Thursday, January 19, 2017

Conquering The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu


Article and Photos by Tony Mangia

Centuries ago the Incans built a network of advanced trails connecting their realm through a vast number of pathways stretching from sections of South America as vast and varied as the continent itself. Through the mountainous terrain of Peru, from Ecuador to Chile and east to Argentina, this nearly 25,000 mile web of stone stairs and walkways were centered around and directed towards the capital city of the great empire— Cusco, Peru.

It's no wonder why these scenic paths leading into the magical archaeological site at Machu Picchu or “The Lost City of the Incas” are some of the most requested mountain treks for modern hikers too.


This beautiful 43km (26.71 miles) section of mountain trail to Machu Picchu connects the important Incan archaeological sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, WiƱay Wayna (Huinay Huayna). This four-day trek to Machu Picchu is a hiker’s delight and has become known worldwide as “The Inca Trail.”


This medium level hike is by far the most famous trek in South America and is rated by many to be in the top 5 in the world. It manages to combine beautiful mountain landscapes, awe-inspiring cloud-forest, and subtropical vegetation and, of course, a stunning mix of Inca paving stones ruins and tunnels. But the mystery and majesty of Machu Picchu, the final destination of the trail, is the real topper.


Another hike is known as “The Lares Trek” which is only a three-day excursion, but does traverse some higher peaks than the Inca Trail.


The Inca Trail — often called “Km82” because it starts 82 kilometers from a railway station between Cusco and Machu Picchu — can be hiked year round although April till October are probably the best months since the weather is drier. June, July and August are in the high season when the Inca trail can become fully booked so be sure to make the Inca trail reservations at least four to six months in advance. The Inca Trail is closed each year during the month of February to allow conservation work to take place. The months of January through March are in the wet season so hiking the trail can be a little more wet and slippery.


Any group on this trek will arrive late morning at the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu on the fourth day — just before the limited amount of bused in crowds arrive at the popular tourist spot. The trek itself is rated moderate and any reasonably fit person should be able to handle the climbs and descents. It is fairly challenging nevertheless, as it has the serious altitude changes (altitudes of 4200m (13779.53 ft) are reached), and the climate changes along the length of the trail. Most important, if arriving from sea level, is planning to spend at least 2 full days in Cusco prior to commencing the trek to assist acclimatizing yourself with the higher altitude. And spending time in Lima won’t help because that city is only about as high as Denver and won’t really help. During my trek I saw one women being rushed down a mountain path carried like a backpack after she reportedly had a heart attack and one of the men on a three-day trek passed out from altitude sickness but was game enough to spend his first day flung like a sack of potatoes over the back of donkey up the mountain path. So, although the distance of The Incan Trail is not that great, and even non-hikers can complete it, don’t underestimate acclimating yourself with the altitude even if you consider yourself an experienced hiker or exceptionally fit. Compare it to doing a marathon — only up and down crooked staircases with about half the oxygen to breathe.



Acclimating to the altitude in Cusco

My two days and nights in Cusco getting acclimated to the altitude were spent mostly walking around the crowded city taking pictures of the colorful locals and locale. The late-April weather was warm (80F) and the sun was bright. It’s good to avoid drinking alcohol (it’s easier to get looped in high altitudes) and decided to put off eating that Peruvian delicacy cuy — otherwise known as guinea pig until after the trek. Yup, those cute little pets of every first grade classroom. Ended up they were delicious with yucca and tomatoes but bony — like eating a giant chicken wing. Anyway, trekkers don’t want to take any chances with your stomach (nothing worse than food poisoning or diarrhea on a four-day mountain hike) so it is best to taste one of the little guys or any “street food” as a celebratory dinner when you get back.


Groups were introduced to each other after we unpacked at the Prisma Hotel in Cusco. A comfortable little place where we could take our last hot shower before the four day trek. There was the Lares Trek group and mine — the more desirable Inca Trail group. Ours included three women and a man from Chicago, a pair of young couples from Germany and Great Britain, two women from Britain, an older couple from Australia, a teen aged woman fro Norway and me. Our lead guide was Elias who was accompanied by his group aides: Edison, Eddie and Eddie 2 (no kidding).


