Back roads in the Andes: An Inca Trail Recap

5:00 am. We’re waiting – hundreds of us – huddled in a line before a dimly lit check point. It won’t open for a while yet, and no one is sure on the exact time. So we play games to amuse ourselves, 20 Questions (which proves a little hard with slight variations of the English language between the Americas, Brits, Irish, South Africans and Australians in our group) and Never Have I Ever. We’re chilly: the smoke rising from our lips is illuminated in each of our headlamps, but the excitement of the moment keeps the discomforts at bay as we glance ahead. The last three days of labor and hiking have lead up to this: we’re going to reach the mystical city of Machu Picchu as the sun rises.

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After an hour of waiting, the line starts to move and we scramble to our feet, pulling out passports and the trail passes we’ve been carrying for the last 40 kilometers, up and down the Andes. Our group is one of the first to go through: Rosa, our guide, woke us early to get as close to the front of the line as possible. The final campground of the Inca Trail is the size of a small village. Other nights we staked out an area more or less to ourselves. But on the last night of the trek all 500 people allowed to start climbing the trail on a given day (including guides, porters and cooks) sleep in this closest campground to the ruins together.

We’ve been hiking for 3 days. We are disheveled, unshowered, most of us a little  sick to the stomach or light headed, but once we make it through the check point, we all but run the trail, making a snake of headlamps midway up the mountain. In the valley below a train can be heard, carrying tourists from Cuzco. We reach the monkey steps: a set of stairs at a nearly 90 degree angle from the ground, which you must climb all all fours like you would a ladder, and at the top our guide waits, shaking our hand and congratulating us as we walk through the Sun Gate.

Below sweeps a dramatic view, and perched upon a small mountain, dwarfed by those that surround us, is the ancient, mysterious Inca city of Machu Picchu.

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About an hour after we crossed through the Sun Gate, the sun slowly receded beyond the mountains.
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The beginning of the Inca Trail, the 43 kilometer road through the Andes to Machu Picchu.

I don’t remember exactly when or how the idea of climbing the Inca Trail, or even to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu city first piqued my interest. But when I decided that Peru was where I’d spend my summer vacation in 2013, I knew I didn’t want to just see the popular, unfinished UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wanted to take the three day trek through the high altitude Andes in order to reach the city via the stone-paved road built by the Incas. I wanted to camp and to wander the ruins of waysides and smaller cities all along the way. To follow the path the Spaniards never reached when they were warring against the last Inca (emperor) in Ollantaytambo and were lead away from Machu Picchu into the heart of rain forest.

Much has been written about Machu Picchu, and I’m in no way an expert on Inca history. I remember bits and pieces of what we do know about the culture that met it’s match when the Conquistadors showed up. But I wont try to relay any of that here, since it seems trite and beside the point. The point is that when you are actually wandering this back road of the Andes, walking along the stairway built specifically for this journey, all of the details the guide tells you at each resting point create such a tapestry of history and culture against the dramatic mountains, it is more real than any history classroom or museum in the world.

Up and over Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 meters or 13,828 feet), down the Gringo Killer stairs, through fields of llamas and bypassed by local women carrying huge colorful bundles upon their backs, the Inca Trail is as iconic and difficult as I imagined it to be. The sun is strong and the nights are cold in July, and the oxygen gets thin all the way up there – beginning from the moment you land in Cuzco. Returning to Cuzco five days later is a victory: the knowledge that you crossed those mountains on your own two feet – slept in them, sagged against them, sweat upon them – is buoying.

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Cuzco, the capitol of the Inca Empire, is literally layers of conquerors covering one another: the Spanish built their colonial buildings atop the foundation of the city they destroyed.

The Specs

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Prepping for lunch one afternoon: warm water and soap was provided to wash our hands, chairs, table cloths and napkins shaped like swans waited in the tent.

