It was so early in the morning when our guides woke us up…I don’t think the birds were even chirping quite yet. They told us to move quickly and that we needed to be ready to leave in 30 minutes. We packed our things, dressed warmly and put our headband flashlights on our heads. It was pitch dark and we would be trekking fast. The plan was to arrive at the Sun Gate (the top of the entrance to Machu Picchu) just as the sun was rising.
The hike to the Sun Gate was about 45 minutes but first we all had to sit at the park trail entrance to wait for it to be unlocked. They close the trail at night so people can only access the ruins during business hours. We were the second group in line with so many other people behind us. After waiting for close to an hour, the entrance was unlocked…and that is when the race began. We were moving quicker than we had in the past 4 days. We couldn’t even stop to take a picture because we would have been trampled by all the people behind us. We were careful to stay on the inside of the trail as we could see the cliff drop off on our right side.
As the sun started to rise, we finally started to see the beautiful scenery we were rushing through. The hike although relatively short in comparison to the other days was steep as we were going up and down ancient rocky steps. We specifically admired the carved steps made from one huge piece of granite…sometime 10-15 steps.
We finally arrived at the Sun Gate. Ideally, there would be no fog and we would be able to stand at the gate and look down onto the magnificent city of Machu Picchu. BUT…there was a lot of fog. It was only about 6AM and we were at very high elevation. Maybe this is why the Spanish Conquistadors didn’t find this city? From this view, if the fog were cleared…we would have been able to see the entire city. BUT, with the fog…it looked like a few crop terraces and mountains.
After waiting a bit in hopes of the fog clearing we continued on. We still had about an hour to get from the Sun Gate to the actual city itself. We stopped at another point and waited to see if the fog would clear, but still no city could be seen. We ate a snack and kept moving forward…our anticipation to see Machu Picchu was growing.
About an hour later, we finally arrived. This was it…the crown jewel…it really was so majestic. The fog would move for a moment to reveal the city and we could snap a quick picture but then it would re-settle and completely hide it. After sneaking in our pictures, we moved into the ruins themselves as our guides pointed out various buildings and their significance. The site itself was built around 1400AD under the Incan ruler, Pachacuti. Since the Incas didn’t have a written language no one is sure why this massive city was built. The city seemed divided into 2 sections. One with all the homes, temples, guard-house and fountains…and the other consisting of the agricultural section which had rows upon rows of crop terraces. We could see the water irrigation system flowing through each level via what looked like their version of a gutter, allowing water to flow downward. They built this system 600 years ago and most of it is still working today.
We had seen so many other Incan cities with their distinct crop terraces throughout the past 4 days…but this city was by far the largest. It had a wall surrounding the city about 19ft tall much like other medieval villages we had seen in Europe in order to protect and secure the city. The whole place was built onto the steep slope of the mountain and at an elevation of 8,040 ft. If people were below in the valley near the river looking for this city…they would not be able to see it. This was a strategic move by the Incas.
As we walked through the ruins, we stopped in what was the religious sector and listened to the guides talk about the human sacrifices made by the Incas, the temples and royal tomb. They showed us the rock query where the Incas were getting their rocks from. You could see the rocks clearly unfinished sitting in this area. Our guides explained to us again…how no mortar was used (which allowed the rocks to move slightly when there was an earthquake) and the boulders were polished and fit together to create the walls and buildings. How did they move these huge rocks and boulders from the rock quarry to the construction area? Some think they used 100’s of men to roll them.
The guides took us to the sacred temple area. They showed us the building in which the Incas most likely did their rituals and sacrifices. It is said they used mostly young virgin girls based on the skeletons found. We continued to walk over to a huge rock formation deliberately carved. It was the Intihuatana rock which means “Hitching Post of the Sun”. This rock was built to measure the angle of the sun. It told the priests when the solstices and equinoxes occurred. They used information like this to assist them with planting crops and weather etc. Some say it was also used for some type of ritual. In the same area, the guides pointed out the Sacred Rock. If you look closely it has the same exact outline of the mountains in the distance, including Machu Picchu mountain…was it a blueprint they used to build Machu Picchu? Why was it so sacred? Another rock in the same area was used to tell direction…we held our compass to it and the point of the rock directly faced north.
