4-DAY INCA TRAIL – WORTH IT?!
by J. Vazquez
February 13th, 2019
The answer to the question part of this article’s title is highly subjective. From my perspective, the answer is an ABSOLUTE YES!
Knowing that I am a hard-person-to-get-gifts-for, my wife and daughter asked me this past December to tell them what I wanted for my birthday & Christmas gifts. I said “noting, really” a number of times but when they pressed, I finally said – “If you really want to know what I want, IT IS TO TRAVEL.” I didn’t have to say the place I wanted to visit – they’ve known for a long time that Machu Picchu (MP) has been at or near the top of my list for years! So, later that same day, I was sent a website to select the timing for my booking. (For the record, they also know that I want to hike Mount Kilimanjaro and travel to ANTARCTICA & Eastern Europe. I know that my wife wants to go on a SAFARI).
Rather than wait for the best time to visit, if there is such a thing, I decided to go as soon as reasonably possible. So, I looked for flights and decided to go in Mid-January – despite the fact that in the Cusco region of the Andes in Peru, this would be the summer rainy season.
As some of you know, in 2015 I wrote an article entitled R&R and its Positive Effects on Productivity. In addition to touting the benefits from having regular time away from work, that article focused on my rafting excursion in the Colorado River. At the end of the rafting, we “exited” the river by hiking the Bright Angel Trail up to the top of the Grand Canyon. So, though I am now 3.5 years older and have not gone hiking since, I figured I could do the Inca Trail. While the hike in the Grand Canyon was higher (from 2,500ft to 6,785ft) and I had to carry a full-size backpack (not terribly heavy but at least 20-25 pounds), the biggest issue in doing the Inca Trail is altitude, with the Day-2 hike going from elevation 10,954ft to 13,828ft. So, even though I was only carrying about 1 liter of water, a couple of snacks and rain gear (say a total of 3.5 pounds), it felt almost as difficult.
This photo was taken and edited by one of my fellow travelers from Australia
Though I did learn about the Incas as part of my education in Mexico, I am not sure I really knew much about Machu Picchu until Jake Alford told me that a friend of his, Vladimir Rapaport (with whom he had co-authored a paper on preloading), had recently visited the famous “Lost City of the Incas.” I asked Jake to introduce me to Vladimir and then started asking him questions. This must have been around 2003 or thereabouts. So, for ~15 years, visiting MP has been in my bucket list. Not just visiting, though - I always envisioned me hiking the Inca Trail to get there.
Before I go any further, I want to call your attention to the picture below, which shows the people providing the amazing support we had for this trip. Our group consisted of 6 travelers, 1 guide, 1 chef, 1 head porter and 13 additional porters. During this trip, I learned that until recently, each porter would be asked to carry as much as 50kg (for the metrically challenged, that’s ~110 pounds), but regulations now limit their load to 25kilos. The 2:1 porter-to-traveler ratio arises from the fact they carry tents, sleeping bags, food and cooking utensils, including propane gas bottles. Thankfully, they don’t have to carry water, as there is accessible water along the trail, but they do have to boil it before using it for drinking/cooking.
Photo taken by our guide – Ray
Originally, there were supposed to be 8 travelers, but two Italian travelers backed out at the last minute, after hearing during the briefing about the Day-2 climb from camp to Dead Woman’s Pass. I was very lucky to have 5 traveling companions from England and Australia, ages 21 to 33. They were quite nice and accommodating. Two couples were on 6-week South America expeditions, the other (single male) traveler was on a 3-week vacation in Peru. I was in the Cusco area for a total of 7.5 days and traveled there for the sole purpose of doing the Inca Trail.
CLICK HERE to read an article that gives you a good idea of what my experience was like. I have to say that without the porters, there is absolutely no way I would have made it!
As it turned out, we had fantastic weather all 4 days of the hike! There was rain just about every day, but somehow the downpours only happened when we were sheltered, either traveling in a van/train, or after we had reached camp and in the comfort of our Porter-set-up tents.
I don’t know how I could possibly write anything here to describe the experience. So, I am simply going to show you a few pictures from my overall Peru visit, which also included day tours to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and to Rainbow Mountain.
For the Rainbow Mountain hike, I joined the couple from England (Matt and Charli) who decided to rent a car and make the 3-hr drive from Cusco rather than join a tour. We heeded Ray’s advice and took advantage of the services of a horse, leaving only the last 30-min of an otherwise-3.5hr-hike to do on foot. The night before this hike, I was advised to buy a portable bottle of oxygen, as the Rainbow Mountain is at over 14,000ft elevation. I was sure glad I had it with me 15-min into the 30-min hike to reach the top, as I was having trouble catching my breath!
I note that I am restraining myself from including too many pictures here. I’ll be happy to send you a link to my eventual editing of all the pictures/videos I took (which may be ready in a month or two).
You’ll note that in the pictures below, I included a screenshot from my built-in pedometer from my iPhone. Those steps and floors are from Day-2 of the hike. I note that the 228 floors (stair flights) refers only to the steps that I took that were “high enough” to count as steps, and not all the other gradual up-hill steps I took. If you think about it, a flight of stairs (on average) is ~10ft. So, 2,874 ft would be about 280 flights. The climb took us a little over 4 hours. For those of you familiar with Houston, that’s equivalent to climbing the stairs of the 64-story Williams Tower more than 4 times, taking about one minute per flight (including rest time).
I am happy to say that though I was tired and lagging behind the other travelers, I made it to Dead Woman’s Pass just fine. The next day was easier, though not truly easy. The 4th and last hiking day was quite interesting. We had to get up even earlier than the first 3 days and stood in line to make it to the Sun Gate well before 5:00 am. Our guide told us that some people think that the reason for getting the travelers to get up early is to “be 1st in line to make it to the Sun Gate” but in reality, the reason we do it is so that the Porters have a shot at catching the train, as the services are divided between “for locals (carrying equipment)” and for tourists. So, the Day-4 hike was the only one that had us walking in the dark.
The arrival to the Sun Gate and to Machu Picchu itself was as amazing as I had expected – this, despite the fact that throughout the trail we’d been seeing Inca sites, some of them even larger than Machu Picchu. Along the way, we learned that what makes MP special is not its size, but the fact that it was not destroyed by the Conquistadores.
So, the question is “why wasn’t Machu Picchu discovered and destroyed by the Spaniards?” According to our guide, Machu Picchu was a Royal Retreat and while it did provide housing for some families, it was more of a “center” than a regular city. Furthermore, due to conflicts prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Incas had stopped using Machu Picchu so they could deal with their neighbors and that’s why the Spaniards never knew about it. For additional reading on this, please CLICK HERE.
I thank my wife and daughter for this amazing gift! I also thank each of you – the readers of this newsletter, for indulging me in telling you about this once-in-a-life-time experience. I look forward to hearing about your hiking (or traveling in general) experiences and would gladly hear any advice you may have about hiking Kilimanjaro or going to Antarctica.