Cusco and the Inca Trail

Trip Start Jun 23, 2011
Trip End Aug 30, 2011

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Fallen Angel, Inca Trail

Flag of Peru  , Cusco,
Friday, July 29, 2011

We arrived early in Cusco on the night bus from Puno and groggily grabbed a taxi to our hostel. We stayed at Piccolo Locanda, which was a very pleasant place just a five minute walk up some steps from the main square. Our room (biblioteca) was very bright and had great views over the city in two directions. We promptly closed the shutters and took a long nap.

After we'd gotten some beauty sleep we started exploring Cuzco. It's a really cool town. As the capital of the Incan empire, it was the most important city 500 years ago and there are some really cool Inca ruins around. Also, although it's still very different from home, compared to northwest Argentina and Bolivia, it felt much more familiar. We enjoyed a lazy two days strolling around, seeing Inca ruins, and observing local life. We went to the main market where K-money was nauseated by the wide variety of animal parts for sale. (See the picture of a cow's, or some large animal like that's, snout. mmm...tasty!)

We had booked the official Inca trail about 7 months earlier, so we got to do that one. If we hadn't, though, there are a bunch of other similar trails that you can book on one day's notice from Cuzco. We talked to some people who had done the Salkantay trail, and they liked it.

The night before our trek began we met in the office of the tour company for a briefing. After that we decided to treat ourselves to one last nice dinner before four days, three nights of roughing it, so we went to a place the Rough Guide recommended called Fallen Angel. The decorations inside were really eclectic and cool. There were bathtubs filled with water and lillypads and other random plastic toys, light from beneath by neon lights and covered with a rectangle of glass used as tables. Some people were sitting on daybeds instead of chairs. There were things hanging from the ceiling. They also had an extensively creative cocktail list, so we tried a few. We had appetizers (pork belly on potatoes with chimicuri and other sauces on top), entrees (steak for me and a rich quinoa risotto for K) and desert, which is somewhat rare for us. It was really delicious.

Inca Trail: Day 1
The next morning we got up early for our hike. We had packed the bare essentials into our small bags to carry and we left our big bags at the hotel. However, we were going for three nights and we knew it would get cold at night, so the bare essentials basically filled up our bags. We jumped into a van with the four others who would be doing the trek with us. There was a couple from London who were both in undergrad at Oxford - Tom and Katy, and a brother and sister around the same age from Australia - Brittany and Cory. We also met our guide, Victor. In Spanish the V's are pronounced more like B's (There was a funny scene in "Modern Family" about this once.), so I always changed it in my head (and now in this story) to "Bictor" in order to try and pronounce it more correctly.

It was about a two hour drive to the beginning of the trail. When we got there we were given our sleeping bags and our sleeping mats, which we had to attach to our packs somehow. Luckily, there were ladies there selling everything you could need on the trail. They got us pretty good, as we bought one walking stick each (only 3 soles - about a dollar, plus 3 more for the non-stick rubber tip they added to the bottom), five straps to attach stuff to our packs, two hankerchiefs for protecting our necks or head from the sun, and one flimsy pancho for me in case it rained, since I don't have a rain jacket.

Finally ready, we began the hike. The entrance is pretty intense as you need your passport and your trail ticket and they check very thouroughly. There is a seperate entrace for our porters, who had been busily packing up at the same time we were, albeit with much larger loads. Their loads were weighed as they enter the trail, and they are "only" allowed to have 20kg (44lbs.). Apparently in the past they were allowed to carry more and they would regularly carry double that. I was impressed with the 44lbs, because I know from airport check-ins that my big bag weighs only 15kgs, and it feels quite heavy. There's no way I'd want to hike the trail with it. Our little bags had become a lot heavier than we had anticipated after the unwieldy additions of the sleeping bags and mattress pads, but they still didn't weigh more than 20lbs total, which was managable.