After our guides gave us the highlights, we had a few hours to explore on our own. There were other hikes to take around the city and other mountains to climb that had additional Incan ruins like the moon temple, but Giff and I decided to take it all in and spend our time getting to know Machu Picchu. It had been a long 4 days and we were dragging a little bit! There were more than 100 flights of stone steps leading to the various buildings. We noticed again how amazing these granite pieces were, they were huge…getting 10-15 steps from one rock. How did they do it? Even today carving granite is challenging. We took our time meandering through the old houses and sitting on the edge of one of the cliffs looking at the mountains surrounding us. It is something you have to experience for yourself, it was true utter beauty to be in the middle of the Andes Mountains. As good as our pictures are in this blog…we just couldn’t capture the magic we experienced.
We saw many people congregated at one building at the top of the city. We contemplated walking up all the stairs since we had already hiked from way above but we were so glad we did. It was the guard’s house. It made sense that the guard would have a view of the entire place so he could be on the look out for any trouble. We got our best picture up there…looking down at the city ruins with the 2 main mountains as the backdrop.
After spending a couple of hours walking around Machu Picchu, we finally took the bus down the mountain to a city called Aguas Calientes, meaning hot water (because of their natural springs). The road down the mountain was a bumpy ride…zig-zagging back and forth but was a quick 10 minute ride packed with people.
The town of Aguas Calientes was cute, with train tracks running right down the center. We found the restaurant our guides had told us to meet in. We said our goodbyes to our guides as they left on the earlier train. We would be taking the late train back to Cusco with the rest of the group…so we had some extra time to kill. We sat at the restaurant and had some dinner before checking out the main center.
There was a main street which had multiple vendors, restaurants and coffee shops…all lined up for tourists which was obviously their main source of income. We enjoyed shopping and seeing their main square. We couldn’t resist buying a handmade ceramic chess set (Spanish vs Incas) . After a short walk around the town…we met up with the rest of our group and boarded our train. We were all pretty tired from our trekking adventure. We sat on the train, chatting amongst ourselves and yearning for a hot shower and pillow for our head.
We thought our day was coming to an end… After riding the train for a couple of hours, it dropped us off in another town where our tour bus would pick us up to drive the remaining hour+ back to Cusco. We all arrived and fought the crowds coming off the train to find our bus. We sleepily loaded our things on and found our seats…resting our heavy heads on the seat. About 30 minutes into the drive, we suddenly smelled fire. The bus quickly pulled over to the side of what seemed like a pretty dangerous curve in the dark. The driver yelled at all of us in spanish to get off the bus. We all ran off, half asleep but waking up quickly. We were standing in tall grass on a mountain in the dark and the bus was smoking. Seriously?? The driver asked for a flashlight and then took a piece of the floor off to look at the engine which was clearly not doing well. After some messing around with it, he made a call on his cell phone and then told us to get back on the bus. It was the conveyor belt. He got the bus to start again (ummmm….is that such a great idea?) and drove 5-10 minutes to the next town where it was safer to pull over and wait for the next bus which he called to come get us.
The other bus finally arrived…we re-loaded our stuff and rode to Cusco where we then got in another car that took us to our hotel. Exhausted, we went straight to our room…straight into the shower…and straight into bed. We would so love to sleep-in tomorrow but our flight leaves at 9:30AM for Ecuador and since it is an international flight…we have to leave the hotel at 7AM. Note to self, do not schedule ANYTHING for the day after taking a 4-day trek to Machu Picchu.
The porters woke us up again with a hot cup of coca tea. We packed up our stuff, washed up with the warm bowl of water and bar of soap and sat in the breakfast tent to eat. Everyone seemed to be feeling a bit better after getting a good night’s sleep. For breakfast we had eggs and a cup of warm porridge.
After breakfast the porters cleaned and packed up while we started on our hike. We noticed the terrain change from arid and dry to luscious green forest. The trek today was easier than yesterday but more difficult than day 1. We were trekking up and down and around so many steep mountains. There were times we had to really keep close to the mountain because the path was so narrow with nothing between us and the steep drop down. We walked under huge boulders and on ancient rock pathways only stopping to take pictures now and again of each other and the scenery around us. The fog was so thick at times it blocked some of the mountains…but added to the majestic view.
