Adventures in Peru, Part 2: The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail…a renowned trek that culminates at the stunning site of Machu Picchu.

We were so lucky to have been able to hike the Inca Trail during our trip to Peru. The feeling of arriving to the Sun Gate at sunrise to look upon the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu is indescribable. It was an absolutely incredible way to visit a historical treasure that I have been wanting to see since I was 12 years old.

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The Gist:

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The Inca trail is 26 miles long (46 kilometers). Normally we walked somewhere between 6 to 9 hours a day for the first three days, and just about 1.5 hours on the last day to get to Machu Picchu. The highest point on the Inca trail is about 12,600 feet (4200 meters) and the trail has a number of different micro-climates that add another interesting element toDSC_0109_2 the trek. The first day is relatively easy. The second day is the hardest because most of the day is uphill until you summit Dead Women’s Pass, the highest point on the Inca Trail. On the 3rd day you cover the most distance and it is moderately difficult, with the beginning being a tough uphill and then the rest of the day being almost all downhill…which has its own difficulties (stone steps + downhill = sore knees). The 4th day is easy to moderate with some steep stairs (somewhere in the neighborhood of 82 stairs) prior to arriving to the Sun Gate and then descending on Machu Picchu.

The Details:

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DSC_0094The first day our tour guide and drive picked us up at 5 AM from our hotel in Cusco. From here, we drove to pick-up the other half of our group, a Brazilian couple (Markus & Maika). We then drove to through the Sacred Valley to kilometer 82, the start of the Inca Trail, with a sort stop in Ollantaytambo for some breakfast along the way. From here, you pass through a checkpoint (and actually get a passport stamp!), and begin the trek over the river and up onto the trail. The first few miles are undulating, with smaller hills, and a couple of steeper climbs, but nothing too tough.DSC_0135_2 It’s kind of like a warm up to the rest of the trek. After a little while, we visited an archaeological site called Llactapata and then stopped for lunch. Following lunch, we continued our hike, arriving to the camping site at Wayllabamba around 4:00ish. This camping site was unique because is is actually on the property of a family who lives in the DSC_0155_2area. Hooray for a real toilet! This would be the last one until Machu Picchu.  After setting up our packs in the tent and taking off our boots, we had tea time and then dinner. Following dinner was an introduction to our porters and chef, before heading off to bed early to prepare for the day tomorrow.

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We woke up at about 5 AM to start the ascent over Dead Women’s Pass (a.k.a. Abra de Warmi Wañusca). DSC_0173_2The interesting thing about day 2 is that due to the altitude, you travel through a number of micro climates, including the cloud forest.  This changed the temperatures throughout the day from cool, to warm/humid, then cold again once we reached the top of the pass. Somewhere along the way to the top of Dead Women’s Pass, we were supposed to have lunch, however, there happened to be some sort of miscommunication, and our porters/chef did not stop. Luckily, Maika and Markus brought enough snacks to feed a me_dead_womens_passsmall army, and Leo knew some friends who were kind enough to give us some bread. We refueled as much as possible and then set out to summit the pass. I think this actually worked out in my favor because it would have been tough to hike at that altitude after eating a huge lunch. Or at least this thought made it okay we didn’t actually have lunch! One of my favorite parts of the trek was this climb up the pass because although it was physically difficult, the support and encouragement complete strangersDSC_0217_2 shared DSC_0216_2with each other on the way was uplifting to be a part of and amazing to experience. Once we reached the top Dead Women’s Pass, we took a break at the top to enjoy the view, learn a little about the history of this part of the trail, make an offering to the Gods as the Incas would have, and then continued down the other side to Pacaymayo, our camp and hopefully, where our food was.

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DSC_0263_2When we arrived at camp, T jokingly yelled at Lucio, our cook, in his broken Spanish, which Lucio just found more funny than serious. To Lucio’s credit, he did feed us until we could not possibly eat any more. We basically ate for a few hours from the time we arrived because “lunch” ran into tea time which ran into dinner. Afterward, the only energy we had left was the energy to get into our tent and pass out.

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To begin our third and final trek day, we woke up around 6 AM and set out on the longest day of the trip. The first part was a pretty steady/steep uphill to Runkurakay (pictured DSC_0329_2above), a really neat historical siteDSC_0298_2 with a breathtaking view. We took a tour of the site, learned about the history/uses of the site (it used to be used as a “hotel” and for food storage), and then continued up the second pass of the trek. Once we summited the second pass, we started our descent until we came to Sayacmarca, a large, well preserved archaeological site with an amazing view of the mountains and valley below.

