In the footsteps of the Incas

After our short visit in Arequipa, we took another night bus to Cusco. Cusco was the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire and is the starting point for many tourists to visit Machu Picchu or do the Inca Trail. And so it was for us as well. When we first talked about visiting Machu Picchu, we discussed all options to get there. Should we hike for several days, or should we take the train and just visit it for one day? We quickly came to the decision that we wanted to hike there, but wanted to hike one of the alternative routes to the Inca Trail that many people told us is cheaper, in parts nicer in the scenery and not so crowded as the Inca Trail. In fact, Mathias did not want to hike the official Inca Trail at all, as he was put off by the expected big tourist crowds. So we wanted to hike the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu, which is an alternative route passing other more remote Inca sites and which is not supposed to be so popular yet.

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When we contacted several tour operators to get a quote and weather information for the trail, they told us though that the trail is too muddy and not walkable at the moment due to the heavy rainfall. So what then? They offered us different alternative treks that can still be walked, but they did not lead to Machu Picchu. We would still have to take the bus up in the end. And they of course also offered us the Inca Trail as an alternative, as the trail is mostly made out of cobble stones and thus not so muddy. It was as expected more expensive than the other trails, but in the end I could convince Mathias to walk the Inca Trail instead of any other alternative. I had been keen on walking this historic trail since the start and was just hoping that not so many people chose to walk the trail in the rainy season. We researched a good tour operator and booked the trail with Alpaca expeditions.

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When we arrived in their office for our briefing the evening before the trail start, they surprised us with the information that no one else had signed up for the tour. Normally they would only do the tour with a minimum of 5 people, but since we had booked it already and were there, they made an exception and still would go ahead, meaning we had a private tour! The size of our crew also was a big surprise to us then, as we got told we would walk with 5 porters, 1 chef and 1 guide all there to make this the most memorable experience for us. We were a bit overwhelmed and asked if we really needed 5 porters just for us two people, but we got told that this is how the organization runs and the amount of people they need to carry up all the equipment. We got send home with two duffel bags to pack our sleeping stuff and warm clothes into it and then got picked up at 4:30 am the next morning. We drove 2 hours through the night close to the town of Ollantaytambo from where the Inca Trail starts. When we arrived and got out of the van, we had our first experience of how the next few days would look like. We got told to relax and walk around a bit while the crew prepared breakfast for us.

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So we walked around and took in the beautiful mountain scenery and sunny weather. When we got back to the van we felt like being in a movie or dream about a nature expedition. There in the middle of the car park stood a table full of fruits, pancakes, bread rolls and marmelade. And two chairs for us to sit down. There were also two bowls of warm water and soap to wash our hands. We enjoyed the delicious breakfast with our guide Reynaldo and then started towards the check-point of the Inca Trail. All the while, we asked our guide why there were no other people here, since we heard the Inca Trail is so crowded. He said that most of them will arrive later and that we would always start early to try and be on our own. We liked that approach very much and by the time we got to the check point, they were only two other Canadians with their guide and a group of six Americans who arrived shortly after us. We started full of hope that maybe this would not be so crowded after all! Once we were through the check point Reynaldo told us to start walking and he would catch up with us a bit later since he had to wait for our chef to go through the check point as well.

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So we did and as we walked, we could see the train pass by in the valley below us which takes all the lazy tourists directly to the closest Machu Picchu town Aguas Calientes, from where buses run every few minutes up to the entrance of Machu Picchu. We would need 3 days to get there and were not thinking about that yet. Instead we enjoyed the beautiful scenery and weather. The first day would lead us mostly through farmland, where locals still live along the Inca Trail. Reynaldo caught up with us after almost one hour in the end and told us he was surprised we already got so far. It was the first taste he got of our walking habit and speed. The nice thing about the guided tour was that Reynaldo would not only explain the Inca history to us as we walked along, but also pointed out the differences and uniqueness in the flora and fauna. We would walk through different vegetation every day, starting with farmland and ending in the jungle.

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We would also pass several Inca sites on the way, which got bigger, more sophisticated and more impressive the closer we got to Machu Picchu. We loved that actually, as it gave us a better understanding of the development of the Inca sites and showed us better how their expertise grew over time. Rather than seeing the highlight and most sophisticated site Machu Picchu as the first Inca site. When we got to our first lunch spot, we were once again overwhelmed by the work and service our crew offered and actually felt a bit ashamed and uneasy in the beginning. In front of us was a tent ready for us to sit down in, two bowls of hot water to wash our hands and a smaller tent with a separate chemical toilet just for us. We got a welcome drink and then shortly after we got served a three course lunch! And as we would experience in the next days, we would get a three course meal every day for lunch and dinner.

