I awoke to the sound of kettles and metal cups clinking in the cook tent. We were at the highest and coldest campsite on the trail, but I was warm and cozy in my sleeping bag with my warm and lightweight thermoball jacket and llama-wool hat.
After making it past Dead Woman’s Pass the day before, all of my nerves had evaporated. Today I was eager and confident, ready to tackle the 15 km of Inca Trail ahead. It was the longest day of the trek, but it would also be the day that made me repeatedly gasp in awe at the sights that unfolded before me.
I rummaged down by my feet to grab my clothes and spare camera batteries. At near freezing temperatures, I didn’t want my batteries draining overnight, so I had kept them warm in my sleeping bag. I loaded Day 3’s battery into my Canon PowerShot and thank goodness, it was still fully charged.
Edy popped by our tent and served us our morning tea and coffee. Garren and I sat up in our sleeping bags and woke up slowly with our hot drinks. We could get used to this.
Hopping out of the tent, I pulled my hair into a quick french braid, trying to hide the grime from 2 days of not washing it. Soon we were packed up and ready to go, just as the sun exploded from behind the mountains, burning off the chill in the air.
The energy of our group was much more carefree compared to the previous morning. Perhaps the fact that we didn’t have to climb a huge mountain had something to do with it.
Day 3 on the Inca Trail is mostly downhill steps – thus dubbed the “Gringo Killer” – although we still started our trek with an uphill climb. We walked up Runkurakay Pass as a group, stopping to admire some small Inca ruins that used to serve as checkpoints or rest stops for Inca messengers on the trail.
From the ruins, we could easily see Dead Woman’s Pass from the previous day.
As we neared the top, I kept getting whiffs of a foul smell. I tried to discreetly investigate myself, but couldn’t tell where the stench was coming from. I hope it’s not me, I thought to myself.
I soon discovered the picturesque alpine ponds we had passed were actually stinky swamps. Phew! When we realized where the smell was coming from, we all admitted we had been secretly sniffing our armpits on the way up.
When reached the top of Runkurakay Pass, I let out an audible gasp. The view of the vast green jungle and misty mountains before us starkly contrasted the dry orange scrub-land we had come from. I knew we were in for a treat.
We climbed up a little higher and got 360 degree views of the mountains around us.
Garren and I hung out up there watching the puppy from our campsite play with other trekkers at the pass. He must have followed us up there.
After a while Manny, our guide, gathered us for a special offering to the Pachamama (Mother Earth). Manny had told us each to carry a stone up to the pass, and we each placed our stones on a coca leaf. He added some sweets, or in our case, a granola bar, and doused the offerings with a scented oil.
Notice how small those stones are? We weren’t adding any more weight than we had to after yesterday’s grueling climb.
After paying our respects to the Pachamama we continued along the trail, heading slowly down.
After half an hour or so we spotted a large complex of Inca ruins in the distance. It was Sayaqmarka, an Inca temple that was never discovered (nor destroyed) by the Spaniards.
After another half hour downhill trek, we were at the ruins. We waited at the turn-off while the rest of our group caught up, then we climbed the steep stairs. Near the top the drop off to our right was so steep, I clung to the cliff wall and hoped my feet didn’t slip.
In the US this whole thing would be lined with guard rails. I was glad it wasn’t. It felt like it hadn’t changed in five hundred years.
We spent half an hour exploring the Sayaqmarka ruins on our own, taking playful photos, and relishing in the awesomeness of where we were. These were my favorite ruins of the Inca Trail trek.
Then we all took a seat on an ancient stone wall as the sun baked us sleepy and Manny tried to give a history lesson on… something. Sorry guys, I was like a cat napping in a sunny window. At least I managed to snap a photo of Garren listening intently. Or maybe he was daydreaming too.
Lunch was not far away. We had a quick downhill trek and what Manny promised would be no more than 30 seconds of uphill climbing. It may have been 45 seconds, but we let it slide. There was food to be had.
I snuck over to the cook tent to see how our chef Sabino managed to prepare such a feast for every meal. He must have quite the set-up, I imagined.
Damn. Never again will I use my small kitchen as an excuse for not cooking.
After a delicious lunch, we had a quick siesta until it started sprinkling. We cleared out and started along the trail. The rain soon turned to mist as we walked through the clouds.
We came across an Inca tunnel, and stepped through the ancient hand-chiseled passageway.
Day 3 of the Inca Trail was shaping up to be one of the most beautiful yet. With the bright green jungle branches framing the ancient Inca stones, and cliffs dropping off into clouds, let’s just say I made good use of my camera battery and memory card that day.
After a couple of hours, we reached the second pass of the day, and found our camp puppy again, playing with another stray. Manny had told us to wait for the rest of the group at the pass, so we hung out for a bit and explored a hidden path. I thought it might lead to a look-out, so I went to investigate. Sure enough, I was right – and the view was pretty great!
The Phuyupatamarca Ruins beckoned from the look-out.
I kind of lost track of time, and Garren came to find me to say everyone had left for the ruins already. I made him snag a selfie with me before we rushed down to join them.
The Phuyupatamarca Ruins were full of towers, lookouts, and terraces.
From the lookout, we could see straight out to Machu Picchu Mountain, with Machu Picchu just on the other side. We couldn’t see Machu Picchu yet, but it was so close. We were definitely getting the Machu Picchu vibes with all the misty clouds swirling around the lush green mountains.
As we gathered at the lookout and listened to Manny tell us about the ruins, our camp pup trotted over and laid down at my feet.
The next 2-3 hours of trail really lived up to the “Gringo Killer” namesake. We descended roughly 1,000 meters of steep steps. Trekkers with bad knees were not happy campers. Cardio-challenged trekkers (me) were thrilled!
If you didn’t need trekking poles the entire trek, you should still rent some even if it’s just for this single stretch of stairs. I’m not joking around here. Your knees will hate you less.
There are two possible routes to the campsites at Winay Wayna, but we opted for the longer route that was less steep and offered some more Inca ruins. To be honest, I didn’t even see the turn-off for the shorter route.
Many of the Inca ruins in Peru remained hidden beneath jungle overgrowth for hundreds of years until they were uncovered in the 20th century. I never understood how ruins so large and sprawling could go unnoticed for so long until I saw for myself. The jungle surrounding these ruins is quite wild, and people work hard to keep the ruins from being completely overgrown.
The jungle began to thin and I spotted something through the vines.
The ruins at Winay Wayna were sprawling terraces on a steep mountain face. We walked along one of the terraces to watch the sun shine on the green giants before us.
After sitting on the terraces and soaking in the view, we gathered for a group shot as the sun began to set. After several attempts at a jumping shot and a couple near-falls off the terrace, we landed on this one.
We made our final descent down more steep steps, into the campsite at Winay Wayna. By the time we got there, my legs were shaking and my knees were a bit angry with me, but a quick happy hour in the dining tent with some popcorn cheered me right up.
There is one amazing thing about the campsites at Winay Wayna. They have deep sinks, which meant I got to wash my hair. It was glorious. So yes, you can wash your hair on the Inca Trail. Actually, there was a shower too, but there was no way in hell I was going to get under that freezing alpine water. Immersing my head was enough.
We went to sleep early that night, for we would be awoken at 3:30 the next morning. We had to reach Machu Picchu by sunrise!
Stay tuned for the next post to see Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate!