We live in a beautiful world.
It’s true. This place is off the hook! If only we could all open our eyes to it. Traveling is not for everyone, I get that, but as long as you realize there are places that would take your breath away that should be enough. Or just appreciate what’s in front of you on a daily basis. The Inkas had it right. They worshipped mother nature. Heaven wasn’t a place up in the clouds, for them it was in every Orchid, tree, mountain and blade of grass. They studied the stars and could figure out when the rainy season would come and what needed to be done. If there was a natural disaster llamas and sometimes people were sacrificed. But they had everything they needed and were expanding as a culture very fast until the Spanish arrived and destroyed it all.
From March 7 for the next 4 days I got to see what is left over along the Inka Trail 500 years after the Spanish arrived. I pushed myself. Not just physically, that I saw coming… Well maybe I didn’t quite grasp the idea of trekking over 2 mountain passes in one day until the 2nd morning when I was over 13000 feet above sea level at Dead Women’s Pass in the Andes knowing after lunch the second Pass would bring us into the high altitude Amazon jungle. Physically I was totally pushed to the limit, but this trek was unlike anything I’ve done before.
The night before the trek we had a briefing. That’s where we met our guide Marco and his assistant Wilburt (who quickly was given the title Big Willy). I also met the other trekkers there were 16 of us! Other Canadians, Americans, Aussies, and couple guys from Pakistan. Marco told us a bit of what to expect each day then we were given the good news that tomorrow morning the bus would leave from the square in Cuzco near the Llama Path office (that’s the trek company I went with) at 4:30am. So it begins….
I went back to the hostel to pack up. I stored most of my stuff there and just brought what I needed to walk in for 4 days. Plus rain gear etc.
The way it works is along with the 16 of us there is a team of porters (21 of them plus a chef) they carry all the tents and camping gear plus a small duffle bag for each of us. The rangers were quite strict that each porter could carry 25kilos max. During the day we just had to carry a day pack. These guys were machines. Their uniform was red so we called them the Red Army. They would always trek ahead setting up at the lunch stop then passing us on the trail, we would arrive at the campsite and all our tents plus the big dinning tent would be set up! The chef busy preparing dinner. Same thing in the Morning. After breakfast we set off and at some point along the trail we would stop to let the Red Army pass. They were amazing, I don’t know how they did it. My kind of camping though:)
The Red Army (and the trekkers sitting in front)
I made sure to have the longest hottest shower possible before I went to bed that night.
When I found the square in the dark At 430am on day 1 the bus was there and the porters were collecting the duffle bags we were given. They were pouring hot Coca tea. For centuries in Peru the people have been chewing and drinking the Coca leaves. It gives you power. ;) Also helps with altitude sickness. Marco, our guide, instructed us to buy the leaves to have on the trek. I did as I was told!! But that reminds me to make sure that there aren’t any left in any pockets before I try to get back into Canada. Not sure that would go over so well.
The bus drove about an hour and a half to our breakfast stop. Our last un included meal for the next few days. We got our coca leaves here and also some kind of black paste Marco said to buy. You wrap about 8 leaves around a chunk of the paste before you chew it. He said the paste “activates” the leaf haha. When in Rome…
We drove a bit further to KM 82 where the entrance and checkpoint for the Inka Trail is located. We showed them our passports and Inka trail passes (my pass said my nationality was Australian, but it didn’t seem to matter) they stamped us through and away we went! Day 1 we covered about 14kms and gained about 1900ft in elevation. We walked along and the scenery through the Andes was breathtaking. I got the same feeling many times during the trek that I sometimes get in the Canadian Rockies. The feeling is that in all of this I am about as big as a grain of sand. It always makes me smile and gives me a deeper appreciation for our planet. Then somewhere along the way that first morning we saw our first Inka ruins. We stopped and Marco shared his knowledge -very passionately I might add. The Inkas were incredible. Building these sites used as temples, places to study the stars or for them the most important -agriculture. The king Pachacuti was considered the most influential. Credited for expanding the culture all over South America and he had a plan. To move up! They were moving up, literally, higher and higher into the mountains that they worshiped. The sites had rows of terraces built literally along the side of the mountain. They were acclimatizing the food!! It blows my mind. You look at these ruins and they didn’t flatten sections of the mountain to build them, they integrated there structures (and lives) into the mountain. Like it was an extension of the mountain rather then hey let’s just flatten this chunk and build here. Insane. There were so many equally amazing ruins along the way to the most famous Machu Picchu.
Anyway we continued until we saw the Red Army set up for lunch. The food was incredible. How that chef could make meals like that was beyond me. Marco told us at the briefing if we were doing this trek to loose weight we chose the wrong company. Every meal had multiple courses and the food was great. I think that first lunch was soup, veggies , trout etc. Everything came out on big platters and was served family style which the 16 of us were quickly becoming:) After lunch a few hours (up) and we arrived at our first campsite called Ayapata (3300m/10829ft) Every day around 5:30pm around the time we arrived at the campsite we had ‘happy hour’ before dinner. Coco tea, Milo, Coffee, popcorn and other snacks. We all sat in the big tent and chatted about the trek, where we were from, what we did. It was amusing. The group was cool and diverse. We all felt comfortable right away. We were strangers 12 hours ago but we were sharing an experience not many can say they have.
