(Ok, first of all sorry for the long delay! It’s been an amazing, hectic, crazy few weeks in Cusco. And we LOVE this City!)
I really don’t think we were prepared for what we were about to do. In fact I know we had no clue what was ahead of us…And this is one of the few things that we actually pre-planned for on this trip of ours. We really didn’t have much choice though, the Inca trail typically books up months in advance. There are limits on how many people can be on the trail at any given time and we wanted to be two of them! Now don’t get me wrong, we had done the research on what to bring and had everything checked off the list. Everything except a set of walking sticks, which we rented at the very last minute as we got off of the bus. It was a damn good thing we did too! More on that later.
It’s FOUR FORTY-FIVE in the morning. That’s closer to a bed time than a wake up call. But we managed to get to sleep pretty early and it didn’t hurt that bad. Except this was even too early for the morning bun delivery so we missed out on our simple daily breakfast. At least there was some fresh hot coffee! Not long after we finished our java there was a rap at the door and we were on our way. The bus cruised around the city picking up all the tourists and since we were some of the earlier pick ups we got a nice early morning tour of Cusco.
Once we had everyone aboard we began the first leg of our trip to go and grab some breakfast! We drove about 45 minutes to a little village called Ollantaytambo. We all grabbed seats with a view of the square and had a full breakfast before heading off to our last bus stop.
The drive to Piskacucho (Our drop-off point – Km 82) was down a tiny dirt road along side the Urubamba River (Sacred River) and it was almost one lane wide. This made for some exciting moments when we came across another bus or van along the way. We must have reversed at least a half dozen times, and I’m really not sure where but somehow our driver made it work.
Full of excitement and optimism we headed out on our way. Much like waiting in line for a roller coaster you’ve never been on. Slowly we moved forward, heading upwards. Things are relatively easy at first. We’ve never really been trekking before, but we have walked places once or twice. We are “backpacking” after all. And day 2 is supposed to be the hard one anyways.
Ever plucky, we truck along. Still feeling great at this point!
Now things get a little dicey. And we’re only on day one! I should preface this next part by saying two things. First, having spent a month in the mountains of Ecuador we thought we would have no issues with altitude. Except being the marvelous planners we are, we spent the fifth week at sea level drinking beer on the beach. Great idea! Second, poor Rachel spent the three days prior to our Inca trek battling a severe stomach problem and had literally no energy in reserves. She was operating solely on the meager breakfast we had had earlier that morning. (Rachel is a trooper of the first order!)
*Hot Tip – If you’re about to embark on a 4 day trek through the Andes Mountains, don’t be sick for three days prior to leaving. You may need your energy!
We definitely had some ups and downs during the first leg of the day, but things were pretty mild. The trail definitely eases you into things. However once we met our first real incline that’s when things got difficult. We could see the slope coming as it follows one of the many hairpin turns. I know when I saw people going up I thought to myself, “I hope that’s an advanced route!” There is really only one route though. So with the sun beating down on us, we put our heads down and headed up. I could tell Rae was struggling and we did our best to keep spirits high. But about half-way up the hill Rae dropped her pack and had to stop. This was steep hill number one, on day one, in the morning! How are we going to do this?! And to be honest, I didn’t need to stop but I wasn’t feeling the most confident either. Are we really this out of shape? At least Rachel had an excuse!
Humbled at the side of a mountain, early in our journey we sucked it up and slowly made our way to the top. At the peak of the path our group had paused to rest as well, so we weren’t all that far behind which was encouraging. And using Rachel’s lack of nourishment as an excuse, we pushed forward. (Also the next long term break for the day was only 5 mins up the path)
The break is where we got our first glimpse at the Ruins of the Inca Trail. It made everything worthwhile and certainly was a great source of motivation for the rest of the day. If we could just push through this tough part, the rest wouldn’t be so bad….even though the next day was supposed to be the hardest.
Tired and feeling a little defeated, this view was all we needed to push us forward. If we had questioned at all why we signed up for this trek, the landscape in front of us answered our concerns. We spent some time at this location soaking up the vista, scarfing down some snacks and taking in some history. Our guide Raul shared some interesting facts about the ruins, the people and the trail itself. Every year they host a marathon race along the Inca Trail. The record for the 42km trip that would take us 4 days is 3 HOURS & 45 MINUTES! Our guide Raul has done it in just under 5 hours. Wow! That was certainly a boost for us as well, knowing that a super fit individual could accomplish the trip in such a short time.
To give you a better idea of what we had come up, this is the way down, as we would discover is my weakness. Rach’s little legs hate up and my tired knees loathe down. About 10 steps in my “good” knee was screaming. Only a few more kms to go! When did we get so old and beaten up?
