Our long awaited Inca Trail Hike began for us the night before the first day of hiking, at 6:30pm on Sunday, August 27, 2017, when we met our guide Fletcher for the pre-trek orientation. Maybe it was my imagination, but it looked like he flinched a bit when he saw us coming across the hotel lobby. I can hardly blame him if he did – at 59 and 66, we probably did not look like his average clients. But at least we had booked a private tour, so he only had us to worry about.
He recovered well, and launched into what was clearly an oft-repeated litany. We received our duffle bags, which were for our sleeping bags and an additional 7 kilos of items. This would be what the porters carried for us, so we would not have access until camp each night. The idea is you keep only what you need for the day in your backpack, and swap out clean clothes for dirty each evening.
Then he took out a map of the route, and went over in detail what each day would be like, where we would eat, where we would sleep, and what Inca ruins we would see along the way. He immediately threw some cold water on our enthusiasm and confidence from the previous day’s events, by describing the trip in pretty stark terms, and using words like “steep steps”, “steep incline”, and “steep downhill” a lot. A few questions from us, and he shook hands and said he would pick us up at 4:30am to take us to the trail head.
I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but neither of us slept much that night. In fact, we didn’t even get to bed until 11pm, which is not good when you have to get up at 3am. So we started our 4-day journey off with a less than ideal three hours of sleep.
Nevertheless, we were packed, downstairs, checked out, had our suitcases in storage for our return, and ready to go at 4:20am. Fletcher was waiting with a comfortable white van and a driver, so we were off to meet our destiny.
We thought we might be picking up more hikers, as the van had seats for at least 10 people – but no, it was private tour all the way. After about an hour and a half on the road, we arrived at a small hotel and coffee shop outside of Ollantaytambo just as it was getting light out. We were given 15-20 minutes for coffee and bathroom, and then were in the center of town 10 minutes later to pick up our porters.
A little confusion there, as apparently all the porters wanted our group. About 12 of them jumped into the van, and the head porter finally had to call off names and get the others to scram. With a now full van, we took off for the last stop before it would all be foot-power.
Another 45 minutes on bouncy gravel and dirt roads, and we were at the end of the line. We parked in a rather nondescript gravel lot near the banks of the Rio Urubamba, where a green tarp was spread on the ground for our duffles and backpacks. Then there was little to do but hang around until our breakfast was prepared.
Soon a card table was setup, and covered with a colorful tablecloth. Our stools (which we would become very familiar with over the next few days) were placed at table, and we were called to breakfast. Scrambled eggs, some pan bread, a little lunch meat, cheese, fruit salad and coca tea – it was the least-impressive meal we would be served during the hike. When we finished, we were given a banana and a pack of cookies each for morning trail snacks, and were told we had a few minutes to go use a normal, functioning toilet for one last time before we got underway.
Which unfortunately, leads me to an uncomfortable, yet integral, part of the tale. This was Monday morning. I don’t know if it was nerves, high altitude, or God’s sense of humor, but the last bowel movement I had was on Friday. This was my last chance to drop a sacrifice at the porcelain altar before facing a series of bushes and squat toilets. Alas, it was not to be.
Finally, we were strapped into our packs, and ready to go! We left the porters behind to clean up and pack, and walked down to the check-in point for the Inca Trail. Big moment! Time to show our passports and our entry permit. They examined our documents, and stamped the entry papers. We had to wait until we got word our porters had passed their gate, and then we were on the footbridge across the Urubamba, and at long last, officially on our way. It was 9:26am, August 28, 2017.
The trail starts off pretty easy, with a wide path of compacted sand and small stones. Although the very first hill surprised Rita – it really was not much of a hill, I moved right on up, but Rita said it was a little too soon after breakfast, and she felt her heart pounding. I asked our guide jokingly, “So that was Dead Woman’s Pass? That wasn’t so bad!”
But we settled down, and enjoyed the first part of the hike through the beautiful valley. In fact, we became a little frustrated with the slow pace the guide was setting, and goosed him on a little. About an hour and a half in, we saw our first Incan ruin (although we had been passing stone terraces everywhere) on the opposite side of the river. Fletcher pointed out a trail over there that follows the Urubamba all the way to Machu Picchu – the “easy Inca Trail” he called it.
Now he tells us.
By 11am, the trail was starting to noticeably rise. We stopped at a small farm to eat our snacks and shed some clothing, as the day was turning warm. I took off my rain pants to walk in my shorts, which turned out to be a real treat for the local insects.
As we got back underway, Fletcher had apparently decided we were doing well enough to take a little detour. Instead of following the more or less level-but-trending-upward main path, he took us off to the side on an alternate. This introduced us to our first serious stone steps, although the going was still relatively easy. We still were having areas of flat, slight hill, some steps, repeat.
After our steepest section yet, we were rewarded with a break at an Inca ruin site that overlooked a larger site, Llactapata, below us. We took some time to look around and take some pictures, and then suited up again for the hike to lunch.
We arrived at our lunch site in Hatunchaca at 2pm in pretty good spirits, and to the applause of our porters. We were hiking well, no aches or pains, and in spite of having only 3 hours sleep and being up for 11 hours, we were feeling great. We had also made it to lunch in the allowed 4.5 hours, so we were on pace as well.
Then we saw something that really raised our spirits – our personal toilet tent! We had been concerned for quite some time by all the horrors stories (all true, btw) we had heard about how difficult to use and outright filthy the squat toilets were on the trail. So imagine our delight to see that our private tour included a little tent with a small chemical toilet -with a seat! Incredible luxury!
Unfortunately, I was still coming up blank on my attempts to use this little marvel, but I’ve rarely seen Rita so pleased. Gives me ideas about a good anniversary present next year.
This was the first of our meals on the trail, and like all of those to come, it was exceptional. We had soup, chicken with vegetables, rice, a salad, choclo with cheese, potatoes, and homemade chips with guacamole. Some juice and more coca tea and we were practically sloshing as we got ready to press on for the final two hours of hiking.
From here the trail became gradually steeper, introducing more and more of the stone steps and irregular paths that would soon become the norm. But we did very well, stopping only at the Wayllabamba check point to get our entry tickets stamped once again.
Just after 5pm, we strolled triumphantly into our camp site at Ayapata, once again to the applause of our porters who had leapfrogged ahead of us. Our tents were setup and waiting (along with the special potty tent). They provided an insulating mat, an inflatable pad, and a pillow. Here we got another nice treat from Alpaca Expeditions – two containers of warm water, a soap dispenser, and two towels! What a treat!
We used these precious items to clean up in our tents, and changed into our clothes for the next day. Feeling refreshed and like human beings again, we emerged from the tent in time for a little ceremony to introduce us to our support crew.
After that, we had “happy hour”, hot coffee, tea or cocoa in the dinner tent, served in this case with cookies and popcorn. We chatted about the day while the cook finished cooking dinner.
Dinner was even bigger than lunch. Another great soup, chicken in a sauce with carrots and red peppers, rice, fried eggplant with cheese, and steamed vegetables.
On the way back to our tents, we were treated to clear skies, and a glimpse of the Milky Way. One last visit to the potty tent (no joy for me, again), and we spent a surprisingly comfortable night, snug in our sleeping bags.
A very successful first day. Amazingly so really, when you consider we only had three hours of sleep the previous night, and had a very long 17-hour day. We had covered just over 9 miles in a little less than the average time. We started the day at 8,677 feet, and camped at 10,859 feet. We were feeling great, and other than my reluctant bowels, no problems at all.
Of course, we knew the most difficult day would start in the morning, as on Day 2 we would have to summit two +13,000 feet passes, beginning with Dead Woman’s Pass.