Over the last couple of weeks a few people have emailed me, “This will be a hard Christmas.” Risking sounding cold, we decided to prove them wrong and have a great Christmas! Amy would want that. Sure, we’ve missed having Amy here, but Mia recently came home from Germany, Sarah came home from Chicago and they and we boys spent the last week together hiking the Inka Trail from Ollantaytambo to the Machu Picchu Ruins. It was a great time to be together and do something that many travel thousands of miles to experience. When we lived in Abancay, we were less than 50 miles from the Inka Trail, so it was about time we did it! I have heard about people running the trail, since it is about the same distance as a marathon, and I had (note the past tense) some interest in running the trail someday, but I felt I should check it out first.
Warning! What follows is a lengthy description of the trip. If you aren’t interested in the Inka Trail, just stop reading now! I’ve written it as a helpful guide for anyone else that wants to do the Inka Trail. Despite 400 people hiking the trail per day, there is a lack of information about how long it really is (37.4 km) and other details. So, this will be fairly exhaustive.
I made the reservations for our hike in June of this year. By that time, there were no openings left for October and November was mostly filled up. I emailed Casa Elena in Cuzco, which is a hostel and tour agency that I have worked with for years. I knew I could deposit money into her bank account here in Arequipa and she would make all of the arrangements for me. The trip cost $430 per person for the adults (Sarah, Ben and me) and $410 each for Mia and Paul. This price includes the trail use permit and Machu Picchu (MP) entry and returned train ticket and busses to and from Ollantaytambo and all of the food and porters) I gave Elena $750 in advance to make all of the arrangements and paid the remaining balance a week before we went to Cuzco. One might want to go in July or August to avoid the rainy season.
Day 0 – Monday, December 26, 2016
We flew to Cuzco and took a taxi to Casa Elena where we spent the day getting last minute details taken care of and eating at two of our favorite spots: Heidi’s and Jack’s. During lunch at Heidi’s we googled ‘Inca Trail Advice’ and tried to figure out what more we needed to do before starting the hike. That night at 7 pm, Edgar our guide, came to Casa Elena's to meet with us to tell us the schedule. He showed a relieved look when he learned that we all spoke Spanish. The kids showed a less happy look when he told us we would be leaving at 5 am the next day. “But the schedule says you’ll pick us up between 6:30 and 7:00!” protested the kids. “Okay. 6:30!” After our meeting, we went out and bought more sunscreen (my Scandinavian heritage puts us at risk of burning on the first day and being miserable for the rest of the trip) and alpaca gloves and we went to bed early.
Day 1 – Tuesday, December 27, 2016 Distance 10.3KM (Garmin Forerunner 210) Lowest elevation 2599m. Highest/ending elevation 2857m
We got up at 6 am, giving us time to put the items we didn’t want during the hike into our suitcases that we left at Casa Elena to be stored. Edgar showed up promptly at 6:30am and we loaded the van with four other men who would be our cook and porters. The Sherpas of Peru. They sat in the back and joked in Quechua before falling asleep on our 1 hour, 45 minute ride to Ollantaytambo. We arrived in the plaza (main square) of Ollantaytambo and were told to look around for 15 minutes while they bought supplies for the trip. “How many of you are vegetarian?” “Two of us don’t eat pork or beef. Chicken and fish are fine.” I’m sure they get a lot of our sorts on this sort of activity. After about 30 minutes we continued on our way to the trailhead of the Inka Trail. When we arrived 30 minutes later, we were each given a sleeping mat wrapped in a green plastic bag. Luckily, some very pushy saleswomen selling straps and hats gave me 4 straps for S/.10 ($2.94) that we used to tie our mats and sleeping bags onto our book bags.