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It always started with a warm soup, which was different every single time. The soup was accompanied with garlic bread, salsa and another starter like avocados with vegetable cream for example. The main course would then be four different big plates of warm dishes, always including different vegetables, meat or fish and rice, pasta or potatoes. You will just have to look at the pictures to see all the variety that we were served. Our chef Walter basically cooked every single Peruvian dish that exists in these days for us and made the impossible happen. From broccoli soufflé to roasted filled pork roll to pizza and cakes. Dished that are already difficult to make in a normal kitchen, he would magically cook on two camping stoves. And it did not stop there, for desert we got flambéed bananas or cakes! And before every dinner, we had our “happy hour”, which consisted of a variety of teas, coffee or hot chocolate and freshly made popcorn! And the attention to detail needs to be mentioned as well. The napkins were always folded into nice flower shapes and the food was decorated with the smallest details that you would normally only see in an upper class restaurant. After lunch they then rolled out two mattresses for us to lie down and have a siesta!

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Half an hour later, we would start walking again with our guide while the crew packed everything up and left the place as if no one has ever been there. It took us the first whole day to get used to that luxury and accept the “no” of the crew when we wanted to help somehow. It was their pride to give us the best time possible and they did!! We have so much respect for these men, who each carry a 25kg backpack on their back and walk the whole trail as we walk them, but even quicker. They would always stay behind and pack up when we started walking again with our few 3-4 kg on the back, and by the time we got to the next lunch or dinner spot they had already overtaken us and had set up our tent and were preparing the food. Only when our guide told us that these are all farmers without education that earn more money doing this job than they do with their farming, we started to accept the situation and relax a bit without feeling ashamed. They were happy about every tourist that did the trail and thus gave them this job.

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Luckily, we had chosen a good company that treated their porters well and with respect and also equipped them with proper hiking clothes and shoes that kept them warm. During our walk we had seen other porters from companies that offered the trail cheaper, but we now know where they saved the money. These porters were partly not even equipped with proper clothes let alone shoes. We saw porters who walked the trail in sandals without socks despite the rain and cold temperatures. Some had backpacks that were broken or loaded to the maximum of 30 or 35 kg with was actually forbidden by regulations. But these companies did not care and just thought about making as much money as possible and the porters needed the job. So if you ever think of doing the Inca Trail, do us a favor and choose a respectable company that treats the porters with the dignity they deserve and pays them a respectable and adequate salary for their hard work.

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So, at the end of our first day it started raining a bit for the first time, but we were extremely happy with the day so far and glad we had chosen to walk the Inca trail. Throughout the day, we had not seen the 2 Canadians anymore and did not see them at our campsite in the evening. The only other group that camped at the same camp site was the group of 6 Americans with their crew. Our guide told us that the other tour operators chose a different itinerary and would not walk so far on the first two days, as we did. Instead they would make the third day their longest day, while for us it was the shortest day. We could not believe it. Did we really have the trail for us these 3 days? The Americans always started a bit later than us and also walked slower, so that Mathias and I actually really had every single Inca site that we reached to ourselves! No one would believe us had we not our photos as proof. It made the whole trek even more special for us!

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The second day started with a blue sky at first but quickly turned into a cloudy day the higher we walked. We got told that the second day is the hardest, as we would walk from 3300m up to 4200m to cross the first mountain pass in the morning. In addition most of the walk was not on a normal trail. After the first hour the trail turned into Inca stairs and we had to walk up steps for 3 hours non-stop. After that it would go down similar steps for 2 hours non-stop until we reached our lunch spot. After lunch it was again 450m up, just walking steps again and then 400m down again. It really did sound exhausting, but Mathias and I were surprised how well trained we still were from our treks in Patagonia. We walked the first part up in just 2 hours instead of 3, and kept that speed throughout the day.

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Luckily, our bodies had also already adapted fully to the higher altitude the last 10 days and we had no problems at all with the altitude anymore, not even Mathias.  Throughout the day it started raining now and then, but we did not mind at all. We were so impressed with the flora and fauna, the beautiful humming birds and the Inca sites we passed, we actually thought that the clouds made the whole atmosphere feel quite mystic. At times it looked like the Inca sites were built into the air, when they were just surrounded by clouds and the mountains had disappeared.

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At the end of day two we reached the Inca site “Sayaqmarka”, which our guide told us was a religious site for the priest and pilgrims who had walked the Inca trail. It was built onto a cliff, which was however not really visible because of the clouds. Because it was only 30 minutes away from the campsite for the night however, our guide told us we could walk up the next morning again if the weather was better. Before we left the site to go to our campsite, our guide surprised us with a rope he had made out of grass. He said the Incas used to make their strong ropes like this that was used to tie materials together and keep them tight. For us, he used it has a “wedding band” and declared us husband and wife in his name on this Inca site :). How sweet! This would now always be a special site for us.

