Category Archives: Peru

Hiking The Inca Trail: Machu Picchu

Day 4 was going to start really early: The Winaywayna checkpoint opens at 5 am and Intipunku or the Sun Gate, where you want to be when the sun rises, is 45 minutes away. This means that every group of eager hikers wants to be first in line to get through the last real obstacle between you and Machu Picchu.  So, David suggested a 3:30 am wake up. Whooo- OK David, you know best! Totally prepared to wake up in complete darkness, no one was prepared to be woken up around 12 midnight by the sound of big raindrops pelting our tents. “Ohh No…” we all thought separately from our respective sleeping bags. “This cannot be good.” Having not rained the entire time we trekked, it was certainly disappointing that Pachamama (Mother Earth) decided to rain down on us today of all days.

Nevertheless, we rose at 3:30 and got ready in the damp, dense fog that enveloped our campsite. It had stopped raining, but from the moisture in the air, we knew we were not in the clear. Ready on time, we headed to the lineup at the final checkpoint and were pleased with our place of 3rd group in line, behind two other much smaller groups. For the next hour we all sat in quiet but excited anticipation of the race to Machu Picchu, wondering if the weather would cooperate on this most important of days. Right around 5 am, someone arrived to work the gate, and the buzz rose to higher levels as everyone started to get fired up for the final leg of our journey.

Cleared at the checkpoint, we were off! The competitors that we are, we wanted to be first to the Sun Gate and so we literally double-timed it the whole way. Making quick work of the last short, but really steep climb to the view, we were in fact the first group to the top! Success!? Nope! We eagerly moved into position to spot Machu Picchu from above, only to be met by clouds. These were not just any clouds, they were thick, low hanging waves of fog that would crawl toward us and then recede just a bit teasing us with the possibility of seeing something, then thickening up again before you could. And Great! Now its raining again. Ponchos on. This is not how this was supposed to go!

After waiting 15 minutes or so with no sign of clearing we decided to just press on to Machu Picchu- after all, seeing it from afar wasn’t nearly as important as actually getting to it and being in it. So, we hit the trail for the last bit to the ancient Inca City where we would also reunite with members of our group who had done the Lares Trek. Approaching the final checkpoint, the excitement began to rise again- we are finally here! And then it started to pour…Feeling completely dejected the group got quiet, dreams of a sun shiny Machu Picchu pushed from our heads. More knowledgeable about the ways of the Andes both David and our regular tour guide Fredy still assured us this magical place wouldn’t disappoint. Yeah, Ok.

After 20-25 minutes the rain slowed enough that David decided it was time for us to go in anyway and start our tour. The mist still thick and hanging low over the mountains and the city, we were able to make out the parts closest to us and tried to be satisfied with that. David continued to give us the fascinating history  and detail what each part was used for, but now I was only partially listening. Behind him, it seemed like the mist might be lifting a bit, so I began to scramble for my camera. Oh! The mist WAS lifting more visibly now and I could finally get a picture worth taking!

As the tour continued, the mist continued to rise and the clouds began to part. Now, the sun was peeking through and all hope that we might get those beautiful views we had all worked for was restored. Ponchos off and the ground drying out the day continued to become more and more clear until you could finally see that you were standing inside of the greatest and most mysterious ancient Inca city there is! Yes! Pachamama didn’t have it in for us after all. We then spent the next couple of hours exploring, taking pictures, admiring the views and trying to ingrain the memory of this place so deeply into our brains that we could easily recall it in our old age. Fredy and David were right- this place is magical.

Tired, hungry, really dirty, but totally happy, we headed down to get our Machu Picchu passport stamp and then to board the bus that would take us to Aguas Calientes- Here we would eat lunch and wait for our train back to Ollantaytambo. As the bus wound down the mountainside, with a slight grin on my face, I pictured my bucket-list with a shiny new X right at the top of it.

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Hiking The Inca Trail: Day 3

Having put the difficulty of day 2 behind us, we were all feeling good about day 3. In comparison, day 3 would be long but not as technically challenging. We had 16 km to travel in total, including a (now) easy 300 meter (about 1,000 ft) climb.  However, this was all we knew; every time someone talked about the Inca Trail, it was all about day 2, and day 3 hardly got a mention. I’m almost glad I went into this last full day blind because it turned out to be a beautiful treat.

Once again, we woke up at 5:30 am so we could be on the road by 6:45 am at the latest. Feeling rested and barely sore we went through our morning routine: coca tea, warm water, get dressed, pack up bag, breakfast, refill water, grab snack bag backpack and walking stick, pass through the checkpoint, get your passport stamp and be on your way.

After a short hike we came across  a set of mountaintop lagoons, where we sat for a few minutes to soak up the scenery. Right after you pass the lagoons you encounter the hardest part of day 3: 30 minutes of climbing to the days highest point, otherwise known as Runkuraqay Pass. While it doesn’t quite measure up to Dead Woman’s Pass, it still sits at a pretty 3900 meters (~12,800 ft) up. After having completed day 2, this was a piece of cake (mentally) and we quickly scaled it (enduring the same respiratory distress as always) and continued onward.

If the theme of the previous day was to conquer the highest mountain pass, then the theme of day 3 was to slow down and enjoy the adventure. With little physical worry on my mind, I was finally able to lift my head up from the ground and look around me. And what a perfect place to do it: the city ruins here are more complete and better preserved, and as we descended down into the high jungle, we saw pink and green mosses literally dripping with mountain dew, hummingbirds, butterflies, orchids and heard the sound of small waterfalls and trickles making their way down to the Urubamba river from the faraway glacier where they originated. On this smaller level, there was always something to catch your eye as you made your way through the trail, but on the grander scale day 3 offered some of the most breathtaking and awe inspiringly beautiful mountain vistas.

The grandeur and depth, while i tried, can in no way be captured by a camera; These amazing views can only be truly appreciated in person. To make sure we did just that David had our whole group stop on one particular bend, after we had gotten out ahead of the other groups and had some time on the trail to ourselves. We would sit here for 10 minutes, in silence, and try to fully appreciate what was going on around us and where on this planet we were in that moment. I remember so clearly the heat of the sun, the buzzing sound of small wings flapping, the perfect amount of breeze and these vast and seemingly infinite valleys then hills reaching so high, they made the clouds look approachable. Wowww….  Then just as we were finishing up, we saw another group coming our way in the distance and scrambled back up to get going again.

Soon, we broke for lunch and ate yet another delicious meal. Right afterwards our chefs presented us with a cake (they made a cake! on a mountain!) and we eagerly devoured it. We continued to appreciate the views from our lunch site and much of the group settled in for a siesta. Instead, ready for some quiet time on the trail, a friend and I decided to head out ahead of the group. We took advantage of the next 2 hours to move at a more leisurely pace and take some more photos. We reflected on the previous days’ journeys and about how unbelievable the porters are. On David’s orders, we stopped when we reached Intipata to wait for the group. At this Inca city, we took the time to savor the still ridiculously amazing views before we made the final push to our night’s base camp at Winaywayna.

As it was then the end of day 3, we would spend some time that night to say thank you and goodbye to our porters, who would leave us in the morning when we set out. As a group we collected money to tip the guys who made this amazing adventure possible for us and composed a thank you letter in Quechua, their native tongue, to read to them that night. After one last delicious dinner and our exchange of gratitude and gratuities, we headed to bed. The next morning we would complete the final leg of the journey that leads straight into the grand finale: Machu Picchu!  We had an early (3:30 am early) and exciting day ahead of us and needed to be well rested.