Inca Trail Part 1

Adriana and I planned our month-long sojourn through Ecuador and Peru around a 4-day  hike on the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, one of those life-long fantasies. It more than lived up to our expectations. We went with Enigma Tours and had Eric as our guide, who was absolutely fantastic. We timed the trip so we’d be on the trail during my 54th birthday, which oddly also coincided this year with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (we knew nothing about it until March 13 when we were back in the world news net).

The first day was definitely the hardest, partly because I only got about 3 hours of sleep before we were awakened at 4 a.m. to be driven from Cuzco to the trailhead at km 82 in the Sacred Valley, a mostly dark bus ride that ended in a wild dawn with glimpses of snow-capped mountains finally emerging from clouds in the morning light.

We were dropped off at a small shack near the Inca Trail head, alongside the raging Urubamba River, which itself bookended our hike.

We had our passports stamped and were on the bridge over the river taking our first tourist shot, the river churning below us loudly.

Here we were with our fellow hikers at the starting point, 3 Aussies, 2 Brits, one other U.S. and us.

It started out great. We had our backpacks, having failed to arrange in time to hire a porter to carry our stuff. We thought we would be able to handle it until our rented sleeping bags were added to our bags whereupon they became much bulkier and heavier. Nevertheless, at the beginning it didn’t seem to be a problem. The first four hours are very gradual and very beautiful as the trail slowly ascends from the river, the sun was out and the weather was lovely.

The first half hour was easy, a very gradual climb into the first valley along the river.

This was the landscape during the first morning.

Similar view

This is a couple of hours in as we approach the first big turn to a steeper valley.

Not long after this photo was taken we came to a halting point. Eric initiated us into his story-telling as we overlooked the Incan town of Llactapacta, discovered in the 1970s by Professor Anna Kendall. It is thought to have been a trading post at the conjunction of two rivers, one leading to the highlands and the other descending to the Amazonian jungle. We left the Urubamba River at this point and started up the Cusichaca River valley.

Backpacks off, a break in the hike, great weather, amazing views, what exhilaration!

Me too!

We sat in a small meadow off the trail, overlooking Llactapacta below.

We'd seen a few stone village ruins already, but the scale of this place and its location was immediately very impressive.

Another close-up of Llactapacta; it's about 65% original and 35% restored, according to Eric.

From here we turned into a steeper climb, still surrounded by gorgeous green mountains, occasional farms, llamas, and a lot of rushing water.

At a certain point we came to this sign. Eric (at left) explained it to us, the three mountain passes we would be crossing, each one less high than the previous one, but since we had a ways to go to get to the first summit (14,200 feet, "Dead Woman's Pass"), we didn't yet realize how tough it was going to be.

We came to a lunch stop, and both Adriana and I were feeling the weight of our packs. Plus I wasn’t doing too well for lack of sleep either. Still, we thought we were ok, and after lunch we began to climb very steeply. Within an hour, probably at around 12,000 feet or so, I began to feel disoriented and a little dizzy. I was fighting for breath, and starting to feel strangely like  laying down on the trail and taking a nap. Both Adriana and I had slowed way down on our climb, and were taking baby steps. I was feeling like a 120-year-old man! I told Eric how I was feeling and he insisted I stop, put down the backpack and he’d have one of his team carry my bag up to our first campsite. We talked about it for a while, agreed on a price, and once I was free of my pack, I was sure I could make it. But I was really debilitated! My steps were slow and weak. Adri kept on with her backpack for another hour, before she too was beginning to lose it, and Eric then took her sleeping bag out of her pack, which allowed her to finish. We finally made it to the campsite, about 300 meters short of the mountain pass, right before dusk. It felt great to have made it but frankly, we were pushed to the very edges of our physical capabilities!

It was in this forest where I began to feel dizzy and had to relinquish my backpack.

It was really steep as we tried to make it up to our first campsite.

Here I am after giving up the backpack, still walking like a very old man up the very steep and rocky trail.

We had an intense bonding experience as we coaxed each other up the trail... but really Adriana was doing a lot better than me so I think she carried us both!

This is the mountain pass we were hiking up towards the first day.

The next morning I felt a lot better as we awoke at dawn in this mist-shrouded campsite, still 300 meters below the first summit.

Energy much better after a good 7 hours of sleep, I carried our remaining backpack to the summit.

The porters do this all the time. It was astonishing to watch them, sometimes running, other times just keeping an incredible pace, bearing incredible loads over the mountains. I was delighted to pay $100 to have our big backpack with both sleeping bags carried the rest of the way for us. (I don't think we could've done it ourselves!)

We made it to Dead Woman's Pass! 14,200 feet! Amazing!

Yes, I was deliriously happy to be up there!

Once we’d made the first summit we had incredible views to enjoy. Pity there was as much of a cloud cover as there was, but luckily it kept breaking up for brief glimpses of the big snow-covered mountains in the distance.

We'd climbed up from the bottom of these mountains during the previous afternoon and the early morning of day two.

This is the view forward from the first pass, the trail we'd be going down towards our lunch stop before ascending to the second pass in the afternoon.

"Family Portrait" at the first summit.

We start to go down and find the Inca Trail is also a creekbed! Slippery when wet!

Looking back at the folks behind me coming down the trail from the first summit.

Here's Adri on the way down... a relief at first to finally be finished climbing...

Another view back up the trail... quite a fantastic landscape in the high Andes!

Early morning view of high mountains.

Last glance back at the ass-kicking 14,000 foot summit!

I leave the journey here for now. Next installment, part 2, will get us across the Andes to the cloud forest!

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