Inca trail beckoned after a 2 day acclimitisation in the quaint town of Cusco.
A relatively civilised wake up time of 6am for a 7am departure. We meet our Inca trail guide Leo. Well actually his name Leolph or something but after asking him to repeat it over three times, for each of us, he said to just call him Leo. Sure thing Leo.
Aboard the mini bus we meet the chef Ricardo and driver Fredo, see a trend here? I thought it was just an Australian thing to add an ‘o’ to everyone’s name? Or, did they, seeing Leo’s awkwardness at us pronouncing his real name that they defaulted to their westernised names to save embarrassment. Embarrassment for us more so.
The drive took us back to the Sacred valley so the scenery was familiar but welcome. I got to travel along the tranquil Urubamba river again. We went past our furtherest point reached previously of Olytatambo after getting some last minute supplies of bread and water. Prison food! yum…
After navigating a dusty, mini bus choked track we arrive at the entrance to the Inca trail. Perhaps a better name would be Gringo trail given all the tourists. 500 permits are issued per day and they all sell out months in advance. We certainly had a full quota of 500 awaiting entry on to the trail. We wait in line to get our permits checked and porters organised, all the while staring at the first few hundred metres of the trail which after crossing a suspension bridge, went straight up! We thought day 2 was the tough day!
On the trail proper and the steep intro flattened out soon after and we were still amongst some villages and the trail relatively flat for the first few kilometres. The groups of porters filing quickly past us requiring a step aside on the narrow trail. The odd horse or donkey keeping us on our toes. One porting event of note was a group of about 8 men, I say men but most looked under 16, were carrying a telegraph pole! They were carrying it quick too. I suppose carrying such a weight you don’t want to carry it any longer than you have to.
After an hour we still felt good until we were passed by some trekkers heading the other way looking quite exhausted and defeated. Given the Inca trail is one-way these guys had obviously found the going a little too tough. Leo commenting these guys are likely returning from day 2, doing the walk of shame, or like wounded soldiers returning from the front. Feel a little dread for what is in store tomorrow. Especially as a lady is slouched over the top of a donkey.
Onwards we go, heading up a few hills here and there but generally followed the Urubamba river. Eventually we took a left turn in a gully where the first major uphill began. At the same moment the sun began to beat a little hotter and we were in the middle of the day so it began to get very hot indeed. As we were rounding to the top of the climb a welcome sight awaited us of our lunch tent. This glamping is tough isn’t it?
The porters obviously running ahead to setup our lunch stop, boiling water for tea, Ricardo busy over the stove. His sous chef, an elderly Juan Carlos dutifully by his side. We sat in the shade with a cool drink while lunch was served. All the time feeling guilty we should be doing something to help out. No offers accepted and we were ushered into our tent to dine. Lunch included sandwiches, fresh local style passionfruit which you pierced a hole in and squeezed the nectar into your mouth and some boiled spiced potatoes. Quite a nice snack.
Some undulations followed lunch with a few steep inclines thrown in so that we were generally ascending. On one particularly steep bit Leo pointed out this was the same terrain we would experience on day 2. This mythical day 2 again. Given that we were actually now on day 1, day 2 was logically then, tomorrow! We request Leo to henceforth refer to ‘Day 2’ as tomorrow for the rest of the day.
3 more hours of walking, easy but steady pace passing a few Incan ruins and markings, expertly pointed out by Leo who tells his stories in a sort of reverse rhetorical question sort of way. A typical explanation goes something like this. ‘You will notice the rounded stonework on this building here, I tell you this why? Because….’. Very soon we are doing our best to mimic Leo’s explanatory ways. ‘This ankle is sore here, why? Because I’ve been walking for 6 damned hours!’
We arrive at camp at Wayllabamba (they certainly have fun with their names in Peru!) Wayllabamba perched up at 3000m, yet it is at the bottom of a valley. Some of the snow covered towering mountains up towards 6000m high. We don’t see them for long as night descends soon after arriving into camp. Camp is in the back of a villager’s property next to a rushing stream and we are completely separated from any other trekkers camps which is nice.
Before dinner Leo arranged a bit of a love-in where we with all the porters and staff numbering about 12 in total stood with us in a circle and stood forward, told us 1) their name 2) where they were from and; 3) how many years they had been doing this. On average I’d say the answers were 1) Juan Carlos, 2) Urubamba and 3) 5 years. We did the same and it was a nice touch as these guys slogged it out year round for not much income and they mostly wore worn sandals, sometimes bare feet, and massive loads, certainly more than just our 6kg sacks, I’d say one guy was carrying all 4 sacks! However this does provide a steady income so it’s one of those situations where you are unsure whether you are helping or hindering the situation. One thing is for certain though the staff are hanging out for the tip at the completion of the tour. But still you can tell they were genuine in their kindness and treatment for us, wishing us to have a good time on the Inca Trail.
