Letter: Inca Trail

This is a really long post; it is just too hard to whittle it down. I thought about breaking it up into smaller pieces, but I think it all belongs together. I will forgive you if you don’t read the whole thing, but at least skim the photos. We had perfect weather and unbelievable views.

Hard to believe, but this Inca Trail was my 5th. Or 5th and half, since Jeff and I hiked a 2-day version back in 2001. The first time I hiked was 1986. I was 14 years old. My parents recruited two other families from River Forest and my cousin from New Jersey. In all we were 7 teenagers and about as many adults. Back then, there were no regulations, checkpoints, or assigned camp sites. Not very many people hiked the Inca Trail in the 1980s. As I recall there was a group of Germans we saw sporadically. We heard them from our campsite at night while they clinked beer bottles together from the other side of a mountain. But other than them, not a soul on the trail. In my 20s I hiked it three more times. Then came medical school, residency, babies, etc. It’s been 20 years since I hiked the real deal. Each time I hiked was a very different experience, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to do it multiple times. Depending on the weather and the time of day you hike, you see different things. One time I watched clouds float through the mountains like a river below me. Another time I camped at almost 13,000 feet and woke to frost covering everything. One time I watched hummingbirds swarm a flower, and another time I watched a full moon rise and cast shadows on the dark night below. This time was different too. It was spectacular to retrace my twenty year old steps, to see the same landscapes with new eyes, to experience the mountains and the ruins with Jeff, and to watch my own kids run ahead with their friends the same I did so many years ago.

Our trek started early on July 5th. In total we hiked for four days. Carmen named each day: The Hot Day, The Hard Day, The Long Day, The Early Day. The names are pretty accurate, so I’ll use them here.

The Hot Day

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All smiles before we start.

The first day was definitely the easiest day, but it sure was hot. We started in a town called Chilca. It used to be that there was a clearing in the grass alongside the river and groups would organize backpacks, meet the porters, and be off. Now there is quite an infrastructure, with bathrooms, a museum, and a parking lot for busses. We met our porters and while they divided our food, tents, and gear between them, we got our own packs cinched and packed just right. We applied lots of sun screen and put on our hats because the sky was blue and the sun was blazing. We finally put our packs on and went through the first check point. We showed our passports and the clerks made sure we were registered for the trek. Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail per day. The demand is high, and we secured our spots back in October when we sent in our deposit and copies of our passports. Luckily all was in place and we crossed the bridge, took a few group photos, and started the trek. Our guide, Alex, called the first day “Peruvian flat” which means mostly flat with intermittent ups and downs. There were several other groups, and we leap frogged them that first day. We didn’t walk very far, but the sun was blazing and we worked up a sweat. Most of the morning was spent walking alongside the river with beautiful views of the snow covered mountain called Veronica. She was with us the whole first day, then reappeared on our third day when we emerged from the mountain passes.

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Veronica keeping watch.
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Jeff had a banana in his pocket. Really, he did.
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Llactapata.

Just before lunch we looked down on Llactapata, the last ruins we would see before turning into a valley that led us away from the Urubamba River. We had a long lunch break, complete with siestas and kids exploring the surrounding river.  Our first campsite was just beyond a small town called Huayllabamba. There were locals selling cold beer and sodas. We camped in what seemed like their backyards.

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Huayllabamba campsite map.
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Jeff, Ethan, and Dave choosing tents.

The kids played with the cutest little puppy who might or might not have passed along his fleas to one of my children (no names). We had happy hour which consisted of popcorn and tea, followed by dinner. Our cook was amazing. He managed to cook stellar meals (for 15 of us) three times a day, using only propane fueled burners. And the food was phenomenal. We are talking restaurant quality, complete with vegetables carved into different animals. Always a soup course, main course, and dessert. If you ever hike the Inca Trail, make sure that Sebastian is your cook.

As soon as the sun went behind the mountains, a chill set in. We bundled into our down jackets and disappeared into our yellow tents for the night.

