They say that Machu Picchu is one of the most remarkable sites on the planet. After seeing it with my own eyes, I can now attest to this – it is truly spectacular and such a unique and spiritual site. Any way you decide to get to Machu Picchu is amazing, but we decided to take the Inca Trail to gain the true pilgrimage aspect from it. It is a 4-day, 3-night trek that takes you on the original Inca Trail that goes through the magnificent Andes mountains, river valleys, and the high jungle. The trail is 40 km (25 miles) long and reaches a highest altitude of 4200 m (13 779 feet). We booked with the company SAS Travel Peru, and after a bad first impression, our experience was absolutely exemplary with our amazing guide, Felipe. Felipe was a very special, passionate guide from the mountains and still practices the religion of the Incas. Learning about their customs and performing ceremonies to Pachamama (Mother Earth) was an enriching experience that we will never forget, and our participation was something that clearly meant a lot to him. While they no longer sacrifice humans, he did tell us about his family sacrificing a guinea pig not too long ago when his sister got sick. It was truly fascinating to see how much the nature means to him and how much he appreciates everything that Pachamama provides. We were a total of 14, and what a great group we were. We all became friends quickly and became even closer going through this life-changing journey.
After having completed the Santa Cruz trek, we had a bit more confidence going into this one. With similar altitudes, it was really nice to already be adjusted and not have to worry about any altitude sicknesses. However, this doesn’t mean it was easy, just easier than it would have been. The first day was relatively easy, but we still walked for 7 hours. Each day our porters – the locals that carried 30 kg of camping equipment – raced ahead of us to set up camp twice a day. Going into it, we didn’t really have high expectations for the food basing it on what we had on our previous trek. I mean, how good could the food be while hiking four days in the mountains? We saw our blue tents set up around midday and hungrily marched into the tent. What a pleasant surprise we had waiting for us; We had freshly prepared ceviche! And it was some of the best ceviche we have had while in Peru. How the chef was able to make fresh, tasty ceviche out of a tent, is beyond me. Time and time again we were surprised at how he was able to prepare such tasty food. Each meal we had a starter, a soup, and then big, family style portions for the main course. It was amazing. We had fresh trout from the river, Peruvian pizza, and he even managed to bake a cake for us on the last night. We really enjoyed all of our meals, but after such large lunches, it made it quite difficult to start hiking again. Fortunately for us, they always had a soup or tea to aid in the digestion process. After lunch, we hiked a couple of more hours before reaching our first Incan ruins site. We were so impressed by this fortress that we wondered how Machu Picchu could be any better. We had a history lesson about the ruins, and then walked another 2 hours to reach our camp for the night.
Day 2 was definitely the most difficult of all the days. This was the day we were to ascend “Dead Woman’s Pass”. We woke up with some rain, but with a recently purchased poncho, this would be no problem, right? Wrong. I bought, what I thought, was a good quality poncho, but it turned out I would have been better off with a garbage bag. The poncho let the water seep through, and then it would just collect underneath. But you sort of just get used to being wet, and march on. It was a beautiful, challenging hike, that showcased some of the lower Andes mountains beneath us with fog rising from them. The scenery then changed to the high jungle. It was really neat being under the canopy of the jungle vegetation as we walked next to a running stream. We were also getting our first taste of the steep stairs that the Incas created for the pilgrimage. In high altitude, it took no time for the stairs to completely wear you out. I found the best way was to not take breaks, but to just slowly put one foot in front of the other and gradually climb the stairs in a zigzag pattern – of course while chewing loads of coca leaves. We made it to lunch where thankfully the warm sun was shining. We hung up our clothes in hopes they would dry out some, and refueled with some hot tea and big lunch. We would need all the energy we could muster if we were to overcome “Dead Woman’s Pass”. This portion of the trek is the steepest part and takes you to the highest summit of 4,200 meters. But why is it called “Dead Woman’s Pass”? According to our guide, the mountain takes the shape of a woman lying down. But we were never able to make it out. So once on top, we asked another guide why it was called that. According to him, it got its name honestly – a woman died in her attempt to cross it. It might be best that we didn’t know this before we started the ascent. After a group huddle with some inspirational words, we started up. Felipe told us it would take an hour and a half, but once you start it, you just want to get it over with as fast as possible. You know you’re going to be out of breath either way, so just deal with it and press on. With this mentality, we all managed to do it in under an hour. The hardest part was over with, and we were rewarded handsomely with the breathtaking view. We were even blessed with a rainbow glistening across the mountains. We took some photos and then started the 2-hour, steep descent on the other side. While this wore on our knees, it was nice being able to catch our breath. Wash, rinse, repeat at camp, and get ready for an unforgettable trek the next day.
