Denise and I had got to Cuzco the day before we were scheduled to start the Inka Trail. I could already tell the difference in the amount of oxygen in the air just walking around Cuzco! We got to bed early that evening as the bus was picking us up at 7am. My alarm went off and I woke up D “It’s Inka Trail day!” She looked at her phone and it was actually only 4:30am! My phone was still on Argentinian time! So we went back to sleep and got up at the Peruvian 6:30.
The bus picked us up and we were off to Ollytambo Km 82 and the beginning of the Inka Trail! I had butterflies in my stomach! The scenery was surreal. It was interesting coming from Lima, to Cuzco, then driving through more rural areas with shacks and farms. Some of the homes had political advertisements painted on entire sides of their homes, which I assume the homeowners were paid for. Imagine using your home as political advertisement! We arrived at the checkpoint, got our passports stamped and crossed the bridge over the Urubamba River to begin the Inka Trail!
For most of the day, we hiked at a slow pace (I think they were letting us get acclimated), passing a few houses on the trail as well as a tiny village, where we stopped and could buy the last of drinks or snacks. The weather was gorgeous and we chatted with our guides and the other hikers in our 7 person group (not including guides or porters). Our main guide, Saul is married with children and I could already tell that he was very wise, as he knew a lot about the history of the Inka Trail and plants and animals found on it. He was calm and happy and told us he is Quechua (native Peruvian) and his grandfather was a Shaman!
Wilfredo was 26, energetic, joked around a lot and a general sweetheart. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a UC Berkeley hat, which is located just across the San Francisco Bay from where I live in California!
Just on the first day, we saw a couple Inka sights! It was amazing to be walking near and being able touch something that was constructed so long ago and by a people who are no longer here. We passed a small cemetery just off the trail. Saul told us that cemeteries are almost always placed next to some form of water because they believe in reincarnation and that life comes from water. We stopped for lunch and the porters had already set up tents and were almost done making our lunch! They had even set up hot water bowls with soap to wash our hands! After lunch, we hiked another few hours to the camp that the porters had already set up for us again before we arrived. They were preparing dinner. When we got into camp, they were all introduced; Saul and Wilfredo gave a one-sentence introduction on each of the 8 porters as some did not speak English and I was one of the two people in our group who spoke any Spanish. These guys are impressive! We were slowly hiking, and they would practically run past us with packs towering above their heads! They are such beautiful and happy people!
I was pretty nervous, as we had been told that the hike that day was the “most challenging;” we would be hiking up to almost 14,000 feet above sea level! The peak we were hiking to was called Dead Woman’s Pass, because from the bottom, it looks like a woman lying down. They were NOT JOKING when they said “most challenging.”! I had to take baby steps up and took about 830,689 breaks as I felt like I could hardly breathe! Based on our endurance levels and speed, we naturally partnered with people who were in our “level”. This person for me was Barb, one of the two Canadian women in our group. We were giving each other pep talks all the way up and decided that we didn’t care how long it took us, we weren’t giving up and we were going to make it! Wilfredo was a sweetheart with an insane level of patience! Whenever we were getting discouraged, he would encourage us to “make it to that rock up there,” then we could take a break.
Barb asked me if it was the hardest thing that I have ever done and without hesitation, I replied Yes! and I have a college degree! I couldn’t even look up at the pass because every time I did, it didn’t seem like we were making progress, so I either looked at my feet or a couple feet ahead of us. I didn’t tell them, but I was feeling nauseous, I think from the altitude mixed with physically exerting myself. I cannot convey to you the sense of accomplishment, though at reaching Dead Woman’s Pass after hiking for what seemed like an eternity! People cheered for us when we took our last step up. I wanted to jump up and down and pump my fist, but I was too tired! We took a bunch of victory photos congratulated everyone else who arrived. We still had a long way down to camp, but for awhile, we could feel as if we were on top of the world
Interestingly, D felt fine going up the mountain, but once we started the hike down to our camp, she was not feeling well. I thought it was interesting how the altitude affected each of us differently. We slowly made our way down the 30,000to where our camp was being set up as it started to drizzle. Wilfredo would walk a ways ahead of us and when we would catch up with him, he was reading a newspaper – so comical! We got to camp and ate like kings and queens with tea, soup, and plenty of meat and potatoes!