The day before the trek began we got accustomed to the altitude — and climbing. We visited the Sacred Valley outside Cusco — a small village where local artisans weaved and dyed wool for clothing and blankets before heading off to see the Pisa Ruins which were teeming with tourists and more stairs than I’ve ever seen before. And if I thought making it to the top of these stairs (about 20 minutes of climbing) was tough, it was only a sampler of the miles of stairs I was about to see on the Inca Trail.


That afternoon we visited more ruins at Ollantaytambo — where we would be staying overnight —and were treated to a lively and colorful street festival in the town square where everyone wore costumes and masks while a statue was paraded through the narrow town streets. An amazing swirl of people, color and music permeated the whole scene and left an image of Peru one will never forget.








Packing

The first rule of packing for a camping trek is keep it light!

The tents, food, extra clothing and sleeping gear will be hauled by your camp porters — those amazingly fit men who set-up, pack-up and haul up to 25Kg (55 lbs) per man (weight limit which is strictly and legally enforced) of your gear and clothing each day of the trek — so it is up to you to carry frequently used or essential items like water and snacks. Rule of thumb for hikers packing their personal backpack: Carry enough to keep yourself covered, dry and hydrated. Along with my 20 pounds of camera equipment ( a real disadvantage), I made sure to pack items to protect myself from the direct and intense sun including a neck scarf, hat, sun screen and sunglasses.  Wear a good pair of hiking boots and bring essentials like walking sticks, fresh socks, a headlamp, toilet paper, a waterproof poncho, aspirin, Pepto, four liters of water and energy snacks.  And, maybe most importantly, don’t forget the baby wipes! With inconveniences like no hot showers and primitive, no-seat bathroom facilities, they will become your most prized possession.


One extra item you might want to pick up locally are coca leaves. Yes they are the same leaves used to make cocaine, but are legal here. A sandwich-size bag of the stuff goes for about 3 soles ($1US) and last a couple of days. Ball a wad of the stemless leaves with a pinch of ash, tuck it in the side of you mouth and you are ready to go like lightning. Not really, but it does keep you energized and prevents your mouth from drying out. And just as important, the leaves a great thing to share with your porters as a bonding tool. There are also candies and tea for people who don’t like the clump of leaves in their mouths.


There are two porters for each hiker but remember they also carry cooking supplies, propane tanks, extra water, stools, tables and any other comforts necessary for the whole group and themselves. Until recently, these men were overworked and underpaid, but they still depend on your tips and should get all of the respect they deserve on the trek.



 DAY 1: (7.8 miles or 12.5 km)

The first day of the trek is relatively easy (5-8 hours) — if you believe the brochures. You start out the day with a bus ride from Ollantaytambo to Kilometer 82 (9000 ft.) where the trek begins after packing up gear and final preparations. You start with an easy walk from the train station through some wooded areas, over pleasant streams and up some slightly difficult paths hauling your backpacks for the first time about three miles along the bank of the River Urbamba before lunch near the ruins of Llactapata (8692 ft.). After lunch, our group continued south along the river Cusichaca before setting up camp at Huayllabamba (9691 ft.).


Some of the concerns I had before the trek were pretty much eliminated during the first day’s hike. I didn’t run out of water and actually didn’t drink anywhere as much as I thought I would. Usually a couple of sips at half mile intervals were all I needed. But there was lots of heavy breathing coming  from everyone in the group and open gasps can parch your mouth so breathing through your nose is a plus. My chest felt like it was ready to burst on more than a few times but, by the middle of the day we pretty much knew who were the best hikers and the ones who would fall behind —  “turtles’ as they humorously called themselves. I banded with the turtles at first, but later joined the speedsters up front when I felt comfortable and familiar enough with my limitations and stamina — or maybe it was just the coca leaves.