The first section was pretty flat. We hiked about an hour and stopped for lunch on a grassy soccer field. Our porters set up a kitchen tent and a dining room tent and began cooking. They set up a table and chairs for the seven of us (six hikers plus Bictor) in the dining room. We lounged around and got to know the other hikers while they used the propane and other kitchen implements they were carrying to cook for us. We had really good trout, rice, soup, and juice for the first lunch. After lunch we digested about 30 minutes while the porters started breaking camp and then we began hiking again.

That afternoon we hiked maybe two and half more hours and saw one really cool Inca site with terraced fields and lots of old buildings. As with all Inca sites, the use is unclear, but there are three competing theories - religion, military, or farming. This site was lost to history for four hundred years before it was "discovered" by Hiram Bingham (the same guy who discovered Machu Pichu in 1911) in 1915. We took a bunch of pictures and moved on to our camp.

Our porters were already there, having passed us while we stopped to look at the ruins, and they had set up three tents for us, as well as the kitchen and dining room tents (The latter of which we later learned also served as the sleeping tent for the six porters. Not the most comfortable life, that of a porter.)

We arrived at our camp around 5 and by 6 it was completely dark. We used headlamps to go anywhere and had a few lights to light our dinner around 7. After dinner we all headed to our tents. K-money and I watched an episode of The Wire: Season 2, which we are making our way through on this trip, on the ipod and then went to sleep by 9. Seems early I guess, but we had been up at 76, hiked, and we were getting up at 5:45 the next morning. Also, there is nothing to do with no lights or electricity. We did go outside and stare at the amazing stars for a little while. You could see not just millions of stars, but the star-cloud of our galaxy was clearly visible (Astronomy is not my strong suit. Somebody who took that as a blowoff class in college correct me on the terms here.), which was really cool.

Inca Trail: Day 2
We slept less than soundly, as we were on the hard ground, and it did get cold by morning, but we were awakened nontheless at 5:45 by porters knocking on our tent door with hot coca tea, which helped us wake up. Breakfast was at 6, and it was impressive. Pancakes, eggs, porridge, and toast. We were not starved on the trail. We needed our energy, because the second day you go over "Dead Woman's Pass", which is the highest point on the trail at above 4,200 meters, and it's along hike up and down, all of which we would do before lunch. In fact, we'd hike all the way to our 2nd day campsite, hiking from 7am to about 1pm before we got to eat again.

We began our climb with cheery hearts and light feet. We ended it without too much damage to our hearts but significantly more to our feet. It was a long, steep hike up to the pass and an even longer one down the Inca-built stone steps on the other side. We managed to get to the top and it was bright and sunny and we could see all around. After 15 minutes of rest and picture taking we started down. The walking sticks really earned their keep on the way down. Going down seems easier than up at first, but after an hour of it your joints and muscles really start to feel like jello. The sticks helped, and we both felt better going down here than we did at the volcano in Bolivia, even though this time we went down for over twice as long.

We arrived at our second campsite tired and hungry. The porters are amazing. We hiked a fast pace and very few porters (I mean of all the groups. 500 people are allowed to start the trail per day, and about half are tourists and half are porters.) passed us on the way up. But on the way down, it was another story. The porters run the downhill sections. Apparently this is better for your knees. It was amazing to watch these guys zoom down with huge packs on their backs. All of our porters passed us on the way down. I tried the running method for about 100 yards and it was fine until I stepped on a sharp rock and the bottom of my foot hurt for the next 20 minutes as K-money laughed at me. We are both wearing our regular sneakers and don't have heavy duty hiking shoes. We went with the lighter weight for carrying. The shoes were fine, but we had to give a little more care to where we stepped with our thin soles compared to a hiking boot.

We had lunch when we arrived and then a long siesta. At 5 we had tea, popcorn, and played cards with the rest of the hikers and Bictor. It was fun learning slightly different versions of card games from the UK and Australia. Dinner was at 7 and then another Wire episode and bed time again.

Inca Trail: Day 3
Day 3 was not as steep up as day 2, but it was longer. On day 2 we hiked up 1,000 meters and down 600 over about 12km. On day 3 we hiked up 400 meters and down 1,200 over about 16km. We hiked a long time on day 3, but it was never as intense as the final ascent on day 2. We stopped midway for lunch and had another good lunch. After lunch we saw another Inca site and then hit the "trail of 3,000 steps". All of the steps are down, and this was a long section.

