Before finishing the story here, I need to offer two apologies. First, sorry about the issue with images not loading. I have resolved that now, so all images from all four days should load without problems now – just in time for a bunch of Machu Picchu pictures.
Second, sorry it has taken so long to get the whole story online. You see, we didn’t just return home after Machu Picchu – we’ve been on the road ever since. We spent five more days in Cusco exploring other sites, three days in Lima, a week on the coast of Uruguay, and now we’re in Buenos Aires for the weekend before returning to Montevideo and Uruguay for the rest of the week. So these updates have knocked out on my laptop in between a lot of activity, either early in the morning or in the evening before bed, time snatched in hotel rooms on sometimes spotty WiFi.
So now, back to our program, and the conclusion of our Inca Trail Hike:
I was thankfully able to sleep at least 5 hours on night three, but as expected, 2:30am came very early. Rita had taken the precaution of requesting two cups of coffee each, so we would have a fighting chance at getting started. In addition to the sleep, I woke up without a headache or fever. I was surprised to find that I still had legs – at least, they appeared to be still attached and functioning.
This morning was different from the others. No hot breakfast ready to go, just a bag with a chicken sandwich, an apple and some cookies. The word for the morning was “hurry”. Everyone was moving as fast as they could to get out of camp.
I could understand the rush the porters were in: they had to catch the only train out of Aguas Calientes that morning that allowed them to take all of the baggage they were carrying. If they missed that train, they would have to walk back to Ollantaytambo – carrying all of the stuff.
Less clear was why we were hurrying. Fletcher was hell bent on getting us out of camp at 3am, to get to a checkpoint less than a half mile away, which would not open until 5:30am. So it was literally hurry up and wait.
With the rush to get ready – they were taking our tent down even as I was pulling out the last of our personal articles – there was no time for me to see if I could have any success in the potty tent. That may have been a good thing, but at least I seemed to have some control, and no pressing needs. I was on my last pair of clean underwear, so I at least knew there would be no trusting of any farts today. I was still checking out my body for signs of mechanical failure when we got the call to move, just a few minutes after 3am.
Off we went in the dark, getting our first use of our headlamps. Despite the darkness, Fletcher set us off at a fast walk, almost a trot. The trail was generally downhill, but not steep, so I trudged along as best as I could. I took comfort in having knees that were working correctly and without pain, at least for now. I still really had no clue if I would be able to make it the rest of the way, or if my legs would give out again at any moment. Hell, I was barely awake.
Less than ten minutes later, we were surprised to already be at our first stop: the check in point for Wiñay Huayna. Now we were instructed to just sit on the bench and wait two hours until the park ranger arrived. “WTF?”, you may be thinking, as we were at the time. But there were a few reasons for this rush.
First of all, there were going to be close to two hundred people today coming through this checkpoint. To get us to Machu Picchu early enough to beat the crowds of LTR’s (Lazy Train Riders), still sleeping in their warm beds in Aguas Calientes and dreaming of breakfast buffets and hot showers, we would not want to spend a lot of time in line. Second, there was an area with a bench and a roof over it. This bench would only hold about 40 people. So waiting without the bench for a couple of hours would be much less comfortable – especially if it started to rain.
At this point, we were pretty numb to the things we were expected to get our bodies to do or go along with, so mostly we just accepted it, and sat there trying to doze and stay warm. Rita decided to try and go back and use a public rest room we had passed, and returned more happy than ever that we had our personal potty tent. She said she was unable to even go all the way into the public space without gagging, much less find a clean spot to actually use it.
It is possible we did doze a little, because it didn’t seem too long (and my ass wasn’t too numb from the wooden bench) before the ranger arrived, to muted cheers from all in line. We had done well – there was only one group ahead of us, so we were in the first 15 or so let through the gate.
We were off to the races. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Everyone had picked up this sense of hurry, and we were almost jogging down the path. Rita was way ahead of me, and I kept moving at a steady pace, at least. I really didn’t understand the rush. Machu PIcchu has been there hundreds of years, it would last the rest of the day.
But the trail here was not too steep, either up or down, and stairs were blessedly few. It was a bit narrow in places, and for the first part we were still using our headlamps, but once the sun came up enough, it was also quite beautiful.
It’s a mile and a half from the checkpoint to the Sun Gate, but it seemed longer, at least to me. We had some eager hikers pass us, but mostly we were still moving well. Then we got our last surprise from the trail.
Things had been trending upward for a bit, but suddenly we came to what looked like a vertical wall – the famous Monkey Steps, aka the Gringo Killer. This is a section of 52 steps just before the Sun Gate that rise so steeply and are so high, that the only way to go up them safely is on your hands and feet, like a big stone ladder. By this time, however, we were almost past all surprises, so we just shrugged and said “OK”, and started scrambling (monkeying) up.
Somehow we made it. I only got one picture of the section, since the press of people behind me waiting to go up was building. But made it we did, and then it was just a few “normal” steps more, and we were passing through the stone entrance to the Sun Gate, and got our first look at our goal of over one year, the Inca site Machu Picchu.
There it was, stretched out on the mountainside, looking both familiar from all of the pictures, and totally different.It was so much larger, so much more real to be standing there ourselves looking down on it.
It was a very emotional moment for both of us. We were both tired and exhilarated, proud and humbled, and mostly in a dream-like state of disbelief that we had finally made it. We were close to tears from the joy of being there, and from awe of how the site itself looked. It was Dead Woman’s Pass times ten, with more hugs all around.
There were quite a few hikers there too, but it didn’t really detract from the magic. We took a bunch of pictures, posed for a few that our guide took, and eventually had ourselves under control enough to start down the last mile and a half to our destination.
