After months of planning and over a year of dreaming, I finally boarded a bus from Arequipa to drive to Cusco and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. My friend Milana from Los Angeles, who I hiked and mtn. By bike and Karen, her longtime girlfriend, met me in Cusco. We were supposed to be there a few days earlier to acclimatize, but Milana's flight from Lima was canceled, so she arrived at noon the day before our tour began. I had met Karen the day before and we had met a bit when we were sightseeing and hiking near Cusco.
When Milana arrived, we went to a restaurant near the square and she had ceviche to eat, it's raw fish marinated in lime juice. Either the ceviche or the lack of time to get used to the 11,000 foot height in Cusco, or both put them in a bad start. She woke up the next morning for the start of our four-day hike. We had registered for a group trip with up to 12 participants and were very pleased when the minibus picked us up this morning and found only two more people on the tour! An almost private tour to the group price. It did not seem like a small group when we added a cook and eight porters to our guide Carlos, which corresponded to a total of 15 people. Although we were only traveling six times most of the time, the porters either packed their camp behind us or hurried ahead to prepare for us. The service was great, but personally the morning tea in our tents when they woke us up, the dining tent for all three meals (though it felt really good for dinner because of the cold) and the fancy menu etc. were something I had for a cheaper price. The ultra-light hiking idea with a cast iron stove and a 20-pound liquefied gas tank will definitely not be accepted!
One of the things that surprised me the first day was to see people who actually lived along the path and cycled back and forth. On the second morning, women and children with burros went up the path to set up stalls to serve breakfast, sweets, snacks, bottled water and even Gatorade for sale! In the afternoon, everything was over when we headed for the dead woman's 13,770-foot pass, the highest point on the trail. The landscape had changed from lush rainforest in the morning to sparse vegetation and rocks on the pass and was much cooler. When we stopped at our campsite for the evening in the early afternoon, I could not only wait for dinner, but continued to the next pass and explored the byways. Solid clouds beyond the summit destroyed my hopes for a spectacular sunset, but it was still a pleasing time.
On the third day we climbed into the high jungle, thousands of other steps and actually into some of the old ruins. Also a seemingly endless variety of orchids and other flowers. One thing we did not see was wild animals, just a few birds. It also seemed that the farther we went, the more tourists there were. We barely saw anyone the first day, so I'm not sure where they all came from. That evening we were back in civilization, with the option of a restaurant, hot shower and cold beer that many enjoyed.
We got up early on the last morning and hoped to get pictures of Machu Picchu before there were any people. Actually, they opened the checkpoint a few minutes earlier and we started in the dark in the final hours of the journey and arrived in Machu Picchu shortly after sunrise. For me, one of the highlights of the journey to climb the Huayna Picchu was the high peak behind the ruins in all the standard Machu Picchu pictures. There was a wonderful path, steep and rugged, to the summit, where the view was fabulous! I saw a less traveled path behind me and followed one way but finally had to turn around to meet the others and take the bus to Aquas Calientes. It was not until I returned to the checkpoint at the beginning of the trail that I realized that it was a circular path and that I could have continued around the mountain. We did not have time to refresh ourselves in the hot springs as we arrived a little too late in Aquas Calientes and then found out we had to leave early because of the covered landslide to get to the train that would take us back to Cusco the tracks on the edge of the city. One last surprise was that evening when the train stopped a few hours before Cusco and the conductor said it was the end of the journey. We never found out why, but had to go by taxi the rest of the way to Cusco and fortunately arrived without any problems.
The trip was great, Machu Picchu was amazing and something that pictures can not live up to. Nevertheless, I took about 400 photos and tried to capture the Grander, to see it later. I look forward to returning to the area to hike from Cusco to Choquequirao, sometimes referred to as the twin town of Machu Picchu and then Machu Picchu. This hike is much rarer and allows you to explore on your own.