We decided to take the easy way to Machu Picchu in order to avoid the difficult train/bus ride to the site. Instead, we opted to hike over 26 miles in four days, over two 13,000+ feet mountain passes, all while camping and climbing more Incan stairs than you could imagine.
The Day Before:
We met our guide, Edwin, and fellow trekker, Michael from Germany, the night before our trek began for a quick briefing. We were very lucky to have only 4 people on our hike, as most groups leave with 16. Despite our small group, we were very surprised to find out that it would take 9 porters, 1 cook, and 1 guide to get us through the next four days.
We chose to go with Llama Path for a few reasons, but most importantly was their high standard of porter care. Although they are not the cheapest company doing the trek, we wanted to insure that all the employees were treated fairly. Government regulations stipulate that all porters are “only” allowed to carry 25 kilos, and must be given clothes, shoes, proper food, and a fair wage, and according to the reviews, Llama Path sees to this and more.
We did the leave the briefing mystified as to why we needed so many porters, but we would soon find out why they are so important.
Day 1: 14 km and 1,900 elevation gain. The “easy” day.
The alarm at our hostel in Cusco woke us up at the horrendous hour of 3:00 am, but that gave us time to do a final pack before our bus left at 4:30. We originally thought our guide was a little crazy for having us meet at such an insanely early hour, but his genius of this early departure would be proven over and over again throughout our trek.
After a two-hour bus ride and a quick stop for breakfast, we arrived at Km. 82, the starting point for the hike. We all jumped off the bus, wiped the sleep out of our eyes and readied our gear. This was also our first chance to meet our porters, better known as “The Red Army,” as they loaded their bags with all types of equipment. Wait, did one of the porters just put a full tank of propane on his back?
The first day’s hike was pretty straight forward. We started out at 8,923 feet, and then over 14 km, climbed 1,900 feet to our first camp in Ayapata. Along the way we passed two different Incan sites and Edwin did an excellent job describing their uses.
We stopped for lunch around 1 pm, and we quickly learned that we wouldn’t exactly be roughing it during this trip. Lunch consisted of a salad starter, soup, and three courses to share family style. We all easily agreed that it was the best meal we have ever had camping, and it could easily rival most meals that we have had during these last few months.
After lunch, we continued four more hours, uphill, to our first base camp. Teresa had not been feeling well, and her cold made it hard to breath at this altitude, but she carried on and made it without collapsing.
When we arrived at the camp we were simply amazed by what we saw. Tents were set up, the dinning tent was ready, there were bowls of hot water with towels and soap, and the entire Red Army was clapping as we walked in. We should have been applauding them for hustling so much and getting everything ready.
This was when we began to see the genius behind our super early start. By leaving so early, we were able to forge on to the further camp site to stay away from the main crowd. We ended up sharing the area with just one other small group of two.
We cleaned up and readied ourselves for “Tea Time/Happy Hour.” This was getting further and further from the traditional idea of camping. Happy Hour was soon followed by dinner, which was an amazing feast capped of by Bananas Flambe. Okay, now the necessity for the nine porter team was starting to make sense.
We climbed into our tents early, as we had been up all day with little sleep. At one point after we were all tucked in, Micheal asked Joe what time it was. When Joe replied with, “7:45,” they both got a good laugh as they settled in for the night.
Day 2: 2 passes, 4,370 feet of elevation gain and 16km. Only 10 hours to go.
We had been warned about how hard this day would be, and we were all hesitant to get started. We would be hiking over TWO mountain passes, one at 13,779 feet and the other at 13,123 feet. We would be hiking for around TEN hours to reach our second camp, but at least this would keep us ahead of the crowd.
We stuffed ourselves with another amazing meal and hit the trail. Immediately, we were challenged by nearly 1,500 feet of Incan stairs and light rain.
You could tell Teresa was slowed down again by her cold, but this only gave us an excuse to stop every now and then and catch our breath. Sometime during our first two-hour climb, we were passed by The Red Army. They had, in the same amount of time, broken down the camp, loaded their heavy bags, and now were easily blowing past us on these steps.