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We stopped and explored Sayacmarca before heading to the lunch spot at Chaquiqocha, which IMG_0872was actually a dry lake. After lunch, we continued to Phyuyupatamarka, but we were a little short on time, so we saw the site from the bottom, learned a bit of the history (it was a sacrificial site with quite a large sacrificial table) and then continued our descent to the campsite. Throughout the hike, we got to pass through a few of the Inka stone tunnels and had a number of great opportunities to enjoy the mountain vistas. We ended up at Winay Wayna to camp for our last night a bit late, but we were able to have plenty of time to enjoy our farewell dinner, and good-bye ceremony with the porters and our chef.

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Me_trailThe 3rd day was amazing in terms of the scenic beauty of the trek, but it Inka_tunnelactually seemed to be the toughest (mentally & physically) for me because of how sore I was from the day before, being tired from waking up early the past few days before, and eating differently than I am used to. We also encountered a fair amount of rain for the last 2 hours of the hike…thankfully we had good rain gear, as it made a world of difference. This day was definitely the day that tested my mental toughness the most. I failed the test a few times, but I was able to succeed at regaining it every so often by stopping to enjoy the scenery. This would always bring me back to the present moment and how important this trek was to me.

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When I woke up on the morning of the 4th day, it hit me that I was finally going to get to see Machu Picchu.  If it wasn’t for that, the 3 AM wake-up call would have been quite a bit more brutal than it was. The excitement took over and kept me going all day. I had told T one of the most important things to me was to get to the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) for sunrise. I should know by now that when the man has a mission…he will do almost anything to complete it. He had us hauling on the last 3 miles of the hike as well as continuing to offer encouragement to keep me going at that ridiculous pace. We ended up passing everyone ahead of us to arrive at the Sun Gate for sunrise, and have about 2-3 minutes of peace to ourselves at the gate before the others arrived.

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It was truly an amazing experience to share that moment of triumph with T, especially after the physical effort it took to get there (that day and for the previous 3 days).  We hiked to the Sun Gate in just under an hour when it normally takes around 1.5 hours to complete that section of the hike. Around the time when we were bear crawling up the steep steps, I was thanking our CrossFit coach for the rough workouts we endured before the trip. For me, the most satisfying part of arriving to the Sun Gate was that despite my worrying, I proved to myself that I was able to complete the trek on my own while carrying my (28 pound) pack the entire way.

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My Thoughts and Personal Experience:

Yes, it is tough at times. No, it is not impossible…”anything is possible in Peru,” as our amazing tour guide, Leo would ever so kindly remind us multiple times throughout the day. Yes, it is totally worth it. Yes, I would do it again. Yes, it is stunning from the moment you step onto the trail. Yes, some of your experiences and the enjoyment of the trip will come from the quality of your tour guide and company you are with, so do some research. Yes, it is important to approach the trip with an open mind and a positive attitude.

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Sexy Cuys!

There’s no doubt about it…we got very lucky on this trip. We had an amazing tour guide, Leo, who is now forever in our life in the form of a stuffed guinea pig (“cuy” in Spanish) that was a parting gift from the awesome Brazilian couple, Markus & Maika, that we had the opportunity to share our journey with. Team USA and Team Brazil collectively known as the “Sexy Cuys”…we made an awesome group that meshed together instantly. We are incredibly grateful to have been able to meet and get to know these amazing people, even if it was only for a few days.

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The Inca Trail was all about enjoying the journey, which is certainly easy to forget to do when the going gets tough. However, the idea of taking the time to enjoy the journey was another reason why I loved this trek.  For those of you that know me better than others, you may be aware that staying in the moment is something I struggle with often. I was determined to approach this trip differently and was proud of myself for continuing to remind myself to stay present and truly enjoy the journey, not just the destination. There were times when I surprised myself because I felt compelled to stop just to soak in the natural beauty and enjoy the moment. I kept finding myself not realizing how long we were actually hiking because I was mesmerized by the scenery. I couldn’t stop staring at my surroundings or commenting on how beautiful it was.

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However, the Inca Trail was truly more than a beautiful trek. For me, it was also a spiritual journey, a chance to get to know myself better, and a chance to grow. No matter how much you train or how good of shape you are in, there will be times that the trail is very difficult and requires you to be mentally tough. This trek was a profound growing experience filled with a wide range of emotions from feeling extremely happy, proud, and accomplished to feeling frustrated and overwhelmed at times. Overall, it was an incredibly positive experience, but at times, I of course struggled with maintaining my mental toughness and working through experiencing physical discomfort. Whenever I felt I was struggling, I would remind myself to pause and take a look around to enjoy the stunning scenery and think about how lucky I was to be able to have this experience. I was truly surprised at how well I was able to ground myself and how much it helped instantly fill me with happiness and gratefulness to fuel me to continue along the trail.

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On this trip, I learned quite a bit about myself and my capabilities, as well as how to harness that mental toughness when things got a bit rough. I completed this journey making 3 new amazing friends, having grown as a person by becoming more insightful and understanding, having accomplished a big goal in my life, and taking away a ton of great memories to share with T for many years to come. I highly recommend considering doing the Inca Trail if you are planning on visiting Machu Picchu!