The trail wasn’t completely finished with us yet. There were some very narrow spots leaving the Sun Gate, with nothing on one side but a drop of a few thousand feet. There were also a few places where the trail made sharp turns, with steps dropping dramatically. Once again, we were glad we did not try to economize on our hiking poles.
It seemed to take much longer than it should, probably because we were so close to the end. It was here we started running into the first of the LTR’s, walking past us on the way up to the Sun Gate. Maybe it was just us, but they seemed to be a rude bunch; pushing past everyone with no greeting at all, clinging to the walls and pushing everyone else over toward the edges. It was amusing to see them complaining about the slight uphill path after all we had been through. Much more polite were the llamas and alpacas we passed on the trail. They let us pet them as they strolled past (the llamas, not the LTR’s).
Finally, 382 days after making the mad decision to hike the Inca Trail, we entered the Machu Picchu site. We posed for a few classic photos, and then – left the site.
At least temporarily. For some reason, we walked through part of the site, then out to an entry area, so we could get our passports and our trail passes stamped and then officially enter the park. Before entering though we took a moment to eat our bag breakfast, drink some coffee, and store our backpacks.
Most wondrous of all, we used a bathroom! A real, honest-to-goodness bathroom! When I walked into the Men’s room, I saw a beautiful sight through an open stall door. “My god,” I said out loud, “an actual toilet!”
I got a few odd looks from others in the room, but I was oblivious as I moved as though in a dream towards that beautiful, porcelain object, looking like a relic from another (and better) world.
Leaving the bathroom with a big, satisfied grin, I was ready for us to finally explore Machu Picchu.
We had a great time, and took a lot of beautiful pictures. There were still moments when we couldn’t believe where we were, and sometimes we were almost overcome by the beauty of the surrounding mountains, and the scope of the site. But eventually, the adrenaline drained out of our systems, and we started to wear out a little. Also, at the very end of our time, I found that I had completely filled the 32GB flash card on my camera. We still had our iPhones, but I’m just glad that didn’t happen earlier.
When we completed the tour, we chose not to spend any “free time” exploring on our own, and enjoyed the odd sensation of sitting in upholstered seats on the bus ride down to Aguas Calientes.
Once in town, we enjoyed a great lunch (I had the alpaca steak) and spent some time looking around town before settling in at the train station to wait for the first leg of our trip back.
The rest, as they say, is denouement. A pleasant, comfortable, and uneventful 2 hour ride on the train back to Ollantaytambo where we were met by our guide, and then a hour and a half in the van back to our hotel in Cusco.
In a moment of pure brilliance a few months earlier, I had booked us an “executive room” at the hotel for our return. Large king bed with extra pillows, sitting and dining area, a big bath with twin sinks, a Jacuzzi tub, and a separate shower.
Rita went right to the tub, then the shower. I finally felt clean after two showers. We split a bowl of hot soup and a club sandwich from room service, then luxuriated in the novel sensation of sleeping indoors in a comfortable bed.
So that’s it! We planned, we trained, we hiked, we survived. Tremendous sense of accomplishment, and we saw some beautiful things that we could never have seen without the experience. Would we ever do it again? Hells to the no!
But no one can take from us the fact that we did it once!
Would I recommend it to others? A qualified yes, but be honest with yourself and with your abilities. Don’t underestimate the physical requirements of the trail. It is not just four days of walking. The pounding your knees and legs take on the thousands of steps is not to be believed. Also, do not underestimate the effects of altitude. If you can, practice some hikes over 10,000 feet before you attempt the Inca Trail, and allow yourself at least three-four days in Cusco before starting the trail to acclimatize.
The day after our hike, we met a couple who had just had to cancel out of their hike that morning. They had trained, but only allowed themselves one day in Cusco prior to the start of the hike. Even worse, they ate a big meal as soon as they got to town. They were too sick and feeling too badly to attempt the hike, and so missed out on the experience – not to mention wasted a bunch of cash.
Take it easy your first day at altitude. Drink lots of water, eat light, and no alcohol. Start adding the exercise gradually, and water, water, water.
If you plan to hike, do not try to save money on hiking boots, hiking socks, or hiking poles. I can’t imagine how difficult (and dangerous) it would have been without poles. I literally do not believe we would have survived the hike without them. And with the right boots, properly broken in, our feet did great -Rita had no problems, I had a small blister on one heel after the second day, but a little mole skin kept it from getting serious. We passed a woman on the trail who bought brand new boots, but didn’t wear them until the first day of the hike. She was not doing well.
Finally, if you can, do a private hike with a company that brings a private potty! You would not believe how disgusting most of the public squat toilets were, especially in the mornings. That alone was worth the price difference between private and group tours. This also limits your contact with “blabberers”, hikers who feel they have to keep up a running commentary about their lives, their dreams, their philosophies, and other trivia. They seem unable to just shut up and enjoy their surroundings. We had to pause a few times to let groups with one or more of these walking mouths go past.
For the most part, the trail was not as crowded as I had expected. There were groups at the camp sites and rest areas, but everyone is strung out pretty well during the day, so it is still possible to have some quiet, reflective time.
I learned a lot from the experience. I learned that you can accomplish great things if you give yourself enough time to work towards it incrementally. We didn’t start out walking 26 miles in 4 days, or climbing 1,000 stairs a day – we worked towards it slowly over time.
I learned that some things in my life that have always kept me down don’t have to be allowed to do so. I learned that I can count on my wife to be beside me, and that we can work together as a team. And I learned that when you have no other option, you can do things you never dreamed possible – like keep walking up (or down) stone steps.
So we’ll continue to explore, we’ll continue to see new things (next year’s big trip, probably the Galapagos), but will we ever try something as strenuous as the Inca Trail?
Don’t hold your breath …