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When we woke up the next day, we indeed had a blue open sky and thus decided to walk back to the site again. It added another hour of walking to the day, but since it was a short day that did not matter. And it was so worth it! When we reached the site again, we could see how it overlooked the whole valley. It was really stunning! The Incas were so impressive people. How much work this must have been to build this site on that mountain cliff. And we could now also clearly see the smaller Inca site below, which was a sleeping facility for the runners and pilgrims who had not the status and privilege to stay in the religious site. After 15 minutes or so, the weather started changing though and clouds appeared again. The closer we got to Machu Picchu, the more the clouds got stuck in the valley around the mountains.

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The third day brought us through dense mossy jungle forest and passed the most stunning sites we had seen so far. The Incas had built whole terraces into the mountain, always building with the landscape and not changing it. At times we just stood there and were speechless. It was very difficult to comprehend the extent of what they had created. Especially the last site of the day “Winaywayna” impressed us beyond words. They had built the whole site as an agricultural testing site to find the best crops for the high altitude. They filled each terrace with fertile soil that they had transported to this place from the sacred valley more than 70km away. They planted different crops in each terrace and tested and developed different varieties. The site was already so big the way we saw it, but our guide told us that it actually is much bigger as there are more terraces that are hidden by the forest. The Peruvian forest ministry however is in a constant fight with the cultural ministry to keep the forest untouched to save the living environment for all the animals that live there. So until now the cultural ministry did not get the permission to unearth the rest of the Inca site.

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It was a spectacular ending to the day. We walked back to the camp site and were already excited for the next day. We had finally almost reached Machu Picchu. The next day would only be a 2 hour hike until our feet would touch the grounds of Machu Picchu. Before that our crew surprised us with a final dinner celebration however and congratulated us on the great hike. They had even decorated the tent and our guide proudly showed me a balloon that even said “Honey Moon” on it! :) Incredible, they were simply the best crew ever. Walter, our chef, had magically made another stunning cake and delicious dinner for us. We could not have chosen a better company. After dinner it was time to say goodbye to the crew, as we would wake up at 3:00 am the next day to start queuing at the final check point with our guide. It would open at 5:30am and then all the hikers, who had by now reached the final camp site at the end of day 3, would make their way up to the famous Machu Picchu Sun Gate.

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It was a 1 hour hike away, walking up steps again. Since Mathias and I had had the Inca Trail literally to ourselves up to then, we did not want that to be any different on the last kms to Machu Picchu. So we sprinted away the first meters and almost run along the trail to get enough distance between us and the crowds. After only 45 minutes we made it to the Sun Gate and had it to ourselves again for 10 minutes. When the first other people arrived we continued on to Machu Picchu. It was another hour away and on the way there we suddenly saw people coming towards us. It was then that our guide told us that we had no chance to be the first and only ones at Machu Picchu, as the first bus that drives people up the mountain reached the entrance gates at 6:00am. Well, it would have been too perfect :). In any case, the morning was very cloudy and we had not been able to see Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. When we finally reached Machu Picchu grounds it was almost the same.

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It was almost completely covered by clouds and only slowly appeared in front of our eyes as the clouds slowly moved away. Somehow we did not mind though. We had had such a fantastic last three days and all the Inca sites in the way to ourselves; we were totally relaxed about having Machu Picchu to our own. Instead we enjoyed our breakfast in peace and then slowly walked through the grounds as our guide gave us a two hour tour. It is just unbelievable what the Incas had created there.  The site seemed endless no matter where you looked and so far developed in architecture it was hard to believe they had created this without any tools and technology as we know them. Considering they had built this in the 15th century, it is simply impressive to see a stone wall with a perfect straight line and evenly polished stones or carved out stone elements that served as handles or fire torch holders. And all of this on a steep mountain slope surrounded by massive mountains and a deep valley.

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After walking around in the grounds for two hours it was time to climb some steps again. We had bought tickets for Huayna Picchu, one of the surrounding mountains, from which you were supposed to have a stunning view over the whole of the Machu Picchu site. When we started walking up, it was however so cloudy that we did not expect to see anything at all. Many people who came down as we walked up confirmed that as well. We walked the 45 minutes up anyway, since we had paid for the tickets. When we got to the top we indeed could not see much in the beginning. We met an American couple however who had been waiting there for an hour already. They said that there had been a gap now and then in the clouds that enabled them to see more of it. So we waited with them and sure enough after 15 minutes a big gap appeared and the whole site of Machu Picchu revealed itself. WOW! What a view! Only then did we realize how big Machu Picchu really is!! Crazy, don`t you think? We were so happy to have had the chance to see it. Our trek could not have ended better!

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They way back to Cusco was then really relaxed. We took the bus down to Aguas Calientes town and then the train back to Ollantaytambo. From there our company drove us back to Cusco in their company van. This time we also had the chance to enjoy the beautiful countryside, as it had been dark when we drove this way four days ago.

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WOW, what should I say?! It was a very, very special trek for us and we are so happy we decided to walk the Inca Trail. For anyone who wants to do it as well, we can only recommend to go in the same time of year as us and choose a good company. Maybe then you will also have the Inca trail to yourselves.

 

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