Inka Trail – Walking above the clouds

One of the most beautiful things about traveling abroad is that somehow I return to my own country with renovated eyes to appreciate its beauty, and desires to explore farther. It has been a while now since I reached Machu Picchu after walking for four days on the Inka Trail. A dream I had for a long time, What? Yes! despite being from Cusco I never had the chance to hike the Inka Trail before, I have been several times to Machu Picchu but always going on the train.

When I was a teenager I had friends who went in groups as part of school trips, but that wasn’t the case for my school. Back in the day it was still open to just grab your stuff and go, but now it is different, there is a limited amount of people allowed on the route per day and the entrance is only with a guided tour.

I tried at least 3 times to book the tour, but always too late, so this time I booked in January (the trip was in September! so mind the time in advance). My friend from Chile joined the plans for the Cusco trip in April but she could not get a spot for Inka Trail, so she booked the Salkantay Trek instead. Therefore, my recommendation is that if you know when you will visit Peru and you want to hike the Inka Trail, you should book at least 8 months in advance!

If you are wondering why the fuss to walk this one if there are other routes? It is a matter of what you want, for me this trip represented always a challenge. Because I had so many friends and I met so many people who came from far away to hike the Inka Trail, and their stories were fantastic! I could see the glow in their eyes, the self pride you only see on people who have achieved something important, and I wanted to feel the same. So to be honest my motivation wasn’t so much about the incredible landscapes or wildlife you see on the trip (which indeed and for themselves are worth the effort).

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The train on the way to Aguas Calientes

Instead it is all about doing something for myself, something I know I want to do, even if I am scared because I don’t know exactly what I am getting myself into, something I know will be hard to achieve but not impossible, something I haven’t done before but I am determined to get to the end, something that will prove myself that I am able to do anything I want, that I can always push myself a little further, something that will completely take me out of my comfort zone ( be it the distance to cover, the altitude, the complexity of the route, etc) and above everything else, something that will teach me a lot of things about myself that were unknown at this point in life.

It is hard to put my thoughts into words, but if you ever experienced achieving something that you thought you were not ready for, you will understand it when I say that our mind is very powerful, it can help you do great things but it can also prevent you from achieving them, it depends! But there is not better reward when you achieve a goal despite having to fight with your fears and insecurities during the process. When your mind says you can’t walk one more step down, but your body is already in the mood to finish what you started, when your mind builds the case for why you might not be able to finish the next day but you nevertheless are the first one to reach back to the camp.

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Above the clouds

This determination, strength, and perseverance is what helped me to go through the trip, with my 10kilo backpack, under the burning sun, up the three passes we had to cross and down the endless stairs we had to walk down, despite being grumpy because of hunger, despite knowing that the 20 minutes the guide said it would take to reach the camp are really 40 minutes, despite having slept only a couple hours because it was freezing at night.

And when I think of all those “despites” I think of all the not so or not at all positive situations, people and thoughts I had to face in life, yet I was there keeping control of my breath, not rushing, slowly but steady reaching the top of the first pass, that day I climbed 1200 meters of altitude in 5 hours, not so bad after all right? It is not being stubborn, it is being driven!

Well then with this introduction let’s break down the trip day by day so you can have a clear idea of what was it all about!

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Starting point

 

First day

The excitement hit when we (me and my 4 companions from Switzerland, plus our guide) saw the iconic Inka Trail sign, after a picture of the train (on the way to Aguas Calientes) and the thought of “We could be there” we started walking for about a couple hours, on the way we saw some Inka ruins, plus the first impressive views of the valley, which we would slowly leave behind in the next hours.

We walked about 13k, mostly flat with just a couple of steady and steep sections, nothing difficult, the only thing is the sun around midday, which can really be hard to deal with at the beginning, especially taking into account that our day started at around 4:30 am.

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Bright blue sky along the way

The team spirit was quite strong since the very beginning of the trip, our camp cook and porters were a key part of the whole experience, thus they deserved some claps when they passed by rushing towards the next campsite, and likewise we also deserved some claps when we reached the campsite for lunch and dinner.