I starting wishing I had my mountain-climbing-worthy back pack along. I suspect they tell people to just bring a small backpack to reduce the amount of stuff that they take along, but I could have used more space. Duct tape worked well to stabilize ground pads that flopped about. Our guide had everyone stand in a circle and introduce himself to the rest. Florencio was our cook, and Rene, Nemesio and Cecilio were our porters. More on them later. When everything was ready, we started out and walked down to the check point where they made sure everything was in order and that our trail use permits matched the people assigned to them. Sarah had to show her passport and the rest of us our Peruvian IDs. We had to wait for our cook and porters to go through the check point before we could begin. Our guide had to register which campgrounds we were going to use for the next 3 nights.
The weather was beautiful: Partly cloudy and just the right temperature. At 10:30 am we headed out. We had to stop and adjust our packs often over the first couple of minutes. That gave us a chance to chat with others who came by. We saw people from Ecuador, Nantucket, Argentina, Australia and Colorado among others. Over the next 4 days we would continue to see these same people. We stopped at some ruins and Edgar explained that they were rest stops for people traveling during Inca times.
There were lots of places to stop to buy drinks and snacks over the first 7 or 8 kilometers, but we had plenty with us at that point. At 1:05pm we stopped at a campground where our porters had set up a faded red rectangular tent and had lunch.
They served us soup and fried fish and rice and French fries and peeled cucumbers and tomatoes.
We stayed there for about 90 minutes before continuing on. We were shocked that the porters had carried a collapsible table and chairs in addition to all the food that they prepared. Other groups had portable restrooms (they must have paid more than us!) that they brought that were like a portapotty made of tent material with a bucket commode in them. At about 3:30 we arrived at our camping spot. It was some woman’s home with some nice grassy green areas where our tents had been set up.
She sold us a 2.5L bottle of water for S/.12. She has electricity and one could charge his phone for S/.4. There was an actual toilet instead of just a squat pot like most of the rest of the places we saw. The girls got a tent and we boys got a tent. They obviously had a lot more room that we did. I kicked myself that I had forgotten my binoculars to birdwatch as there were tons of birds along the whole trail. At 5:30 pm we had ‘tea time’. They had freshly popped popcorn and soda crackers with tea. At 6:30 pm they served us supper, which was chicken stew and macaroni stir-fry and a big platter of broccoli and cauliflower. We had a lively conversation about when dad should consider dating again and whom! We went to bed early after doing our family devotions in the girls’ tent.
Day 2, Wednesday, December 28, 2016 8.9KM (Garmin Forerunner 210) Starting/Minimum elevation 2854m, Maximum elevation 4218m, Ending elevation 3595m
At 5 am, we were woken up by a porter with a tray of hot Coca tea and sugar.
We packed up our stuff and ate breakfast at 5:30 and started hiking about 6:25. Edgar warned us that this day would be the hardest, though the shortest. We would have to go up from 2800m to 4200m to go over the Warmi Wañusqa pass (named ‘dead woman’ pass because the profile seen on the horizon looks like a sleeping woman). The first couple of KMs were easy and then we started the ascent. I walked with the girls for a while until we made it to the first rest area. The rest areas have lots of benches and most importantly bathrooms as well as a few people selling drinks and snacks. The bathrooms are super basic: A squat pot with a flushing tank. Be careful, they flush so vigorously, you are best to pull the rope and run to avoid getting splashed.
Edgar told us that the next segment would take 2 hours so the boys and I decided to see how long it would take us if we walked at as fast of a pace as we could maintain. It took us just under 42 minutes to climb 434m of net elevation. Then we had to wait for the girls and Edgar to arrive, giving us time to look at the table of snacks for sale. Luckily, we had brought plenty of our own since the 500ml of Gatorade or a Snicker bar were S/.10 ($2.94) here.