I woke up sideways at D’s feet at the foot of the tent like a dog! I guess I slept well! It was really misty this morning, which was beautiful! Today’s hike was a little tough at the beginning, probably from the soreness from yesterday. Saul stopped us quite a bit, though to show us different flowers, ruins of a fortress, and caves where porters used to cook and eat! It still amazes me, walking through and touching these structures built with such precision by people considered “primitive” to many. Yet they have aqueducts which still work today! knew to space stones slightly apart to prevent damage from earthquakes, built temples where the sun would illuminate certain openings at different times of the day, cultivated crops with terracing and many more examples. It’s interesting to note the differences between Pre-Inca vs Inca structures. Inca structures use mainly stone and the precision is absolutely amazing as they made these structures by hand. Pre-Incas used mostly adobe, corn and pebles and their bricks are less homogeneous than the Incas’ stone bricks.
The top of the pass was amazing. Saul took us to a small clearing where there were stones stacks with coca leaves between them. He taught us the coca leaf ritual where you take 3 coca leaves, and pray to the four directions while blowing on them. He told us there is a reason all of us are here at that moment on this trek to Machu Picchu, maybe our ancestors lived here and/or that we needed to learn something on this trek. It was beautiful, emotional, touching and have me goosebumps! I prayed for the revealing of what I am supposed to learn here. He also mentioned that some of us would get sick and stated that it was Pachu Mama telling you to be strong. He told us to be thankful for what we have. I felt extremely lucky that Saul was our guide. I think he told me exactly ehat I needed to hear at that time and I doubt that I was the only one touched by his words.
Afterwards, there were many stairs to walk down and I had an amazing and healing conversation with Barb. The rest of the hike was absolutely gorgeous. We walked through the cloud forest, which reminded me a lot of Indiana Jones. I remembered that I had read a book on Hiram Bingam who “rediscovered” the Inka Trail and Machu Picchu who was a inspiration for Indiana Jones’ character. D and I started singing all these songs and when we forgot some of the lyrics, we would make some up. One of our group members, Mario, called us the marching jukebox!
We got into camp and had dinner a little later. The porters came in and we had gotten our tips for them together. Some of us donated items that we thought them or their family could use and Mario told them in Spanish thank you for all they did for us. We went to bed early because it was Machu Picchu Eve!!
DAY FOUR – MACHU PICCHU DAY!!
We woke up around 4am and set out for the gate, which opened at 5:30 to let us into the last part of the hike before Machu Picchu! I was feeling pretty sick, everyone was helping me from giving me medication, to wet a bandanna. I was upset because it was such an important day, but Saul said not to worry. We stopped for a bit and watched Machu Picchu appear out of the mist, which is a sight I will NEVER forget! It was stunning and breathtaking! Saul said that the Spanish had trouble finding MP because even if they saw it, the mist made it appear to move so they could not find it! We hiked down the rest of the way into Machu Picchu which seemed really easy, but probably partially because we were so excited to be there! Saul took us to a quiet spot overlooking MP and told us a little more about the history of the site and had us “pray” in silence and thank Pachu Mama for our journey here for a few minutes.
We then went down to check out MP! I had taken off my shoes and put on sandals as I had blisters all over my toes. I was gawking at everything from the sun dial to the iconic Huayna Picchu mountain behind the site and all the important buildings which all held great meaning when I stubbed my toe! I think because of the altitude, it squirted out blood! We had all checked in our backpacks, so none of us had first aid kits anymore! My group banded together though, everyone chipping. Two of our group members have emergency medical training and rinsed off my toe applied pressure, wrapped it in tissue that someone had, and a rubber band someone else had, and Saul even lent me his walking stick! It was amazing how everyone stepped in to help like a family!
Words cannot explain how amazing this place was to me! And I could probably write for hours, but I will keep it short(ish). We explored the grounds taking in everything. The Intihuatana stone was a calendar of sorts, casting shadows which showed what time of the year it was. The Temple of the Condor had a giant condor shaped rock at the front and walking through a very narrow tunnel, we discovered a mummy and a llama which had been sacrificed.
There were stones which had been shaped into Huayna Picchu, which I thought was great. We felt a certain camaraderie and pride when we would cross paths with other hikers versus the people who had just taken the train up that morning. Saul knew just the right places to stop which were peaceful. He spoke of the history of those who lived there. I tried to imagine what they were like, what life looked like as it was occurring there.
I will end this post with a quote from Che Guevara’s “Diarios de Motocicleta” /Motorcycle Diaries. He reflected on the Incas as he was sitting in Machu Picchu.
“Los Incas tenían un alto conocimiento de la astronomía, medicina, matematicas y otras cosas. Pero los invasores Españoles tenían la polvora. Como sería la America hoy si las cosas hubieran sido diferentes?”
“The Incas had a higher understanding of astronomy, brain surgery, mathematics, among other things, but the Spanish invaders had gunpowder. What would America look like if things had been different? How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?”