The Hard Day

 

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Still smiling. But a little cold.

Early wake-up call on Day 2. We met in the dining tent for coffee and breakfast, then got our packs ready ready. We knew this would be a long day, the day we would cross the first pass, aptly named Warmiwañusca or Dead Woman’s Pass. With the sun barely out, we were still cold from the night. We started hiking with long sleeve shirts and down jackets. The trail turned upward and we quickly warmed up. Another checkpoint and we peeled off some layers. The climb was brutally up. We all fell into our natural rhythms, spaced ourselves according to pace, and put one foot in front of the other. We had multiple stops along the way, where locals put out baskets of snacks and cold drinks to purchase. Our big rest stop was a place called Llulluchapampa. As soon as we stopped moving the chill returned because the sun was not fully up over the mountain. I remember this site from way back in 1986 when we spent a cold night trying to stay warm. Back then it was remote and desolate; we were the only people for miles. In 2018 it was teeming with people. There were even bathrooms! Someone had a radio and was listening to the World Cup. It was surreal for me to think it could possibly be the same place. There must have been 100 people taking a break before tackling the last climb to the first pass. We ate some snacks, and warmed up in the sun that finally peeked over the rocks.

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Carmen on the final ascent to Warmiwañuska.

And then we started up to the pass. I walked most of that part of the trail alone. I found my stride and couldn’t go faster or slower. The air felt thin, and my pack felt heavy. I definitely felt forty something and not twenty something. It was a hard climb for me, but I was determined to make it. When I finally reached the top, I was overwhelmed. I felt relieved and happy, but was also hit with a huge wave of emotion that I wasn’t expecting. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I found a rock around the corner so no one would see me. I felt ridiculous. Everyone was celebrating the ascent, the achievement of climbing from 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet in a few short hours, and all I could do was bury my face in my hands. I could not make the tears stop. I think part of it was dehydration and altitude. (My breathing was funny, my heart was racing.) But another part of it was remembering the other times I had climbed this same trail. Remembering the girl and the woman I was each time. Taking stock of the 30 years in between. Knowing that this would likely be the last time I climbed to Dead Woman’s Pass. Watching my kids make their first ascent and wondering if this was the first of many climbs for them. I finally pulled myself together enough to take a few photos and admire the view on the other side.

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Boys reached to top first.
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Youngest, most energetic, and most fart noises.
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Having my moment.
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Warmiwañuska. 14,000 feet.

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Once our whole group was back together, I snapped back to reality. We spent the rest of the afternoon descending into another valley. Most of the kids ran ahead with one of our guides, while the adults methodically plodded down the stone trail carefully tending to knees and ankles.

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Steep downs.

We arrived to our campsite, happy to see the tents already set up with basins of warm water for each of us. I washed my face then soaked my feet. It felt so good to take off those boots and put on camp sandals. Popcorn in the happy hour tent soon followed.

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That evening we gathered with the porters and everyone introduced themselves. This was a welcome change from my past treks where the porters and the hikers did not have much interaction. One by one each told us his name, where he was from, and how many years working on the Inca Trail. We did the same. The kids made friends with the porters, especially the youngest ones. It wasn’t uncommon for a porter to pass us on the trail and ask “Where’s Charlie?” with a big smile on his face. I don’t think many 9 year olds hike the Inca Trail, so our group was unique that way.

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We all fell into bed that night. It was our coldest night, and I don’t think anyone had a good night sleep, but I got a few hours.

The Long Day

This is a most appropriate name for Day 3, because we started early and ended late. We traversed two more passes and covered 15 miles. It could also have been called the beautiful day, the magical day, the elation day. Or the stair day. In general, our stopping points were determined by our campsites. Back in the day when things weren’t so regulated the guides could be more selective about where to have lunch and where to camp. But now, we were assigned numbered spots, so we had to keep on trucking until we arrived. It’s hard to say that my favorite day on the Inca Trail doesn’t include Machu Picchu, but I loved Day 3.

