Caminos Inka
(Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu)

25-28 Apr 2002 - by Arun Mahajan

"We do not serve Inca Cola on this flight", the air-hostess sniffed. Sadly, I realized that I was now on my way out of Lima, heading back home to California and there would be, for a while, at least, no more Inca Cola, the local soda that I had indulged in, while my companions had, on occasion, gone for the stronger Pisco-Sour during a recent visit to Peru.

After spending a couple of days touring Lima I hooked up with a group of adventurers put together by GAP Adventures of Canada and took the flight to Cuzco, the objective being to hike on the Inca Trail for three days and to terminate at Machu Picchu on the fourth. Our trail guide took us on a bus from Cuzco to the Sacred Valley and then to the fantastic ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo where we spent the night. The next day, we got dropped off at one of the standard starting points for the Inca Trail along the Rio Urubamba, known as Kilometer-82. It is near the 5000+ metre peak, Nevado Veronica, that looks positively un-climbable. Our large group of sixteen people and two guides and porters and cook set off after having completed the trail entry formalities. Right away is a crossing of the Urubamba on a swaying suspension bridge. The trail then gains elevation gradually over several kilometers passing the large ruins of Patallacta and then drops down steeply but then again gains gradual elevation till the popular camp-site at Huayllabamba which was our camp for the night (2900 m). This was an easy day despite the length and we were at camp early for a good rest.

The roosters of the small settlement nearby woke us up early on day-2 which was just as well as this was to be the hardest day. We had to go from 2900m to 4200m (3700+ ft) in only about six kms. Our guide taught us to make a quid of coca leaves. This quid placed in the mouth releases its juice, which apparently helps for the altitude. The porters do it all the time. Some people in the group tried it but coca chewing being an acquired taste, only a few kept it up for long. The trail started off steeply and went past a trail check point and our guide pointed out our first major destination, Abra De Huarmihuanusca, the Dead Woman's Pass, at 4200m, the highest point on our route and it seemed agonizingly far away. The trail then continued to climb up, going through a beautiful forest along a river, past a camping site and then to another large camping site at Llulluchapampa. This campsite is on a small grassy plateau with stunning views of the valley that we had just come up from and the snow capped peaks beyond. After a brief break here, we started off for the final steep section to top out at the pass. Some group members raced to the top, the others, either slowing down due to the altitude or simply stopping to take pictures, came up at a statelier pace. The pass was quite cold with low clouds hanging over it but everybody's spirits were high at this accomplishment. The trail dropped down to the other side of the pass, almost as drastically as it had risen. At the first major drop, we had lunch. A few llamas and a pair of alpacas wandering on the grassy mountain side stopped by to within almost touching distance of us. We continued dropping down steeply, 2600 ft in just over a mile, says the map, till camp in the beautiful valley floor of the river Pacamayo. From here we could see the pass where we had come from and how steeply we would have to climb on the morrow, but for a while at least, we rested peacefully to the sounds of the flowing Pacamayo.

Day three dawned cloudy and cool as we slogged up the steep trail to the circular shaped ruins of Runcu Raccay and then further up a short ways to the second pass. The gloomy weather continued and we plugged on and at one point the trail dropped steeply and then climbed up a series of steep steps to the elaborate ruins of Sayac Marca. Our guide told us the story of this site and the purpose behind it. The trail then dropped and continued on through a forest over a valley and this was the most beautiful part of the trail. Though we could not have the views in the distance due to the clouds and the occasional rain, the lush greenery and the fierce colours of the tropical vegetation took our breath away. The trail was steep here and although the rise was not as dramatic as on day-2, it was quite sustained and tiring. It passed through a short tunnel that has been made by the Incas, till the third pass that was at 3650m and just on the other side of this pass were the ruins of Phuyu Pata Marca. The Inca Trail is not just any old trail through the mountains. It has fantastic ruins all along the way and every paved stone is steeped in history. If the ruins are thus, then one wonders how impressive the actual structures may have been in the days of the Inca zenith. The trail continued to drop steeply and several places had paved steps and we had to watch our footing here because it had started to rain and this continued till camp and we started to get more and more wet. It is a good idea to have a large poncho over the Gore-tex and the pack as the water gets in everywhere. A long descent that would have been very enjoyable in good weather and on a clearer day finally brought us to the somewhat noisy camp site of Huinay Huayna just as it got dark. There was also a trekkers hostel with somewhat spartan facilities here.

The next day, day-4 of the trek, we got up at four am. The air was moist and cool and after gulping down a hurried breakfast we started at a brisk pace, past another Inca Trail checkpoint. The idea was to get to Intipunku, the Sun Gate and to see the sun rise over Machu Picchu from there. It took us about an hour of fast walking before we ascended the rather steep steps that mark the final approach to Intipunku but much to our disappointment the clouds were continually persistent and not only were there no views it was drizzling as well. Making the most of it, we trudged down the trail and reached our final destination, Machu Picchu. The moment it self was anti-climactic since the main site was in the clouds and we could only make out the faint outlines of the famous ruins. We rested and waited for the group to accumulate and then our guide started to show us the various architectural aspects of the ruins. About that time, Inti, the sun, finally began to make its presence felt and the clouds slowly started to lift to reveal that we were in the midst of dome like peaks that dropped down steeply all around us. Finally Huyana Picchu was also revealed and we saw Machu Picchu in its true form, the stuff that post cards are made of. After touring most of the ruins, a few of us scooted to the Sacred Rock to make the short hike to the top of Huyana Picchu, the peak that is seen in all the stock shots of Machu Picchu. It is a short but steep hike to the top and it took us about an hour to go up. By now the sun was up and we got a very impressive view of the lay of Machu Picchu from the summit. The bus ride from Machu Picchu to the town of Aguas Calientes was a straight drop down the hill via a switch-backing road. A little kid, dressed to represent the Inca runners, the Chasqui, started running with the bus and cut through the switch backs with such precision that every time we were at the center of a switch back he would be waiting for us, yelling good-bye, alternately in English, Spanish and Quechua and then he would take off again, cutting fast through the switch backs to meet us at the next. We tipped him well for his efforts! A long train ride to Ollantaytambo from Aguas Calientes after lunch and then a bus ride from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco completed the trip. Beginning from Km-82 and ending at Machu Picchu, I approximated from the maps, involved 45km of hiking and up to 8000 ft of elevation gain and between 6000ft to 6500 ft of elevation loss.

A golden moon, nearly full, rose over Cuzco as we drove back from Ollantaytambo, but still could not dim the Southern Cross, up in the sky. I knew that very soon I would have to say good-bye to all my exceptional companions and our great guide and there was a lump in my throat. I will carry the imprint of the fast flowing Urubamba in my mind, on whose banks the immense flower stalks of the agave rise up and then dip down with the weight of their bloom, as if to sip from the river, but I fancy that the Urubamba is singing to them the story of a civilization and the bigotry and greed that drove its conquest and perhaps even the tale of the brave commoner, Ollanta and his doomed love for the daughter of the king, Pachacutec Inka.

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