Day 9 Aguas Calientes to Cusco

We woke up to the sound of the roaring Urubamba passing our hotel room. We were both pretty tired, so we decided to rest for a moment before going downstairs for breakfast. After breakfast, we did a tour of Aguas Calientes, which doesn’t take long since it’s not very big. We decided to have a “snack” before catching the train at 1:40 pm. We did that at Indio Feliz, a cozy restaurant run by a French woman. It was fun to hear everyone speaking French as we ate a heaping plate of pasta served with toppings on the side.

Finally it was time to take the train back to Ollantaytambo, where we would catch a cab back to Cusco. The train ride was beautiful, though a bit bizarre, as the crew went to great lengths to “Disney” up the experience, with costume changes, traditional dances, and then a fashion show set to blaring techno music. Um, how about the view, folks? John and I were happy to look out the window, where we saw some of the sights from our first day of the Inca Trail hike.

The taxi ride to Cusco was one of my least favorite experiences in Peru (ranking right up there with projectile vomiting for 24 hours). First, the driver tried to convince us we needed to see Moray and Moras and Salinas, though we insisted we had already been there. Then he proceeded to speed up the mountain to Cusco, passing any car or bus he saw, swerving all over the road then slamming on his brakes. By the time we got back to the Aranwa Hotel in Cusco I thought I would throw up again.

We settled into the hotel and had a spot of rest, then wandered out into town for drinks then dinner at ChiCha de Gaston, which was on the same block as our hotel. This meal was one of the highlights of the trip for me, with grilled octopus and chimichurri sauce, scallops in a beef reduction, and a sampling platter with chicken, pork and beef. Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio was recognized as one of the nine most influential chefs in the world, and I can see why. His combination of flavors is inventive and the execution of each dish is perfect. This was a great meal.

Touring Aguas Calientes
Lunch at Indio Feliz
View from Train
Dinner at Gaston's Chicha

Day 8 Winay Wayna to Machu Picchu

Our 3:30 am wake-up call came quite soon, and everyone was in motion. The porters wanted us out of those tents so that they could pack up all the gear that they would then take back to Peru Treks in Cusco, while we all went down to Machu Picchu.

We had a quick breakfast, then rushed down with headlamps to the checkpoint, where we were third in line so that we could make it to the Sun Gate before the crowds hit. Although you used to be able to hike the Inca Trail without a guide, regulations now allow only 500 people a day on the trail. 200 of those are usually trekkers and 300 are porters. So we stood at the checkpoint with 200 other people who would all converge on Machu Picchu at the same time. We decided we wanted to be there before the others.

So as soon as the checkpoint opened, we started sprint-hiking. The guide said the hike to the Sun Gate would take 1.5 hours, but we got there in 30 minutes. We had a good 20 minutes there taking pictures before the rest of the Trekkers started streaming in. The first view of Machu Picchu was spectacular. We had just a bit of clear weather but could see puffy clouds beneath the site. Ruth brought Christmas hats so we snapped some photos and got ready to descend.

From the Sun Gate we hiked down through Machu Picchu to drop our bags and poles, which are not allowed in the area. Then Freddy gave us a tour of the site, explaining some of the construction and customs of the Incas. After that we were on our own for a while. John and I had three goals: climb Wayna Picchu (the classic steep summit you see in the background of all the pictures), take a photograph from the Traveler’s Hut, and find a final resting place for Dad.

The trail up Wayna Picchu was slick and steep and stunning. It afforded some amazing views of Machu Picchu, and also a bit of an adrenaline rush. I’m glad I climbed it.

From there, we toured the site some more and took some photos from the famous Traveler’s Hut, which turned out so beautiful they look photoshopped.

From there, we headed to the spot that our guide told us was the cemetery and I found some beautiful lupines. I spread a pinch of Dad’s ashes there and told him how much I love him. I felt very happy to give him that beautiful view of the Urubamba Valley.

From there, we took the bus to Aguas Calientas and checked into the Sumaq Hotel. Our room was fine, with a jacuzzi tub that I used, but it was not nearly as nice as our other 2 hotels so far on the trip. We unpacked and spread out our clothes to dry, then went to town for a drink with the rest of the family, who were leaving on a 7:30 pm train. After saying our goodbyes, we returned to our hotel and had a nap, then had a 3-course dinner that was included in our room rate. It was good, but the portions were huge and we could barely eat a third of each plate. Plus we were tired, so we soon retired upstairs and went to sleep.

View from Campsite, Christmas Morning
It's a Machu Picchu Christmas.
View from Winay Picchu
The Postcard Machu Picchu Pic
A pretty view for Dad.
Dinner at Sumaq

Day 7 Pacamayo to Winay Wayna

Part of the problem with the second campsite was the impeccable view of the very steep uphill trail that we would need to climb at the start of Day 3 of the Trek. All accounts of Day 2’s hike describe it as the hardest. Day 3, with about a 3000 ft net elevation loss, was categorically described as the “most beautiful” day, which was misleading since although it was beautiful, it was also really hard, especially the climb to the second pass (Abra de Runkuracay at 13,123 feet), then the third pass (11,975 feet).