We took a quick break, had a snack and enjoyed the amazing views before taking on the next two-hour 1,500 foot climb to the first summit. We sucked wind all the way up, and even got rained on for part of the way, but somehow we all successfully made it to the top.
We were pretty proud to stand at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass (13,779 feet), with two very much alive women.
We had to take pictures fast as the weather was moving in quickly, but it was really amazing to see how fast the clouds would move in and out.
From here we headed down the mountain to a nice little valley for lunch. Just FYI, hiking down a bunch of stone steps isn’t the easiest feat either. After another delicious lunch (so much for losing weight on this trip!), we pushed ahead another 7.5 km in order to keep our lead over the rest of the herd.
It was a bit daunting to know that we had 1,500 feet and yet another pass to climb, but the spectacular views and the plethora of Incan sites found along the way helped to pass the time.
We finished the day with four more hours mostly downhill. Right before we reached our campsite, we passed one more incredible Incan site. We are very happy that we decided to hike the trail because we would be the only ones exploring all these amazing sites found along the way. Since Machu Picchu is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, we knew the same would not be true there.
Camp, again, was set up perfectly and we indulged in another amazing meal.
Teresa started feeling better by this point and we tried out a few long exposure photos in the moonlight. We have found yet another thing that Teresa is good at- backwards cursive.
Day 3: 10km and 3,280 feet down
This day is referred by some as “The Gringo Killer,” mainly because of the 3,000+ Incan stone stairs heading down. Our knees were not excited to see all these steps.
We gingerly made our way down (we were very grateful to have our walking sticks!), and The Red Army literally went running past us down these wet stairs.
Again, we passed a few Incan sites and took our time enjoying one of the easier days of hiking.
We wandered into camp around 1 pm, enjoyed a great lunch, and then subjected our dirty bodies to the coldest showers we had ever taken. You would have to build up the nerve to immerse yourself under the ice-cold water, and even then, you could only stay for a few seconds. It was still nice to be able to wash three days of trail grime off our bodies.
After our showers and a quick nap, we headed to our last Inca site prior to Machu Picchu. This site was one of our favorites and we were lucky to have the place to ourselves once again.
This camp is where all trekkers must spend the night prior to heading into Machu Picchu, so it got very full by the end of the day.
The porters put on an amazing feast for our final meal which include a cucumber carved into a bird and even a cake.
Kristen was amazed that they could cook a cake without an oven. Surprisingly, it was great and we wolfed it down quickly.
The next morning was going to be early so we went to bed before most children do.
Day 4 – Machu Picchu: 5km, “some up and down”
In order to be first to the Sun Gate, we woke up at 3:20am and had a quick breakfast. Joe could see head lamps heading down the trail, so he yelled for everyone and we all started running to be first in line. The line grew quickly as we were all ready for our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. The gates opened at 5:30am and the 5km “race” began, our group held our lead (by even running at times) and were the first to the Sun Gate in 40 minutes.
Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and all we could see was clouds. We were bummed but hopeful for the weather to clear. Hey, at least we can say we got there first.
After some time at the Sun Gate, we headed down to the postcard picture place (where all the famous shots of MP come from) and prayed for the weather to lift.
As the clouds started to clear, you could feel the excitement growing; it was like Christmas when you were getting ready to open your big present.
Edwin gave us a two-hour tour of Machu Picchu highlighting all the amazing history. It would take 10,000 more words to describe this place, so pictures will have to do.
Because we are gluttons for punishment, we decided to hike Wanay Picchu, which is the mountain in the background of all the famous pictures. We were lucky to do the 10am hike because they guys who went up at the earlier time only got great views of the clouds.
This was going to be an “easy” 1,000 foot climb in 45 minutes. Our thighs were screaming on the way up but the views made it worth it.
The climb was very steep, and at times and you had to use wires to help yourself up.
This blog could go on for days describing how amazing Machu Picchu was. It, combined with our Inca Trail hike was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and one that will never be forgotten.
**** For many more (we’re talking like 500) pictures of the Inca Trail and MP, we have uploaded them to the Shutterfly Share Site. Click the link on the right that says, “More Pictures.”