Thursday, May 22, 2014

Inka Trail: 9/27 - 10/2

Day 1
Our adventure began before sunrise at the Andenes al Cielo Hotel in Cusco. The hotel provided free luggage storage and had a small breakfast ready for us before the Peru Treks bus came to pick us up - and thank goodness because I am not the nicest person in the morning without coffee. Unfortunately being caffeinated meant that I watched the rest of our trekking group board the bus and fall asleep while I remained wide awake. Damn, I could have gotten three extra hours of sleep on the way to our official breakfast stop.
After this photo Q went back to sleep as the bus circled around Cusco picking up other trekers.

On the way to the trail head we stopped at an all you can eat restaurant in Ollantytambo, where we finally got an opportunity to get to know our trekking group.  Our group consisted of several solo travelers and "couples" originally from North America, Europe, and Australia ranging from twenties to fifties. Covering both ends of the spectrum were an Australian mother and daughter pair. A fair number of the trekkers were on a larger around the world trip or multi-month adventure. I must admit that I was a bit envious.

Once at the official trail head in Piscacucho, the guides handed out sleeping bags, mats and trekking poles to those that requested them. Trekkers could optionally hand personal items to the Porters to carry during the trip. Four of us were glad to bring our own gear after we saw the bulky and heavy rental equipment since we did not hire porters to carry our stuff. We later learned that the rental equipment was not very warm or comfortable despite their heavier weight.
Every group stopped here to reorganize and have each porters' bag weighted.
The obligatory start of the trek photo
Official trail check-in.

The first day's hike was a series of light ascents, just enough to warm up the muscles. I totally forgot to stretch before setting out and payed the price with an intense butt muscle cramp. Thanks to the advice of our guide, I bought a bag of banana chips from one of small snack stands on the trail and was almost immediately cured. I was not a huge fan of Banana chips before but they have earned the status of my new go to hiking snack.

We later stopped to view the first of many Inca Ruins and then again for a pleasant lunch. Our first day ended at the Wayllabamba campsite. The campsite felt more like a little village, with its own convenience food store, soccer field and an ancient Inca ruin - which we got to climb all over. Even where the porters set up our tents felt like it was in someone's backyard - and maybe it was!
Mochi and Rug in front of Llactapata. Of course they came along!
I have come to terms with looking goofy while trekking.
Lunch at Tarachayoc. The first of many delicious meals in the dinning tent.
In case anyone even dreams of complaining that the trek is already difficult, it's only going to get worse.
Trekking groups were well spaced out allowing our group to be generally alone on the trail.
Arrival at the first camp Wayllabamba.
We arrived at the campsite early enough to catch a neighborhood soccer game.
Feeling spoiled with not having to carry, setup or take down our tent.
The porters prepared a three course dinner! Yup, this is glamping.

Day 2
The night sky was clear and therefore cold. Many woke up tired, with sore backs, restless sleep from the village noise, and cold. The two of us lucked out thanks to Q for picking out awesome sleeping bags and mats, which spared us from most of the discomfort.

Each morning we were individually woken with coffee or tea from the guides. Shortly after our caffeinated start, everyone was expected to be packed, have their bags set outside their tents and be ready for breakfast. Our two guides did a great job of keeping everyone moving and on schedule. While enjoying a warm breakfast, porters disassembled the tents. Each morning was always a beehive of activity.

The second day's hike included the largest ascent of the trip to the famous Dead Woman's Pass. The long day is broken up quite nicely. The morning starts off with an ascent, followed by an early lunch break, then the major ascent to Dead Woman's Pass, a break at the top, a long descent with wet steps, followed by an second lunch, time to relax and then dinner. Yup, it was a long day. While many find the hike up the hardest part, I thought the slippery steps down took the most time and concentration. My ankle is weak due to the arthritis in it, which complicates descents. The clouds drizzled during the majority of the trek down but thankfully all the members of our group arrived safely to our prepared cozy tents before the real downpour. We had the afternoon to ourselves, which allowed many of us to take naps and gave me the opportunity to wash my hair in the ice cold shower. Our porter fed us so well throughout the day, that several of the clients decided to skip dinner to catch up on sleep - Q was almost one of them.
Our guide explaining our day's itinerary.
I am thankful for my little pack.
First of two lunches
Pep talk before the final push up to Dead Woman's Pass at 13,776' elevation.
I think Q thought it was a race up to Dead Woman's Pass, Warmi Wañusqa.
If it were a race, Q would have won. Thanks to all our preparation, this section of the trek wasn't bad at all.
Our assistant guide
A little drizzle to go with the long steep slippery decent named "Gringo Killer" into the misty fog.
Cat nap between our second lunch and dinner.

Day 3
The rain didn't let up much throughout the night but we woke up to a clearing sky. After getting a warm breakfast in our stomachs, the group set out while the porters did the final clean up from breakfast. Mother nature was kind to us because within minutes of leaving camp, the weather started to warm up.
Everyone knows the routine, backpacks were outside their tents with little pushing from the guides
Porters packing up the tents at Pacaymayu Camp.

