My alarm went off at 4:30am. I was immediately wide awake. In just a few hours I would be starting the 4 day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I felt a flash of nerves rush over me as I tried to steel myself for getting out from the warm heavy blankets into the frigid Andean morning chill. I was ecstatic and nervous. I had camped, and I had hiked dozens of times, but I had never done a multi-day trek before.
Would I be able to do it? What if I can’t make it over Dead Woman’s Pass? What if I get sick and have to turn back?
These thoughts rushed through my mind as I got myself ready, but I pushed them away. This is going to be incredible. I smiled, and stuffed my camera in my pack.
Our trekking company, Peru Treks, picked Garren and I up at 5:20am just as the stars were beginning to fade. We boarded the bus and met our guides, Manny and Edy. We rolled through the streets of Cusco, up and down its steep hills barely scraping by the buildings in our giant coach bus as we picked up each trekker in our group. Drama hit before we even left Cusco, when a traffic jam led to a spitting war between our bus driver and some other drivers. The roadblock cleared, and we were on our way.
The bus took us to Ollantaytambo, along the familiar route I raved about earlier. This time, as we looked down into one of the small towns, things looked a bit different. What I first thought was morning mist, turned out to be a building fire. The smoke plumed up and settled over the valley, and we descended into it as we made our way through town, continuing on to Ollantaytambo.
We arrived in Ollantaytambo for breakfast and picked up some last minute essentials for the trail: 2 giant bottles of water and a bag of coca leaves. The coca leaf tradition goes way back, and is perhaps how the Incas accomplished so much. When you put the leaves in your mouth and form them into a ball, it releases the chemicals that help with altitude effects and improve your endurance. Locals add a bit of lye to help release the alkaloids in the leaves. You can see how to correctly chew coca here so you don’t make the mistake I did and have a bunch of chewed up leaves to spit out.
We got to know our trekking group over breakfast in Ollantaytambo, and I was relieved to find out that we weren’t the only first timers. After breakfast, we went straight to the start of the classic Inca Trail, km 82.
Side note: If you’re a wuss like me, don’t sit by the window on the bus. I peered down into ravines and over cliffs as our bus rumbled along over rickety bridges less than a foot from the edge. Ignorance is bliss.
We pulled up to a staging area with a few other buses and dozens of touts selling last minute trail items from candy and water to bandanas and scarves. When we had booked the trek months ago, Garren and I had taken Peru Treks up on their offer to hire a porter (half of one, to be exact) to carry some of our stuff. We were each handed duffel bags to fill with 12kg of weight for the porters to carry. I put my clothes, sleeping bag, inflatable sleeping pad, and wrap-a-nap (aka pillow) in there, and was well under the 12kg limit, but my pack felt as light as air. I was really only carrying my water, first aid kit, snacks, and camera gear. Once we were zipped up and ready to go, I finally noticed my surroundings. I couldn’t believe where I was.
At 11am, Manny and Edy led our group of 16 to the checkpoint where our permits would be checked and our passports stamped. With our packs and gear among all these trekkers, we felt like real adventurers!
With the definitive smack of the stamps hitting our passports, we were officially on the Inca Trail. We crossed the Urubamba River and looked back at the checkpoint to wait for the rest of our group.
We started our trek walking along the Urubamba River with beautiful views of Mt. Verónica behind us. The first couple hours were on mostly flat terrain. It was warm and sunny, and we passed mud-brick homes with families working in their vegetable gardens, chickens roaming the yards, and dogs sunning in the grass.
Donkeys and ponies grazed along the trail, refueling after delivering
food and water candy and inka cola to hungry trekkers.
Fresh with energy and excitement, we walked briskly and in packs. We hadn’t had enough time to spread out yet. Despite our energy and speed, we were passed frequently by sandal-clad porters carrying giant backpacks on their shoulders, some of them jogging up the hills. They made us look like wimps as we trotted along with our light packs, trekking poles, and hiking boots. This was the beginning of a theme for the trip.
After an hour or so, we made our first stop as a group and had our last chance to use a real toilet. We gathered around off to the side of the trail and Manny and Edy gave their first official introduction, welcoming us to the trail. We all introduced ourselves and shared our trekking experience, which for most of the group was next to nothing. Our group was mostly young travel-lovers in their 20’s and 30’s and two older couples in their 50’s and 60’s. The old-timers had the most hiking experience of anyone. My fears were already fading. Perhaps the adorable puppy that joined our group had something to do with it.