As normal in any society there was a definite pecking order in the crew. Leo of course top dog as guide and main English speaker. Then I’d say chef Ricardo (well food is important to everyone). Then sous chef Juan Carlos (the eldery Juan Carlos), then head porter, then basically you go down by age I’d say or years experience.
Dinner was excellent and well deserved I might add. Good to know we have 4 more days of this Ricardo. Leo joins us for the meal giving us countless tips of how to keep healthy and fit for the trek in his usual rhetorical way. He also gives us a run through of ‘tomorrow’. By now the girls have gone noticeably quiet, lost in their own thoughts, thinking back to earlier in the day where the walk of shamers looked so defeated.
With that in our minds we tuck into sleep in a tent alongside a stream, behind a farmhouse a few hundred metres shy of the villages of Wayllabamba on the Inca trail in the Peruvian Andes. Sometimes you do just have to take stock to appreciate where you are.
Statistics for the day:
Ascent: 457m @ 2m per minute
Descent: 252m @ 4m per minute
Duration: 6 hours 9 minutes
Overnight altitude: 3000m
As we had been briefed, today was set to be the most challenging of the entire Inca trail. Mainly due to the climb up to dead woman’s pass at 4,212m. So named as it resembles a woman lying down when viewed from a distance, the pass itself situated just below the distinctly ‘boob’ like peak!
Lesley and Allison very quiet this morning, quieter than last night even. Opting for little or no breakfast and just hot water to drink. Fear or nervousness justified with 1,300m ascent for the day it is nothing to be sneezed at, particularly at this altitude and the higher you go the tougher it gets! But slow and steady wins the race.
Immediately out of camp and we are heading up. We reach the Wayllabamba village and pass some other groups campsites being packed away by their porters. Past the village it gets steeper still and the trail begins some very short switchbacks. Looking up ahead through a long valley you can actually see dead woman’s pass far in the distance with snow capped mountains on both sides. At least it is in our sights! ‘Pole, pole’ (Slowly, slowly)
The sun begins to stream in to the valley and the temperature rises. Water is being consumed regularly but we make steady progress. The inevitable catch up of the porters period arrives. Them having packed up camp, loaded their packs, then caught and passed us as if they were walking to the local shops. The porters do allow us numerous opportunities of respite to catch our breath as we wait for them to pass on the narrow trail. Us opting to take the high side of the trail, to avoid being bumped off the cliff by the porters wide loads. This one a nice little tip from ‘I tell you why?’ Leo.
An hour or more into the days trek and the stairs begin. It is unclear what was easier the steep trail or the stairs. On and on it went. breathing more laboured as we try and suck more oxygen out of an increasingly depleted air at 3,600m. Eventually reaching a much appreciated lunch stop mid-way up the valley. The stop was signalled rather cutely by one of our porters holding a little flag on the trail with our trekking company on it.
While it is great to catch a breather, we get chilled quickly as a stiff breeze blows down the valley from the snow capped peaks above. Our porters pop up our mess tent and we thankfully huddle inside, glad for the respite while looking at other groups huddled in the cold windswept valley sipping their soup. Ricardo works his magic over a butane stove and has some hearty fare served up in no time, take that Jamie Oliver!
Everyone doing well and in good spirits with no major ailments. After heading steadily up for some 7 hours we reach the alpine zone. The once distant dead woman’s pass now feels within reach, that is until we see some movement on the pass and the speedier trekkers still look like ants! We have a ways to go. We pass the false summit which does get mistaken for the summit on foggy days. For us it is a clear day and we can see the trail we must now take to the summit, it’s all up!
We play a new game. Inca trail leap frog with our fellow trekkers. First we pass them, take a breath, a sip of water, just as they again pass us. It goes on like this with various groups. Stops are more frequent as the air gets thinner and the all day efforts begin to take their toll. So it is head down and one step at a time focusing on breathing and stepping. Stepping and breathing. Leo encouraging us while keeping ahead. Much like a dangled carrot, a somewhat portly one at that!
Eventually we are 10 steps away from the summit of the pass. Allison and I take a breath, another sip of water and determined to do the next 10 steps all in one hit to the top. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… After 5 steps we stop gasping for breath. So this is what 4,212m feels like! Another breath another sip of water and again 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and now we are atop Dead woman’s pass! Much cause for celebration and relief. Honestly one of my proudest moments for Allison, a massive achievement and it actually brings tears to our eyes. It was a massive long hard slog.
Spending too long at the summit would be a mistake as the biting wind seeps through the thermals. We do manage to savour our summit treat of Mars and Crunchie bars for myself and Allison, respectively. Despite reaching the summit we still have at least 3 hours descent to camp at the town of Pacamayo. So we begin the steep climb down. The stairs are massive some more than a metre high and the going down is just as slow as the ascent but not so physically taxing, besides the knees.