One could even buy cigarettes and beer! I’m not sure how many smokers would actually get that far, but if they needed a nicotine hit and forgot to bring their cigarettes, no problem. 75% of the people looked pretty fit. There were very few children; Paul was one of maybe a half dozen that we saw the whole time. And at about 5’8” he looks pretty ‘adult’. One of the most commons bits of advice on the internet is, “Don’t underestimate how hard it is!” As a marathoner near the peak of a training cycle who lives at altitude it wasn’t a big deal, and the boys found it easy, but Sarah, coming from sea level, and Mia both found it hard but soldiered on without complaining (much!). So, if you are going to do it, get it good enough shape to be able to run 5 miles without stopping and you’ll do fine. The altitude is the tricky one to prepare for. Edgar said that altitude is the main reason that people who were otherwise fit have to abandon the trail. If you come from sea level, give yourself 3-7 days in Cuzco or Arequipa (both are over 2300 m above sea level) and that will help a lot. After our break, we headed up the hardest last part before the pass. I stayed with the girls and helped carry their backpacks after they would allow it (and realized that it was really nice to walk without a pack!). It started raining more and we stopped to put on our raincoats. The pass was wet and windy and chilly. One hoped going down the other side would be easy, but it is made of steep steps and with the rain they were treacherous.
I slipped once and tweaked my knee a little bit. Ben and Paul disappeared into the mist and I stayed behind with the girls again. When we arrived at camp, Paul wasn’t there. Ben thought Paul had walked with us and didn’t know where he was. I guessed correctly that he didn’t see the camp ground and walked on past. After a very hard KM of climbing he asked another guide where the campground was and he told him that he had passed it so he headed back down the mountain to find his very relieved family. The next day we stayed together! It was rainy and cold and all of us found that our clothes were wet and our book bags had all been soaked through, getting all of our clothes and toilet paper and snacks wet (Starbursts will slowly turn to goo in moist conditions!). It was a late lunch due to the slow pace and Paul’s extra hike. We still had ‘tea time’ at about 5:30 and supper around 7:00 pm. Our tents were on rocky surfaces and I had a headache that stayed with me the whole night. This was the low point of the trip from a joy perspective!
Day 3, Thursday, December 29th 13.0 KM (Garmin Forerunner 220) Starting elevation 3595m, maximum elevation 3949, Ending/minimum elevation 2687m
At 5 am, we were greeted with more coca tea. Since there was no more water to buy, the porters boiled water for us (in a pressure cooker that they brought!) to refill our water bottles. Breakfast was at 5:30 and then we started hiking around 6:15. After Paul’s detour the day before we stayed together more. Edgar told us today would be 16 KMs and that the porters would be running fast. If someone yelled ‘Porter’ you should move to the mountain side of the trail and let them go by. They would just bound down the slick rock stairs that others would slowly crawl down.
I never stopped marveling at the porters in the same way I never stopped marveling at seeing 1957 Chevy Bel Aires in Cuba on every street. The porters are limited to carrying 25 KGs of weight: 20kg of supplies and 5kg of personal effects. They are weighed as they go through the check points to make sure they aren’t being abused. Many of the guys (Edgar says there has never been a woman porter) do one 4-day trip each week. They all seemed to prefer Quechua over Spanish and they thought I was the most entertaining foreigner ever because I can speak a little bit. Or maybe quite a lot. Lots of words I had forgotten after living in Arequipa for 7 years came back to me talking to the porters. Edgar speaks quite a bit of Quechua and I almost felt he was trying to compete with me and would tell me that the Abancay Quechua I speak wasn’t correct. He speaks a hundred times better than I do, but it isn’t as novel. I asked René one of our porters how many other Quechua-speaking gringos he’s seen and he lift up his hand with an outstretched index finger. “One other?” “No. You are the only one I’ve ever seen!” We went up the mountain that Paul had already gone a long way up and looked at some ruins along the way and Edgar gave us tours of the sites. We had to leave our bags unattended at times which made me nervous, but knowing that no one wanted to carry anything more, meant they were pretty safe. The interminable stairs downward were hard for Mia who twisted an ankle a bit, which made her have to walk even more tentatively. When we stopped, we were served mushroom ceviche, pollo salpicado, some Andean legume sauce and quinoa stir fry. At lunch Edgar wanted to talk about Christianity. He has been involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses years ago and started reading his Bible but then stopped. He seems somewhat interested in spiritual things, but doesn’t want to make any commitment. He would start asking good questions about things, but then not continue on with them. Maybe because he didn’t like the answers we had for him or they didn’t line up with his belief system. I was proud to see my kids respond to him with good biblical answers to his concerns. He, like so many people, has a tough time believing that heaven isn’t something one can earn. I had him read Romans 10:9 “ If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” and I pointed out that there is nothing that we as humans do after believing but he needed to think about it. After lunch we heading into the mist on a trail that started to look more and more like a jungle.
