Hiking the Inca Trail

On Sunday morning, Alpaca Expeditions picked me up from my hotel at 4:30 a.m. to start our journey.  My hiking group consisted of a brother and sister in their late teens, three mates from Australia in their late 20’s, a young Chinese woman of 24, and me.

A two hour drive gets you to the town of Ollantaytambo and the start of the Inca Trail.  The trail goes for about 26 miles and has over 7,000 feet of vertical climb and a corresponding amount of descent. Different outfitters have slightly different ways they break up the four days.  Alpaca designs their trek with a really long and tough second day, but a relatively easy and leisurely third day to get everyone rested for the early morning into MP.

Our first day’s hike starts at an elevation 8,923 feet and the first couple of hours are relatively flat, aka “Peruvian Flat,” and easy walking and then some uphill to the lunch spot at 9,612 feet.  After lunch, the ascent begins with a climb of over 1,200 feet in the course of about 1.5 hours to the camp spot at Ayapata which is at 10,829 feet.

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First night campsite in the Andes

 

Honestly, this first day had both me and some of the others worried as it was billed as an “easy” day and I found myself stopping several times over the course of the last hour of vertical ascent to catch my breath and get my heart rate down.  Over dinner at camp, all of us showed some concern about day two and how hard it might be for all of us.

Day two started early and includes two major passes.  The first three or so hours of the day absolutely sucked as we made our way to the highest pass on the trail.  Dead Woman’s Pass is at an elevation of 13,779 feet which means a vertical ascent of 2,950 feet.  Make no mistake about it, this was hard.

Our group at Dead Woman's Pass

Our group at Dead Woman’s Pass

 

The younger crowd moved more quickly than I did and I got to enjoy some nice solitude along the trail.  My legs were no problem but I found that frequent, short breaks (about 30 seconds) were the key for me.  Longer breaks did not result in more recovery.

After lunch, there was a steep descent to our lunch spot at 11,700 feet to refuel for our second pass of the day at 13,123 feet.  This works out to another ascent of over 1,300 feet.  Again, it sucked.  Another steep descent brought us to our second campsite, this one at 11,800 feet.

The view from the second major pass

The view from the second major pass

 

Day three started out with a steady rain that diminished into a light drizzle over the course of a couple of hours.  We were now in a rain forest type of environment and the first few hours of hiking were relatively easy and enjoyable.  There was a bit more climb to a third pass of the trip at 12,073 feet and then a very steep descent to camp at 8,792 feet near the ruins of Winay Huayna.

Winay Huayna - our campsite for night three

Winay Huayna – our campsite for night three

 

This was our launching point for the final day into MP.  We broke camp at 3:00 a.m. and headed to the checkpoint into the final leg of the hike.  So, we were at the checkpoint by 3:20 a.m. (it is only a few minutes from where we camped) and settled in for the wait until it opens.  It opens at 5:30 a.m. so we had some time.  The upside is that we were the first group through and my Aussie mates were actually the first to reach the Sun Gate – the iconic spot for first glimpsing, and taking pictures of, Machu Picchu.  I was the seventh person through the gate but probably in the first 50 to arrive at the Sun Gate.  So, here is the iconic image of MP that I took from this spot..

Early morning view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Early morning view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

 

That’s right, you can’t control the weather.  After waiting about 15 minutes to see if there was any indication that the clouds would clear, we continued onto to MP.

 

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