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Don’t worry…I won’t leave you hanging…look out for my upcoming post on Machu Picchu! Until then, remember, not all who wander are lost…

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2 Comments

  1. A Draudt says:

    Did you spend any time in Cuzco? Lima? Which did you fly into and why?
    Did anyone in your party experience altitude sickness? Had you taken preventive measures?
    How did you train? You mention crossfit and paleo. Could you please say more?
    What clothing and gear did you take? Tent? Sleeping bag? Anything you wished you’d had?

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    • Hi There,

      Yes, we did spend quite a bit of time in Cusco. We used it as a base, as many of the tours leave from there. We spent a 2.5 days there before going to the Amazon and then 2 more days there prior to hiking the Inca Trail. We flew nonstop to Lima and then took a connecting flight directly to Cusco. We later took a flight to Lima, stayed for a few days, and then a nonstop flight back home (leaving from LA, this was the best option for us). Cusco’s airport is pretty small, you will likely have to go through Lima or another connecting city to get there (depending on where you are coming from).

      Cusco is great to spend time in prior to the Inca Trail. There are quite a few great sights in the city and the surrounding Sacred Valley area is awesome to explore. We really enjoyed our time there. Cusco is actually at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu so it really helps your adjust. We did experience a little altitude sickness in Cusco (for us, it seemed to hit us on the 2nd day)…mostly a bit of a stomachache for me, and a headache for my husband.

      If you spend a few days in Cusco to adjust, you will avoid experiencing altitude sickness on the trail. Only one day’s hike ascends to a higher than the altitude of Cusco, and you descend back down to a lower altitude the same day…so we didn’t have any issues on the actual trail. They sell pills called Sorojchi pills that are for preventing altitude sickness. As a precaution, and per the advice of our tour guide, we took these on the 2nd day of the trail just to prevent sickness, and it seemed to work nicely! We didn’t take any of the pills in Cusco because we didn’t know about them until the night before the Inca Trail.

      As far as training goes, we worked out regularly and hiked regularly (we are pretty active and would do this anyways), so we didn’t do anything specifically to train for it. We had done a backpacking trip in the May prior to going (we went to Peru in September), which was 10 miles to get to the camp, and 10 miles out, so I knew I could handle the mileage of the hike with a pack on. I figured if I was in general good shape, I wouldn’t have an issue. The altitude certainly makes things harder because you are a bit oxygen deprived, but pacing yourself works wonders. Be attuned to your body and take little breaks as you need them, and you’ll be fine. We really didn’t do any specific training as we are very active on a regular basis.

      Also, if you’re worried about the weight of your gear, you can hire a porter to carry all of your belongings besides what you need for the day (i.e. water/snacks/rain gear), making the hike quite a bit easier. We hiked with our full packs ourselves, but I just wanted to prove to myself I could accomplish it 🙂

      As far as gear goes, we had been stocking up on our camping/backpacking gear so we were pretty well prepared. You don’t need to bring a tent (or sleeping bag) as you have to go with a group or with a guide and they usually provide/carry the tents. We rented a sleeping bag from the tour company and were very warm, as at the time we didn’t have an adequate sleeping bag. I wish we had brought our own backpacking sleeping bag because their bag was pretty heavy. I would definitely bring a sleeping pad (we have inflatable light weight ones, as those aren’t provided).

      Insect repellent, headlamps, hiking poles (SO helpful, there are lot of large stairs), GOOD hiking boots (we bought a nice pair of Salomon high tops that we loved and broke in beforehand), good quality & thick hiking socks, hand sanitizer, bath wipes & face wipes, camelback (or similar type of water container you can fill up and easily access), and snacks (the tour operators provide food & some snacks, but I liked having extra along the trail) are also must haves.

      I would say THE most important gear is rain gear. It’s pretty likely it’ll rain at some point on the trail, and hiking while sopping wet really isn’t fun. A good waterproof jacket (you are probably looking at spending $150-$200 on a good jacket) and rain pants (we had ones we could easily put on over our hiking pants) are ESSENTIAL. Otherwise we took normal hiking clothes (we took a pair of pants you could zip off into shorts) and things we could layer. The Inca trail is a VERY different climate from Cusco (Cusco was pretty cold in September)…it’s basically a high altitude rain forest so the temperatures vary pretty widely along the trail. At times we were just in short sleeves and our shorts because it got hot, but at the top of the Inca Trail (Dead Women’s Pass) it was chilly. Diverse clothing you can layer and warm clothes for the nights and in case temperatures drop are good to have.

      What time of the year are you planning on going? Do you have any other questions or did this help? (sorry for the length of the response, I wanted to make sure I included everything I could think of!).
      
~Rachel

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