Destinations, Musings, Peru, Photography, South America

The Inca Trail: Footfalls and Photos

January 26, 2012

From initial brainstorm to final ticket purchase, a visit to Peru’s famed Machu Picchu ruins topped Ted’s travel list. It became a non-negotiable.

We spent time researching our options:

Go ultra budget and hitchhike to Ollantaytambo, hoof the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes, tromp the switchbacked road to the top of the mountains, eek out a few Soles for entry tickets, and smuggle G.O.R.P. inside the deep recesses of our backpacks.

Go medium budget and score cheap tickets on the train, pay for the bus to the entry gate, and visit Machu Picchu for the day.

Go money and sweat equity and sign up for three nights and four days of camping and trekking along the 48 kilometer Inca Trail to eventually arrive on the final morning overlooking the ancient ruins at sunrise, then augment the experience by purchasing second day entry tickets with passes to climb Hyuana Picchu for mountaintop perspective.

Go full bananas and helicopter in from the Sacred Valley, perching at the $1200/night hotel just outside the park entry.

I’ll bet you can guess which we *didn’t* choose to do.

The call of the trail pulled us in…

In celebration of reaching another savings milestone, we sent our deposit to Peru Treks at the end of autumn.

In celebration of reaching Cusco via 21 hours of screaming hairpin turns and restless sleep on a South American bus, we carried crisp dollar bills in hand to the trekking company office and paid the remaining balance in person on January 11th, two days before setting off on our first mini-grand-adventure of our great-big-grand-adventure.

Beforehand, we’d heard and read about the difficulty of the course: the challenges of clearing high mountain passes with risks of altitude sickness, dehydration, nausea, and fatigue.

Personally, I worried. I’ve climbed a few mountains, trekked 80 kilometers through the New Zealand bush, and generally enjoy being outdoors, but I also have vivid memories of gasping desperately for air at 14,110 feet, and I had my doubts about our ability to rebound from the stomach bug that chased us until the eleventh hour.

We made the call to stay the course and rose at 4:45am on Friday the 13th to pack our gear and greet our welcoming committee at the Hospedaje courtyard at 5:20am. Within a few hours, we’d collected our fellow adventurers, made the bus ride through the Sacred Valley, and cleared the passport check at the Kilometer 82 trailhead.

In the lead up to the trip, we’ve spent time looking forward to finally meeting the random groups of travelers we’d certainly encounter along the way.

Such social grab-bags can make or break experiences, and gratefully, we joined a terrific bunch for our trek:
Caz and Kristin from Canada
Latitia from Switzerland
Christina from New York
Justin from Australia
Gabriel and Ryan from Australia
Sjoerd and Hans (back row) from the Netherlands
Felicity and Chanelle from Australia
Michelle and Sarah from Australia
Sam from England

Our guide, Freddy, assistant guides, Jimmy and Juan, and 21 chasquis (porters – ranging in age from 19-60 and working harder than you can imagine to carry our food, tents, and camp supplies) rounded out our Inca Trail Family.

Hard work.
Muddy paths through the wilderness.
Views and ruins along the way.

We also knew we were playing with fire, planning on four days in the outdoors during Peru’s rainy season. (Come now, though. We’re Oregonians. We shake our fists in defiance at cloudy skies.)

Power lines marching through the forest.
Homes and villages along the way.
Manure on the trail. Lots and lots of manure.
Locals selling Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Gatorade.
The sheer number of Argentinians hiking the hills.

More Surprises:
Beautiful plant and ecosystem diversity.
Fertile farmland.
Stone paving on the trails.
Freddy’s {accurate} Forecast.

The first day’s trek led us past ruins in the Valley of the Wind, beyond farmers’ fields in the low(high)lands, to a lunch stop complete with pitched dining room, stuffed avocados, and fried trout, and finally to our first nights’ camp where spotless tents and hot water for hand washing welcomed us with open arms.

Minor joy at dinner: a tarantula under my chair.

Freddy’s Forecast: rain overnight for a clear day ahead.

Lo and behold, drops on the tent at 2am made way for a bright and cheery morning: delicious food for breakfast, a cup of mate de coca, and a peppy departure for day two.

The peppiness lasted for maybe twenty minutes, and then the uphill climb consumed our thoughts and efforts. Stopping for pictures became the excuse of choice for oxygen replenishment.

I play mental games when I’m climbing. “That step? Get there.” “Good job, now the next one.” “Don’t quit moving.” “Just put one foot in front of the other…” (Mickey Rooney, anyone?)

Turns out, coca leaves are the local game of choice. Stack ten together, wrap them around a little nugget of activator (charcoal, extract from bananas, etc.), and chomp down for five minutes.