When we woke up on Day 3 it was cold and pouring rain. I looked up that steep path and did not feel happy about life. When we started walking up, water poured down the trail so that it felt like we were walking up a waterfall. Despite the pouring rain, John and I were perfectly “kitted out” (as James noted–that’s Irish for “you have nice gear”). Our feet stayed dry in our new boots, 0ur new rain pants kept our legs dry, our coats kept our tops dry, our new backpacks stayed dry thanks to built-in rain covers, and our trekking poles helped keep us steady on those slick downhills. We were happy with the choices we made.

After reaching the top of second pass, we had a mighty steep descent down a series of steps that were slick, though not as harrowing as I had imagined they would be. Soon we arrived at Sayacamarca, an “Inaccessible Town” protected on 3 sides by sheer cliffs. From there, we descended to a camp area where we were all grateful to get into the tent for some tea. The porters had rushed ahead, but since we were cold and wet we had hiked fast too. We arrived while they were still preparing the cooking tent, dining tent, and the lunch. We waited for about 45 minutes, downing as much hot coffee and tea as we could while Jesus and his crew cooked in the tent next door. Finally, when the “waiter porter” arrived with a steaming heaping plate of pasta, the tent erupted in clapping and cheering.

After lunch we bundled up again and headed through the rain and clouds to the third pass of the trip. We took a group photo, and many shots of the beautiful vegetation, and then we continued towards Winay Wayna, the last campsite before Machu Picchu. At this campsite there was a “bar” with a bit of a college atmosphere–lots of young trekkers in alpaca sweaters chatting and drinking beer. John and I cleaned up a bit, and that’s when our guide Freddy took John aside and asked him, as the eldest trekker, to be the one to collect and present the tips to the porters.

Jesus had a special surprise for us at dinner that night–a cake! We enjoyed our dinner, celebrated our last night with the porters, and went to bed early in anticipation of our 3:30 am wake-up call. We were looking forward to getting our first view of Machu Picchu on the next day, Christmas.

John and Trish in the rain.
John above the clouds.
John on the trail.
Stopping for a spot of lunch.
Freddy and Trish at the Third Pass
Presenting tips to the Porters.

Day 6 Wayllabamba to Pacaymayo

I had a lovely night’s sleep and woke at 5:30 feeling refreshed, though not yet back to 100%. There were lots of sounds coming from the campsite–the other Trekkers getting their gear packed, the porters coming to each tent with coffee or tea, the crowing and barking and naying and mooing of farm animals from the nearby village. We got packed and went to the breakfast tent for pancakes, toast, quinoa pudding, and more coffee.

Day 2 of the hike, though not the longest day, would be the hardest by far, with 3300 feet vertical gain and about 2100 feet vertical loss. It involved climbing our highest pass called Dead Woman’s Pass, at nearly 14,000 feet. As we started hiking in a light rain, we passed through several more villages and finally came to a check point where officials weighed the porter’s bags. Recent regulations have limited them to carrying 25 kilos, a fraction of what they carried before.

I was warm so I shed most of my layers, getting ready for the climb to come. We started up, and the group fell into a natural marching order. John was in the lead, as those of you who know him might imagine, then came James from Dublin, who has a 3:08 marathon PR. Then came me, and then Rachel, the British chiropractor who does about 6 triathlons a year. Then there was Ruth, the stunning 20 something British girl on a 10 month holiday before deciding on grad school. She had hiked the Himalayas a few months before and was in great shape despite requiring several cigarettes each morning and evening.

We had some sun to start, so we got several lovely photos of flowers and of the green valley. The high season for the Inca Trail is June and July, and choosing to hike in rainy December meant we knew we would get wet, but also that we would be treated to lush valleys and colorful blooms. After walking about an hour we stopped at one of the organized camp sites and took a lesson in Coca Leaves, a home remedy for altitude sickness that involved chewing 10 or so leaves with a rice-grain sized pinch of lyme to ward off headache and nausea.

From there we hiked a steep uphill section through a forest lined with tall steps. The trail was clogged with hikers and porters, all moving at their own pace up the unforgiving mountain. It started to drizzle, then it started to rain. The stones were slick but not as bad as I thought they might be. My footing was sure, and my lungs were surprisingly strong. As I hiked upward I used my runner’s mantra, which has served me well in many races: “my legs are strong I’m good on hills,” i said, each word matched to an upward step. Every ten minutes or so I stopped to sing Happy Birthday, which marked just enough time to get my heart rate back to a reasonable level.

I passed a lot of people, then finally leveled out to the camp area where the group was to meet for “second breakfast.” James and John were shocked to see me. “You did great!” they exclaimed. I guess that bit of training I did paid off. And I think the sheer adrenaline of the climb made me forget my sore stomach.

