The Royal Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

This is the second of three posts describing a trip for which I was the US representative from Zephyr Adventures, which runs their Royal Inca Trail Trekking adventure with local experts from Apumayo.

Trekking Day 1

(See related password free photo albums on Picasa.)
Cactus blooms in the Peruvian highlands

Though I saw this section in 2008, hiking the first leg of the Classic Inca trail was even more impressive with sunshine to highlight the views of the ruins, the Urubamba River valley, the mountains, and up close, the blossoms of a Peruvian highland springtime.

We branched right to exit the “Classic” route and began our descent to the ruins of Llaqtapata after which we joined the Royal Inca trail heading north alongside the river. I was impressed by the beauty and easy walking along the terraced, eucalyptus-shaded trail we passed just before stopping for lunch where the terraces ended.

Hiking on an Inca terrace
Terrace hiking on the Royal Inca Trail

After eating, we trekked through dense cloud forest and snapped photos of purple orchids. Our group was plenty challenged by today’s climbs and descents; at Santiago’s advice, sidestepping was used to save aching knees and hips. The afternoon clouds gathered and we pulled on jackets and ponchos to hike in the rain that started as we neared the campsite, where tents were already set up and waiting for us. We tucked inside to dry out and get organized. Soon after, we were gratified by basins of hot wash water at the tent door and a call to tea, where we were served biscuits and hot drinks.

Trekking Day 2

After a rainy night, we were relieved to awake to a warm sun. The highest peaks above showed freshly whitewashed glaciers. We hung damp items to dry while we feasted on bread, pancakes and liquid yogurt over puffed wheat.

Glaciers above the Urubamba River canyon
Glaciers above the Royal Inca Trail

Our morning hike along the river’s edge took us up and down mossy Inca stairs, through dense jungle, across avalanche slopes and past more delicate purple and white orchids. The group kept its usual start and stop pace and I switched between chatting, trail maintenance and taking way too many pictures. The most alarming stretch of today’s trail was a large slide that denuded the hillside from 100 yards above the riverbed, and it stretched 100 yards of gravelly trail across. It was pretty hot by the time we got to camp at the Chachabamba ruins, where we were treated to a hot lunch (!).

After we ate, Santiago walked Randy and Marie Barber across the bridge to catch the next train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (aka Aguas Calientes). Due to a history of sports that has Randy facing his second hip replacement surgery next year, and an overuse knee pain that crept up on Marie yesterday, this plan allowed them to avoid tomorrow’s steep climb and long mileages. We’ll meet them at our Inti Hotel tomorrow evening.

The waterfall below Choquesuysuy ruins
Approaching Choquesuysuy ruins

While everybody else puttered around camp, Santiago, Evan and I hiked further up the river to see the Chokasuysuy waterfall and ruins. This section of trail was a barely trodden path through the forests above the Urubamba and we found out later it is still closed for repairs. One washed out section offered just a single, tilted, gravelly step high above the roaring brown river, with no mistakes allowed! The ruin itself offered great views of Winyawayna high above, which is tomorrow’s destination. There were lots of living structures both above and below the many rows of farming terraces. The mosquitoes were biting furiously, so we didn’t stay long.

On the way back to camp, I stopped at the sweet little Chachabamba ruin nearby and had it all to myself for a session of sunset photography. At camp I managed to get a cold shower in the dark just before dinner.

Chachabamba ruins
Chachabamba ruins

Trekking Day 3

Despite more nighttime rain, the grass outside our tents was dry by 5am. Before hitting the long uphill trail, we presented our cooks and porters with a generous thank you tip and various camping articles we could do without. As we marched past the Chachabamba ruins and turned toward Winyawayna, we were grateful for the cloud cover, because the sun would otherwise be at our backs all during the 3-4 hour 1000 foot climb.

We made a steadily ascending traverse across a recovering burn site where young trees have been planted to secure the earth from erosion and the increased threat of landslides. We have heard from Santiago that the first three months of 2010 were so wet that flooding and 17 separate slides closed the railroad for months. Our Royal Inca trail, which is normally open year round, was only just reopened three weeks ago, just in time for us!

Inca stairways, still intact after hundreds of years
Inca stairways, still intact after hundreds of years

Today we climbed up and down many Inca-built stairways, some with the more modern convenience of hand rails when the drop-off was particularly dire. We paused for a brief but welcome R&R at both of the thatched-roof overlook huts spaced one hour apart, snacking on oranges, biscuits and hard candies provided by our cooks.

Trekking poles helped a lot and by 11am we reached the waterfall and lower entrance to the gorgeous “Forever Young” (Winyawayna) ruins, one of Santiago’s favorites. It features a stair-stepped water purification system, a hilltop sun temple and stone dwellings for the farmers who tended the terraced fields to grow food for the Inca, their living God. After the obligatory group photo here, we made the final climb to a nearby campsite and its obnoxious restaurant. While the clean bathrooms were welcome, the blaring music and commercial operations gave me culture shock after our days in the wilderness. (I later learned that the restaurant concession has been revoked and this campsite will be closed next year.)

Hikers pass over a retaining wall supporting the Inca Trail
Approaching the Sun Gate

Resuming the hike after consuming our picnic of sandwiches, we completed an hour-long traverse to the Sun Gate, marked by a final laborious climb up 50 infamously steep Inca steps. We savored our first views of the city of Machu Picchu across the valley, especially Heather, who had conquered her fear of heights to get here.

The last hiking leg felt long because now our feet were throbbing. We paused for classic Machu Picchu photos just above the tourist entrance and then caught the bus down to Aguas Calientes. The seven of us rode in the back row of the bus down 16 narrow, gravel hairpin turns — don’t look down! From back there, it was extra exciting each time we met an uphill bus.

I don’t mind admitting I was feeling beat by the time we met Marie and Randy and checked in to our hotel at Machu Picchu Pueblo. But a cold Cuzquena delivered by Heather and a change out of hiking boots revived me enough to go out in search of camera batteries.

Even though dinner was “on our own” this night, we agreed it would be more fun to dine together at one of Santiago’s favorite spots. Randy and Marie regaled us with stories of their upscale day of rest in another hotel. As I’d promised earlier in the trip, I did indeed eat guinea pig (cuy), and we washed down our meal with a terrible Peruvian cab. At least my cuy dish was moist and tender; it is a rich dark meat that reminded me of duck. My plate was garnished with a 5″ tuber carved in the shape of an Incan warrior.

Too tired to write a journal with my thumbs on the Droid, I didn’t need to read my Kindle to wind down for sleep. With hand-washed clothes draped around the room for drying and an alarm set for 5:30 am, I switched off the light. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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