We quickly came to Phuyupatamarka, the last and lowest pass with a big Incan ruin. A nicely made sign reported the altitude as 3613.738 meters above sea level. Clearly ordered by someone with a poor understanding of significant digits!
For the first time in 2 days we had cellular coverage so I downloaded my email to read later. Very difficult stairs confronted us for the next couple of hours as we dropped nearly 1000 meters of altitude over the last 5 or 6 KMs. It would be impossible or at best foolhardy to try to run this stretch of the trail. My previous dream of running the Inka Trail someday was squelched by the thought of tripping and breaking a leg and having to hobble the next two days to get back to civilization. Edgar said that 3 or 4 people die on the trail every year and one out of a hundred gets injured by a fall. We came to Intipata, a huge complex of terraces overlooking our final campground. As we arrived at our last camp a Japanese tourist came out of the shower! There’s a shower? Yes, but the water was so cold, even Ben decided against it after going to the bathhouse with the intention of taking one. We arrived at 5:30 pm to camp and ate fried wontons with manjar (caramelized sweetened condensed milk) for Tea Time. Paul ate so many he wasn’t hungry for our last meal that was twice as big as we could eat. One might think that the porters gave us extra food so that they wouldn’t have to carry it, but they even have to carry out uneaten food after the first day because it would be a smelly mess if all the food was disposed of on the trail. On the first day, there are enough farm animals that they are fed the leftovers. I did notice that the trail is really quite clean with so little trash one notices it when there is some. There are little trails that leave the main trail from time to time for people to use the bathroom and they sometimes leave their toilet paper, but one hardly notices it. As had become our habit we played cards until supper.
After supper, we had a farewell ceremony because the porters had to leave early enough the next day to catch the 5:30am train for locals. We had been warned that you needed to be prepared to tip the porters. We were the only ones in our group. Often there are 10 people from various different places that are in a group and they each chip into a hat for the porters. I tried to find ahead of time on the internet what was the appropriate amount and it looked like between 35 and 70 soles ($10-20) per person was appropriate. Since bills come in S/.50 denominations that’s what we gave them. They didn’t seem happy or sad with the amount. It reminded me of how much I hate tipping when it is an obligation. It makes one worry it will be too little or too much. Tipping isn’t an obligation in most of Peru, but since 95% of Inka Trail hikers are foreigners, they’ve adopted it whole-heartedly. It rained most of the night, but we stayed dry in our tents.
Day 4, Friday, December 30th 5.2 KM (Garmin Forerunner 10) Starting/Maximum Elevation 2687m, Ending/minimum elevation 2150m
We woke up at 3:45 am because the porters needed to take down our tents and run down the mountain and catch their train. This was a bit inconvenient, partly because we had to get up so early, and partly because the trail isn’t open until 5:30 am, so we had to wait in the rain (our tents were hauled off by the porters) until we could go. While we waited, I started asking Edgar what he thought about our conversations the day before about Christianity. My Arminian side wanted to ask him if he wanted to make a decision to make Jesus his savior but my Calvinist side (some probably didn’t think I had one!) felt led by the Spirit to let Edgar ask me what he needed to do, which he didn’t. Yet. We hiked about 1 hour until we arrived at Intipunku (the Sun Gate) where we ate the breakfast our cook had packed for us (a bag with an orange, a juice box and two packages of cookies). If the weather is clear one can see MP from the sun gate but we were enveloped with fog. After breakfast, we then hiked another hour to arrive at Machu Picchu.