We had no idea beforehand how many ancient ruins we would see along this trek. There is a distinct difference between an Incan-built building…and other ruins we have seen on our travels. The precision of the stones…fitting together perfectly…like assembling a puzzle piece by piece. At one point the guides had us sit on one of the crop planting areas…so we could rest our feet and imagine what it must have been like to live in this Incan city so many years ago. Behind us were huge green and brown mountains angled with a long river running through them. The ruins of this ancient farming city were right below us. It made perfect sense…having a water source so close. It was so cool to look down onto the village while standing on one of the rows where crops use to sprout. The whole picture was straight out of a coffee table book. So many rocks were used to construct these cities…so many walls separating the crops with layer after layer of rocks. It literally took them centuries to finish the construction. To be so high within the mountains looking down at various towns built into the mountainside…was surreal.
After more trekking we settled in at our campsite which happened to be located right above the squatter toilets (nothing like a little poop aroma in the morning). We got washed up and sat down for our last supper together. Dinner was great of course with 3 courses. We had fun chatting about our day. This trek was such an amazing experience and having our group to share it with made it that much more special. It was a challenge we all went through together and stuck by each other’s side. Whether someone was scared of heights or had the flu or altitude sickness or even an infected cut…we all made it! We thanked our porters with a group tip, had our coca tea and retired into our tents. Tomorrow we get to see the grand finale, the moment we’ve been waiting for….Machu Picchu! “The Lost City of the Incas.” The guides warned us to get to sleep because we would have to get up earliest tomorrow, 3:30AM. The first part of the hike would be fast and through the dark.
Our tour guides woke us up this morning by un-zippng our tents and handing us a cup of hot coca tea as we wiped the crust from our eyes. It was very early… We washed up, got dressed and re-packed our sleeping bags. We all moved quickly over to the food tent where breakfast was being cooked…today we had pancakes. The porters who weren’t cooking were cleaning up the camp site and getting ready for today’s busy hike.
We all re-filled our water bottles with the boiled water provided to us, got our backpacks on our backs and hit the trail. I unfortunately was feeling very bad today…I barely got any sleep because I had a fever all night. It was one of those mornings that if I were home and had to go to work…I would have called in sick. Calling in sick was not an option. The guide told me I really needed to hydrate because more than likely what I was feeling was a result of altitude sickness combined with the fact that I hadn’t given myself enough fluids yesterday. Giff felt fine but there was another girl who also felt sick. The other people in our group took one look at me and immediately offered rehydrating packets to pour into my water bottle so I could replenish on electrolytes. Our fellow trekkers had all kinds of things in their emergency kits that we never thought to bring with us. Giff and I will be more prepared on our next trek!
This day of hiking was absolutely breathtaking. As we climbed these steep, ancient stone steps…we thought about how amazing it was that this path was used and built by ancient civilizations from a time unlike any we have ever known. The steep steps would give us a bit of a break as the path seemed to taper off onto flatter ground before it again took us into lunges using our walking sticks to help balance ourselves. We stopped for a break and a group shot as we all looked around and let ourselves become lost in the scenery surrounding us.
After catching our breath, we pulled out the dried coca leaves and black salty paste. Our guide instructed us we would be climbing to extremely high altitudes and this would be the highest point we would go on our trek. It was called “dead women’s pass”. We circled around our guide as he showed us how to use the dried coca leaves. Usually we drop them in hot water and drink the tea…but this would be chewing on the leaves directly which is the strongest way to use the plant. We took a thick pile of dried leaves, put a smidge of the black salty paste in the middle and rolled the leaves around it. Then we slipped the wad into our mouthes…letting it settle between our teeth and cheek…like a chipmunk. We were told the black paste would assist us in creating saliva which would breakdown the coca leaves..which would then release its medicinal juices to help ease the altitude sickness.
We continued our climb upward, stopping more often than usual. It wasn’t just the steep mountain causing us to catch our breath but the altitude was getting really high and the amount of oxygen was much less. Altitude sickness is a pathological effect on humans…it gives symptoms like the flu or a bad hangover. Most people can climb to about 8000 feet without feeling the effects. We climbed to the peak and saw the posted sign showing 4215 meters which is 13,828 feet! After our group picture at the highest point of our 4 day trek, we began our decent. From this point we would climb up and down mountains but not this high again. The climb down was also difficult as we focused on the stone steps and dirt path being careful not to fall.
