“To visit Machu Picchu, you must prepare the soul, sharpen the senses. Forget for some minutes, the small and transcendental problems of our lives, of modern… man…”~ Napoleon Polo Casilla
With all the ‘good’ things the government is doing for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu and our tour provider on board with offering sustainable tourism, we headed for the main plaza in Cusco (11,152 ft/3,399 m) in an early-morning haze. This would be the first of 4 days with severely early rising times. We quickly began to realize that our trek would soon be about the numbers: elevation, time, dates, distance, elevation gain, elevation lost, and calories spent. With all of this in mind we were determined to enjoy the trip even though we had no idea what truly awaited us. We’re avid hikers and think nothing of camping but we would soon be raised to new heights in every department, figuratively and literally.
We met our 2 guides and 16 fellow trekkers (whom we would become very close with) and after a bleary-eyed 3 hour bus ride into the central portion of the Andes mountains arrived in the town of Ollantaytambo (9,160 ft/2,792 m). Being at a lower elevation than in Cusco, we welcomed the warmth that Ollantaytambo offered and quickly started shedding our layers to apply sunscreen to ready ourselves for the trail. We started from the 82km and paused for group photos along the historic entrance across the Urubama river. After a quick stamp of the passport and check that we indeed all had permits to trek, we were on our way.
Having a large group, we had two guides. Casiano was our main guide and Wilbur was our ‘back up’ man who never left the side of the last hiker(s). His patience was infinite and brought comfort to those who weren’t as fast as the rest of the group. He consistently offered support and words of encouragement which were much appreciated when the going got tough. Our main guide, Casiano, is a native of Cusco and fluent in English, Spanish and Quechua. We were more than impressed that he had been guiding trekkers along the trail for 15 years and beyond stunned when asked how many times he’d done the trek replied, ‘I gave up counting after 500′. Whoa. This was truly the man with first-hand information and he was as personable as well as knowledgable. A wonderful combination.
The first day began with a leisurely stroll along the river and into the foot hills of the mountains. The gently rolling hills offered a gradual beginning to the trek and we quickly became immersed in the local flora/fauna as well as history that Casiano provided. Little did we know that ‘the bad’ was here. A mere two hours into the trek, rw2 was feeling the early effects of what would become food poisoning that would last for half of the trip.
Upon our first night in camp we quickly realized how wonderful our porters were. They raced ahead of us on the trail and set up lunch spots as well as camping for the night. Hot water, towels and soap awaited us when we came into camp as well as fresh juice before meals. Our tents and equipment were set up when we arrived and they all stopped whatever they were doing to applaud us as we came into camp after trekking. Really?! We often felt silly as we were merely carrying our water, sunscreen and cameras and they were hefting packs of nearly 45lbs(22kg)! These guys are truly super-human. A fact that didn’t go unnoticed.
Our second day was the most physically demanding day I’ve ever had and I refer to it as the marathon I will never run. The ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass would in and of itself be a monumental feat with an elevation gain of 2,970ft(905m) but after the ascent we descended from the pass, ascended another peak and then descended again into camp. At the end of the day we ascended 4,393ft(1338m) and descended 3,402ft(1036m). All of this at almost 14,000ft(4267m) had us huffing and puffing and really wondering why we were doing this. To quote a sick rw2 on day 2: ‘I’m really not having fun’.
Day three was deemed as ‘the easy day’ by Casiano and we truly enjoyed the later wake-up call and our well-earned sleep among the cloud forest. Our day included a half hour history lesson among the clouds at Phuyupatamarca followed by a descent of 3,281ft(1000m) by way of 2,000 stone stairs. Going downhill is worse than going uphill for me, but rw2 was enjoying this day better than the others as he was feeling much less sick. His long legs carried him down quickly and was finally feeling like he was enjoying the scenery, company and effort.
Day four had us up and packing at 3 a.m. (yes, I said *a.m.*) Ugh. My personal mantra is that if your hike description starts with: ‘start out at 3:30 am’ I usually find another hike but this was different. This was the day we hiked to Machu Picchu. During all this trekking we kept joking that after all we’d gone through that this had *better* be worth it… and it was. We arrived at the Sun Gate as the sun was peeking over the mountains onto the glory that is Machu Picchu. I was so struck by the scene and my efforts over the last 3 days that I actually cried. The sight was truly as magnificent as people say it is and I was, as I usually am when it comes to matters of the outdoors and nature, humbled.
I will not attempt to explain the mystery of Machu Picchu or the beauty of the site itself for I would never do it justice. I’m happy to say that while I greatly respect the trail it didn’t kick me in the *ss quite as badly as I thought it would and although I don’t think I’d do it again any time soon, it was truly an amazing adventure and I feel honored to have been a part of it. Was it hard? Yes. Was it uncomfortable? For sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely.