Having done our best to prepare for our Inca Trail adventure , Lee and I filled our water bottles, popped a few naprosyn (just for good measure), made some last-minute poncho purchases, and met up early last Sunday morning with Jose, our Adventure Life guide, to set out for the 4-day, 26 mile trek.
We had a healthy respect for the trail and the high-altitude hiking that we’d be encountering before reaching Machu Picchu, but were also feeling pretty spoiled as we met up with our guides and porters. Given the Trail’s increasing popularity over the past several years, the Peruvian government now limits the number of hikers on the trail each day and requires that all trekkers contract a licensed guide service, which, in turn, typically contracts with local porters from Cusco to haul the heaviest gear, tents, and food – leaving us with just our day packs and a keen appreciation for the support and the opportunity to take part in this next amazing adventure.
Day one offered a relatively easy start as we navigated the rugged granite path, as well as giving a great opportunity to appreciate the amazing engineering feat that Inca Trail represents. The Trail is only one small stretch in an incredible network of granite stone roads built by the Incas in the early 1500’s that was estimated to cover nearly 25,000 miles, extending across six countries in South America from present-day Columbia to Chile – and all without iron tools, horses, a written language, or even the wheel!
Despite the relatively modest start, we were happy (as always!) to make it to the first campsite at Huayllabamba and appreciated our cozy tent, the opportunity for an afternoon nap (Lee never could turn one down), and a remarkably “civilized” Peruvian dinner, served tentside, of course.
The climbing started in earnest on Day 2, ascending ~4000 ft (and countless steps) to head up and over 13,700′ at “Dead Woman’s Pass” (named thus, I was reassured to learn, because the outline of the mountains resemble a reclining woman, not because one actually died there!). With the advice of our guide and the “slow but steady” approach, we managed to tolerate the climb and ~1500 steps without a problem, while appreciating our previous days of acclimatizing (and Diamox!).
After a steady rain and some pretty cool temperatures that night, the next day’s clearing skies allowed us to enjoy some remarkable sites as we made our way through the remaining two passes over the next few days, passing more Inca ruins and farming terraces, and witnessing yet more incredible examples of amazing engineering feats as the trail wound up, down, over, around, and literally through the hillsides.
The ultimate prize, of course, was reaching the amazing, ancient Inca village of Machu Picchu on Day 4, an incredible, sacred spot perched dramatically high up on the Andean hillsides at 8000′.
This Incan stronghold, generally believed to have been built as a retreat for the Inca emperor Pachacuti in the mid-1400’s, includes a remarkable collection of ancient temples, farming terraces, and homes, and is thought to have housed over 1000 people at its peak. The community was abandoned sometime after the Spanish invasion of Peru in the mid-1500s, and laid largely undisturbed for centuries (the Spanish apparently having never found it) until it was rediscovered by the American historian, Hiram Bingham in 1911 with the help of a local farmer. With the help of substantial restoration efforts, the community and buildings stand as an incredible exhibit of Inca engineering, with their classic “dry-stone” construction that used huge blocks of granite, fit together with mind-boggling precision that have withstood centuries of change.
We were fascinated to see an amazing collection of buildings, including the ancient Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the Temple of the Condor (one of the three Inca gods: condor/sky; puma/earth; snake/under-earth)…
… as well as the Sun Gate, altars, amazing sculptures echoing the surrounding mountains, homes, storage sheds, and common areas for celebrations.
After several hours of letting it all sink in and completing this amazing trek, we were again grateful for the skills and hard-work of our very capable porters and our guide, Jose, and said our goodbyes before heading back to Cusco. And then, somehow… our 3-wk South America adventure was over! Having heard that spring had finally made it back to Maine (and/or that Lee’s eBay store was back online), we caught our flight out of Cusco, and with a brief layover in Lima, headed back to Boston the final leg of our trip back to Portland – once again filled with awe, gratitude, and appreciation for the amazing opportunity to see these sights, and the ability to have our physical adventures – while we still can!