We got to our lunch campsite and our porters were already busy cooking. They clapped for each of us as we arrived. Many of us were not feeling great. Several of us laid down to try to rest. People took altitude sickness medicines or regular medications to help with the headaches. We drank a lot of water to keep hydrated and ate the many carbs being given to us at lunch to give our bodies energy.
After lunch, we were back on the trail, only stopping to explore the ancient Incan ruins along the path. Our guides discussed the details of these villages and we tried to imagine what it must have been like to live during this time without the amenities we have today. Since there are no streets and no cars able to drive through these mountains…these ruins can only be viewed via hiking through the mountains. It was surreal to get to experience something only a small few would ever see.
As we kept walking, I was feeling really fatigued and downright awful…looking pale and feeling light-headed. This altitude sickness was definitely not one of the highlights of the trip. Giff was feeling like he had a hangover and specifically a pounding headache but after taking some altitude sickness medicine from one of the guys…he was feeling better. We were walking very slow and were taking a break along with another couple. They weren’t feeling great either…the guy had altitude sickness and his wife had a mix of altitude sickness and the flu. Our tour guide saw I was still struggling so he offered to give me some oxygen. Part of me thought about how embarrassing it would be to sit and have an oxygen mask in front of everyone…plus I knew Giff would be all over this one to make sure there were pictures of me. But the other part of me thought…this will make me feel better and it is extremely healthy to breathe straight oxygen…so I agreed. Of course, Giff was there by my side like the paparazzi being sure to capture this moment on film for our blog!
After the 20 minutes of oxygen, I was feeling much better…it gave me that second wind but I had heard it would only last for about an hour before my body would show altitude sickness symptoms again. There is really no cure for this besides climbing to lower altitude. We finally arrived to the campsite right as the sun had set. Everyone went into the food tent for “happy hour” and I decided to take a little nap before dinner. I unfortunately had a new symptom…good ol’ diarrhea. Let me tell you…diarrhea in the mountains is not ideal. I will spare you the details but I’m sure you can imagine. The only toilets that were available throughout the trek were at the campsites and they were squatter toilets. For those of you who don’t know what squatter toilets are…they are holes in the ground with no flush. These holes have accumulated waste on top of waste from each person brave enough to use them…and probably haven’t been cleaned in years. Fighting the gagging reflex the moment I stepped into this stall…I used it for the first and last time of my life. I choose the woods.
Dinner was served and Giff and the rest of the group ate dinner. I joined for a bit trying to force food down my throat but could only get myself to sip soup. Another girl in the group was feeling exactly like me…so she barely ate as well. Everyone seemed to be eating fast in order to get to bed…we were exhausted. We all took medication to try to ease the altitude sickness and hopefully get some sleep. The guides informed us we would be getting up at about 5:30AM in the morning for day 3 of our trek.
After taking a Tylenol type medicine, Giff and I fell fast asleep. I unfortunately had to get up in the middle of the night as my stomach was not able to digest the minimal soup I had eaten. As I was in the bushes and it was pitch dark and cold…I saw what looked like two weird yellow lights pointed at me through the tall grasses. As I was trying to hurry up with my “business” the two yellow lights blinked and I quickly realized the yellow lights were eyes and this was a wild animal that had been staring at me. I was not finished but the thought of a wild animal staring at me in the pitch dark, probably sizing up whether or not to eat me…was all I needed to finish short and run for the tent. My heart was pounding. I tried to make big movements to scare it off but it was standing still looking directly at me. Finally it trotted away as I continued to make noise and I ran back to the tent scared and out of breath.
Was that a puma..or was it a fox? Both live in this part of Peru. If it was a fox it was a scary big one…
Our 3:30AM alarm went off and we painfully rolled out of bed and into the shower…after all, this would be the last shower we would get for the next 4 days! Once we were ready, we grabbed our packed lunches and got into the hotel’s complimentary car to get to the meeting spot in town. We walked onto the charter bus and saw our 18 porters welcoming us by clapping from the back of the bus. They were all dressed in bright red Llama Path shirts. We found a seat, smiled at our fellow trekkers and rested our heads against the window to get a little shut-eye.
