A million steps to the city in the clouds...

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Monday, May 28, 2007

He Said:

I visited Peru with friends four years ago and the highlight of the trip was doing a two-day hike to visit spectacular Incan city of Machu Picchu. It remains an absolute must when visiting Peru (or South America!) so of course we put it on our itinerary. The city is deep in the cloud forests and winding valleys about 70 miles from Cusco. It is thought that Machu Picchu was a sort of "resort town" for wealthy or high-ranking Incans. One thing that is certain is that the place was remarkably well hidden and could only be accessed though a series of steep pathways guarded by numerous checkpoints and the like. As a testament to how secluded the site was, it was never found by the Spanish conquistadores and remained hidden until being rediscovered in 1911 by a Yale Professor named Hiram Bingham.

Today there is a relatively easy route that most visitors take to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco. You ride on a comfortable train for three hours along the picturesque Urubamba River, then you take a 20-minute bus ride up a steep road and you are there! However, the train/bus combo is definitely not the most challenging or rewarding way to visit the site. The four-day hike along the final 26 miles of pathway built by the Incas to connect Cusco and Machu Picchu is the most popular trek in South America. The Inca Trail is heavily regulated, so you must arrange your trek well in advance through a licensed operator, and use porters to carry most of your camp gear. Our group of 14 trekkers and two guides employed 21 porters to carry the gear! How on earth could we need that much stuff you ask? Well, porters carried everything from large propane tanks to folding camp chairs, as well as provisions for huge multi-course feasts. These guys were amazing! Most porters wore open toed sandals, carried loads of around 60lbs each strapped to their backs with woven blankets, and ran...yes RAN up the high altitude trails, beating us to camp with hours to spare. (Just an aside, last year porter (sans baggage) won the annual race up the 26 miles of trail with a time of 3 hours and 50 minutes. In this altitude that is a superhuman feat!) Needless to say, other than the actual exertion of the hiking, we were as pampered as you could possibly be while backpacking.

On our first day we were picked up before dawn and bused 3 hours to the starting point of the trek at "Kilometer 82". We hiked for about 6 hours total through rolling hills, breathtaking scenery, and the occasional small Inca ruin. The real tough stuff didn't begin until day two when we got up at daybreak again and climbed 4,000 feet to the top of "Dead Woman's Pass" at 14,000 feet (that is equal to the tallest point in the continental USA), and then descended a few thousand feet to camp. This climb was pretty demanding in the thin, high-altitude air, but there were plenty of people on the trail that were in their 60's (and higher!) or in far "less than prime" physical condition, so we really didn't have much to complain about.

The third day of the trek was the real killer. Again, we arose at dawn and went through two passes going 1,000 feet up, 1,000 feet down, 1,000 feet up, then descended a punishing 3,500 feet to the camp at the Inca ruins of Winay Wayna. The saying that it is far tougher on your knees and legs to go downhill rather than uphill was proven to me beyond any doubt in that final descent. By the time we arrived in camp as the sun was setting, I had three black & blue toenails and was hobbling along using my trekking pole with a gait similar to that of Yoda. If there hadn't been hot showers available at the nearby lodge, I think we both would have just sat in the tent and whimpered.

The big payoff of course was on the final day when we arose at 4:00am for the two-hour hike to the Sun Gate just outside Machu Picchu to see the sun rise. As is the norm though, when we arrived the entire valley below was completely socked in with fog and swirling clouds. Another 30-minutes brought us to the perimeter of the ruins where we all sat down on a high vantage point and waited. As if on cue, a few minutes later the clouds began parting, revealing bits of the city through the mists...it is the most dramatic and spine tingling view a ruins-junkie like me could ever hope for! Within an hour, the view was breathtakingly clear; revealing the dramatic panorama of an ancient city perched on a thin saddle-ridge between two mountains. All this is located on a peninsula over 1,000 feet above a swirling river that is surrounded by huge rocky peaks as far as the eye can see. Machu Picchu is absolutely breathtaking...ethereal...spectacular...sublime...my words cannot accurately capture it. It is easily in my "list" of the most incredible places on earth and truly an astonishing monument to what humanity can create.

The awe-inspiring experience of seeing the mists clearing over Machu Picchu is something I've been fortunate enough to experience twice, and I'd happily go again. This is an extraordinarily special place that everyone should make an effort to see (however they may choose to get to the site) in his or her lifetime. But if you can handle the exertion, doing the four-day Inca Trail hike is an extraordinarily rewarding way to "earn" your way to the site.

She Said:

After just 36 hours in Cusco to acclimatize, we set off on our 4-day trek down the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. In the almost 11 months of our trip, we have been extremely sporadic about exercising, and let's just say that we have both been in better physical shape than we are right now. After only two hours into the first day of hiking, I was already having trouble catching my breath in the altitude, while Todd was WAY ahead (and he even carried a heavy pack...I guess his pride wouldn't let him get a porter!). By the time we got to the campsite the first night, my hiking boots and me were both absolutely wrecked! But luckily it wasn't anything that super glue, duct tape and a good nights sleep couldn't fix.