Despite being woken up to a cold, dark morning, we got moving quickly and watched the sun rise over the mountains on our way up the second pass. At first a few rays peeked over like spotlights onto our side of the valley, then one by one the rays coalesced into daytime. Immediately the temperature rose and we shed our warm layers. Shortly after sunrise we stopped to visit more ruins. The light was perfect.

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For most of the morning I found myself walking alone. Jeff’s natural pace is faster than mine. He and the boys were usually at the front of the pack. I was more in step with Carmen’s pace, but she had her friends and would often run ahead or stay behind. Sometimes I’d walk with our friends, waiting for each other at switch backs and moving over for the porters to pass by. “Porter on the right” we’d yell, as we moved over huffing and puffing and they raced by us with giant packs carrying pots, pans, stoves, and tents. It was definitely humbling. At least now the porters wear hiking boots and carry specialized packs; back on my previous trails they wore sandals made from old tires, and carried the gear wrapped in woven blankets.

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Porters on the trail.

The second pass was my pinnacle. I suppose that during my emotional avalanche at the first pass, I wasn’t able to have the elated sense of accomplishment that others had. When I took the last step up to the second pass Jeff was there to greet me with an expectant look in his eyes. He took my hand and looked intently at my face to see if there would be more tears. I just laughed and said “all good today.” We climbed up even further and reveled in the 360 degree views all around us. We could see the first pass behind us, the valley we’d climbed out of, and the valley into which we were about to descend. There were snow covered mountains towering above deep green mountains jutting up from the valley floor. I felt like I was on the top of the world. We stayed at the second pass for a while. Charlie and his buddy Ian were taking selfies with all the 20 something girls who thought they were the cutest. More family photos (Charlie climbed up a different peak with Ian) and group hugs all around. I even did a headstand.

I descended from the second pass feeling great and ready to tackle the rest of the day. The descent slowed people down because of the steepness of the stairs. Some of the stairs were carved right into the rock by the Incas. The stairs slowed Jeff down, which meant we got to walk this part of the trail together along with the other adults. Most of the kids ran ahead, with Charlie and Ian yelling “We are downhill monsters” and leaving us in their dust. Even the guides had a hard time keeping up with them. We stopped at more ruins along the way to lunch, and saw even more across the valley.

After lunch, we had beautiful views of of the snow covered mountain Salkantay. We walked through tunnels and watched the flora change to a more mossy, jungle like feel. We started to see orchids on the side of the trail.

We made it to the top of the 3rd pass by mid-afternoon. More celebration, more photos, more smiles. We could feel ourselves getting closer, and we could see Veronica, the snow covered mountain that hovered over us on the first day. We’d started to emerge from the mountains, back to the Urubamba River below. The views were gorgeous, blue skies and mountains all around.

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Top of the third pass.
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Getting a little greasy and grungy. 

After the third pass, there were more stairs and more spectacular views. Everyone’s knees were starting to feel it. My legs quivered with each step down. We’d been walking for almost nine hours before we finally made it to the last set of ruins before our final campsite. We rested on the rocks and grass while the whole group filtered in.

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The unbelievable views kept on coming.
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Getting close. 

From there it was not long before we made our way to Winaywinay, our resting place for the night. Everyone hiking the Inca Trail camps here for the last night. We passed through multiple camp sites before finally arriving to ours. Basins of warm water were in front of our tents. I soaked my aching feet, and marveled at the view out of our tent. Jeff and I had a tent that looked right out onto the valley below.

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Jeff & me arriving to our last campsite. The porters always clapped for us and I clapped for them.