As the bus drove for 2 hours through the dark, along windy roads, everyone was silent until we arrived in a small town. We were all told to get off the bus and sit down for breakfast at a small restaurant. They served us pancakes, fruit, yogurt, cereal and coffee. We enjoyed getting to know each other over our first sleepy breakfast together. After breakfast we bought some dried coca leaves with a bit of thick black salty paste which they said would assist in the breakdown of the coca leaves up in the mountains. They also sold toilet paper thankfully since Giff and I forgot to pack it…a minor detail! Once back on the bus, it was another hour before we were at the starting point.
Once we arrived, we got all our things off the bus and bought a $1 bandana from one of the local Peruvian women to block the sun from our neck. We put on sunblock and bug spray and took a group photo by the Inca Trail sign. This was the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime trip together and we were very anxious to get started. As we walked through the Inca Trail gate, we were all asked to give our passports where we were verified as registered to walk the trail that day since they only allow 500 people per day to enter. They gave us an Inca Trail stamp and we were officially on our trek.
Just walking a few steps through the mountains and the scenery already seemed so beautiful. We were walking at a pretty slow pace, stopping often as our guides pointed out various plants and trees along the path. One that particularly stood out was a cactus plant which had several little white balls clinging to it…almost like a mold or fungus. The guide picked off one of the little white balls and popped it open into his hand. It was a deep cranberry red color. He explained it was actually a parasite feeding off these cactus plants. The Peruvian people learned to use these parasites as a dye for their crafts…it is still used that way today.
We continued to walk through the valley with towering mountains above us. It was already getting hot and we were all taking layers off as we continued our hike. We came across two Incan ruins and stopped to listen to the details of what they thought the buildings were used for etc. They specifically pointed out the structures which use to be used for crops. They looked like shelves carved into the mountains…we recognized the style right away from our Sacred Valley tour yesterday. It was classic Incan style…grass of course was now growing over them but centuries ago they were used to farm their food.
After walking for about 4 hours we stopped for lunch. Our porters who carried huge packs on their backs filled with our tents, food, cooking equipment, sleeping bags etc. etc…had hiked way ahead of us and already had the food tent assembled and bowls of hot water with a bar of soap next to them. We arrived to the camp site, the boys rang out the sweat from their shirts and hung them on the clothes line. We washed up and sat down to eat. The food was impressively good for camping…We started with a fresh salad served in a half avocado followed by a homemade soup and then a couple of options for the main course…meats and rice and potatoes. Forget about hot dogs and hamburgers…this was great food considering we were camping!
After lunch and a bit of resting, we were on the trails again hiking through stunning mountain views. We continued for another 3 hours or so going up and down the path and seeing a few other people trekking as well. We saw some of the locals who live along the Inca path walking with their donkeys and some trying to sell bottled water and Gatorade to the trekkers.
When we finally arrived to our camp site…our porters had all our sleeping tents assembled with warm bowls of water and soap sitting outside each one. They not only trekked ahead of us and had the whole campsite set up with gorgeous views for us to stare at, but they had already started cooking dinner! We all picked our tents, washed up and dressed in additional layers including winter hats because the air was much colder from being higher in altitude and almost sunset.
The guides had us come in for what they called “happy hour” which included coca tea and popcorn. We sat around and chatted amongst each other while the porters were hard at work preparing dinner. They gave us about an hour between happy hour and dinner time to relax. Today wasn’t very hard as far as the trekking was concerned…the altitude wasn’t too high either…but everyone had gotten up very early to be on the bus by 4:30AM and then we had hiked for about 7 hours. We were more sleepy than exhausted at that point.
For dinner, we were again impressed…they served us a starter, a soup and several entrée options and the chef wearing his chef hat came into our tent to present our dessert as he lit the bananas on fire with the rum in his saute pan.. We of course ended again with a cup of tea. It was really important to drink plenty of liquids throughout the day not only because of the hiking but specifically because of the altitude we would be tackling over the next several days. I didn’t have as much as I should have and on top of getting only a few hours of sleep…I started to feel a little “off”.
After dinner, we all went into our beds, which were thin air mattresses with a sleeping bag. The guides said it was bedtime and that they would be waking us up at about 6AM for breakfast and then we would hit the trails for what would be the most difficult day of our 4 day trek.