The first night the camp is located in Huayllabamba at 3000 meters of altitude, the cold at night is bearable but I was not used to sleep on a thin mattress so I didn’t have a proper rest, anyway that was the least of my concerns for the next day…

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Waking up to nature! 

 

Second day

The second day the average walking time is about 7 hours, it doesn’t look that much of a deal until the guide gives the instructions and says we will have to climb 1200 meters in the first 5 hours, most sections of the climb are very steep and at some points the path is quite narrow, so in addition to dealing with ourselves we had to also mind the porters who usually run with their big and heavy bags.

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Porters along the way

To my amazement, I had worse expectations about this part than it was in reality, yes it is very hard and after the first half the altitude kicks in, every second seems like an hour, every step gets harder and harder, sometimes I found people who were going super slow, but I couldn’t pass them because there was no space, so I had to also slow down or sit for a while taking an obligated break.

The challenging thing for me at this point besides altitude, tiredness and the weight of my backpack was being extra mindful to control my desire to keep up with the porters, because I knew it would be of no benefit for my legs and lungs to quicken the pace.

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View from halfway to the top aprox. 3600 meters of altitude

Luckily my teammates were two couples of Swiss mountain cats, who went slowly but steady, they patiently climbed step by step, and stopped whenever needed, we got together for a deserved long break at the meeting points designated by our guide. They taught me to walk at a speed where I could breathe normally so I didn’t get tired unnecessarily, and on the steep sections to walk zigzagging so that I didn’t feel that much the pressure on my legs! really life saving tips which I had not taken into consideration or payed attention to before.

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A bit of the way to the top of Warmi Wañusca pass

One of our best moments was when all of us reached the top of Warmi Wañusca pass (or the dead woman pass) at 4250 meters of altitude, we took time to sit down for a while and appreciate the distance we had climbed that day, enjoying the clean and fresh air up there.

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Done! 4200 meters of altitude and alive!
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At the top of Warmi Wañusca pass, waiting for the rest of the team 

To our surprise (not so nice one) we discovered that actually the worse part was waiting for us on the nearly 2.5 hours of steps on the way down to our campsite before lunch. It was a mixed feeling, of happiness and pride for leaving behind the most challenging part of the trip, tiredness because it had been 5 hours of mental and physical effort, anxiety for the never ending steps we saw whenever we looked down, and in my case grumpiness due to hunger (which felt more like starvation :D) plus my concern about stepping on the wrong place and having an accident.

It is something I have come to terms now, but which has been consistently a pain on the neck every single time I had to climb a mountain, hill or anything similar, it is really not the way up I am concerned about, it is the way down, where my mind will not shut down and keep reminding me about the several ways in which I can fall and injure myself if I only for a second place one foot on the wrong place. The reason why my mind is so alert and active in these situations is because I am not able to calculate the distance between one step and the other, so sometimes I think the next stone is further or closer than it really is, believe me this can be exhausting beyond imagination!

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Part of the way down 

 

Third day

This day is supposed to be the easiest one, however keep in mind the total distance to cover is 16k. The first couple hours are a bit hard until the second pass Runkuracay (3900 meters of altitude).

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Beginning of third day, on the way to the second pass
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On top of the world more like 🙂 – Runkuracay pass

Then nothing serious until we reached the third pass of the whole trip (Phuyupatamarca at 3650 meters of altitude). From the Phuyupatamarca pass we could already see Machu Picchu and even Aguas Calientes, I could almost feel myself floating, thinking about the great effort of the past days, it seemed so long and now it was nearly ending.

That being said, what came next was two hours and a half of stairs down, so irregular, with some sections of steps so narrow one had to really mind where to step (extra work for me). The landscape is so different to what we had seen in the previous days, we finally felt the warmth of the jungle, the trees provided a nice shadow, and we could hear the birds singing hidden among the leaves of the trees.

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To the left nothing if you can notice
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Not suitable if you are afraid of heights!

