BootsnAll Travel Network

The Inca Trail

The drop off point for the Inca Trail was in a small village next to a river. The parking lot was full of porters preparing the gear for the four day hike. The 11 of us hiking in my group had a support staff of 18 consisting of two chefs, 15 porters, and our English speaking guide. We had each been allowed to bring 6kg on the hike which was confirmed on a scale. I had actually been under weight so I through in extra gear just for some additional comfort. The porters carried most of the gear while we were responsible for our day use items. After checking at the government checkpoint to make sure everyone paid their fees, we took a group photo with 11 different cameras at the sign indicating the beginning of the hike.

The first day’s walk was very mild with only a few strenuous climbs. The scenery was beautiful with mountains all around. The trail was at times very crowded and we would have to get out of the way of other groups or porters running past. The trail is limited to 500 people a day but compare this with the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal where maybe 100 people start each day. Everyone is also limited to the same campsites so the groups don’t spread out very much. Despite this it was still a great hike taking us past ruins of several small Incan towns and military checkpoints. When the trail was in actual use by the Incans it was lined with inns and military checkpoints to cater to the trade goods and people going up to Machu Picchu. Though the area is now a national park, people who lived in the area before that designation have been allowed to stay and use animals to transport supplies in and out. As a result, the trail was full of animal waste. At our lunch stop, the porters had set up a tent and cooked a three course lunch including a soup. This set the tone for the luxury to come.

We arrived at the campsite in the late afternoon. The campsite was on a hill above a small village. The porters had again arrived early, set up the tents, and laid out bowls with hot water for us to wash in. Even though three of us had requested single tents only one was available so we decided that each night someone would get the single tent and the other two would share. I won the first night. After learning there were cold showers available, several of us decided to try them. They were located at the back of the school house and very nasty. We were saved by a family who offered to let us use their outdoor shower. The water was very cold so I just hit the high points. While drying off, I watched a soccer game going in the field next to the school. That night we again had a multi course dinner with the main course being trout from a nearby fish farm. Before going to bed, several of us noticed some people sneaking around in the bushes behind our campsite. It turns out they going to the bathroom as they didn’t want to use the nasty squat toilets. This was confirmed when a guy in our group turned his light on them causing quite a bit of screaming.

The next morning before setting off, we were introduced to all of our support staff. The oldest porter was 52 and the youngest was 19. The porters each carry 25 kgs (55 lbs). This rate is set by government regulations. Before this law porters would carry up to 100 lbs causing them bodily injury. We reached the highest point on the Inca Trail this day at Dead Woman’s Pass at nearly 14,000 ft. As we gained in altitude we hiked through cloud forest before getting above the tree line. The trail was fairly difficult to the top as it was very steep and full of steps. Today the fitness difference among different members in our group became clear as those of us who made it to the top first had to wait nearly two hours for the others to make it up. The oldest person I saw make it to the top was a 72 year old American man along with his 67 year old wife. They seemed quite proud to have completed the climb. The descent down to our next campsite was nearly as brutal consisting of several thousand feet of steps.

As our second night campground was higher up it was much colder. There were again cold water showers available but the water was painfully cold this time. I used them as I like to be clean but literally got a brain freeze like one gets when drinking something cold too fast  when I washed my hair. It rained that night so we all went to bed early so that the porters could use our eating tent to sleep in. Until we at supper they just all sat around outside in the rain or under plastic sheets making us feel guilty.

The third day of the hike was the prettiest. The trail here was authentically Incan and had not been repaired. The stone work and terracing were all original (500 years old). The trail clung to the mountainsides with pristine jungle and cloud forests stretching in all directions. There were also some pretty substantial Incan ruins to explore including some massive terraces used for farming which cascaded down the mountainside. The Inca were very innovative in their farming. They actually had research centers where they managed to create different microclimates on different terraces to develop new crops and determine the best environment under which to grow them.

Our last campsite while on the Inca Trail was the most developed with a restaurant and hot pay showers. After supper, our chefs suprised us with a large cake which was very impressive considering what they were cooking on. They did use all the butter though to make the icing so we didn’t have any for breakfast the next morning. Following the cake, all the staff gathered around and we did a tipping ceremony where we gave the staff their tips. Instead of tipping each person directly, you give it only to the head porter who is responsible for diving it up amongst the other porters based on some heirachy. This normally would have been it but we decided to buy a beer for all eighteen people who supported us on the hike. They seem genuinely grateful and decide to reward us buy sending some traditional songs. Of course they then wanted us to sing something for them. This was all translated through our English speaking guide. Our group consisted of four different nationalities and different ages so it took a while before we settled on “The Fresh Prince of  Bel-Air” theme song. Apparently it was the only thing we all knew in common. Not exactly a traditional folk song but I guess it did the trick. The porters seemed to like it.

We got up the next morning around 3:30 am and managed to be the first group from the Inca Trail at the control gate for Machu Picchu. When the gates opened at 5:30 some of took off in a quick walk/jog trying to cover the final 6km to Machu Picchu. We wanted to try to get some pictures in before it got filled with people. We were thwarted by steep steps and inclines. Despite my being one of the first three people at Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail, people were already milling around when I got there as they had come up by bus. I did manage to get some nice shots though. The sky was really clear in the morning and we could see all the snow capped mountains ringing the site. When the sun broke over the mountains, clouds started to form and obscured these mountains for the rest of the day.

Machu Picchu sits up on a high mountain which rises out of a bend in a river which circles the city. The river is maybe I a 1,000 feet below the city. The site consists of temples, a palace, houses, and some farming areas. Free roaming llamas grazed around the site. It was much larger than I had expected. I spent about four hours roaming through the ruins and  trying to pet the llamas. Here were again some amazing examples of Incan stonework techniques and engineering skills. Water still flows into the city today into small fountains from aqueducts carrying snowmelt from higher up in the mountains.

After exploring the city, I took a bus down to Agua Calientes which is a town at the base of the mountain. It has grown into quite a tourist trap with all the people transiting through to visit Machu Picchu. I went to the pizza place where we were told to gather and ate while waiting for the remainder of the group to show up. We caught an evening train back to Ollantaytambo. On the train we treated to a fashion show put on by the train car attendants. They modeled lots of Alpaca wool clothing.  When we got off the train, one of the girls in my group realized that she had lost her camera. The train had already left again but the attendants claim to have thouroughly searched the train and didn’t see it. She was quite upset and spent a long time crying. We arrived back in Cusco around nine in the evening. Some people went out but I went to bed as I would be volunteering at a local school the next day.

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