Throwback Thursday: Planning for the Inca Trail

Turning 40 last September gave me a good excuse to knock two things off of my bucket list.  In early November, I ran the New York City Marathon.  In mid-November, my husband and I traveled to Peru to hike the Inca Trail.

Upon our return, I blogged about the Inca Trail trek, an experience which filled me with wonder and the memories of which continue to both relax and invigorate me.  I’ve had a lot of friends ask if I think they’d be able to complete the trek, given their fitness level/trick knee/altitude sickness tendencies/aversion to sleeping in a tent.  Honestly, I think most anyone could complete the Inca Trail trek, given the correct training and the right guide.  Furthermore, I think *everyone* who loves to travel and being outdoors should put the Inca Trail (or another Peruvian trek) on their bucket list.  If you choose to go, I highly recommend Alpaca Expeditions.

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After a few days of acclimating to the altitude in Cusco, the heart of the Inca civilization, and visiting sites just outside of town, we went to bed early.  Sleep was minimal but restful on this trip!  We woke up the next morning at 4am, ready for our 4.30am pick up.  Alpaca drove us and our 6 trek companions out to the start of the Inca Trail. We had a prepared-in-front-of-us breakfast then got on our way.
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Our guide was Saul, and he let us trek at our own pace (rather than in a single file line), so John and I were usually at the front and would stop at a pre-determined spot to wait for the rest of the group. We LOVED that, as it allowed us to be alone on the trail and not feel part of a mule line.
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(I was a little surprised that our guide didn’t really talk along the trail except to point out interesting flora/fauna and explain the major sites along the way, but then I realized a 3+ day running commentary would be exhausting anyway.)
 I also appreciated that Alpaca treats their porters really well.  Our guys were a real team, hiking together and chatting and laughing.  They were well outfitted with proper shoes, hats, coats, pants, etc.  Alpaca also supports their kids’ educations and makes sure the money the porters earn gets to their families.  Our guide first worked the Inca Trail as a porter, so he had a fantastic rapport with the porters– who he preferred to call “chaskis,” Quecha for “Inca Runners.”  And run they did, with impressive loads on their backs and smiles on their faces.
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Our equipment– tents, air mattresses, portable toilet, etc– was great, and it made the whole experience really enjoyable.  The food was incredible– one of our group is a chef in Los Angeles, and he was impressed with the quality, freshness, and inventiveness of the food we ate along the way.  There are definitely cheaper companies to trek with, but I am really glad we went with Alpaca.
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One thing I had read about in blogs is that the Inca Trail is really “the Inca Staircase.”  I don’t know why I didn’t believe this but OH MY GOD IT’S TRUE.  I have never gone up and down so many uneven stone steps in my life.  The other thing I really liked about Alpaca is that they have a longer Day 2 on the hike, pushing through both high passes on that day.  Other trekking companies end Day 2 after the first pass (the famed “Dead Woman’s Pass) and leave the second pass plus a lot of downhill hiking for Day 3.  While that allows for more even mileage among days 1, 2, and 3, you WILL be sore after Dead Woman’s Pass, so why not have the second one already done, too, and have a much easier Day 3?  Our Day 3 was only about 6 hours of hiking, so when we stopped for lunch, we were done for the day.  It was awesome to have an afternoon free to hang out, play cards, take a nap, and just enjoy that we were 85% done with the trail…and be able to look forward to Machu Picchu day on Day 4.  We just sat back, relaxed, and let the chaskis take care of us.
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The only even tiny sort-of disappointing aspect of the trip was Machu Picchu itself.  After 3 days of being essentially alone (just our group of 8 + guide) on the trail and exploring about 10 other Inca sites, getting to Machu Picchu and wandering around with 3000 other people wasn’t so awesome.
Think of it this way: just going to Machu Picchu is like never visiting a church but being insistent on a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Cathedral.  By going on the hike, we gained so much understanding of the Inca people and the vastness of their empire and exploring so many other sites that it gave us great context for  Machu Picchu….it’s impossible not to be impressed with the ancient site– the size and relative perfection of the site is incredible.  But having all those tour groups herded around did affect my enjoyment of the prized destination.
We did not climb Huyana Picchu (the mountain seen in the background of classic photos) at Machu Picchu because my husband has a pretty significant fear of heights, and the Huyana Picchu trail is steep and exposed.  Four people in our group did it, and they enjoyed the views.  They did say, however, that if they hadn’t already bought their tickets (you have to reserve them when you reserve the trek), they wouldn’t have missed it.
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I think all of us in the group were surprised by how sore we were.  Maybe if I’d done nothing but climb stairs for my marathon training, I’d have been okay, but even running a sub-4 hour marathon two weeks before did not give me the fitness to escape the Inca Trail with no soreness.  It’s certainly nothing that should worry most people in terms of their ability to complete the trek, but be ready to work and be sore!
As for the weather, we got so extremely lucky.  Other than a 10 minute rain shower while we ate lunch in our tent on Day 1, 10 minutes of rain while we sat on top of Dead Woman’s Pass waiting for our group, and a thunderstorm while we napped on Day 3, we had no rain.  This meant we never actually hiked in the rain, which is an incredible rarity at any time of year, especially the beginning of the rainy season (mid-November).  No doubt, the weather significantly affected our enjoyment of the experience.  We were ready for lots of rain with full rain jackets, pants, poncho, and waterproof gloves, but it was awesome not to have to use them!
I absolutely loved the Inca Trail.  The history, the natural world of cloud forest, rain forest, sleeping under so many stars, the camaraderie of a group of strangers accomplishing a big goal, eating delicious, fresh food….it was a real thrill.  And while I already dissed Machu Picchu itself, I will say that the first view of the site from the Sun Gate literally took my breath away and put tears in my eyes.  The whole experience was an overwhelming confirmation that humanity is relatively unchanged over the centuries, still trying to get the answers to the same questions.
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