August 21, 2012 by t4li
The Inca Trail was, without a doubt, not only the climax of our South American adventure, but is also in the top five most amazing experiences of my life. It was out. Of. Control.
Here’s the facts: The Inca Trail, or the iteration we chose to do, is a 4-day 3-night hike that follows the original granite trail built by the Inca as a route from Cusco, their capital city, to the mountaintop town of Machu Picchu. Traditionally one starts at Km 82, which makes it a total of 45 km, or 25 miles; the highest point is 4,215 m (13,829 ft) above sea level; and the entire route takes you through the Andes and is absolutely stunning. The kind of stunning where I can’t hope to avoid cliches because I’m not a writer. Let’s say, so stunning that I had no fewer than six “OH SHIT I’M IN PERU” moments.
This picture is about 1/1000th as beautiful as the real thing. Sorry guys. Looks like you’re gonna have to hike the Inca Trail.
We started at the aforementioned Km 82 around 9 am, after being picked up in Cuzco around 4:30. Only 500 people a day are allowed to hike the trail, due to erosion of the trail, and 300 of those are porters – men who carry all the camping equipment and food for the hikers – which is why this hike must be booked crazy far in advance. The first day was pleasant, what our guide Miguel called “Andean flat” – some ups and downs, but mostly a nice even pace. The first surprise was at lunch, when we arrived at the campsite and saw an amazing spread awaiting us.
That’s right. Every meal we ate on the Inca Trail was four courses – appetizer, soup, entree, and dessert/hot drinks – and was crazy delicious. And everything for these three square meals a day had to be carried for one to four days. It was our first taste of the strange luxuries one can enjoy in the middle of absolute nowhere.
For a group of 11 hikers, we had two tour guides, 16 porters and a chef. These guys were the first to get up and the last to go to bed. Each morning they woke us up with a tin mug of hot coca tea delivered directly to our sleepyheaded selves, still tangled in our sleeping bags. A few minutes later they would place bowls of warm water and washcloths outside our tents so we could wash up. Then they would serve us breakfast in the main tent, complete with toast, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, porridge, and an omelet. They would still be packing up when we set off on the trail. Within hours, they would pass us. By the time we got to the lunch point, they would have everything set up waiting for us – including more bowls of clean, warm water to wash up. By the time we arrived at our campsite for dinner, our tents would already be set up, our sleeping mats unrolled. It was true luxury in camping.
Leah would also like to mention that the porters’ calf muscles were OUT OF CONTROL.
We were also both really glad to have signed up with Llama Path, a tour company that reportedly treats its porters very well (comparatively) and helped reset the standards for their wages and working conditions around 10 years go. They earn close to minimum wage, and our grateful group tipped generously.
Day two was rough, you guys. It was really, really rough. We hiked up and down two separate mountains, one delightfully nicknamed “The Gringo Killer” for the double whammy of high altitude and extremely steep trail – in many parts just a straight-up staircase for miles. But hey, when you destroy the Gringo Killer that means you get to take pictures like this:
Take that, mountain!
Day two also took us into the cloud forest, one of the most amazing ecosystems I’ve ever seen. Once you pop over the second mountain of the day (no big) you’re smack dab in the middle of the clouds. Because the Andes are so tall that they catch the clouds and stop them from moving past the mountain range. I KNOW RIGHT??
The cloud forest creates a fascinating ecosystem that, to my pop culture-beridden mind, looked only and exactly like Jurassic Park. Just hum the movie theme as you look at these pictures and you will totally pick up what I am putting down.
Did I also tell you that this Inca Trail is chock-ful of amazing Incan ruins that you get to explore? No? It’s amazing!
I’m going to get nerdy for a minute and expand on a main reason why this trip was so fulfilling. Our extraordinary guide Miguel was completely different from any other guide we’d had in South America because from the very beginning of the trail he stressed that thinking critically about one’s experience was the only way to experience it fully. So unlike others, who would stop with us at sites so we could point and click, Miguel asked us to engage with the narrative of the trail by acting like archaeologists and asking, “Why is this here? What might this have been? How did they make it? And what does all this tell us about the Inca?” This gave me five nerd boners, of course.
Day three, it hailed. This was sort of a bummer, but at least Miguel, who I would like once again stress was a totally rad dude who talked about shit like the Patriarchy all the time, used it as an opportunity to talk about global warming. I could not get enough of this guy.
Still, we perservered, and were rewarded with a lovely sunny afternoon to explore more beautiful Incan ruins. Guys, did you know that the Incan Empire was extant for 90 years, and during this time they built about 3,000 sites and over 15,000 miles of trails? I KNOW RIGHT???
Day 4 is the Big Kahuna. You wake at 3:30 am and start your descent to the final destination – Machu Picchu, a city so mysterious that the Spaniards never found it (contributing to its general well-preserved condition today) and archaeologists are still arguing over what purpose, exactly, it was built to serve. I can’t express how amazing it feels to finish a journey through the Andes, 25 miles long, in many places straight up or straight down over rough granite, when at the end you get to see Machu Picchu exactly the same way the Incan pilgrims did, 500 years ago. Wait, this amazing:
TIMES A THOUSAND.
Take a bow, awesome group! You’ve successfully hiked the Inca Trail!!
And, of course, Machu Picchu itself is an archaological marvel. How did they move those thousands of tons of stone to their final destination? How could they fit the stones together so precisely, needing no mortar?
Our intellectual journey had led us here, the literal end of the road, with a deeper understanding of the Inca that had built these incredible things; and it had also given me the opportunity to complete the most physically challenging task I had ever set my mind to. I really, really wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.