We May Be Insane – Setting Our Sights on the Inca Trail

It is interesting how sometimes the smallest of events can bring about big changes. Just a week ago, we were living our day-to-day lives, still enjoying the buzz from a wonderful trip to Quito and the Cotacachi area. We spent part of an afternoon talking to a friend who brought us some info on applying for our Ecuadorian citizenship at the end of the year, and within just two days, we suddenly find ourselves making a year-long commitment to train for visiting Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail.

For those of you who have never looked into visiting the famous site in Peru, there are many options for how to get there, but the most popular options boil down to two choices; you can fly to Cusco, take a train to Aguas Calientes, and a bus to the ruins, or you can fly to Cusco, take a bus to “Kilometer 82” on the highway about three hours out of town, and walk the 26 miles of the Inca Trail.

We’ve decided to try the latter.

A few things came together for us to make this life-altering decision. First, like I said, we have just returned from the northern Andes where we saw some stunning scenery, and enjoyed activities that took us to a lake in a crater at 10,000 feet, and to the top of Mount Pichincha at 13,000 feet. It made us appreciate how much beauty is around us, and left us hungry for more. Driving around and exploring by ourselves also made us more confident of our Spanish skills.

Then our friend Chris stops by, and casually mentions he is training to do the Camino de Santiago in Spain, once he gets his Ecuadorian citizenship. This is a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago, where it is thought the body of James was interred. Depending on the starting point you choose, this can be from 400 to 500 miles.

We thought that was wonderful, and I guess it was percolating in the back of our heads for a few days. All I know for sure, is that this past Saturday morning, for some reason we thought instead of our usual 2 mile walk, we would have breakfast first and then walk out to La Loberia and back. If you have never been to Salinas, let me explain. We sit on a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific ocean. At the western end, there is a military base, and a National Park called “La Puntilla” (The Point) which includes an area know as Chocolatera and another called La Loberia. La Chocolatra gets its name from the color of the stones at the end of the point, which are chewed up by the heavy surf that hits that section. The waves, spray, and the shades of blue and turquoise in the water there are really something to see. La Loberia is about a mile down the beach, and gets its name from the “lobos de la mar”, or sea wolves (huge sea lions, pictured above) that like to lounge on a rock there. There is a viewing platform for los lobos, and surfing is very popular there as well – in fact there is a reviewing stand for competitions that are sometimes held there.

To get there, you can either enter via the Army entrance (the base has a navy, army, and air force entrance) and follow roads for cars, bikes, and foot traffic – or you can enter via the Air Force gate to walk to La Loberia. There are roads and trails connecting the two points, as well as a new lookout on a hill that gives you spectacular views of the whole peninsula.

Looking at Google Earth and using their path-distance tool, it looked like if we took the most direct route, La Loberia would be about a 2.14 mile walk. The route to Chocolatera looked to be about 3.25 miles, so we decided the shorter one would be good to try. What the heck, it would just be a 4.5 mile round trip at most, and we could take money for a cab or a bus if we were too tired to walk back.

Still not appreciating the trouble we would be getting into, we grabbed a small backpack, three bottles of water, and set out.

And got lost.

Hard to get lost when you can see our condo from just about anywhere around here, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the map. I knew I had passed the Air Force entrance before, but it wasn’t where I thought it was. We did our imitation of Moses in the desert, and managed to wander around enough to add over a mile to the walk out.

It was still great fun. We are in winter now, so it is usually a little cloudy, and daytime temperatures in the 70’s – perfect walking weather! We also got a kick out of the complex security at the entrance to the base. We had copies of our cedulas (identity card) ready, but when I greeted the guard and told him we were walking to La Loberia, he shrugged and said “OK”. I asked if he needed our cedulas, he said simply “No”. So nice to be in a civilized country! Can you imagine walking onto a US military base like that?

The road passes some display stands with old air vehicles on view, then curves between the airstrip and the Air Force school to reach our destination. We sat on the reviewing stand and enjoyed the sea breeze, the surfers, and even saw a few whales playing around offshore. Feeling refreshed, we walked back home, marveling at how short a walk it seemed when you actually took the right roads.

The next morning, we were pleasantly surprised that we were not lame. We actually felt pretty darn good. It seemed like a good idea to go ahead and do the same walk. This time, since we knew the way, we seemed to get to La Loberia quickly and easily. After a few minutes of enjoying the breeze and the views, we thought we might as well try the brick path that led along the beach to the Chocolatera. That part of the walk is fantastic. They’ve done a great job on the trail, building three “Hydration Stations” along the walkway.

Once we were at the Chocolatera, we saw how great the new road looked – it even had a cycling path. Once again, seemed like a good idea at the time to go ahead and follow it back to the Army exit, and then home, completing a 7.5 mile circuit this time.

I think it was on that part of the walk that our minds snapped from the endorphins, and we started to talk about walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It didn’t help that we also ran into Chris while we were walking this section, out training for his Spain trip, and we all started talking about how great it was being outside and enjoying ourselves. At any rate, by the time we got home, we had talked ourselves into trying to get in shape to walk the Inca Trail in late August or early September 2017.

We will need every day of that year and two weeks to get ready. Let me tell you a bit more about the Inca Trail, and the hike we plan to sign up for. It starts at Kilometer 82, which is at an altitude of about 8900 feet. The first day, we will walk just short of 9 miles in 6.5 hours, where we will camp at almost 11,000 feet. The next day is tough. A four hour walk up to the highest pass at 13,779 feet, then a two hour walk down to lunch at 11,700 feet. After lunch, back up hill to a pass at a mere 13,123 feet, and back down to 11,800 feet for our second night sleeping on the ground, after walking about 10 miles up and down two mountains.

The third day is relatively easy, mostly downhill and just over 6 miles. The fourth day is only about 3 miles walking to get to Machu Picchu, plus of course walking around the site itself. But by late afternoon the 4th day, we will be on a train back to Cusco and what will probably be a desperately needed bath.

The major obstacles for us to overcome, and the reason for the year head start, is mostly my weight. Currently checking in at 265 pounds, I’m going to need to lose at least 50 pounds (70 would be better) to be able to do this and live to talk about it. We also both need the conditioning to get our legs and lungs into shape, and we will need to practice some at altitude and carrying packs as well. Probably doesn’t help that at the time of our planned hike, I will be 59 and Rita 66.

In spite of that, we are almost giddily excited about this.

There are several reasons for our excitement, one personal one I’ll go into in more detail later, but mostly it is just a few simple things.

  1. We like walking outdoors, and we love the beauty we have already seen in Ecuador. Seeing more of South America, especially the incredible things we will see on the trail, is very exciting.
  2. We (me especially) need to get into better shape. We now have a wonderful excuse to work towards better health and fitness.
  3. Having this long term goal, planning it together, and working towards it together has already made us feel more connected as a couple. Don’t get me wrong, we were in love before, but just these few days of walking and planning together has felt like a second honeymoon. The peace and serenity of these quiet walks together (we’ve gone twice more, racking up 35 miles in 5 days) has made us feel closer than ever.

Finally, I think it is also important for everyone to have something to look forward to. Having a goal like this, even if we chicken out and switch to the train/bus route, makes us feel more alive and happier with ourselves, our relationship, and our lives.

Surely that’s worth a few blisters?