We arrived at our final campsite at Winay Winah and went to the huge terraced argriculture area near there. It was very impressive. We went to our campsite and had tea and cards again and then dinner. After dinner we had a ceremony where all of our porters and cook were introduced to us. I was somehow elected to speak for the group to tell them how much we appreciated their hard work and to tip them. Bictor translated what I said to Quechua, the language most of them spoke.

A funny thing during the whole trip was how Bictor, although his English was great and he understood K and me perfectly, could not understand a single thing Tom said. Like I said, he is going to Oxford and he spoke like it, with a very proper English accent. He was easy for us to understand. He would ask questions and Bictor would answer something completely different. Then I would repeat his question and Bictor would give the exact answer. It became something of a running joke. Then, during the ceremony, when Bictor was introducing us to the porters, he asked Tom his name and Tom said, "Tom". Bictor said "What?". Tom said "Tom." Victor said "How do you pronounce it?" and K-money lost it and had a giggling fit that she couldn't hold in. It was inappropriate during the ceremony, but that just made her giggle more. It was hilarious.

We hit the sack even earlier on day 3 (by 8:30) as we were waking up at 4am on day 4 to start the hike to Machu Pichu for sunrise.

Inca Trail: Day 4
We woke up at 4 and it was pitch dark. We packed up, thankfully finally leaving behind our sleeping mats and bags for the porters to return to Cuzco, and headed out with our headlamps lighting the way. We had to get in line at the checkpoint and wait until it opened at 5. Then we began the 1.5 hour hike to Machu Pichu. We arrived at the Sun Gate overlooking the whole site and got our first look at it. It was impressive to say the least. It's so big, although you don't even realize it's full size from there - you have to get inside to really see it's size. We had perfectly clear weather so we had great views. Maybe 20 people arrived at the sungate before us, but we hurried on to be the first from the trail to get to Machu Pichu

People who don't do the trail, but stay in the town near to Machu Pichu can get there earlier, which is annoying. There should be a time that only trail hikers get to enjoy without the 2,300 additional people there as a reward for putting in the effort of hiking. As it was, it was quite a shock to see a) so many people after 3 days of hiking in a group of 6 and camping in campsites where you saw a few dozen other people, and b) see so many people so well put together, showered, and nicely dressed. The only showers available on the trail were freezing cold and as the air was already so cold at that altitude when it got dark, none of us took advantage of those. There used to be a company that offered hot showers (and cold beers) for a fee at the final campsite, but they no longer operate there. So we made due with splashing water on our faces. We were probably also a shock to those other visitors, since we had had 3 hard days of hiking, no showers, and minimal changing of clothes.

Machu Pichu was amazing. Bictor took us on a two hour tour to some of the highlights. After that, we headed up to the terraces overlooking the whole thing and sat and played backgammon and listened to some Jack Johnson being played by the people next to us. It was really cool to lie in the grass, look down and realize that you were just hanging out, picnic style on Machu Pichu.

After that we headed down and did another circuit, finding several areas that we didn't even realize existed during our first tour. We were hungry and ready to go (it was about 1 and we had been there since 7am), so we decided to cap off our Inca Trail hike by hiking down to the town instead of taking the bus (which would have been $8 for each of us). This was a mistake. By now, we were tired of hiking, and it was a long way down a bunch of steps. We made it to town, sweaty (it was hot and sunny at this lower altitude) and tired about 2:30. We had beers, cokes and mexican food - three of my favorite things - and explored the town a little as we waited for our 6:00 train back to Cusco.
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Mary Brennan on

Awesome! I've been waiting for this addition to your blog. Looks like it was worth the hike

Sarah on

Looks like it was an amazing experience...

Sarah C. on

This trip looks AMAZING! I'm loving following it and looking at all the pictures -- and living vicariously through you while I'm at work ;)

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