Four am came bright and early. It was the third consecutive day of rising at ungodly hours and my body was starting to notice the lack of sleep. I was exhausted beyond belief yet exhilarated for today was finally day one of trekking the ancient Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is part of the the incredible Inca road system which was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America. What makes this trek so incredible is its combination of awe-inspiring scenary, culture, and mystery. For after four days walking, you rise at dawn and come upon the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu (before the tourists have arrived by train) and see the sight in all its glory. An amazing experience!
We packed our gear for the four-day trip in the bright blue, ugly plastic knapsack provided by our tour company and to be used for our Quechua porters who would be carrying our gear for us along the trail. Looking back, I much would have preferred that they carried our belongings in a large backpack as it felt inhuman to make them carry these makeshift packs, tied to their backs. But I didn’t know and understand as much as I do now about trekking and the social obligations of humane treatment and respect of porters. This was my first trek I’ve ever done and became the turning point for me in how I like to travel (i.e. by foot….the best way in my opinion).
We met our bus at 5 am, too early to really have any sort of breakfast, and boarded the jammed pack mini-bus which would take us to the start of the Inca trail. Getting out of Cusco and its surroundings took forever. We continually made stops to pick up other trekkers as well as our porters.
About half-way through the drive we stopped at a small, run-down village where we had a quick breakfast at a local tea house and then were rounded up to board another, much smaller bus. We were a bit confused about why we were changing buses until we found out that the main highway to the Inca Trail was closed and we would need a smaller 1960s-styled bus in order to make the bridge crossings on the “detour” route. I didn’t quite understand what they meant by that statement yet decided to just go with the flow. Then, the adventure began….
Above is a photo of the village we stopped in for breakfast. I could see the Andes mountains summoning me, hidden behind the low rising clouds in the background.
As often happens in a foreign country where there are language barriers, we had no idea why we were changing buses from the big to the small and then why we had to wait for thirty minutes on the bus before leaving. It wasn’t explained until our cook finally boarded the bus, a half an hour later.
There were five other people from all over the world, joining us on our four-day trek along the Inca Trail. As the days went by, we would get to know each one of them quite well and were lucky to have a great group of people with no spoilers. We also had a guide with us named Limas, our cook and several porters who were Quechua, the indiginous people of Peru. Apparently all the porters are farmers and do porter work on the side because it pays better at $4 per day and they are guaranteed to be fed three meals a day (reality check: the average salary in Peru was less than $1,000 a year…less than the cost of my trip). Unfortunately none of the porters spoke English or Spanish making it impossible to communicate with them. The local language of Peru is Quechua which was the official language until the Spanish conquistadors took over the country and brought along their Spanish language and culture.
As we proceeded along, the driver drove like a maniac, constantly honking his horn at any obstacle in his path from goat, donkeys, pigs and even people! Then, a bit further out of the village I suddenly realized that the paved road had somehow magically disappeared and we were on some kind of rural, gravel road that was extremely bumpy and very narrow.
I tried not to think about any surprise encounters with an unsuspecting goat or worse yet, villager, and held my breath to fight the motion sickness that was engulfing my already queasy stomach.
Thankfully we couldn’t go very fast given the poor roads. Our first bridge crossing was awaiting ahead. One look at the size of the bridge made me instantly realize why the big bus had to go. We would never have fit!
When we reached the bridge, our small bus came to an abrupt stop and all of the sudden I noticed the porters standing up and getting off the bus. “Everyone out!” Limas cried. Confused, we got off the bus and were told to cross the bridge and wait on the other side. It took me a minute to figure out the problem.
We never would have made it across with the extra weight of the passengers! Culture shock!
We watched our bus, crossing our fingers that the bridge wouldn’t collapse and breathed a heavy sigh of relief once it successfully crossed.
The rest of the ride to KM 82, the start of the Inca Trail, was even crazier and it felt as if we were in some nutty movie scene. The bus following us got stuck in a mud patch and then out went the porters who had to push and pull the old bus out to drier land. The scene was hysterical. The trials and tribulations of traveling in a third world country, huh. And, Phew….another relief!
