Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Inca Trail - A Bucket List Adventure

Day 1

We met the last three people who would be joining us on our hike (we travelled with Intrepid - who I would highly recommend to people of all ages), and made our way from Ollantaytambo to Km 82, which marks the official start of the Inca Trail. You are here with many other people all about to start their own adventure.

After posing for your group photo...

Seriously, the best group ever. A truly great group of wonderful people. #intrepidtravel That's me, front and centre. make your way to have your passport stamped and then you cross the bridge over the Urubamba River to start the trail.

Game on. Inca Trail just got real...
After the first hill (which is a bit of a killer), the terrain evens out and you find yourself walking through a really dry, desert like environment. It's hot. Even in the middle of winter. But thankfully for us, it wasn't wet. Expect to see motorbikes and donkeys on the trail on this day. Also expect to see food and drink stalls and plenty of toilets. (And make the most of them, they only get worse).

First stop. Note the stalls behind us.

Uphill moments were pretty terrible, but you tend to stop every hour or two for a break and history lesson, which seems to break up the long days. Victor, our guide, also told us about a 'diagonal walking' technique that took the pressure off knees. It really helped and we continued this every day. Our first official ruins were Llaqtapata and Willqaraqay. Here we learn that much of the 'Inca Trail' isn't in fact the original Inca Trail at all, and that only small parts of the original remain today.

Llaqtapata ruins. Day 1.
We were pleasantly surprised by the lunch set up.

All our meals were eaten in here.
Our first campsite (after walking for 7km) was Wayllapampa. This is the last place you will see donkeys or pack animals on the trail.

Could not believe all the porters were so keen to play soccer at the end of the day!

View from my tent - night one.

Our tents.

Our entire 'PEAK' group. The trekkers and the porters, chefs...etc.

At the end of Day 1 I felt good. Much more relaxed, only the mildest of headaches, and physically fine. Our Intrepid guide had told us to drink at least two litres of water a day to help with altitude, and it was definitely helping.

Day 2

We were up early. Ear plugs are a must - donkey calls will ring out through the valley during the night and they will help you sleep in spite of the incline you will be sleeping on as well. Mornings on the Inca Trail are cold. But rest assured that you will have stripped off only 10 minutes into the day. Our Porters introduced themselves, and it's not an understatement to say that these guys are worth their weight in gold. They are so hard working and just incredible. I have an incredible respect for them.

 We had been told that Day 2 would be the toughest. It was a long day - 8km up and two km down. It was also the highest altitude we would reach on the day. Whoever said that didn't lie. It was tough.

It was a steep uphill start, and then the microclimate changed, and things cooled down in the cloud forest.

Cloud forest - Day 2.
On Day 2 we didn't stop for lunch - our guides had told us that it would only make us feel sick as we climbed higher and higher. We were encouraged to snack instead, and we had a big feed when we reached the campsite. There are still a few stalls on Day 2, so make the most of them and top up your supply for Day 3.

My thighs were burning here!
The uphill was tough. Most people felt it (okay everyone felt it) in their knees or thighs. As the air thinned, we stopped regularly. Don't be surprised if you stop every 10-20m to catch your breath and then head off again. Whatever works!

I saw my first wild llama...


 Altitude is hard to explain. It affects everyone differently. Mostly I just found that I lost my breath easier, and I was more susceptible to headaches. It was a long hike up hill, and eventually the peak was in sight. Warmi Wanusqa (or Dead Woman's Pass) is 4215m (13829 ft). And you can feel it. When you reach this part of the trail it's hard not to be excited. Adrenaline kicks in (or maybe that was just the shot of rum that we were met with by tour members) and you are ready to continue. This is the highest point you will reach. There is no turning back from here, so I was excited to think that I was actually going to do this!

Metres from the top and still needing to stop and rest.

Jim, Victor (guide), me and Libby all jumping in excitement.

These are my travel buddies! Sarah, me, Leesa and Libby. We made it!

And then it was downhill!!! Kilometres of STEEP stairs. It's about an hour or even more downhill to Pakaymayu, our second campsite.

This is me taking a break.

And the view from our second camp site.

Resting our tired feet.
Day two stats.
 We requested a small dinner after a HUGE late lunch. This night was FREEZING cold (I was good in my warm sleeping bag). We were at this highest campsite for a full moon. It was equal parts eerie and magnificent.

PS. If you hear a story here about a murder or a German woman by her new husband, it's total urban legend. You won't hear about it anywhere else. Good for scaring tourists if nothing else.

Day 3

Another chilly morning. You can see the uphill walk ahead of you right from the get-go. The good news is that you can also see the first ruins where you know you will be stopping. The altitude was still playing havoc with my pulse, so it was more slow going. It's not long before you arrive at the first of several ruins you will see that day. Welcome to Runkuraqay ruins.

A welcome respite from an uphill hike.
Feeling energised, it's a short while later that we made it over the second pass. There is something about making it over a pass that releases more adrenaline. It's a downhill run again until the next (and major) ruins of the day. Sayaqmarka was an original stopping point for people travelling the Inca Trail. It's an extra 100 stairs up to visit it, but well worth the effort.

Sayaqmarka - amazing!

Up in the ruins.

Day 3 is not only the longest day (more than 16km if you consider the walking through all of the ruins) but it's also the most scenic. I could have walked for hours more. Amazing doesn't even come close to describing Day 3. Here are some shots of Day 3 scenery.

Heading to the lunch campsite. Original Inca Trail. (New bridge obvs).

And more trail...

And a tunnel! There are about 3 of them.

Almost at the lunch site.

Still loaded with energy and up in the clouds.

It looks scarier than it actually is.

And then (after lunch) it's down to another set of ruins. This is Phuyupatamarka.

It started to rain, but as we were up in the clouds, it didn't last, and upon our descent, it disappeared entirely. After these ruins it's ALL downhill. The stairs are awful on your knees. We were so close to the third camp that we almost ran down. Here are some top shots from the last run of Day 3.

We found the Urubamba River again!

Intipata Ruins

Looking down at the Day 3 campsite from the last ruins of the day.

We fit in one final ruins for Day 3 - Intipata. You can hear trains and can even catch brief glimpses of Aguas Caliente in the afternoon.

'We made it to camp with sunlight to spare. The Day 3 campsite has had flood damage this year and was undergoing repairs, so the campsite was crowded. The toilets were the most revolting I'd ever seen but the company was fantastic. We spent the evening doing the 'thank you' ceremony. This is where speeches are given and we tip everyone and say goodbye to the porters who we won't see from this point onwards. After that we all collapse into bed in anticipation of a 3:00am start.

Day 3 stats!!!
Day 4

Woken at 2:45am we all dress and are wide awake in excitement that today we make it to Machu Picchu, even though we still have over 5km to the Sun Gate (Inti Pinku), and even more to the actual ruins.

The walk is easy. Eventually we make it to the Monkey Stairs (named because you pretty much need your hands and feet to scale the steep staircase). Our guide, Victor, did it in 13 seconds!!

Monkey Stairs
 When you've worked so hard for something, the end result can be quite emotional. I shed a tear or two at the Sun Gate. It was everything I had hoped it would be.

My first view of Machu Picchu - and the windy road off the mountain. And yes, there were tears!

Our amazing group looking down on M.P.

The Four Dirranbandi Inca Girls!!

And then it was all over. Completely surreal and perfect. We were all physically exhausted. The bus trip down the mountain to Aguas Caliente signalled the end of an amazing four days. It was a physical and mental challenge and I am so, so, so glad I attempted it.

If you haven't already done so, read my post on preparation and packing for the Inca Trail here.

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