I traveled with the adventure travel group GAdventuers. It is required that any traveler on the Inca Trail have a permit and travel with a valid tour group. To put it simply, I loved traveling with GAdventures. The guide was informative, helpful and genuinely loved her job (it was almost her 200th time walking the Inca Trail – in 2013! According to Facebook, where we’re friends, she’s still doing it). I loved the company so much, I traveled through Turkey with them a year later – but that’s a different story. GAdventures really went above and beyond just a hike from the beginning to the end of the trail as well: with tours of the Sacred Valley in the days leading up to the hike, comfortable accommodations and great food- they carried a bottle of wine for us to toast the two(!!) couples on their honeymoons and even prepared a cake on the trail for a birthday!

Though it’s not such a problem any more, there was pretty strong porter and resource exploitation in the past. But at the check points mentioned above all porters bags are weighed and travelers are counted, so everyone on the trail today should check out.

The tour was 7 days, with 3 on the trail and 1 hiking the final few kilometers and finishing with a day-long tour of Machu Picchu. We gathered in Cuzco, toured the Sacred Valley and stayed in Ollantaytambo before beginning the hike. We visited village co-ops where we learned how traditional dies and handcrafts are made, and were able to purchase them directly from the women who made them. The price included the entrance fee to the historic site, as well as the train ride back to Cuzco.

Tents were included in the cost of the tour. We were able to rent camping gear (sleeping bags and mats) as well as hiking poles for very affordable costs. Food on the trail was included, but not for the days spent off the trail.

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Learning about local handcrafts firsthand on the way to start the trail.

Pro Tip: Carry an extra (charged!) battery and sim card for your camera, because you are going to take a million photos in the three days on the trail, and the last thing you want is to have no more battery left when you get the chance to take that money shot with Machu Picchu behind you, or to be scanning for other photos to delete to make room.

A Word on Porters: Yeah, I felt super weird and colonial about this before I started. I read the description of the hike and thought “I’m strong. I’ve backpacked. I’m walking the trail. Why is someone else carrying my stuff for me? Can I get away without it?”

The short answer is no, and not just because they won’t let you get away with it (by this I mean, you can’t not travel with an authorized guide, and all of the tour groups provide porters). I learned very quickly that even though I had trained for this trip, even though I was a mountain-climbing woman myself, the altitude hit me in a pretty rough way, and if I had had more than my day pack on my back, there’s no way I would have made it.

I also realized once I was on the trail and met our awesome group of porters and cooks, that this is a pretty good job, given the area’s economic situation and the regulations passed to protect their interests. My impression was that they make good money given regional options, have a solid community among the group and take pride in their ability to dash past all the struggling tourists, carrying five times as much as them.

Can You do it? Yes. Absolutely yes you can.

Yes, I did do a lot of hiking and a fair amount of training before this trip, and sure, you should be in decent shape before embarking upon something like this. But the fact of the matter is, you’re not hiking that far every day (the most is about 12 kilometers, or about 7 miles, and you have all day to cover the distance). And no one, not even the most fit, can account for how the altitude will affect them once they are on the ground – or really close to the sky, as the case may be. I was horrified when I started getting as sick as I did, and perturbed by the man who hadn’t done a day of prep for the trek and was able to walk up the steep mountainside no problem, but such is life. There were all age ranges in our party, and many fitness levels.

And even if you do get sick, so sick that you are literally vomiting off the side of the mountain, so sick that you force your body to walk five steps up before you sit down on the next step and gulp for breath for several minutes before you can do five more… Even if the guide has to lay you down on those steps and give you give you five minutes of straight oxygen from a small tank she’s been carrying (something she will inform you with a careful smile she does very rarely), you’ll make it up that mountain and back down the other side.

I promise. This exact thing may or may not have happened to a… ahem, *friend* of mine.

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On the final full day on the trail we passed through this ruin. Completely inaccessible except by the Inca Trail, you pass through many more hidden treasures by taking the long way.

As we walked through Machu Picchu, suddenly surrounded by tourists who had woken up that morning in Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of mountain), taken showers and gotten their makeup just right before arriving to pose for their photos, I didn’t at all wish that I was one of them. It wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience for me to have walked through those mountains, as it may have been for the Incas who built the trail and city, but it was a massively rewarding one.

And if it’s one that piques your interest, it’s most definitely the way you deserve to experience these incredible mountains and the history hiding within them.

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