The air was dry so there seemed to be very little sweat and when you did the strong sun just dried your shirt off pretty quickly. I recommend wearing one of those UnderArmour-type  lightweight t-shirts. Bring a long-sleeved fleece for mornings and nights. Short pants were fine for me but the lightweight long/short pants combos are most practical.



The stairs and pathways of the Inca Trail were hand carved stone and a bit uneven after centuries of use. For the most part the rocks were sturdy and nothing good hiking shoes couldn’t handle. Sometimes the seemingly endless stream of stairs didn’t seem to stop and when they did, just around the corner was another thousand stairs to climb. There was small talk among our group as we plodded up the easier sections of the mountain but, for the most part, I trudged alone passing the time contemplating the world with thoughts like “Whatever happened to the older brother Chuck on Happy Days or Carrie’s sister on The King of Queens?  Sometimes I just outlined the comedy screenplay I would write about group trips like this — working titles: Is There Air Yet? or Far Trek.


When I wasn’t contemplating the world’s greatest quandaries, I moved to the inside lane of the path (it’s a trek rule) whenever the dozens of porters from our group and others raced up the mountains like pack mules hauling our food and shelter leaving us huffing and puffing in their dust. The porters have amazing degree of stamina and I wondered in awe how they would fare in any Olympic endurance event and why there wasn’t even a sport like this for them. Actually, I thought about this each time they continually passed me for the next four days. So that was a lot.


Campsite dinner was a high carb meal that was actually as good as any fine diner food you might find. There was an after meeting and card game and I was in my tent by 8 pm.

DAY 2: (5.1 miles or 8.3 km)

We started the morning (6 am) with pleasant porters shaking the tents holding a hot cup of coca leaf tea and a bowl of warm water to wash. Wasn’t too cold the first night but, that’s not always a guarantee. The second day of the Inca Trail trek is known as the most difficult. It’s only a little more than five miles but it’s mostly climbing up stairs to the 13,776 foot peak WarmiwaƱusca (Dead Woman's) pass. And if dead doesn’t exactly portray the pass, it will definitely describe your legs after the continual upward stairway you climb for the final mile to the peak. This is when those walking sticks I almost didn’t bring became essential. And besides support, the sticks help you navigate the narrower paths — especially the ones with a 1000 foot drop on one side.


The feeling of accomplishment after this climb is hard to describe but there are plenty of high fives as individual hikers reach the sunny peak.


We continued on for a few more hours and camped at Pacaymayo (11,833 ft) near to Runkuraqay, where we had dinner and felt the nighttime temperatures drop.

DAY 3: (7.5 miles or 12.3 km)

Woke up to a chilly (40F) morning but switched to lighter clothing as soon as we hit the trail. The third day is considered easier because it is mostly downhill but navigating and balancing on the slippery and twisted stairs takes it toll on you knees after a while. Although I prefer going down hill to up, many of our group found it difficult and painful. Bring a light neoprene knee brace just in case.


We headed to the ruins of Runkuracay (12,470 ft) where the spectacular view and first encounter with wild llamas had everyone grabbing their cameras. We continued up a second pass and back down to the ruins of Sayacmarca (11,742 ft). Both ruins offer amazing views in nearly every direction.



From there, it was a more leisurely hike up through lush cloud-forest to the ruins of Phuyupatamarca ("Cloud-Level Town") and camped at Winay Wayna.

DAY 4: (6.9 miles or 11 km)

Woke up to a chilly wet morning after a light rain last night. The 3 am wake up call was necessary to get in line for the opening of “Sun Gate”. We hiked to the checkpoint and got in line in back of about 100 other hikers from various groups. The park only allows a certain number of entries per day so most hikers get there before sunrise to ensure entry. We used headlamps to navigate the pitch black air and slippery pathways and waited for the 5:30 am opening.


We made it to Machu Picchu at about 11am and couldn’t ask for a more welcome sight. The fog lifted, the sun came out and we were able to see all of the ruins in their majestic glory from high above. After we clambered down the mountain, we mingled with tourists who had been bused in and, in our own minds, knew we had not only seen Machu Picchu, we conquered the Inca Trail to do it.







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