*Hot Tip – If you suffer from any kind of joint pains ibuprofen is always good to have but Voltaren cream is a dream! Make sure you pack a tube with you. Don’t wait like I did and apply it before heading out. Remember we’re not doctors but it worked wonders for me… and a fellow traveler! (Who actually was a doctor)
After a wonderful lunch and a little rest riverside in a valley, we mustered up some energy and made it to our camp for the night. Rae was starting to feel normal again and we had some momentum now to keep us moving forward. As I said in the beginning of the post, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but we were starting to see why we had come and settled nicely into a groove. The next few days were going to be tough and we were eh-OK with that.
“…no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost” -Helen Keller
We were treated to some spectacular views on the way to first camp and finally gained our stride. We had a meet and greet when everyone arrived to camp. We learned everyone’s name and a little about each other, including our two guides, the chef and all of the incredible porters. Our camp was located in Wayllabamba the last community on the Inca trail. You know what this meant right? Beer! A local fella had brought over a selection of drinks to sell and we were eager to buy. We had a long few days ahead of us at high altitudes (Wayllabamba is already at 3100m) so no one had any interest in being hung over. But we all gathered around in a circle and enjoyed a celebratory beer as darkness fell around us. Another excellent meal was served for dinner and then it was off to bed.
The sleep was not great and morning came quickly. I would not want to imagine trying to sleep without our sweet sweet mats. (What a baby!) And like a baby we had Mama Bear wake us up in the morning. That was our nickname for our guide Darwin. Raul was Papa Bear. Darwin was kind enough to wake us all with our choice of coffee, tea or hot cocoa. Not bad for camping in the middle of the Andes mountains. After a quick pack up it was time for breakfast. My favourite part of the day, eating! We had pancakes, porridge, yogurt, granola, buns and tea. It was a nice little bit of fuel for the morning. Even though Rae couldn’t eat much yet.
After much deliberation Rachel opted in for our last chance at a porter. Although her spirits had elevated quite a bit, her body had not yet followed. Still dealing with feeling weak from her illness we both agreed that a porter to carry her bag for one day would be a good investment and help us maintain our momentum. To be perfectly honest I have to say I unloaded a little from my pack into hers as well, just to make day two a little easier. I had a lot of equipment with me and I didn’t mind the break. Plus Rae carried my camera bag which was nice as well.
Right off the bat we hit the stairs running and began our ascent to Abra de Warmi Wañuska (Dead Woman’s Pass). This would bring us to about 4215m above sea level, the highest elevation for our trip so far!
We walked up stairs upon stairs upon stairs towards the promise of a “second breakfast”. Now we were really feeling like hobbits! The never ending stairs were under forest cover which provided a nice shade from the sun, but didn’t allow for any visibility so there was no light at the end of the tunnel. They seemed to go on forever. Along the way we made friends with another travelling couple in our group, a wonderful Aussie woman named Anita and her hilarious American husband Jason. We had also struck up a conversation with a girl from another group during one of our “Photo Breaks” and she figured we had about another hour to go, we thought about 20 minutes. As it turns out we were all wrong and just five minutes up the path was our meeting point. It was a welcomed break where we enjoyed some popcorn, cookies and some tea/coffee to warm up. I really warmed myself up by pouring hot tea all over my lap. It was awesome! …I really wanted coffee anyways.
There was another Canadian couple in our group from the mountains out west in Vancouver. Unfortunately illness struck Jenika during the trek and not before hand, so they had to take a break along this difficult part of the trip. This gave me some more time to dry my pants in the sun and eventually they caught up with us not long after popcorn. We were so happy to see them continue on with us! Canuck women are strong as hell!
After a short rest and some nice snacks we began our last leg towards Dead Woman’s Pass. (Known by this name for two reasons. One: The outline of the rock face resembles the silouhette of a woman at rest. Two: Prior to the trail having any rangers or regulations a young American girl was travelling solo. It is presumed that she stopped at this point to rest and fell asleep. She may have succumbed to any number of things including dehydration, altitude sickness, exhaustion, hunger or the elements. Either way she never woke up and was found sitting, huddled up in her blanket.)
Along the trail we went, now with our checkpoint in sight. This was a blessing and a curse. We could see where were headed but it never seemed to get any closer. We could see the trekkers ahead of us like ants scurrying along the trail. It certainly gave us perspective on how small we really are on this beautiful planet. We trucked along with our new friends Anita & Jason and our mantra became “Slow and steady may win the race, but really slow means we’ll get there.” We had no illusions of being expert mountain climbers, so we took our time and enjoyed the scenery along the way.
Finally, we made it to the pass. There were many congratulatory cheers, photos and high fives all around. There was a great sense of accomplishment among the various groups of us who made it. The sheer sight of our surroundings only made the moment that much better. We were very lucky to have decent weather and we could see for kilometers off into the distance. We may have been standing on Dead Woman’s Pass but we could not feel more alive.
It would be about two more hours from here. There is a reason, even on flat ground, that football matches aren’t even that long. Muscles get tired. Certainly our mountain virgin limbs would be no exception. I’ve run up and down a ski hill or two and Rach can run for kilometers at a time but we literally had our butts kicked by the Andes mountains. Luckily all we had to do was make it to “3pm lunch” and we’d be done for the day. I think we were supposed to be there for 2-2:30 but we weren’t running any races this day. Although by the end I could barley fight the gravity and it was easier to jog down the last few 100 meters of stairs and let my body essentially fall with style.