Everyone went to see the ruins at the edge of our campsite, but since I’d seen them before, I stayed back and wrote in my journal and enjoyed the solitude. That night after dinner, we heard Kate exclaim “fireflies!” outside the dinner tent. We all went out to look, and sure enough there were intermittent bursts of light meandering through the dark sky. The stars were out, and the fireflies looked like tiny earthbound stars sailing through the air. This is the wonder of the Inca Trail. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve hiked it, there will always be something that astounds, delights, and awes. For me, this time it was fireflies. I never would have imagined I’d see that. It was a beautiful image to carry me off to sleep that night.

The Early Day

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We woke up at 3:30am. Quick breakfast, then down to the checkpoint where we waited along with all the other hikers for the gates to open. It was pitch black and cold. The line of people stretched back along the trail, bobbing head lamps like the fireflies from the night before. Some of us sat on the trail using our backpacks as pillows and tried to sleep. Some swayed back and forth trying to stay warm. Finally, the checkpoint opened and we were allowed to start the hike to the Sun Gate. We hiked in the dark, using our headlamps and flashlights to guide the way. The sky started to lighten over the mountains and slowly but surely we could see the trail in front of us without the help of our own lights. It was a beautiful morning with pink sky and crisp mountain tops coming into view. But mostly we looked down on the trail in front us.

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Sunrise behind the mountains.

One foot after the other, until finally we arrived to a rock staircase that went straight up. We climbed, using our hands as well as our feet. At the top we arrived at the Sun Gate or Inti Punku and had our first view of Machu Picchu, not yet bathed in the full light of the sun, but aglow in the hues of dawn with mystical mist and clouds hovering.

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Our guide hurried us down from the crowd at the Sun Gate to a place where we watched the sun emerge over the mountains across the river. Suddenly Machu Picchu below us was illuminated, the clouds and mist disappeared, and it was fully daytime.

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We hiked down among the crowds that had come on the train. We were tired and dirty and sweaty and smelly, but also invigorated to have arrived. It was surreal to finally be in Machu Picchu. But it felt a little like we had opened the wrong door. We’d just spent four days on remote trails, and even though the Inca Trail traffic is more than it used to be, it is still a limited number of people hiking long days together. I not only felt camaraderie with our own hiking group, but with the others we passed along the way. We exchanged hellos, heard some of their stories, and always shared a smile or a few words. And then all of a sudden we were surrounded by thousands of people. A bit taken aback by the throngs of tourists, we made our way down through Machu Picchu to the bus that would take us to our hotel for a hot shower and a nap. We would return to “the wonder,” as our guide called it, in the afternoon.

 

7 thoughts on “Letter: Inca Trail

  1. I love love love your story, your four days of exhaustion and exhilaration! Amazing wonderful beautiful are only some of the words I can say about your journey because there are definitely so many more words that can describe your journey!! Its such a gift you were able to share with your babies!!❤️

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      1. We actually had just gotten to Machu Picchu and while everyone was scrambling to leave in the helicopter we were so lucky to have the place to ourselves because no one could get in. 🙂 the mudslide happened right after we got there😀
        So we had some quiet magical moments and hiked with only a handful of people around the ruins and up Hyanu Picchu and got some great pictures lol

        Really loved the sound of your adventure so so wonderful we hope to get back there with the kids someday !

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  2. What a joyful and emotional read. You brought back so many memories. I see others now use sticks to help them climb. What an exciting adventure. I was reminded of Dead Woman’s pass and the stop. Do they still sell Orange Fanta? Nothing is as breathtaking as the first view of Manchu Picchu through that Sungate. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. And thanks for being my roommate and tentmate all those years ago.

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  3. You’ve captured the magic of this sacred journey (especially for you, Elizabeth). Never having hiked el Camino inka I’ve experienced it vicariously with the same elation you described so well.

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  4. Incredible adventure and so vividly narrated. As a Peruvian I’m sorry not having experienced the magic and hardship of the Inca Trail. I’ve been twice to Machu Pichu but the easy tourist way. It is a Wonder of the World! Happy and proud to see foreigners enjoy their trip to Cusco.

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