After dinner we were stuffed. And went to bed around 830pm. Marco said the first day is the hardest since we were all running on no sleep. I beg to differ. Our wake up for the morning was 5:30am and the trek On Day 2 was hell haha.
At 5:30am a couple porters knocked on the tent and had mugs of hot coco tea delivered to the tent. Then a couple minutes later there was a basin with hot water and a cloth placed outside the tent. We gathered our stuff rolled up our sleeping bags and made our way for breakfast. One morning crepes with fruit, another scrambled eggs, there was pourage, bread and jam. To be honest it was so early every morning that breakfast was kinda a blur. Day 2 was the day we covered the two mountain passes. It was crazy. It made the Grouse Grind in Vancouver look like a cake walk. Everyone went at there own pace but we gathered at the top of the first Dead Women’s Pass (4200m/13779ft) the highest I’ve ever been (I’m not referring to the coca leaves, although they got me through it :) for me what makes that altitude so crazy is that, from my tours in Canada, I know (and have seen many times) the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies Mt. Robson which is 3954m/12972ft there I am walking around 1000ft higher then the peak of Mt. Robson -so cool. When I made it to the top the few ahead of me cheered me on as I breathlessly forced my legs to take the final steps. It was an accomplishment! Been walking 4 hours UP. We had quite a while to wait for the others. Maybe the altitude was getting to us! We took crazy photos and tried to stay warm.
Dead Women’s Pass 13779ft people were doing MJ poses. I couldn’t resist.
We are M&Ms
The climb we was so hot and sweaty, then you stop and it got chilly fast. The rain came and the ponchos came out! When we were all assembled it was a few hours to lunch…..down. My legs felt like spaghetti noodles for the first bit. The walking stick I hired was very useful going down. It rained a lot. But I made it to lunch. It was a good rest before the second pass. At the top of that one Marco got us to make a circle, hold hands, and chant ‘Hy Ee, Hy Ee, Hy Ee’ releasing our hands in the air the third chant. I have no clue what it translates to but he said it was to praise the incredible mountains and nature around us. I had a moment for sure and felt motivated for the next couple hours down to the campsite. There were also some awesome ruins we visited just before we arrived at the campsite. 16kms, 2 Mountain Passes we were now in what is considered High Altitude Amazon jungle. There was Bamboo growing and definitely different vegetation from where we woke up. The campsite was called Chaquicocha (3600m/11800ft) it was Happy hour, dinner, bed at 9pm. But after dinner Marco started talking about some of the mysteries surrounding the Inkas. There are many. The sheer knowledge they had for the constellations and the abilities to build structures that reflected them. They were huge in to astronomy. And the symbol for knowledge was the snake. Therefore the important Astronomers were decorated with symbols of the snake. Guess what the Spanish thought of that when they invaded?? To them Snake=Evil not knowledge so they were killed immediately. All the knowledge the Inkas had would be lost forever. We may never know how they were able to understand what they did so long ago. What doesn’t help is that they didn’t write. They used a Quipu which was a system of knots using llama or alpaca hair to spread information to each other. It was all very fascinating listening to Marco each day. It just brought so many questions. As we were getting closer to Machu Picchu I started thinking about it. They are quite certain Machu Picchu was a secret place for the kings top astronomers and other VIPs. The Spanish never found it. It wasn’t even discovered until 1911 by American Hiram Bingham. He found a couple hundred skeletons, almost all women. So they say the princesses and other women were sent there from Cuzco when the Spanish invaded. The women weren’t farmers and knew nothing about agriculture and starved. Some say yellow fever. I read about all this months ago. Marco said there was an author who had a stupid theory that Machu Picchu was a whorehouse for the King and his top people. I went to bed thinking If the Inkas didn’t write who actually knows?! How can they be certain of any of it. It was an amazing feeling to sleep there amidst it all and then by day be walking in the footsteps of this mysterious culture.
Day 3 we got to sleep in till 6am! Because we did both mountain passes the day before (most companies only do one) it meant today we would do our 3rd mountain pass (3680m/12073ft) be at our campsite for lunch. It was a walk in the park compared to the other days. We saw some orchids and stopped to marvel at the trail itself. The Inkas building a wall to support it on the side of the mountain.