As we finally lumbered into camp we were greeted with a refreshing glass of something. It was gone so quick I couldn’t tell you what it was. Lunch would not be far behind which of course was delicious. To be fair at this point dry bread and water would have been delicious. What we were not expecting deep in the heart of the mountains was a surprise birthday cake! Oscar, from another fellow Ontarian couple, was celebrating his birthday and his girlfriend Mikayla had told the tour company. Somehow our genius chef had made a surprise birthday cake, which we all got to enjoy! Incredible.
After lunch and cake we had some time to recuperate and enjoy our surroundings. The camp site was located all the way back down at 3,500m above sea level. It would be the coldest night of the trek but one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been. Mountains ahead of us and a waterfall behind the campsite, it was quite a place to be.
Day 3 began bright and early just like that last two. Let me tell you, I was SO happy to have stretched the night before. Prior to laying down for the night we did every stretch we could possibly remember since we figured “sleeping” wasn’t likely going to help us. Additionally I had slabbed a healthy dose of Voltaren on all the bendy parts of my legs. Our friend Anita had also proposed an exchange of some of my magic cream for her yellow balls. Yes, she is part Asian but I don’t mean those kind of balls. Also she’s a sweet lady so … also y’know… Anyways, she had some sort of double ball therapeutic muscle roller thingy (Erin I left mine at home!)… and let me tell you her balls were so, so incredible. I rolled around on my back for at least forty-five minutes. It was heaven! If you’re reading this Anita, THANK YOU, you are a life saver.
It was a good thing we were feeling better because today Rachel had her pack back which meant I was also back to full capacity. Day 2 may have been the hardest, but at 11 hours day 3 was definitely the longest. Rachel finally seemed to be getting her appetite back which was also a good omen for the long day ahead.
This was by far the most breathtaking day of the trek so far. We began to see Incan ruins much more frequently. We had yet another beautiful day of bright sunny weather. And even though it would prove to be a long day we finally seemed to have our mountain legs…or maybe we just didn’t care anymore. Everywhere we looked was like a painting.
After climbing back up another 450m from camp we took some time to enjoy our incredible surroundings. Our guide Raul also led us in a wonderful ceremony to give some much deserved gratitude to Pachamama (Mother Earth). What you see here is not typical weather for this time of year. We had just barely begun to exit the rainy season. (even as I write this, it has rained almost every day in Cusco for the past two weeks) We had been blessed with beautiful bluebird days for the entire trek so far. As we climbed to the pass we were each told to gather a stone along the way so that we could build a Quechuan cairn (similar perhaps to an Inuksuk) and perform a ritual of thanks, or Challa to the Pachamama. Rachel had found a nice heart shaped rock and I found a great piece of granite. (Both very appropriate, my immediate family will get a kick out of that) Together we built a lovely pile of stones and made our offerings of various sweets, cookies and coca leaves as is customary in the Andes. Now you are free to say and think what you like, but I personally found this to be a very spiritual experience. Our group of trekkers joined hands as we stood around our statue and Raul led us through the ceremony. As you can see above it was a clear, sunny day. From the moment our ceremony began a heavy fog began to surround us. A fog so heavy that you could not see beyond our circle. We all gave our gratitude while the fog hugged us tight, as only a mother can. Almost immediately following our ceremony the fog lifted and left us with yet another outstanding view of this inspiring planet we call home. Call it coincidence, call it what you want, I will forever have that moment of connection in my heart.
Down from the pass we went, of course only to head up again. The next ruins we would visit are aptly named the “Inaccessible Town” or Sayaqmarka in the native language of Quechua. This was the home of several high level Incan families and would have also served as a resting point for travelers along the trail.
We spent some time here learning a little more about the Incan and Quechuan cultures and explored for a short time before heading out again. Off to our lunch spot where we actually had pizza as an appetizer! Then we were off to the next set of ruins. I should have gorgeous shots of this location but a heavy fog rolled in while I was stretching.
*Hot Tip – Suck it up and get the shot! Then worry about your fragile body. #GTS
One long last leg of the day remained. With the option to extend it another hour or so if we wanted to visit one last set of ruins along the way. Intipata is an impressive set of giant terraces that were used to grow various strains of agriculture. You can just barely make out the terraces in the above lookout shot from Phuyutamarca. That tiny patch of beige in the mountain on the left is the absolutely massive Incan ruin, Intipata.
Finally we were on our way to camp. After a long, long day we trooped it out for one last push. Rae and I were the last to make it to camp that day. But we took the long way, truly the scenic route in every sense of the term. Finally the hard part was over. Yet another delicious meal awaited us. One last night in our tents and this time the ground was actually flat! Luxuryyy!
Our rest however would be short lived. We would finally see the jungle rain and our wake up call for the next morning, THREE THIRTY A.M.!
To be continued…