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Inka Trail and Machu Picchu

Written on: Wednesday August 22nd, 2007

A journal entry from: Bolivia, Peru, and the Galapagos!

On Sunday, we woke early to meet our guides and the rest of our hiking group to start the Inka Trail. Only six of us from our group were planning to hike it, so we joined with a group of seven (also from GAP Adventure tours) to form a nearly complete group. The new seven were: Sheridan and Kent (American couple from Colorado celebrating their 37th anniversary), Jim and Linda (American couple from Tri-Cities, Washington celebrating their 36th anniversary... also, Linda went to high school with Sheridan and Kent in Colorado), their daughter Katie (somewhere in her 20's), and Jeremy and Michelle (28 and 22 respectively, from the Cayman Islands). This new group had been travelling in comfort class up to this point (so they paid more for nicer hotels) and were not as fit as us six girls. The 13 of us plus our two guides all hopped on our bus and headed out to meet our 17(?) porters at the trail head.

I could go into the details of the hike day-by-day, but I think its easier to just summarize here....

First of all, the trail was not as busy as I had been told to expect. Only 200 hikers are allowed to start it per day (plus about 250-300 porters and guides). This sounds like a big number, but most groups were quite spread out, so the trail seemed far less busy than many trails I've seen at home in the states.

Next, the porters. They were the fittest group of men I had ever seen! They were limited to carry 25 kg (55 lbs) each (though apparently they could carry far more) and they travelled at a very high speed. A typical day was this: they wake up 1 hour before us to prepare our breakfast, after we eat and leave the camp site they break down all the tents and pack up, at some point they pass us on the trail and arrive at the lunch site, before we arrive for lunch they setup the dining tent and prepare lunch, after we eat lunch and are back on the trail they tear down the lunch site and race by us on the trail to beat us to our campsite for the night, they setup our tents and prepare tea for us before we arrive at the end of the day, after we eat our dinner they finally eat their own and get into bed 1-2 hours after us. They repeat this pattern with us for four days, then get two days off before repeating with another group. To accomplish this, they obviously had to be amazingly fit, but also it is clear why none of them can do it for more than about 5 years (but you should see these guys' calves!!).

And now the trail... It was a bit tougher than I had anticipated, though everyone did complete it (though in widely varying times). In total, the trail was about 45 km long (about 26 miles) and we divided it into 15 km for each of the first two days, about 9 km on the third day, and 6 km on the last day. What surprised me is that Machu Picchu is at the same elevation that the trail begins at (roughly 3000 meters), yet we are forced to summit three passes at elevations of 4200, 3900, and 3700 meters.... That's alot of elevation change at high altitude where the breathing is tough. Though really what seemed to matter most for us younger girls was weather you could keep your digestion system running smoothly. Louise was still having problems from our jungle trip, plus Larissa and Sarah had a tough time on day 2. Fiona and I managed to escape with healthy digestion systems and managed to lead the pack on all four days (despite our complete lack of fitness).

The most frustrating part of the trail was waiting for the others to catch up to us. We weren't super fast at the front of the group, its just that the ones at the end were just super slow. On day 2 (the hardest day, which included the first two passes), Fiona and I wasted about 3.5 hours (out of a total of 11 hours) waiting for the end of the group to catch up to us...

Day 4 was the day that we arrived at Machu Picchu. We woke up at 4am so that we could form a line with the 200 other hikers to cross the final checkpoint on the trail which opened at 5:30am. From here, it was a single file line along the trail until we reached the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu (or so they told us it was overlooking the site, there was too much fog and smoke from forest fires that morning to see it). The line was frustrating because some people believed that they could shove ahead and pass on the narrow trail (with a treacherous cliff on one side). Many curse words were exchanged along the way... Once at the Sun Gate, however, the line broke up and we casually approached Machu Picchu. At this point, everyone in our group was tired and cranky, so the experience wasn't quite as mystical as one would hope, though it was nice to finally find the end of the trail.

After a tour of Machu Picchu, we caught a bus downhill to the nearest town of Aguas Calientes (biggest tourist trap yet!) where we lounged around for the afternoon before catching the train back to Ollantaytambo, and then a bus back to Cuzco. About 2000 tourists per day visit Machu Picchu via the train/bus to Aguas Calientes. I must admit that the hikers' first view of Machu Picchu from the trail is much better than the lazy tourist's first view from the bus stop outside the ruins.