Day 3 hiking the Inca trail was the longest and more tiring day of all. From our campsite at Pacamayo we hiked an hour up to the fantastic ruins of Runkuracay, a lovely sample of what was to come. After stopping briefly to take some photos and a rest, we climbed up another forty-five minutes to the top of Abra de Runkuracay (at 13,123 feet/4,000 m) the second pass of the Inca Trail.
Next we headed down the steep steps (some of them original) of the Incas, trying to ignore the sharp pain in our knees while marveling at the intense beauty of our surroundings. This was perhaps some of the most beautiful scenery of the hike.
An hour or two later, we followed a superbly designed stone staircase that lead us to the second set of ruins called Sayacmarca which means “Inaccessible Town” and perfectly describes the location of these fabulous ruins which are protected on three sides by sheer, steep cliffs.
The hike continued down into a magical cloud forest awash with orchids, hanging mosses, tree ferns and flowers which passed through an intricate Inca tunnel carved into rock bringing us to the third pass at 12,139 feet/3700m. After admiring some of the 20,000-foot-peaks off in the distance we arrived at the most impressive ruin so far, Phuyupatamarca which means “Town in the Clouds”.
Finally, a few hours descending down thousands of step, hostile steps we arrived wearily at our lodging for the night, The Trekkers Hostal, a crowded, party-like atmosphere for our last night on the trail before arriving in Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn. Here are the photos along the way.
Our campsite at Pacamayo at 11,811 feet/3600m. Given the altitude, we didn’t sleep well. It was freezing cold inside our tents, even for me a die-hard Minnesotan! Thank goodness I had a wool cap along. I slept in my hat as well as everything that was packed inside my backpack, dirty or clean. I covered my face beneath my sleeping bag to protect my frozen lungs and drifted fitfully asleep.
Setting off from our campsite en route to the ruins of Runkuracay.
View of our hidden campsite from the trail. In the background you can see the rushing waterfall that provided us with water, makeshift showers and noise to help lull us to sleep. Always welcome when you are sleeping in a crowded campsite.
The climb up to the ruins on original paving of the Inca Trail. A lot of the trail had to be restored over the years yet there are still original stone steps and trails like here. Being on the original trail felt much more surreal. It was also surprising at times how narrow and small the steps are. The Incas were fierce warriors yet also very short compared to the modern height of most humans (especially taller ones like me!). The short, steep steps made it even more painful on the knees.
Up to the right are all that remains of the ruins of Runkuracay. These small circular ruins occupy a commanding position overlooking the Pacamayo valley below, which most likely explains their strategic location.
What I found most fascinating about the hike today was the amount of ruins leading towards Machu Picchu. Apparently, all of these ruins were built to act as forts and rest stops along the way fo the Inca couriers walking the trail to reach Machu Picchu. Some of the ruins even had Inca Baths were the couriers could perform ritual worship of water. To this day, it amazes me that the Inca trail was so well hidden, for our 400 years, from the Spanish. What an amazing feat!
The difficult, back-breaking job of a porter climbing up the step path, usually in terrible footwear and carrying 62 pounds each. Yet this was nothing in comparison to the mighty Inca couriers who wore sandals and likely carried heavier loads.
We finally reached the beautiful, mystical cloud forest of the high Andes and were surrounded by incredible orchids, hanging mosses, wild flowers and ferns. It was paradise and a nice break from the hard climbing.
It is important to remember that the trekking can also be dangerous as evident from this mudslide that happened last week making the trails treacherous and slippery.
Some of the pretty wild orchids found along the trail. There are thousands of varieties in the Peruvian highlands.
Heading up to the splendid third pass and the ruins of Phuyupatamarca or “Town in the Clouds” afforded in my opinion the most spectacular nature view of the entire trek….Unbelievable! The 20,000 foot snow-capped peaks were covered in the clouds.
The clouds blanketed the mountains in a mysterious, spectacular way.
Finally, we reached the ruins of Phuyupatamarca or “Town in the Clouds”. The aqueduct system still provides water to the ceremonial baths after hundreds of years, and the circular walls were constructed with amazing intricacy, a trademark of the Incas.
Leaving the ruins, you descend thousands of steep, narrow, perilous stairs but the view was worth the pain.
After lunch the sky started to fog up which meant only one thing: Rain! We knew it was very likely to happen so thankfully we were well-prepared with waterproof jackets. The steps were becoming slippery and our knees were starting to throb. Our guide Limas offered us a choice: We could either continue down the treacherous, knee-throbbing stairs or take another route, one that is perhaps “the road less traveled”. We opted to take the second option which brought us through forest and jungle.
Little did we know, the “road less traveled” ended up being quite an adventure in itself. Not long into the hike, it began to pour cats and dogs. We were completely soaked within minutes, even with our waterproof gear on. Yet my hiking boots were filled with wet, cold water making each step rather squishy.
Our adventure thus began, with the feeling I was right smack in an Indiana Jones set. The once-there-trail magically disappeared and we were left walking up a steep, muddy path through thick jungle, slipping and sliding the entire way. There were a few wipe-outs into the mud but we managed to laugh and joke. We ended up lost for at least a half and hour and began to wonder whether or not we’d ever get out and find the Inca Trail again. Luckily we had Limas with us and he was able to navigate the way out of the thick, wet foliage back onto the trail.
We breathed in a big sigh of relief as we saw our campsite off in the distance. I would not have wanted to spend the night in the jungle!
We could see the muddy, earthen river flowing below through the valley. Fortunately there are plenty of rivers along the trail to wash up. We didn’t of course drink from the rivers yet our pots and pans were rinsed in them (which was a little frightening given the fact that I witnessed one of the porters peeing in the same river!).
Finally, after a long, tiring day we made it! We joyfully arrived at the infamous Trekkers Hostal where I was delighted to find a little makeshift bar in the clouds. There were showers (for a buck), a restaurant and best of all, beer!!!! After three long days of rugged, body-aching trekking, nothing sounded better than an ice-cold beer along the Inca Trail.
My Dad and I celebrating our day with a delicious Cusquena known as the Gold of the Incas….indeed!
Our entire group indulged in probably too many Cusquenas yet we had a fabulous time for our last night together. I can’t think of any other bar in the world with a view as amazing and special as this one! Perhaps we had a little too much fun for our 5 am departure….yet “When in Rome!”
We went to sleep easily, exhausted and slightly drunk. Drinking beer at high altitudes is definitely NOT recommended. But we didn’t care for when on earth will we ever be able to drink Cusquenas in the clouds among the spell of the mighty, mysterious Incas? Never!
Stay tuned….next post is my last in this series and will feature the dawn arrival at the incredible Machu Picchu!!!!