Our morning started off with an accent with a stop at the Runkuracay Inca ruin. Shortly after there was a long gradual decent named "Gringo Killer" with stunning views and ruins along the way that we each took at our own pace. We had a couple times to recollect as a group, take a break and listen to our guide talk about the Inca's lifestyle out in these remote Andes mountains. This was probably my favorite day of the trek. The landscape varied with amazing vistas and plenty of well preserved ruins to freely explore.
One of the many stops where we learn about the Inca culture.
Dead Woman's pass in the backdrop.
The porters picked a beautiful spot for us to enjoy lunch, at Chaquiqocha.
They even made us ceviche for our first course.
The Australian Mother and Daughter
View from Phuyupatamarka of scattered Inca ruins within the Andes.
Original Inca steps. They must have had small feet.
Hardly a dull moment.
Total freedom to explore along the way to camp, at Intipata.
Settling into our last campsite at Wiñay Wayna. Shocked to see several hundred people after being alone on the trail.
Ten minutes walk beyond the camp led to more ruins including perhaps my favorite one, Wiñay Wayna.

Day 4
Our final day required us to wake up at an ungodly hour. Bags were quickly packed and placed outside the tent. After a quick breakfast we tossed on our packs and quickly headed to the trail head line so we could wait - in the dark - for 45 minutes.
The light drizzle didn't make us happy campers.

After passing the trail head control gate, our group was soon passing numerous other groups on the way to the Sun Gate. Later our guide complimented us saying that we were the fastest group he had in over ten years. Once we recollected at the Sun Gate - in hopes of catching our glimpse of Machu Picchu - we were greeted with a wall of fog. What a total disappointment. And as we started to descend down towards Machu Picchu the fog started to lift.
A quick break in the morning fog. The ruins are most stunning from above.
And then the fog came back just in time to take this group photo.

Once at Machu Piccuh, we needed to head to the formal entrance gate and check in our backpacks, then re-enter. It felt good to be back in civilization, too bad we all stank. Our guide gave us a tour through the site for an hour before setting us free to explore on our own. From the time when we first arrived with our packs until we were free to explore, the site became uncomfortably crowded. After enjoying days of freely exploring numerous Inca sites alone along the Inca Trail, we were rudely surprised walking through Machu Picchu itself. There's a long walking path that everyone needs to follow - this didn't work for us when we wanted to get the hell away from the crowds.
The home stretch
Guided tour through Machu Picchu.
Final group shot.

We reunited with our group one last time for lunch and drinks down in the town of Aguas Calientes. It was a bit sad having to say goodbye to many of our fellow trekkers. We truly enjoyed the company of everyone in our group.
Once in town, we saw a whole other side of everyone's personality!

As most of the group was boarding a train heading back to Cusco, we had plans to continue our Inca trekking with an additional hike up Huayna Picchu. After cleaning ourselves up at our hotel in Aguas Calientes, we rejoined the remaining trekkers for a night out on the town. And by pure luck, Aguas Calientes was hosting a street party celebrating its birthday. We weren't able to party all night with the locals but we got to enjoy some of the festivities and street food.
We may get diarrhea but we don't care.
Q hearts alpaca hearts.
Street performers everywhere.

Day 5
We dragged our butts out of bed to make our early morning slot to hike Huayna Picchu. We were able to catch the last possible bus to Machu Picchu without losing our reservation. And we're glad we made it. The weather cleared up from the previous night's rain storm and the views were amazing.
Reservations confirmed and we must still sign-in - really?
The way up was a breeze without our backpacks.
Worth getting out of bed.
Not for the faint of heart. Thirty seconds before I was scooting down on my butt.

Once back down from Huayna Picchu, we took one last walk though the ruins. As the crowds of people started to arrive (along with storm clouds) we returned to the bus heading down to Aguas Calientes. We could not have timed it better -- just as we loaded onto the bus, the rain came pouring down. Once back down in town, the five of us grabbed an overpriced and mediocre lunch near the train station. Then we had to face the hardest part of the trek - the final goodbyes.
Riding back in first class.

Our train tickets where actually first class - which came along with a performance and an alpaca wool clothing fashion show during the train ride. Our tickets took us to Ollantaytambo, where we had some time to check out the local ruins. After seeing Machu Picchu and all the ruins along the way, it was hard to be impressed with this site.

We didn't have train tickets all the way back to Cusco so we caught a cab back to the city. We hate some taxi drivers. Even after we thought we all agreed upon a good price back - our drive back to Cusco ended in a heated argument. No big surprise there.

Before flying out to Lima, we had one last night in Cusco. And we were ready to leave. I can finally cross another item off my bucket list.
One last dinner and pisco sour in Cusco.

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