We arrive at camp just before dark, 8 hours up, 3 hours down. Suffice to say we are buggered! Our camp is the other side of this makeshift village predominantly of trekking groups camp sites. We are welcomed into camp by all our porters clapping us in. How cool is that? High fives all round! We get into clean, warm dry gear and head to the mess tent for a piping hot cup of tea and Ricardo’s special day 2 recipe. Day 2 done and dusted although the elephant in the room is that we are again at the bottom of a valley and the way forward is straight up first thing in the morning.
An early night beckons but not before a steep uphill climb to the toilets. These are in the sort of condition you’d expect when 500 odd trekkers pass through per day. If nature calls in the night it might be a discreet visit behind the bushes instead.
Statistics for the day:
Ascent: 1,373m @ 3m per minute
Descent: 640m @ 5m per minute
Duration: 11 hours 16 minutes
Overnight altitude: 3600m
Highest point: 4,212
After day 2’s efforts we all feel we have broken the back of the Inca trail. So on to day 3.
It began with a relatively steep but controlled climb up from 3600m to 3,950m to the ruins at Runkurakay (seriously, these names getting quite beyond a joke. They rival Welsh names as to their haphazard use of consonants. I pity the dyslexic Peruvian!). Regardless we were travelling well. It may have been we were acclimatised sufficiently or just used to the routine of walking.
Descents are the killer though. No sooner than we were at the summit, it’s down, down, down. Knees and ankles braced for the trek down and constant concentration is required to avoid a perilous drop over a cliff. We are beginning to suggest to anyone who will listen that zip lines for the Inca trail would not be a bad option. Incas were quite innovative, they very likely had them in place back in the day.
At the base of the descent we arrive at Sayacamarca. Probably the most significant ruin on the Inca trail itself. To date not so many ruins, seems they have been saving these for the end. Access to the ruins is via a deviation from the trail requiring a hefty 100m slog up some steep narrow stairs. Apart from the nice views and smooth stones it is pretty standard.
After lunch as the terrain suggests we climb up out of the valley once again. The trail winding its way around the side of a mountain rather than heading up over a pass as we’ve been used to. Some of the trail reminding us of walks in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Wentworth Falls valley of the waters in particular as water trickled down the mountain side over the trail. About three hours of this, through a few tunnels and arrive at our camp for the night perched on the clifftop of Phuyupatamarca.
This camp option is a strategic play by Leo. I tell you why. Most Inca treks finish their 3rd day further down the valley at Winay Wayna. That way they can be sure to arrive at the Macchu Picchu ruins via the Sun Gate at appropriate time for sunrise. Sounds reasonable. ‘Why aren’t we doing that Leo?’ I tell you why.
Approximately 496 of the 500 trekkers on our allotted trek schedule will be at this crowded, putrid camp. They leave at 3am to then walk mostly in the dark along a fairly dangerous trail in a constant hustle and bustle with all the other trekkers. They do this for 3 hours all the way to the Sun Gate, often losing track of each other en route.
Meanwhile the 4 of us enjoy the solitude of our current camp atop the mountain enjoying spectacular views of the Andes mountains. We will head off early in the morning also and arrive at the Sun Gate mid morning around the same time as the first bus load of day trippers arrive at the bottom of the ruins. So we still get uncrowded access to Machu Picchu. We also get the entire trail to ourselves for the final day. To us this seems the better option too.
The only hidden catch is that immediately upon leaving camp in the morning we begin a 5000 stair descent. But that’s future us’ problem, tonight we are treated to a cloudless sky and a billion stars as we rug up in our warm gear including the ethnic cholos and take pictures overlooking the valley. Allison and Lesley have an amusing incident involving a spray on shampoo which sparks the curiosity of the porter crew popping their heads out their tent in the direction of the cackling infectious laughter. It’s safe to say spray on shampoo is worse than it even sounds.
This stop is also the porters farewell as they do not continue to Macchu Picchu but take a short cut down to Aguas Calientes (the main town of Macchu Picchu) and drop our bags before continuing on the porter train back to their respective villages. Or, most likely jump on the next tour headed up the trail to make the most of the trekking season. The closing ‘ceremony’ with the porters is nice. It’s always hard to interact fully but they are genuinely friendly.
The ceremony is of course where we hand over our tips. Much discussion amongst ourselves to this point and an accumulation of US dollars to count out individual porter, sous chef, chef and guiding tips becomes a serious game of international diplomacy! But we feel we gave what we could and what they deserved. Knowing we were half Aussies they were probably not expecting much anyway!
But we are glad for our peaceful camp. Apparently the other camp can also get quite rowdy as it is the last night of the trek. So we settle in for a chilly nights sleep at 3,600m atop a mountain in the Andes.
Statistics for the day:
Ascent: 596m at 2m per minute
Descent: 509m at 5m per minute
Overnight altituide: 3,700
Highest point: 3,950