Amazing Inka Trail stairs, and sometimes the odd tunnel
How’d they build this!!! Patience I guess. It was up for the first part of the morning then down hundreds maybe thousands of stairs. We stopped at some more ruins incredible terraces like giant stairs on the mountain. The weather was good. The views of the valley were insane. No wonder they built here, I thought. If they worshipped mother nature they didn’t have to look too far to feel her presence. It sounds cheesy, but just as we stepped off the path to the archeological site there were amazing butterflies everywhere. Light blue on the top of there wings and yellow underneath. When the flew it looked like they changed color with every flap. It was amazing. You couldn’t help feeling the energy in these places. It was all around me…
When I thought the day couldn’t get any better, after arriving at the camp we had lunch, I had the best ciesta (it must have been because Dayna in the tent next to me said i was snoring quite loudly) then we met Marco who took us 10 minutes from the camp to Winay Huayna (also the name of the campsite) another Inka archeological site. It kinda cleared up so we could really see the mountains, valley, and the “Sacred River” way down below. There were water falls. It was basically just our group there. Marco did his explanation then we explored on our own. My eyes couldn’t believe what they were seeing. In that moment I was just so happy to be there. So grateful. I thought of the thousands of people who visit Machu Picchu by bus and train every day, and how much they miss by not doing the trek. Again I looked at the site. At the terraces, the infrastructure, the water irrigation system (that was still functioning) it was mind blowing. The place was huge. I think Marco said Machu Picchu was 5x bigger!! Guess I’ll see tomorrow.
Tonight was our last supper! It was Jude’s bday and at happy hour we couldn’t believe it when a huge cake iced and all was brought out to the tent with all the porters singing. If I wasn’t amazed by the chef before….
We had another incredible meal then it was time to say goodbye to the porters. We would see them in the am, but it would be very early and they had to catch a train back to Cuzco right after they packed up the site. How early??? Well this is Machu Picchu. There are control gates near the campsite then an hour long trek to the Sun Gate where we would get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. The normal wake up time is 3:30am but at dinner we agreed that we wanted to be the first group through the gate (plus we would have shelter to wait under if it was raining) then Marco suggested we wake up at3:00am. That was that! Bedtime!
Day Four 3am came too soon. In the dark I threw myself together, went to the bfast tent (even though my body did not know what to do with breakfast at 3am) ate something and then we all made our way to the control gate with flashlights. Our plan worked. We were the first there. We just had to wait an hour and a half for the gate to open… Finally it did. We showed our pass and we were on a mission. Get to the Sun Gate. My legs were sore and tired but they wouldn’t stop. I was moving! It got lighter outside. As I walked I thought wow your going to be at Machu Picchu today! After all the planning, reading, photos I’d seen - I was excited! I was near the front of the group too, and I suddenly thought of this blog post I read about a guy who claimed to be the 1st to lay eyes on Machu Picchu in 2012. Through a series of events he was let through the control gate someone ahead of him then they stopped to fix their pack or something then it was just him and he saw it first. I thought about him on this trail, and then it started happening. A few people ahead of me stopped to take off their rain ponchos, then someone stopped for a breather. Because I thought of that man, I just couldn’t stop! It was kind of funny…and stupid. Suddenly there were what felt like a million steps (mini Inka Ruin steps I might add) my heart was pounding I was sweating. Was it even 6am? I kept going Jake was ahead of me and I wanted to yell out are we there yet?? Could he see anything? Cause I was about to pass out! Then suddenly there it was. I wasn’t 1st but I figure probably the 3rd person to lay eyes on Machu Picchu on March 10, 2012. Haha still pretty cool. It was pretty far down. Another 40 minutes probably. When we were all gathered by that time lots of other groups had reached the Sun Gate.
Still the buses and train loads of people wouldn’t start arriving for another hour or 2. We got closer and then I got that surreal feeling I always get when I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of something and then I’m actually standing there. I got the same feeling the first time I saw Times Square, Sydney harbor, the White House, the Hollywood Sign, the Colosseum in Rome, and many iconic things I’ve seen photos of gives me a weird feeling when I’m actually there. For a couple hours we walked around the site with Marco, checking out some of the important temples. It was fascinating and huge! Then the crowds started arriving. The ‘train people’, I thought. They were everywhere by 10am. Some dressed up looking nice meanwhile I hadn’t showered in 4 days. I felt like they didn’t deserve to be there. I know it’s horrible… But the best was a conversation I over heard down near the entrance where people get off the bus. There was a private guide with a young family. A couple of kids probably late teens early 20s. I was walking by slowly and heard their guide say “now this first part is going to be the hardest. We have to go up some stairs for about 7 minutes to get to the actual site of Machu Picchu.” they were clutching their water bottles and he reassuringly told them “you can do it!” they nodded… In that moment (after I literally burst out laughing) I felt a real since of accomplishment. Machu Picchu was incredible but the trek on the Inka trail was a unique experience that has given me a stash of memories that I can access for the rest of my life. I thought how great it would be if you could only visit Machu Picchu if you did the trek like the other archeological sites I saw. But maybe not. Maybe if everyone on the planet had the opportunity to see something so beautiful and learn about a culture that wasn’t power hungry and had a deeper appreciation for nature then we will ever know, maybe then the world could change for the better.