In March of 2011, one of my closest friends climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I saw him through all his prep, both physically AND mentally. I logged more hours in REI with him than I thought humanly possible. I helped him pack and repack and then pack just one more time his ginormous backpack. And when he hopped on that plane bound for Tanzania, I knew I had to somehow accomplish an amazing feat of my own.
To be honest, Kili seemed a little much for me and while the Himalayas of Nepal definitely caught my eye, I ultimately decided I would trek 26 miles of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I had always wanted to visit the mystical Inca site so this seemed like the coolest, most unique way to do it…and the bragging rights couldn’t hurt, right?
The trek would take three days. We would be camping along the trail at night and walking the majority of the day. One thing that saved all our butts is that we had porters that carried our camping equipment and had excellent meals waiting for us after our long hikes. They would be last to leave the camp in the morning, then run (RUN!) past us on the trail and already have our camp set up again by the time we arrived. Nothing short of amazing! While we usually tried to say a quick “Hello, friend” as they zoomed by, nothing truly seemed adequate to thank them for their part in our success.
Day One Begins…
I was really quite nervous upon waking the first day in my tiny hotel room in Ollantaytambo. Up to this point my trip had been spent meeting my fellow travelers, roaming though markets and museums in Cuzco, seeing ancient Inca ruins by comfortable bus…basically being tourist. Today though, today I would become a trekker. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make the climb. The vain side of me was worried I would be the last one back to camp at the end of each day. The shy side of me was worried I would be sitting in my tent all by myself for hours since I was the only person that did not have to share one with another group member.
Once we were all gathered in the courtyard of our hotel and handing our bags over to our guide for storage, all of these fears disappeared. Before I knew it, we were all swept up in the excitement of hitting the trail and we never looked back.
The starting point is really quite unassuming. There is a little booth where everyone’s passport and trail permits are checked and you have the option of stamping your passport with an Inca Trail Kilometer 82 stamp. You know I had to do it!
We set off and immediately realized that this part of the trail was not at all remote. Yes, we were in the middle of the Andes Mountains, but we were right off the Sacred Valley where many Peruvians still live. As a matter of fact, they still live on the Inca Trail! And they are kind enough to sell you bottled water and candy as you go. Word to the wise: The price increases the farther along the trial you go, so buy early! We also found ourselves passing by families with their donkeys or lamas hauling goods home. This was the part of the trail that you had to beware of “Inca Coffee”…aka Lama poo!
The ascent was fairly gradual at this point and we stopped here and there for our guide to fill us in on some knowledge of the trail, the vegetation or some ruins. The group stayed together during the hike and we really got a chance to get to know each other. I was the only American in the group which consisted of a guy from Canada, two girls from Denmark, two ladies and a guy from Australia and two pairs from the UK. As we interacted with other groups on the trail (you become fast friends with everyone on a journey like this!), I found that being the only American was a common theme. I can only remember about 3 other Americans the entire time. This was unexpected and in another post I’ll get into the conclusions I have derived in regards to this.
We stopped at a lovely little farm for lunch and I couldn’t stop chasing the piglets around trying to get pictures of them.
After a great filling meal, we set off again and encountered more challenging parts of the trail. Most of the trail is actually flat stones that you have to carefully navigate and often times they create steps you must climb. This was by far the most difficult thing about trekking the Inca Trail. Lots of steps. Also, I had never been in really high altitudes before so I found it very surprising how quickly my heart rate picked up and I found myself out of breath.
We trekked around eight miles that first day. We were tired, but felt exhilarated. The first day was done and we had all made it! It was at this point that our guide pointed to a peak far, far in the distance and told us we would be trekking to that the next day…and then another couple of miles past. I thought he was joking.
You see it in the middle of the picture. Way, WAY out there? Yeah, that was my reaction too.
My fellow trekkers and I were served another delicious meal and afterwards, a local woman brought over a bucket of beers for us to buy! So there we were, in the Andes Mountains, a lightless night upon us, drinking Peruvian beer. Pretty awesome, if I do say so myself!