We thought we were saved yet then came another bridge and another. At this point, the road was hardly visible and we drove right next to the edge of a twenty foot drop into the river with only a foot on each side of the bus to spare. What a way to go! I thought, anxious but trying to see the comedy in the situation. Meanwhile a foreign woman started to scream “Let me off!” in her broken English.
Of course the road was a one-way and inevitably another bus was to come, which it did, causing us to back-up for ten minutes straight. Everyone on the bus was quiet and had white knuckles by the time we reached KM 82, feeling relieved to get off this piece of sh*t. The trip could only get better, we hoped.
Photo above of me, feeling sick to my stomach but relieved to be off that stinking bus and finally here, safe and sound. It was only 10 am and we had the whole day ahead of us!
My first impression of the area was one of awe and amazement. I was struck by the absolute beauty of my surroundings and the remoteness and mystique. The landscape was very lush and green with rugged mountains jetting up to the sky off in the distance. If you strained your eyes further, you could see the craggy snow-capped peaks of the Andes bursting out of the clouds. The entire place seemed surreal. Like a fantasy-land. No wonder the Incas chose this place to construct their sacred Machu Picchu.
Finally a little past ten, we set off on our way trekking the famous Inca Trail which the Incas built hundreds of years ago.
Our group included seven guests (3 Swiss, 2 Brits, plus my father and I Americans), our guide Limas, two cooks and five porters. Apparently we lucked out with the small size of our group. Normally there can be up to 18 trekkers which in my opinion would not be fun. I prefer the smaller, more intimate groups when it comes to hiking.
The first part of the hike is through lush, tropical jungle and the gorgeous countryside did not disappoint.
We hiked for two hours, talking and laughing especially at the random passing of a wild pig on the trail (photo below) until we came upon a nice, grassy place for lunch.
Our cooks set up shop, making a fire and cooking us a fresh meal of homemade chicken vegetable soup and spaghetti with tomato sauce from scratch for lunch. It was surprisingly good and everyone ate heartily while enjoying the views of the distant waterfalls.
Here are some views of our lunch spot:
With cloud cover….
With less clouds….we can almost see the snow-capped peaks sticking out in the distance.
After a delicious lunch, we packed up and were off again trekking. The porters rushed ahead to get to our destination first so they could have our tents ready to go. I was amazed by their speed, agility and strength, especially given that they were practically half my height!
The first day of the world-famous trek along the Inca Trail in Peru brings you to the fantastic hilltop ruins of Huillca Raccay. The Incas built this watch fort here since it offered the perfect view up and down the Urubamba Valley as well as the entrance to the Cusichaca valley, allowing them to watch for upcoming enemies and hold their turf.
At first sight, it looks intimidating, like some kind of ghost town. Yet when you close your eyes and imagine the powerful Incas living here and protecting their grounds, you get a surge of energy and excitement for the final day of the trek along the Inca Trail: The viewing of Machu Picchu, the most incredible Incan ruins in the world.
A closer look….
We continued on along the Inca trail rambling away with our new friends and learning about everyone’s unique life. This is one of my favorite things about trekking. The people you meet.
It felt surreal to be hiking along the very same trail the Incas made hundreds of years ago from scratch. How on earth did they do it? And how did they find this place? The questions added to the mystery of the place and its aura.
The sun slowly began to disappear behind the mountains. We were surely approaching our campground for the first night.
Finally, after about 7.5 miles/12 km we set eyes on our first campsite for the night, an old rundown farm near a village called Wayllabamba. Although the hiking wasn’t the least bit hard, we were all exhausted from the early rise and chaotic start to our day on the bus.
The porters got to work setting up our tents right outside this old, rustic farmhouse while the cooks set up a fire to start another home cooked meal for the group. There was quite a ruckus that night trying to sleep through all the dogs barking and the farm animals squawking about. We ate popcorn later and even enjoyed a Cuscuena (Peruvian beer) each, a rare treat as the porters had to carry it this far. We sat up late talking, enjoying each others’ company and trying to believe we were in this place full of roosters, puppies, dogs and donkeys, en route to the magical Machu Picchu just as the Incas had done hundreds of years before.
Stay tuned…next post is Day 2 trekking the Inca Trail.