When the going gets tough, repeat with twenty leaves.

It’s a quiet ascent, really. The sound of your own breath, the thud of your own footfall. The promise of something grand on the other side of the challenge.

Water. Drink water. Drink lots and lots of water.

“Just put one foot in front of the other…”

And don’t forget to look up and admire the scenes shifting from present to past.

I’m reminded of the uphill ascent of saving and planning for this trip. The struggles at times for solid footing, the spent energy, the goal at the top of the hill looming high for seeming eons.

Those lessons, too, were part of the journey.

Highlights from Day Two’s random songs:
(P.S. – Packing splurges worth the hassle = chunky camera + iPod nano):
Suite for orchestra No 3 in D Major, BWV 1068: Air
Wichita Vortex Sutra: Philip Glass
Refuge: Vicky Beeching
Barton Hollow: The Civil Wars
Rejoice, O Virgen: Sophia Chamber Choir
Can’t Go Back Now: The Weepies

And then, at last: Arrival at the highest point of the trail: Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,776 feet.

We celebrated.

We cheered for one another.

We took photos and cat naps.

We took cheesy videos.

Then, a frightful slip sent our companion Gabriel to a 50 foot free-fall with a fortunate soft landing in tussocks.

With a gash on his head requiring stitches, he chose to take precautions and return back down the trail the way we’d come with one of the assistant guides. Gratefully, he and his friend Ryan were able to reunite with the group at Machu Picchu a few days later…

When you start a journey, you’re never guaranteed an outcome.

The end of the second day: hard climbing greeted by generous cheers and claps from our chasquis and an amazing gift from the cook: trail-made fresh pizza.

Day three: When they tell you, “It’s all downhill from here,” don’t jump to the conclusion that it means an easy path.

We crossed the second and third passes at 12,916 feet and 12,000 feet, respectively, and then began a decent of 2,000 steps. Not regular, I’m-climbing-from-the-top-to-the-bottom-of-Autzen-Stadium-thirty-five-times steps, but irregular, oddly sized, crazy rise-over-run combination steps.

The third day by my estimation surprisingly proved the hardest and yet the most worthwhile on the trail: Freddy shared history and demonstrated his mad rope making skills. We visited beautiful ruins and entered the Cloud Forest. I found myself alone on the path for over an hour’s time, comforted by the calm and impressed by the stone paving and gorgeous plant life along the way.

There are truths on the trail: You can’t climb for anyone else. You take each step yourself.

Yet, you also pause together with fellow way-finders, encouraging, reminding, snapping photos, and offering a bit of your soul in shared perspectives.

And you stop and realize that your journey would be impossible if not for the hearty men who set up and tear down camp, cook food and boil water, providing shelter and nourishment all along the way.

Fourteen kilometers of footfalls and deep breaths since breakfast, and we’d made it to our final night’s spot (just shortly after it re-opened from recent landslides).

Wiñay Wayna runs mad with campers vying for positioning near the Control Entrance (where you must show your passport one last time and then begin the final morning’s hike to the Sun Gate). We were gifted with the most coveted location thanks to our chasqui, Santiago, and his speed in running ahead to claim our campsite.

In gratefulness, we gathered the final night to say our thank you’s to the chasquis and to our guides. Humorous that the tip money and extra coca leaves looked like something else altogether…

Ted and I had so much gratitude in our hearts.

We’d stayed peachy and dry during the trail’s wettest season.

We’d survived the thin air and tarantulas and the fire swamp. (Kidding about that last bit.)

We’d made charming friends along the way and laid eyes on amazing architecture and settlements from ancient times.

The Inca Trail exceeded our expectations, and we were both so proud of each other for sticking with the challenge.

Midnight stars burned down on a hopeful camp. Machu Picchu mountain loomed on the horizon, the last bit of earth standing between us and the famed ruins.

In keeping up with weekly scripture readings from our small group at home, passages from the book of Amos sung to me along the way as I read by the battery life of my iPhone:

He who forms the mountains,
who creates the wind,
and who reveals his thoughts to mankind,
who turns dawn to darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth-
the Lord God Almighty is his name.

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns midnight into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land-
the Lord is his name.

Amos chapter four verse thirteen + chapter five verse eight

Having not yet reached our final destination, fatigue from the journey battled the anticipation in our bones, and we slept for merely a few short hours, waking at 3:20am to gather our belongings and make our way down the final six kilometers to the Sun Gate…

You know there will be days when you’re so tired that you can’t take another step,
The night will have no stars and you’ll think you’ve gone as far as you will ever get
But you and me walk on
Cause you can’t go back now…

I can’t really say why everybody wishes they were somewhere else
But in the end, the only steps that matter are the ones you take all by yourself…
-The Weepies: Can’t Go Back Now

P.S. Thank you, Joel, for the new tunes to keep me company….