As beautiful as it was, and even though my mind was busy with the path ahead, after a while it turned boring, never ending, literally no end to the stairs, just kept walking and walking, and we thought if at some point we were going to get to our campsite. It can be so exhausting that even those who were fast at the beginning fell pray of frustration, yet another challenge for people for whom patience is not their forte.

Just when I was about to give up I heard lots of voices, finally, a signal that the camp was round the corner! A warm welcome from our porters, the tends were ready to give us some deserved rest before tea time and dinner.

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Just a sample so you can see what I am talking about

That night we said good bye to our cook and team of porters, really I have to write some especial lines for these guys. For I would not have been able to get all my energies for the  long days walking up and down if it wasn’t for them, they took care of me and my especial diet (well not that especial but mind I don’t eat red meats), even more they had the detail to wake us up every morning with a cup of hot coca tea to survive the altitude, and a pot of warm water to refresh. The top detail they had was a birthday cake for me on the last night, so I had the chance to celebrate it properly one night before!

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Bit of art from the cook

Fourth day

This day started super early, we had to wake up at 3am get ready and pack everything, the excitement was so strong I could barely wait to walk to the gate where we would check in before the last section of the trip. It was the same excitement that got me warm and gave me patience to wait 1.5 hours at the gate, why? well, remember I told you that between travelers, porters, guides and cooks there are in total 500 people per day on the trail, but it is not until the last day that you actually see everyone together at the same spot (except for the porters and cooks).

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Sunrise

On the last day there were approximately 200 people walking at the same time, most of them trying to walk as fast as possible to reach first to the Sun Gate. If you wonder why the rush, well it is because the top experience of this trip, as if it could be easy to pick just one top experience, is to watch the sunrise from the Sun Gate, precisely the sunlight unveiling Machu Picchu in front of your eyes. True, it is a good reason to try and be one of the first to grab a nice spot to see this spectacle, but also people should be mindful of those who are tired physically and mentally, those who for other reasons just won’t walk as fast, and those like me who really dislike to know there is someone walking behind, stressing me unnecessarily to walk faster.

Anyway, after the previous days, this section of the trail was easy peasy, so me and my 10kilo backpack were in good conditions to walk fast without much stress, whenever I had people literally breathing on my neck I stopped and let them pass.

Everything seemed alright until we got to the place known  as “the Gringo killer” This beautiful staircase composed of 50 steep steps is perhaps the last thing one could wish for at this point of the trip. So I held my breath, summoned every last bit of energy I had got left, stopped before starting, looked at it respectfully, and climbed! The trick is not trying to finish it at once, have a little break if needed, whatever you do don’t stop for too long, once at the top I looked down, appreciated it again and kept walking until I found a good place for a well deserved break.

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Gringo killer from the bottom 

They call it Gringo killer, meaning that foreigners will probably find it super difficult to climb, but in reality everyone, locals included, find it challenging.

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Gringo killer from the top

From there, the Sun Gate is not far, so forgetting everything else, I grabbed my camera, left my backpack and got ready to see the sunlight uncovering Machu Picchu. At this point the joy was overcoming my thoughts, I was genuinely happy and proud of myself, detached from anything and anyone else, it was me, my thoughts and other people feeling probably the same.

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Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate
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A few minutes later
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Now I own the place

As I said before, I had seen Machu Picchu several times, went with different people, but never felt like I did at that very moment, never before had I done such effort to get somewhere, and I did it purely because I dreamed it, because I wanted it and because eI could, just because! Isn’t it a perfect description of what luxury means? doing something because you want and you can? just because? Well if not, then think about it, because I am redefining what luxury means, and it is doing the most with your time alive, having this kind of experiences, feelings and thoughts, experiencing genuine joy.

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Photographing the photographer

 

This was the story of how I decided to make something very especial on my 33rd birthday, watching sunrise over Machu Picchu after hiking the Inka Trail, feeling more alive than ever before and with a renovated conviction of what I am able to achieve 😉

Until the next post, in the meantime Hasta pronto! See you soon! Auf Wiedersehen! A presto! Au revoir! Adeus!

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Team Pisco Sour – Kari, me and Milagros we made it!