“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” T.S Eliot
When I set out to hike the Inca Trail I knew it would be difficult, but this was part of the appeal. I enjoy challenging myself – whether it’s hiking, cycling or volunteering. But it never occurred to me that I might not be able to finish it, that is, until I was sitting on the edge of the trail with an oxygen mask. To read about my first day on the Inca Trail, click here.
The Inca Trail – Day 2
Doubt is my unseen companion as Sue and I begin hiking. We face a 900m climb to Warmiwanusqa, the highest point of the trail at 4215m, which is also known as Dead Woman’s Pass. From my understanding, this is an apt description of how most people feel when they finally reach the top of the first pass. From here, there is a steep 700m descent to the lunch spot, followed by another climb over the second pass, Runkuracay at 3850m, and, finally, down to our next campsite at 3650m.
We walk slowly and, unlike yesterday, I begin to appreciate the impressive mountain scenery. It’s nothing short of spectacular and I reflect on the remarkable feat of the Incas – building their network of trails, ceremonial sites and settlements in this inhospitable terrain.
We arrive at the morning rest spot only about 15 minutes after the rest of the group. It’s an encouraging sign, but I’m still uncertain about the wisdom of continuing, especially when Rolando asks if we can walk any quicker. I know I can’t – at least not on the uphill sections – but I’m feeling so much better than yesterday. My headache is gone, I’m breathing easier, and I’m even able to eat some snacks. At 3800m, we are so close to the highest point of the trek and, in the end, I think it’s harder for us to quit than it is to go on.
Once we make this decision, determination replaces doubt. It’s remarkable really, because I’m immediately in a much better place mentally to tackle the rest of the day – which includes the slow, tortuous climb to Dead Woman’s Pass.
The trail steepens and stretches ahead, seemingly never-ending. We take a few steps, stop to inhale a lungful of air, and then take a few more steps. Sue’s daughters (who did the Everest base camp earlier in the year) had told her to concentrate on ‘taking one step at a time’, and this is all we can do for the last 100 metres to the top.
Occasionally we glance behind us at the long snakelike procession of colourfully-clad hikers slowly grinding their way to the top. At this point it’s the same for everyone; even those hiking quicker than us. Every person looks tired and drained; even the porters. Our breathing is laboured and there is a sense that we’ll never get there, but eventually we do. And then there’s relief and happiness, and a moment of respite to enjoy the glorious view.
As tempting as it is to linger, Sue and I are determined to make up time on the descent and, at first, it’s a joy to be going downhill. But 700 metres is a long way down, especially when it’s steep and involves negotiating huge steps. It’s wonderful respite for the lungs, but cruel punishment for the legs. By the time we arrive at the lunch spot, my calf muscles are screaming. The big consolation is that we’ve caught up with the rest of the group.
Sue and I manage the afternoon quite well. Psychologically, it’s easier getting across the second pass because it’s only a 350m climb (compared to the 900m climb of the morning). The final descent into the campsite is also wonderful, as we enter the Cloud Forest and a mist envelops the treetops. We arrive at 6.15pm – after 11 hours of hiking – and collapse into our tent. I still don’t have much of an appetite for dinner and I’m truly exhausted, but my spirits have lifted significantly.
The Inca Trail – Day 3
This morning I’m reluctant to crawl out of the tent as it is particularly brisk. But when I do, I’m stunned by the incredible vista of mountains. The campsite, which had been enveloped in mist when we arrived last night, is spectacularly located. It’s a view that keeps us company for the first couple of hours of today’s walk.
Initially, Sue and I manage to keep pace with the rest of the group as we negotiate the undulating terrain through the Cloud Forest. Ludwig and Rolando show us a section of the original Inca stone pathway and we scramble through the Inca Tunnel, before we reach the top of the final pass (which is only 50m higher than last night’s campsite).
Just beyond this point, we visit the ruins of Phuyupatamarca – ‘town at cloud level’ – and we sit in the sunshine to listen to one of Rolando’s ‘history lessons’. Up until now, Sue and I have missed most of Rolando’s historical interludes, so it’s a nice feeling to sit with the group and learn something about the Incas and this important ceremonial site.
From here we negotiate another section of extremely steep steps. It’s fairly tortuous, as it’s a descent of about 1000m and our legs are still sore from yesterday’s exertions, but it’s easier than the previous two days. We make it to the campsite at Winay Wayna before lunchtime and take delight in the cold showers on offer. It’s nice to wash away most of the dirt and some of my weariness.
Mid-afternoon we make tea for our wonderful porters. It’s really an inadequate thank you because, without them, I wouldn’t have been capable of doing this trek. They are so remarkable – carrying all the luggage, food and equipment, setting up the campsite and preparing our meals. On the first day, I practised my limited Spanish with the head porter, who doesn’t speak any English. After that, whenever he saw us on the trail, he sang out his encouragement, “Vamos! Vamos!” – “Get going! Get Going!” It never failed to spur us on.
This campsite is particularly crowded – as all the groups converge here for the early morning walk to Machu Picchu – and our tent is pitched precariously close to a steep drop. Considering how exhausted I feel, I hope I don’t trip over the tent pegs.
The Inca Trail – Day 4
This morning we have a 4.30am start, as we need to queue at the final checkpoint. Luckily, we are the second group in line and, just after 5.30am, we begin the final stretch of the Inca Trail. We use torches until dawn’s first light begins to filter through the trees. It’s a lovely walk, high above the Urubamba River, following the contours of the mountain.
Sue and I keep pace with the group initially but, once again, I slow significantly on the final section of steps. In the meantime, other groups catch up and there is quite a procession of hikers. Disappointingly, some of these groups are really pushy in their attempts to hurry past, as if Machu Picchu won’t be there when they arrive.
Finally, Sue and I arrive at the much-discussed ‘Oh my God steps’ or ‘Gringo killers’ (as our guides call them). This is a wall of narrow steps that requires both hands and feet to scramble up. The steps look intimidating, but I actually don’t mind them. I am, however, disappointed that we haven’t quite reached Intipunku (the Sun Gate). It’s another 10 minutes of hiking and more steps before we finally arrive.
At first, I look around for our group and totally forget to look at Machu Picchu. Although it’s only been a short walk this morning, total exhaustion overcomes me. Ryan finds me and asks how I feel. Was it worth everything I went through over the last few days? I nod yes, and look at Sue, who has tears welling. It makes me cry and I feel overwhelmed.
The truth is that I don’t really know how I feel and my initial reaction of ‘thank God this is over’ is still at the forefront of my mind. But, as I sit here at the Sun Gate, watching the first rays of sunlight illuminate Machu Picchu, I begin to feel a sense of satisfaction – that I achieved what I set out to do – and how wonderful it is to finally be here.
Note: Hiking the Inca Trail is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I guess it’s easy to feel that way immediately after a trip. I said the same thing about my Mt Kilimanjaro trek and my three days of hiking in the wilderness of Denali National Park. Time has a way of eliminating memories of just how tough it was, so you are left with the most awesome aspects of the experience. I do believe though, without the help and encouragement that I received, I wouldn’t have finished the Inca Trail. Thanks to my sister Sue, who always stuck with me, even if it meant quitting; Ryan and Erin, who were such fun to hang out with and always looked out for me; our guides and porters, particularly Ludwig, who walked with Sue and I from Day 2 onwards and often carried my daypack.
Stay tuned for next week’s photo story on Machu Picchu.
To read Adventure in Peru – Part 1 (about Cuzco and the Sacred Valley), click here.