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  • Reply Joel January 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Yesterday when you were young, oss. : )

    Love the pictures and reading your thoughts.

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:04 pm

      Love you! I am wishing @joelabroad could meet up with us somewhere…

  • Reply Nessa January 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Wow … Looks amazing, what a journey! Thanks for the photos and keeping us travelling with you!

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      You were so right, too, about being sure to look backward on a one-way trail. Ahh…it was lovely. xx

  • Reply Susan Buck January 26, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Delighted, moved, proud–God bless and keep you. (and you really DO write amazingly well, and I’m not just saying that because I’m your mom. )

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:23 pm

      But maybe you’re saying that because you taught me to write? : ) Love you.

      Traveling…writing…thinking carefully… Thanks for the life skills.

      • Reply Susan Buck January 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm

        I can only claim to teach competence; eloquence comes as a gift from God, and Self-discipline is required to make such good use of it–and that’s all YOU sis. :-)

  • Reply Heather Espana January 26, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    And she said HOORAY FOR THE INTERWEBS! What a scrumptious post. Chew some coca leaves for me :). Love you guys!

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm

      Chew, brew, chomp, drink…you name it, we did it. : ) Love you, too! Tell Mike hello… Miss you guys.

  • Reply Kim January 26, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    You have a way of telling your stories beautifully. Loved to read of this, Brian and I plan on doing the same trek (also in the rainy season) so it’s nice to see that it exceeded your expectations.

    Were you guys able to leave your stuff at the company office while you trekked the trail?

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm

      I’m so glad you enjoyed. We were so grateful for the weather during our rainy season experiment. We had rain pants and jackets packed, but we only wore the jackets once or twice and the pants stayed at the bottom of the bag. Too, there were some beautiful, beautiful plants on the trail showing off their high season colors. (Another post coming soon…)

      We joined South American Explorers before leaving home, and we used our access to their bag storage at the Cusco Clubhouse. Really friendly and helpful people; very safe. I’d definitely go that route again…

      Can’t wait til it’s your turn! You’ll love it : )

  • Reply Dave Howard January 26, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Aaaaaahhhhhhh. Awesome pics guys. The mountains and landscape are incredible, absolutely awe inspiring. So jealous. DEA will be waiting for you when you touchdown state side.

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      So cool! I’m glad you enjoyed them. Seriously, it’s amazing to see all the diversity in the world… The mountains in Peru were AMAZING. Say hi to Kelly for us : )

  • Reply Andrew Buck January 26, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Were the “Here/There” signs provided, or was that your own personal bit of craftiness? : )

    Also, I like your hiking playlist and I’m assuming the only reason you didn’t share Ted’s playlist was because he was listening to “Set Fire To the Rain” on repeat for the entire journey…

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:41 pm

      Oh, you know. Who’s always *thinking ahead*? You never know when flash cards might come in handy in some…hour of need.

      Your comment on Ted’s play list: spot on.

      ; )

  • Reply Grandma, Marylyn Menzel January 27, 2012 at 12:50 am

    Thank You for this TRIP I would never be able to go on myself. I remember, as a child, being fasinated with the INCA’s Great views, etc. What did they stuff the avacados with, besides coconut?

    • Reply twoOregonians January 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      So glad you found the pictures! : ) The avocados were amazing… Cheese, carrots, tomatoes, other veggies and dressing. We’ll have to recreate them at home : )

  • Reply Molly McEwen January 28, 2012 at 8:38 am

    What a treat! Your travelogue is fabulous. Not only did you entertain and tease us with such a great adventure—pictures, stories, & videos!!—, but, you also have such a memorable log to enjoy in your later years and to share with future generations. Lovely. I wonder if I’ll ever see those ruins??? Have always wanted to, so maybe it needs to pop up to the top of the bucket list! Safe travels and thanks for sharing. And, oh! the food…yum!

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Molly, I keep thinking of yours and Steve’s Antarctica trip all along the way! What fun it was to see your photos and dream a little bit thanks to your inspiration… If you get the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu at some point in the future, do take it! Much love to you xx

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    WOW what an extraordinary and unforgettable experience! I can’t believe that poor guy fell!!! That evening sky shot with the stars is just gorgeous.

    • Reply twoOregonians February 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      The sky is SO incredible out in the middle of nowhere… My camera can’t really do it justice, but it was sweet to capture just a little slice. xx

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