We continued to follow the trail along the river, seeing fewer and fewer signs of civilization as we went.
We crossed a stream and started heading up. We were faced with our first big climb that got us breathing hard, but we knew it would pale in comparison to tomorrow’s climb. We trudged up that hill with confidence.
As the trail started to veer away from the Urubamba River, we stopped for a view of some Inca ruins called Llactapata, but mostly we all went crazy over the cute baby donkey grazing nearby.
The rest of the day we hiked up and down with short breaks to catch our breath. It helped that our starting altitude was lower than Cusco, where we’d been acclimating for 3 days. I was feeling great.
Before long, my stomach was rumbling, though some of that could have been from my botched coca leaf chewing. I’d been munching on the leaves and ground them up before realizing that made it taste awful. I made a mental note to ask our guide, Manny, how its done. Soon we crossed over a bridge to find a place to eat lunch.
We arrived at the lunch stop to find a dining tent set up with tables and chairs, and the porters there to greet us with a cup of juice.
“Are you kidding me?” Garren asked me as we approached. I hadn’t fully prepared him for this level of glamping, and he was expecting something along the lines of trail mix and beef jerky. Our cook had whipped up a 3 course meal of chips and guac, vegetable soup, and trout with rice and veggies. I had heard the food was impressive on the trail, but even I hadn’t expected such elaborate preparations. This was unlike any camping we had ever done.
After lunch, we all sipped tea and chilled for a bit, and I wandered around to take some photos.
I came across two little dogs, and before long one scampered over and asked me for a belly rub. Then her friend got jealous, and she came over for some lovin’ too.
With the group all in a food coma, we gathered around a sign showing the elevation changes on the Inca Trail. It was a bit of a wake up call to see how flat today’s trek appeared in comparison with the rest of the map.
We hiked for a few more hours after lunch, working our way gradually uphill into the trees. We spent some time at this snack shop, stocked by the pack animals we’d seen along the way. With all of the breaks we were taking, the hiking was pretty easy.
We arrived at our campsite by 5pm, and all of our tents were set up in two rows on a flat grassy ledge. The porters had rushed ahead to set up camp, and were now busy getting dinner ready. What service! I collected my duffel, gave myself a wet-wipe shower, then changed into some camp clothes. It felt so good!
Garren and I were low on water so we bought three 1.5L bottles at a whopping S/.10 ($3.40) each from the woman selling at our camp. We had some time before dinner, so I spent it taking in the mountain views and getting to know our new friends while the porters ran back down the trail to join in a game of football. We laughed at how wimpy we all must seem to them as we struggle up the easy hills stopping for breaks all the time.
Dinner was as elaborate as our lunch. We had potatoes with cheese, broccoli cake, potato soup, chicken legs and rice. We finished each meal with a special tea made by the chef called muña, an herb that is strongly aromatic and minty that helps with digestion. It was delicious, and smelled amazing.
After dinner I paid my first visit to the notorious Inca Trail toilets. They were squat toilets, in a small stall with a tile floor and two ridged places to place each foot. A small basin and drain was sunken into the floor. No seat, just that little hole in the floor that you have to squat over. It was a little awkward, but not terrible. I’d certainly seen worse toilets camping.
Night came, and the stars brightened. The mountains framed the speckled sky and I could see the Milky Way stretched between two mountain peaks. The porters joked and laughed in the big tent behind us. They were speaking their native language, Quechua, but I can guess they were laughing at us foreigners panting our way up the mountain all day. As we zipped up our tents and snuggled into our sleeping bags, I drifted off to sleep to the sound of one cranky donkey cackling in the distance.
If you are planning to trek the Inca Trail in 2015, you should book soon (6 months in advance). Peru Treks is already filling up for May 2015. We booked at the end of December for an early June trek. High (and dry) season is June-Aug. Rainy season is Nov-March. The trail is closed in February for clean-up
Did you enjoy this post? Subscribe to the email list below to receive the next installment when it’s posted.
Read the next installment, Inca Trail: Day 2 – Dead Womans Pass.