The trek for Day 3 was a long one, but had some really incredible scenery. We used a total of 10 hours, but you really didn’t notice how long it was because of the unique sites. We also got soaked this day. The very first part of the hike was up the mountain for an hour and a half, but we did it in 30 minutes. As we started up, it began to pour. But being soaking wet made us forget about being out of breath, so we blazed the trail in record time. We hid in a cave to change jackets or just prepare ourselves for the rest of the way, and started down. We had to use a lot of concentration going down in the rain because it made the loose rocks even more slippery. We chose not to make a small climb to see some ruins, and got to lunch as quickly as possible. In our wet clothes with no way of relief, we had an extremely frigid lunch in our tent. No one really wanted to keep going. However, as soon as we started walking again, our luck changed for the better. The sun came out and we were soon burning up. We had a pleasant walk, steadily up, as we gazed down at the jungle beneath us. Jungle, sunshine, mountains; how could it get any better? We had another surprise waiting for us when we reached the summit. First of all, it was a spectacular view with so many mountains of various brilliant colors around us. But best of all was the next Incan site. It was your typical Incan ruins with different levels and llamas wandering about, but with one of the best views you can imagine. The beautiful mountains go without saying, but what made this place unique was the high perch the site was on, and the other Incan site we were able to see beneath us. Having an aerial view of the large Incan site with rolling terraces was remarkable. At this site, we also performed a ceremony to thank Pachamama. We formed the trinity of coca leaves, had a moment of silence, and then placed each of our trinities in a circle around the sacrifice for Pachamama. Even without believing in this religion, we were still able to feel spiritually connected as the fueling passion from our guide influenced us. After this, I chased some llamas around for some cool pics. Speaking of llamas, they are like celebrities in many places in South America – they love them. Our guide Felipe would say things and have gestures for sexy llamas, sexy llama leg, llamasutra, and his personal creation: The Laughing Llama. He would always crack us up when did this one. All you do is put your middle finger, ring finger, and thumb together, leaving the index and pinky finger up. Then he would move the “mouth” of the hand llama up and down in unison with his outrageous cackle, “Hehehehehe” – he was a trip.
After we left this sanctuary, we walked 2 more hours to the Incan site we were able to see from above. This was also quite large, but used mostly for farming with all the many terraces. Here we were also treated to a miraculous view, with more mountains than you can count, including Machu Picchu Mountain. With still 30 minutes left to arrive at our camp, we had to use our head lamps to navigate down in the dark. We had “The Last Supper” – as they called it – and enjoyed a freshly baked cake. We hurried to bed and tried to quiet the excitement for seeing Machu Picchu the next day.
Day 4: We had an early start, with breakfast at 03:30, and then waited an hour for the checkpoint to open. After showing our tickets, we started our walk towards the enchanted wonder that is Machu Picchu. We had a bit more pep in our step today. It was only a 2-hour trek that was mostly flat, but we had to climb the “Gringo Killer” before reaching famous Sun Gate. The “Gringo Killer” consists of 50 extremely steep steps. After defeating this obstacle, we had a short walk to the Sun Gate where we would have our first sight of Machu Picchu. We passed through the gate with extreme excitement and anticipation, and then there it was. We were finally here. Beneath us lay one of the most extreme disappointments of all time. No, I’m kidding. It was brilliant, and I have never seen anything like it before in my life. We sat on top taking in this wonder; how could it even be? How were the Incans able to create such a remarkably well-designed city high in the mountains? As we made our way down closer to it passing llamas along the way, it was so surreal actually being there. We have all seen pictures of it and thought, “Wow, that looks really cool”, but actually being there and seeing it in person is really something that cannot be described. I could try to describe it, but no words I can use would do it justice – it is just something that has to be seen. We were on cloud nine, but for some reason we quickly became disgruntled. After an exhausting four days of trekking with little sleep and no showers, we felt very deserving of such a treasure. However, we started getting passed by people who had taken the train up for the day. They had new outfits on, smelled nice, and were full of energy. What had they done to deserve this? And for no other reason than this, I couldn’t stand the sight of them. Just as I was having these hateful thoughts, one of our trekking companions said, “Does anyone else want to kick these people in the face?” We all busted out laughing as we were all thinking similar thoughts. The rest of the way down we all had a good kick making jokes about the situation. “Oh, sure. Please, you go ahead of me. You must be so tired having slept in your warm bed last night and then put on your clean clothes and took the train up!” It was all good fun and we managed to get over our small break in spirit and fully enjoyed Machu Picchu in all its splendor. We navigated our way through the perfectly laid out stone city and learned more about its history. It was a very religious place where the king lived. They had an extremely sound irrigation system, terraces for farming different crops at different altitudes, temples, a university, and a ceremonial area where proud families could be chosen to give their kid to Pachamama for sacrificial purposes.
The architecture was unbelievable. I will never understand how they were able to move such large stones from such far distances, and place them so perfectly in the elegant design of the city.
For whatever reason, Hanna and I didn’t think we would be tired enough from the trek, so we booked in advance to also hike the Huayna Picchu mountain on the same day. Huayna Picchu is the steep, iconic mountain in the background of Machu Picchu. It is an exclusive hike, with only 400 permits sold per day. After an abbreviated tour for us, our guide rushed us over to the starting point so we could make the bus back in time for lunch. He told us that most people use an hour, but he thought we could make the climb in 30 minutes. It was as if he were challenging us. Well, challenge accepted. Our competitive spirit forgot how tired we were and we raced off to make the steep climb of almost 1000 feet. We passed a few exhausted looking tourists coming down and they all told us it took them an hour and a half. This drove us even more. We decided to look at it as an intense cardio session and pressed on. Remember the Gringo Killers I mentioned before? Well this was basically how it was the entire time, except tighter. We went nearly as hard as we could go with only momentary breaks to wait for the path to clear. Drenched in sweat and gasping for air, I heard Hanna yell, “20 minutes!”. Almost there. Of course, the last part was the most difficult. It basically was a rock ladder in which you had to climb using both hands and feet. With the last ounce of energy we had left, we scaled the ladder and both reached the top in under 30 minutes. If you can’t tell, we are very proud of this. And best of all, the view was by far greater than any we had seen thus far. From this aerial view, we were able to appreciate the city even more as we could clearly make out the shape of the puma in which it is built. This was our favorite part of the entire trek, and we are so happy we decided to do it. And although going down was way worse and took us longer than it did to go up, it was still worth it. The view from above gave us precisely what we wanted: An unforgettable experience from Machu Picchu.