Adventure Travel In Peru - Hiking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu
By Vic Hanson
After months of planning and over a year of dreaming about it, I finally got on a bus from Arequipa to go to Cusco to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. My friend Milana from Los Angeles, who I used to hike and mtn. bike with, and Karen, her longtime friend, were meeting me in Cusco. We were supposed to be there a couple of days early so they could acclimatize but Milana's flight from Lima was cancelled so she arrived about noon the day before our tour started. I had already met Karen the day before and we had gotten to know each other a bit as we did some sightseeing and hiking together near Cusco.
When Milana arrived, we went to eat at a restaurant just off the plaza and she had ceviche to eat, it is raw fish marinated in lime juice. Either the ceviche or the lack of time to acclimatize to the 11,000 foot altitude in Cusco, or both, got her off to a bad start. She woke up sick the next morning for the start of our four day trek. We had signed up for a group tour, expecting up to 12 people, so we were delighted when the mini bus picked us up in that morning to find only two other people on the tour! An almost private tour for the group price. It didn't seem like such a small group by the time we added a cook and eight porters to our guide, Carlos, making a total of 15 people. However most of the time we were trekking it was just the six of us, the porters were either packing up camp behind us or rushing on ahead to get ready for us. The service was great but personally the morning tea in our tents when they woke us, the dining tent for all three meals (although it felt really good at dinner time due to the cold) and the fancy menu, etc. was something I would have given up for a cheaper price. They definitely don't subscribe to the ultra light hiking idea with a cast iron stove and 20 lb. LP gas tank!
One of the things that surprised me on the first day was to see people actually living along the trail, and riding bicycles back and forth. On the second morning there were women and children with burros going up the trail to set up stands to serve breakfast, sell candy, snacks, bottled water and even Gatorade! By the afternoon, that was all behind us as we headed up to Dead Woman's Pass at 13,770 feet, the highest point on the trail. The scenery had changed from lush rain forest in the morning to sparse vegetation and rocks by the pass, along with being much cooler. When we stopped early in the afternoon at our campsite for the evening, I couldn't just sit and wait for dinner, I went on ahead to the next pass, exploring side trails along the way. Solid clouds beyond the summit ruined my hopes for a spectacular sunset but it was an enjoyable time anyway.
On day three we got into the high jungle, thousands of more steps, and actually into some of the ancient ruins. Also a seemingly endless variety of orchids and other flowers. One thing we didn't see was any wild animals, just a few birds. It also seemed like the farther we went, the more tourists there were. The first day we hardly saw anyone else, so I'm not sure where they all came from. By that evening we were back in civilization, with the option of a restaurant, hot shower and cold beer, which many were enjoying.
The final morning we were up early to be the first ones on the trail, hoping to get pictures of Machu Picchu before there were any people there. They actually opened the checkpoint a few minutes early and we were started off in the dark, on the last couple of hours of the trail, arriving at Machu Picchu just after sunrise. For me, one of the highlights of the trip was hiking up Huayna Picchu, the high peak behind the ruins in all the standard Machu Picchu pictures. There was a wonderful trail, steep and rugged, up to the peak, where the views were fabulous! I saw a less used trail going down the backside and followed that a ways but finally had to turn around to meet the others and catch the bus into Aquas Calientes. Only when I got back to the checkpoint at the start of the trail did I find out that it was a loop trail and I could have continued on around the mountain. There was no time to soak in the hot springs, as we got to Aquas Calientes a bit late and then found out that we had to leave early to walk to the train that would take us back to Cusco, because of the landslide that had covered the tracks on the edge of town. A final surprise was that evening when the train stopped a couple of hours before Cusco and the conductor said that was the end of the ride. We never did find out why but ended up having to take a taxi the rest of the way to Cusco, fortunately arriving with no problems.
The trip was great, Machu Picchu was unbelievable and something that pictures can't do justice to. Never the less, I did take about 400 photos, trying to capture the grander to relive later. I am looking forward to returning to the area to hike from Cusco to Choquequirao, sometimes called the sister city to Machu Picchu, and then on to Machu Picchu. This hike is much less common and allows for exploring on your own.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
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