Edgar had a 2-hour tour of the ruins planned but the kids were unanimous that we wanted the abbreviated version and Edgar was more than happy to oblige, having given the tour nearly 300 times he estimates! Backpacks loaded with gear are prohibited in the ruins, so we had to check them in a baggage check area next to a 15-minute line for women wanting to use some substandard bathrooms (for S/.1 each). We had to pay S/.5 to put each of our bags in storage while we toured the ruins. We took the bus (the price was included with the tour) down to Aguas Calientes (which was renamed ‘Machu Picchu Pueblo’ a couple of years ago) where Edgar met us and took us to the train station and tried to change our train tickets to an earlier departure so we wouldn’t get into Cuzco so late. All the earlier trains were full, so we had to wait for our 6:20 train. We ate at Coricancha on the plaza which had a S/.30 menu which was pretty good and Edgar ate for free because he is a guide. They charged an automatic 18% service charge. But they stored our bags while we went to the Baños Termales (hot springs). I got money out of an Interbank ATM on the plaza. Edgar went with us there and we bid him farewell as we went in and I gave him a S/.100 tip. He seemed very happy with that. The hot springs let all of us but Sarah (S/.20) in for the Peruvian rate (S/.10) since the rest of us are residents/citizens. It was great to get cleaned off for the first time in 4 days! They lock up your stuff and give you the key, so it seemed very secure. For fear of sunburn, we didn’t stay more than about half an hour. We went to the Boulangerie de Paris and ate croissants and desserts (they looked the best and were the most reasonably priced we saw) while we played cards and charged our phones until 5:30pm. The train left at 6:24 and arrived in Ollantaytambo around 8 where we loaded a completely full tourist bus that was driven by a maniac in the rain until we go to Cuzco around 10:15. They dropped us off near the plaza and we had to walk to Casa Elena’s and were happy to sleep in a real bed at 11 pm.
Don’t leave home without:
Rain coat (can be the thin plastic sort they sell for a $1)
Wet wipes to wash hands or body.
Headlamp or small flashlight
Toothpaste/brush (I suppose you could put that on ‘optional’. I can’t.)
Water bottles (a total capacity of at least 1 liter)
Money S/.150 per person
Sleeping bag good down to 20˚F/-7˚C
Back pack with rain cover (since rain coats don’t fit over one's body and backpack at the same time well) and straps to tie on mat and sleeping bag
Personal medicines, bandaid, vaseline
Duct tape to use to tie things on your bag, to patch a rain coat, etc.
Rope, cord or straps to tie things up to your pack.
Passport or ID used to buy your trail use permit
Plastic bags of varying sizes. They don't take up much space and you'll be glad for dry clothes or dry toilet paper if you put them in the bags inside your pack.
Cipro (6 tablets) or Azitromycin (3 tablets) for travelers' diarrhea. - thankfully, we didn't need it.
Bug spray – we took it, never used it.
Gloves – waterproof, yet breathable, is ideal. My wool ones got wet, but better than nothing
GPS watch - if you like data like I like data
USB portable charger to keep your phone/camera and GPS charged
Walking sticks – to me they looked like extra weight but they looked like they would help on the downhills. Rubber tips are required/metal tips are prohibited
Ear plugs – if you don’t know whether or not your tent mates will snore
Hiking boots – 4 of us wore running shoes, lighter but can twist an ankle more easily, I suppose
Water purification pills (Micropur - Chlorine dioxide tablets) - we never used them, but considered it on the 2nd night when my water ran out, but I knew in the morning the porters would have boiled water for us.
Snacks - I put this under 'optional' because they serve so much food, you don't need snacks, but some get hungry hiking and need a boost of calories