Facilities have improved a lot on the Inca Trail in the last few years. Now there are bathrooms with toilets and (very icy cold) running water at each campsite, as well as people selling water at several places along the trail. While we were "roughing" it in the sense that we camped and didn't have a shower for three days, it certainly wasn't "hard-core" roughing it. Porters carried most people's stuff (except Todd and a few other guys), camp was set up well before we arrived, each meal had no less than 3 courses, and the porters even carried gas lamps, a dining tent, 14 stools, 2 tables with tablecloths, and a full range of cooking equipment. Every couple of hours we stopped for tea, or lunch, or a snack, which was usually some yummy homemade popcorn, cookies, and cheese sandwiches. Dinner was steaks, salads, rice, and even homemade wontons one night! And on the last night they even made a cake with frosting and decorations...not sure how they pulled that off without an oven!

By the second day, my altitude issues were over, and I was free to focus all my energy on the 5,000 or so feet that we had to climb. The last 2 hours of the uphill part of the hike were absolutely grueling, and after every two steps I had to rest at least 30 seconds. It was so steep in some parts that crawling on your hands and knees actually seemed like a good option. Our arrival at the highest peak was followed immediately by at least 3 painful hours down thousands of gigantic and uneven steps. I nearly broke into tears when we got to camp that night. In the middle of the night it actually snowed, but luckily the sleeping bags were for serious cold weather, so we remained as snug as a bug in a rug.

On the third day, I started wondering if we were ever going to get there. It was the longest trek day (15km), and we hiked for almost 9 hours. For me, the morning was full of trailside bowel emergencies, which was actually a better option than the toilets at the campsites. A concoction of Imodium, Cipro and a native Quechua magic tea potion did the trick, and the next few hours of hiking were extremely pleasant. The trail meandered through a rainforest and a cloud forest, with alternating gentle uphill and downhill slopes, and around some pretty steep drop-offs with amazing views. The last two hours were really difficult (2000 or so steps downhill), and by the end we were alternating between insanely laughing and whimpering. I just kept reminding myself that we paid to do this, and that if I could get to the campsite, there was a hot shower waiting there (the first in 3 days). We made it, and the shower was so WONDERFUL. Probably the best shower I have ever had, and I never felt so clean. Yipee!

After a very early start on the fourth day, it felt like our bodies were really getting used to all the hiking and high altitude breathing. The short two-hour hike to Machu Picchu seemed to fly by, and once we got there it became clear that the four days of hiking were totally worth it. The site is absolutely amazing, and it is hard not to feel a sense of awe when walking around. The mist/fog was so thick when we got there that you couldn't see anything, so when it lifted, it was all the more spectacular because Machu Picchu seemed to just appear out of nowhere. After the long walk there, I felt like we had earned the privilege of viewing and wandering around Machu Picchu. But no matter how you get there, you have to make a trip to Machu Picchu at least once in your life!

While I found the hike difficult, I am really glad we did it, and would certainly do it again (once these blisters heal, that is). And no, you don't need to be in super fantastic shape to do it, either. There were people of all shapes, sizes and ages on the trail, and some just took longer than others, and that is okay...it's not a race. However, you probably shouldn't do the trek if you have any preexisting heart conditions, breathing issues, or old injuries to your knees or ankles, as they would certainly be exacerbated by the steepness of the trail. Here are some tips if you are planning on doing the 4-day trek:
1. Buy a walking stick. You definitely need one. There are plenty of cheap ones for sale the morning you set off on the hike.
2. Bring some type of minor sleep aid, such as Tylenol PM. It will help you get rest in the altitude. Also bring Imodium, Ibuprofen (or other muscle pain reliever), and first-aid gear for blisters.
3. Wet wipes, wet wipes, wet wipes and sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen
4. Convertible pants are a MUST.
5. Leave stuff you don't need at your hotel in Cusco. Hotels are used to this, and you can usually store excess things for free.
6. Bring flip-flops or a second pair of shoes so you can get out of your hiking boots at night.
7. Pay the extra to have a porter carry your sleeping bag and mattress. This is the best money ever spent, and it is only like $35 for the entire time.
8. Bring a head lamp/torch, as you will need it at night to go to the bathroom, and the last morning for the early start (the hike is in the dark for the first hour).
9. Layer your clothing because you will get really hot while hiking, and cold at the rest breaks.
10. Other must bring items: Bug repellent (even in the winter), multiple pairs of socks and underwear (things get wet from sweat and don't dry for days), rain poncho that also covers your daypack, hat/gloves (you can buy these really cheap in Cusco), toilet paper (loo roll for you Brits out there), and something to do at night (ipod, cards, book, etc).

Check out www.perutreks.com if you are thinking of doing this hike. This is the company we used, and it was extremely professional.
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