girl, had the exact same birthday as I did so we immediately bonded on that.
Day 2 is supposed to be the hardest day of the trek. It’s not a significantly long way to go, but it’s almost all uphill, going up almost 3000 feet in altitude to over 13,000 feet on these endless Inca steps, which are surprisingly tall considering how small the Incas were supposed to be. Going up to Abra de Huarmihuañusca of the Dead Woman Pass was definitely a feat, but the view from up there was worth any climb in the world. Plus it was my birthday, nothing was going to get me down.
Once I got to the top and took about a million photos, it was time to get down on the other side of the mountain to where our camp was. It was a series of uneven steps and rocks, all going down so I decided to save my knees the pain of going slowly one by one and started running them down. Plus I seeing the porters doing that very thing gave me an idea that they might have a secret to doing it the right way.
I got to camp at Pacamayo a little before 12pm – the estimate from the guide was 2pm. Somehow, I got so much energy that even the porters were surprised when they saw me there. It didn’t matter to me though, I was high on life. Since I had gotten to the camp while the sun was still super strong, I decided I was brave enough to take a mini shower in the creek close by. I even went as far as to wash my hair in a waterfall, which was freezing, but also kinda nice at the same time. After my nature shower, it was time for a nap before the happy hour, as our guide described it.
At 5pm, we promptly went into our dining tent – with all the on and off rain, we had to make sure the unofficial dining room was always protected so we always ate inside a big tent. The cook had surprised us with fresh popcorn and it literally felt like a happy hour with new friends getting to know each other, drinking tea and eating popcorn. A few minutes into our chat though, our guide, Manuel announced that we would have to close our eyes because he had a surprise for us. As we opened them back up, we saw Benedicto, the cook, holding a birthday cake for me and Alexe. Now this cake looked amazing by any standards, let alone for a cake that had somehow miraculously been baked in the middle of the high jungle with no access to a real kitchen or an oven for that matter. As we blew the makeshift candles, cut the cake and shared it with everyone, I remember looking around and thinking: I may be away from my loved ones with no way of even talking to them, but this group of people, who had been complete strangers up to a couple of days before, had somehow managed to make my birthday one great moment.
I went to bed grateful that night, smiling and sending kisses across the world.
Day 3 Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna (9 miles)
Day 3 was supposed to be long and spectacular. A lot of ups and downs, but also a lot of ruins along the way and a lot of butterflies, llamas and other jungle creatures. And for sure it did not disappoint. Beautiful scenery, endless steps going up and down, friendly llamas and about 9 miles later, we made it to our camp for the night. This was going to be our last night in the tent. The catch was that we had to wake up at 3am, gather everything and get in line for the last check-point so we’d make it to the Sun Gate just as the sun was coming over the mountain and shining a light on Machu Picchu. We got to see another pass, called Abra de Runkuracay, Sayacmarca (meaning Inaccessible Town probably because of the endless number of stairs it takes to get there), and Phuyupatamarca (Town in the Clouds), the most impressive Inca ruin so far.
Along the way, we stopped at a few more places and given that we somehow managed to be the fastest our of all the groups, we got the immense pleasure of having most Inca sites to ourselves before anyone else came along. The camp for the night was at Wiñay Wayna (Forever Young)
Day 4 Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu (3 miles)
Wake-up time was at 3am, which seemed daunting, but I think we were all so excited about the day that we somehow packed everything super fast and we were ready to go by 3.30am. We waited in line at the check-point (there was only one group that woke up before us) and along we went for the remaining 4 miles of the trek. Seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate just as the sun was throwing its first rays over it, was somewhat a surreal experience, so much so that for a moment I was questioning if that was the real thing. 30 minutes later, we were just above Machu Picchu, taking those postcard photos that are splattered across every travel website to Peru. Since it was just before 7am, there weren’t that many people so we were able to enjoy it in its full glory, somewhat deserted and pristine. We walked around for a few hours, checking out every corner of this magnificent place, absorbing its energy, feeling the joy and the gratitude of it all. By this time I also got phone service, which allowed me to make one phone call from inside Machu Picchu, which once again made me wonder about the marvels of modern technology.
Once we had seen everything we wanted to see, we got on a bus to Aguas Calientes, the little town just at the base of Machu Picchu, where we stopped for lunch and a stroll around the city, before getting on the train and another bus and making our way back to Cusco.
Waking up the next morning in Cusco for my flight to Lima, it somehow all felt like a dream. But the photos I had in my phone proved otherwise. Not only had it been real, but it had been an uplifting, humbling and amazing experience. The next day and a half in Lima before heading back to LA, was filled with amazing seafood at Punto Azul, visiting the catacombs underneath the church in Plaza Mayor and relaxing by the ocean. Plus catching up with all the people I hadn’t been able to connect with in the past week.
Now a week later, it still all seems like a dream, a dream I want to share with the world, but at the same time feel that no matter what I say or what photos I show, they will never do justice to the experience. Until words fail me, though, I will keep trying.