The rain picked up, and the other trekkers arrived one by one. Several trekkers had extremely heavy packs–way too heavy for a fully supported trip, but there was nothing to be done about that now, and I tried to help by taking the heavy loads off their backs as they arrived. I kept wondering if perhaps Peru Treks should have imposed weight limits on the Trekkers, as it did the porters. It would have made for easier going on the trail.

But that bit wasn’t even the real climb. After a snack of popcorn and tea, we headed back to the trail in preparation for the summit. At this point it was raining still. James, John and I walked together, passing lots of porters and Trekkers, stopping ever 15 minutes or so for a Happy Birthday, during which we all agreed we were surprised how quickly our heart rates recovered even at elevation. Happy with this sign of fitness, we motored up the mountain, halving the time Freddy had estimated for us to reach the summit. In fact we all felt so good, we didn’t believe that we had reached the top, and had to ask some other hikers if we were really at 14k. We were!

We took many pictures, dropped our packs, peed, high fived, and hung out for a while. Then we saw Ruth motoring up the trail, and we cheered her on and welcomed her in. The rest of the trekkers followed, and when we had all arrived Freddy led a ceremony at the summit, involving some coca leaves and some rum, and we toasted and hoped for more sun.

We grabbed our bags, when I heard James murmur about the descent before us. We had about an hour of downhill, and it was steep and foggy and wet. “you’re going to do great.” I told him. “Just watch my feet.” And I started down the rocky slope, which was not unlike the many trails I trained on in Arizona. We were quick down the mountain, stopping often for pictures of waterfalls, and one of a doggy heading up the trail. Soon enough we were at our second camp, a small one where it poured rain much of the time we were there. We enjoyed a nice dinner and went to sleep. It was cold there above 11,000 feet. I had a little trouble sleeping, but was hopeful about our next day, the longest hike of our 4 day trek.


Day 5 ???

Another effect of the high altitude is shallow breathing during sleep. John said he woke several times to make sure I was okay and that my breathing was so faint he had to get closer to hear it. I slept a few minutes here and there, the sleeping moments separated by waking moments during which I tried to imagine when I would be able to come back to Peru to do this trek. I was certain I would need to go back to Sacred Valley and find a hotel then meet John in Machu Picchu by train.

At 4:30 am the alarm went off. I blinked a few times, sat up, and dug deep just to get out of bed. John rose too, and asked how I was. I told him I would let him know.

First off, I was severely dehydrated. So I started pounding Gatorade and I got into the hot shower. I got dressed, went down to breakfast and ate some papaya and not much else. The dear waiter Hugo who had been so kind to me kept repeating, “Lady, you look very tired lady. Oh lady I don’t think you make it. Very hard.”

I kept after the Gatorade, and had some chamomile tea. Soon, the guide from Peru Treks came but he left right away without picking us up. Later I learned that he told the Doorman that we should come around the corner, and the Doorman insisted that he bring the bus up our narrow street because “the lady does not feel well.” Soon the bus pulled up right in front of the door, and we boarded in a blur. We sat near the back and I told John that if I had to I would stay in Ollantaytambo, which is the last outpost before the Inca Trail.

The bus picked up several more Trekkers. Our group would include 16 hikers, 21 porters, a guide and an assistant guide. We stopped to pick a few supplies, then we hit the highway. I promptly fell asleep.

The sleep served me well. When we stopped for breakfast in Ollantaytambo, I was able to eat a pancake and some eggs. I chatted with several of our Trek mates and started to feel like I might not fail.

So the bus moved on to Km 82. We gathered all our gear and headed to the trail head where we took the first group photo of our 4 day adventure. Our guide Freddy told us that we were a family and that we would take care of each other, which made me feel better since I was going to need all the help I could get. It was an interesting group. Three 20-something girlfriends from England, 2 British chiropractors celebrating their 30th birthdays, 20ish brother and sister from Brazil, 30ish brother and sister (and best friend) from Australia, two 30 ish law students from Chicago, a college student from Texas and a college student from California. John and I slowly discovered that we were the oldest folks on the hike, including the guide and assistant guide. I was worried we might get voted off the Island.

Day 1 of the hike started along the river with a gradual ascent through landscape that looked not unlike Arizona. The trail was lined with cactus, some red rock, and lots of low brush. I spent my time up front with Freddy, asking him about his family and his work. Soon we came to a small village where we had a rest. Some members of the group bought candy and water. We would do 7 miles totals of walking and I was glad the path was not too steep. Soon Freddy stopped us at a ruin called Llactapata and explained the layout of the small Incan outpost with its terraces below and residences above. We continued hiking for about 20 more minutes then stopped by a small stream for lunch. The porters had rushed ahead and set up two tents, one for cooking and one larger tent where 18 of us sat on folding stools and ate a three course meal starting with soup and ending with tea. We all agreed it was delightful. Then, after about 1 more hour of walking uphill we stopped to camp. The porters had our sleeping tents set up, and we filed in two per tent for an evening of lovely sleep. I felt much better, though still weak, and nervous about Day 2, the most challenging hike of the trek.

Trish asleep on the bus.