Lodging is a very important part of every trip, especially when you are camping on the Inca Trail on your way to see Machu Picchu. My boyfriend and I have just returned from a one-month backpacking in South America. The highlight of our travels was by far our 4-day/3-night trek through the Inca Trail in Peru.
After our 24-hour very windy and very nauseating bus ride from Ica, Peru we finally arrived in Cusco; the base city for all Machu Picchu excursions. With an elevation of almost 11,000 feet Cusco, Peru is one of the highest cities in the world. With high elevation comes low oxygen levels. Before I arrived to Cusco I laughed when the locals warned us of the intense altitude sickness many tourists experience when visiting Machu Picchu. My boyfriend and I are both active and were convinced we wouldn’t have a problem.
We arrived to Cusco at 5pm on Sunday, December 18th and our trek left at 5am Monday, December 19th. We learned at our orientation that night that all of our fellow group member had been in Cusco for at least 5-days in order to acclimate to the altitude. We had only been in Cusco for 3-hours… yikes! As an option to anyone who hikes the trail you can hire “porters” to carry your belongings from campsite to campsite. After receiving my sleeping bag & mattress and actually experiencing the effects of the altitude myself, I coughed up the extra $60 and hired a porter. Out of the fifteen people in our group, only my boyfriend and an Irish triathlon runner decided to carry their own belongings- Buena Suerte!
As luck would have it, we learned at our briefing that the date of our excursion through the Inca Trail was a special one. On the 4th day of our trek, when we would finally arrive at Machu Picchu, would be Dec. 22, 2011. Not only was it 100-years since the discovery of Machu Picchu by Yale History Professor Harim Bingham, but Dec. 22 is the summer solstice.
Five-hundred years ago when the Incas inhabited Peru a large celebration would be held every Dec. 22 to welcome the first day of summer. In support of this celebration Machu Picchu was built with a summer sun gate positioned so precisely that when the sun rose on the first day of summer the gate would capture the sunlight and illuminate the entire village. At the discovery of this everyone in our group was giddy with excitement.
Day 1, we set off at 5am from Cusco heading for the starting point of the Inca Trail. As our group huddles in line at the trailhead to offer our passports and documentation we see our porters; sleeping bags, tents, clothing, food, cooking tools, stools and tables all strapped to their backs as they waddle by to begin their ascent to our first campground. Some of these men in their 40s & 50s, some wearing sandals and none of them taller than 5’5” each manage to carry about 80lbs of weight on their backs through the entire trail. These men deserve some credit!!
We enter the trail with no idea what’s in store for us. We start climbing right away and instantly you can see how much the altitude is affecting the group. Young in-shape men and women bent over after 10 minutes on the trail gasping for air. As we reach our first resting stop a young Australian guy in our group had to turn back around and be taken to the hospital. We later found out that he had been hospitalized for 4-days from severe altitude poisoning. Needless to say this altitude business was no joke!
After 8-hours of hiking, persistent rains and a deadly downhill alpaca and wild sheep stampede we reached our first campground.
Day 2, we set off at 6am in the pouring rain for our most challenging yet day. 12-hours straight of trekking lay before us through the infamous and challenging Dead Woman’s Pass. The name was intimidating enough, but I tried to not let it phase me. It turned out that our group was in pretty incredible shape as we were able to keep up with each other! According to Orlando, my favorite guide, our group had reached the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass faster than any of his groups in history, my latest claim to fame. When we finally reached our campground it was about 6:30 p.m. and we were all beat.
Day 3, up and at ‘em by 5 a.m. and trekking by 5:45 a.m. Today would be the first day we see Machu Picchu. Sore but rejuvenated the group begins to trek the 6-hours to the “Gringo Killers”; the name given to the infamous and impossibly steep steps that precede the first views of the famous ruins. After intense rains all morning we hit the “Gringo Killers”. Minutes before we begin the ascent the rain suddenly stops, the clouds disappear and the sun begins to shine. As we climb to the last step and pier across the valley, we see it! Lathered in sunshine against a backdrop of crystal blue skies shines the 500-year old ruins of Machu Picchu. After days of rain, gloom and cold, we are offered sun, clear skies and a cool breeze for our first and very climactic viewing of Machu Picchu. We are given time to wander down to the ruins taking photo after photo of the incredible vistas.
Day 4, we get up at 4 a.m. so we can head straight to Machu Picchu to see the sun gate on the day of the summer solstice. As we eat breakfast rains billow down on the mountains but we are still hopeful that the sun will appear by sunrise. We trek back to Machu Picchu with our guides who have designated this day to share with us the history of the ruins. After standing in the freezing rain for over three hours we all come to realize that the sun is not coming out, the rain is not stopping and the sun gate will not be illuminating Machu Picchu.
At this point one may assume that disappointment would be the group’s unanimous emotion, but it is better described as comical irony. When we first began our trek everyone in the group was convinced that the sun gate would be the highlight of our trip. Now, after having done the Inca Trail, learned about the Inca people, saw dozens of ruins on the way, met incredible people and challenged ourselves both physically and mentally, the sun gate now just seems like an afterthought.
This experience was one of the most rewarding of my life. A blog or even photos does not provide it justice. My experience validates that life is definitely about the journey and not the destination.
If you ever get the chance to visit Peru and see Machu Picchu, do the Inca Trail! I promise you, it is worth it.