TRAVELING THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU
For my best friend Sara's birthday two years ago this week, we decided to traverse the meandering trail on the same path the Incan gods walked as pilgrimage through the Andes in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Did we know that this was a god/goddess walk ahead of our journey? I certainly didn't. Before we started the trek, I thought "Inca" was a term used to describe South American native people in the region of Peru and Chile. In their culture, the Incas were a considered more powerful class of people and to have godly characteristics, reminiscent of Pharaohs in ancient Egyptian culture, or Brahmins in Hinduism. The non-monarchical people of Peru go by "Quechua." They are the gentle, generous, playful folks that guided us on our journey the Andean mountains to the historical ruin of Machu Picchu.
I already have a lot of miles under a backpack from my college years, but I hadn't been out on the trail in a few. My friend Sara was in tip-top cardiovascular shape from all of her Body Pump classes and calisthenics, but hadn't been camping since childhood. To hike the Inca Trail you need to secure permitting before visiting Machu Picchu, acclimate ahead of time in Cusco to the altitude, and there's a rash of vaccines and shots to get before you go. Neither one of us was completely prepared, but sometimes you need to dive in before you are ready. We made it out with shining colors and loved (almost) every minute of it. I'm not going to lie, the hiking isn't easy, but it is absolutely worth it.
When you show up at Alpaca Expeditions tour orientation (or whatever outfit you decide to use), don't be surprised if you don't find yourself in a group with intellectually stimulating hot guys or adventurous ladies like yourselves. We were shocked to learn that it would be just the two of us on this adventure. Well, that's not entirely true. We were far from alone with Gregorio, Florentino, Alejandro, Mario, Victor, Ellio and Miguel. That's right, count it... 6 guys including a guide and 5 porters to our twosome. I kept thinking that maybe I misheard Miguel, that maybe we would be picking up some others along the way. The following morning, which still felt like the middle of the night (because it was), there were other folks in the van, but they were on a different circuit. So, no dice on the hot intellectually stimulating guys front, unless you consider our toothless, married, Eric Estrada look-a-like 55 year old porter, Mario, in the runnings.
Miguel gave us a medium sized green duffle bag with weight restrictions for our gear. We would be hoofing some of it ourselves, but the high altitudes and the price for this glamping trip factored in that the porters would be carrying most of the tack and survival gear. The incredulousness continued time and time again on the trail when I realized that some of that "survival gear" included a full sized propane tank, a toilet, enough food to feed an army (including a cake for the 4th day of hiking), and chicha (corn beer). The food was excellent. Sara has a dearth of foods that she is unable to eat due to allergies. They took all of her food requests very seriously and modified even on the trail because she forgot to mention one thing or another ahead of time. I have experience backpacking, and I'll tell you what... this is the first time I ever had a toilet along on the trail. This one had its own tent, too! Normally, my trail toilet is a hole dug by myself with a spade or a found rock.
More shock and awe came from the hike itself. The views seemed to change by the hour. The hiking was rigorous and the high altitude coupled with the evolving vistas often left us breathless. My mouth was agape for almost 5 whole days at the splendor and variety of the landscapes and ecosystems around every bend. We trekked from dessert to jungle to golden alpine grassland to cloud forest, and all were surprisingly intact with little invasive plant presence. As we approached the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu, there was more evidence of invasive plants and litter, but most of the trek has healthy and fascinating native biomes. We saw hummingbirds, orchids, air plants, moss, waterfalls, and the most superlative golden grasses along the trail. I took so many photos because I wanted to remember all the color palettes, but as is usually the case, the memory in my mind is still more picturesque and brilliant. It can be difficult to capture a feeling or an entire biome in a photograph.
There were also more domesticated and artifactual highlights too. Llamas, guinea pigs, donkeys, and chickens were sighted often. We even had the privilege of a group of llamas camping with us on the 4th night, and then using our own personal tent as their toilet! This thrilled me to no end. When we saw the first llama on our way up to Dead Women's pass, I gained some sort of superhero strength and my curiosity drove me to chase after her off the trail for a better photograph. Sara told me later that she would have preferred I took a mental picture instead of running rogue off the trail into the grasslands.
The historical sights of WarmiwaNuska or (Dead Women's Pass...not named after us, but it felt as if we were going to die getting there at 4200m and then like we were reborn and euphoric when we made it). Wiñaywayna (Forever Young) also the name of one of the orchids on the trail, Phuyupatamarka (Temple Above the Clouds) and Intipata (Terraces of the Sun) were also highlights. The Incans used to walk along the trail in pilgrimage on a regular basis. They would stop along the way at these now-abandoned ruins of stacked rock and grass tiered steppes, which used to be full-fledged agricultural and sacred towns. It is a spiritual journey, and we were blessed that they let a couple of fledgling goddesses like ourselves take to the steep steps and magnificent mountain walking of those ancient people. Within the Quechua class, there were Chaskis or Chasquis, the famous Inca messengers, highly athletic runners who navigated great distances along the Inca’s extensive network of royal roads.
The Quechua porters and guides were our chefs, guides, safe-keepers, and entertainers on the journey. They are farmers who have a porter side hustle and are fit as llamas. We made them laugh a lot at our weird antics and by the last day, I had finally convinced them to tear down the wall they put up in the mess tent so we could all eat together. They made this cake in honor of our survival and Sara's birthday.
When we finally reached the Sun Gate, the day was beautiful and we had amazing views of the sacred city of Machu Picchu. We were permitted to visit the following day, and as luck would have it, the skies opened up and poured down upon us as if we were equally baptized and unwelcome. We explored for about an hour and after we were drenched fully, we decided to head back to our hotel at Aguas Calientes "Hot Waters" to recover for our trip back to Cuzco.
Then, we both got Montezuma's revenge (I know, he was an Aztec, not an Incan) from something at our "upgraded" hotel in Aguas Calientes, where the water in the shower was ironically cold. We made our way back to Ollantaytambo unceremoniously upchucking on the street, the train, the bus, and then we were stuck in the hostel for days and days back in Cusco, drinking electrolytes and eating crackers. Still, we would do it all over again. We chalk it up to an unplanned detox. Ironically, when we needed it the most, the toilet tent was out of commission.
There will be more posts to come on Cusco and Pisac in the future. Stay tuned for more of Peru and sign up to subscribe!