The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu must be one of the most unworldly places on this planet. It is not just the condor’s eye views of sharp icy glaciers peeking between green mountains that loom over cloud-covered forests streaming with waterfalls. It is not just the adrenaline high that comes from hiking up and down three mountain passes over the course of three days. It is not even the knowledge that you are crossing the same trail the Incas traversed hundreds of years ago, passing by remnants of their civilization in ruins along the trail.
There is something more, something unexplainable, something mystical, even transcendental, that makes the route the Incas used to get to Machu Picchu so out of this world.
It all started with an extremely early morning pickup at my hotel in Cusco, where I joined my fellow members of the Pachamama group, as we were affectionally referred to by our leader, Eddy, on a one-and-a-half-hour drive to Ollantaytambo. My new friends in the Pachamama group, named after the Incan fertility goddess “Mother Earth,” are six other Americans, six Canadians, and two Australian brothers. Over the next four days, we would have a great time bonding and creating what I hope will be long-term friendships.
Eddy grew up in Ollantaytambo speaking Quechua, the language of the Incas. Sometime during the 30 years of his life he acquired an extraordinary knowledge about everything relating to the Incas and their mythology, an outstanding skill as an Inca Trail tour guide, and a like-native fluency in Spanish and English. We were incredibly lucky to have been put under the care of Eddy and his assistant guide, Gianni.
After breakfasting in Ollantaytambo and stocking up on last minute necessities (a rain poncho and a pack of Skittles for me), we drove on to Kilometer 82, so called due to its distance by train from Cusco, where our trek would start.
Our chosquis, or “runners,” packed our gear into huge packs they would carry on their backs, expertly navigating the trail, sometimes even running, with 40-pound burdens containing our tents, food, kitchen supplies, sleeping bags and mats, and even tables and chairs.
We passed through the registration checkpoint, crossed a bridge over the Urubamba River, and … we were on the trail!
The trail was mostly flat and calm at first, mildly sloping up and down next to the river, passing little villages of huts selling candy and beverages. Gradually it began to slant upward until we reached a large grass field at the top of a hill.
Eddy told us to stand in a line facing the edge of the hill, clasp hands, and close our eyes. Then he directed us to slowly walk forward. Yes, we were walking towards a cliff with our eyes closed!
My slight … well, moderate … okay, extreme fear of cliff edges was only partially mollified by the knowledge that Eddy was standing in front of us. As long as I could hear him talking, I knew that he had not tumbled over the side.
Finally, he told us to stop and open our eyes. In front of us in the valley below were the ruins of an Incan village built at the base of a steep green mountain, with a curve of farm terraces stacking up to a neighborhood of square buildings. The village was Llactapata, a place for religious ceremonies and housing for soldiers and travelers.
It was a spectacular way to have the ruins unveiled to us, unexpected and all of a sudden right there.
Before Eddy would let us leave our spot near the drop-off, we took turns standing mere inches (well, maybe feet) from the edge, eyes shut tight, while he flapped a set of condor feathers in front of us. Condors are sacred symbols in Incan mythology, representing the Upper World. With wingspans of over nine feet, they have beautiful and impressively long feathers.
The wind from the massive waving feathers made it feel like I was flying over this ancient Incan town. I almost felt ethereal. It was a very meaningful introduction to our Incan experience.
We persevered on until we came to another bridge crossing the gushing river. Over the bridge were our chosquis, cheerily greeting us with trays of lemon water and a tent where we sat down to a table full of mouthwatering plates of local dishes.
We would not be going hungry on this trip!
The trail got a bit more arduous after lunch. Eddy let us each go at our own pace. I like to go fast, and lucky for me, there was a cute boy in our group that was also a speed demon. Noah and I became hiking mates for most of the trek, which made it even more fun for me, and also tougher, because I had to keep up with him!
We went up, up, and up until we finally reached our camp for the night. To my great surprise and happiness, our chosquis had arrived before us and set up our tents! I could really get used to this kind of camping.
After another amazing Peruvian meal of a dinner, I cuddled up in my sleeping bag and prepared for an even more strenuous day.
It was another early morning the next day, but this time I – and my also-not-a-morning-person tentmate Alice – didn’t have to wake up to the annoying blaring sound of an alarm. Instead, one of the chosquis lightly shook our tent and handed us cups of coca tea. We sipped the rejuvenating wonder drink from the comfort of our sleeping bags while our minds and bodies slowly adjusted to the early hour.
What a marvelous way to wake up!
I slurped down three bowls of quinoa porridge, known as a poor man’s meal in Peru, but to me a bowl of breakfast deliciousness. Then we stood in a circle with our chosquis so we could all introduce ourselves.
Our chosquis are fifteen men from nearby villages, smiley and shy, full of warmth and spirit. The youngest was 17, a second generation chosqui getting to work with his dad. I will never forget the look of pride the father chosqui had while his son was introducing himself.
With stomachs full, the Pachamama group set off for what would be our most difficult day of the trek. Noah and I booked it up the trail through jungle foliage, next to a waterfall, waaaaay uphill into practically oxygen-less air, resting for twenty second increments only when absolutely necessary, then for longer at an alpaca-populated rest place, higher and higher, up some stairs, me gasping for air, up, up, and up some more on the formidable climb to Dead Woman’s Pass.
Dead Woman’s Pass is the ultimate feat of the Inca Trail. At 13,776 feet – that’s over 2.5 miles! – above sea level, not only is it a ridiculously high summit to conquer, but it has some very thin air.
At last we reached the pass. I tried to regain my leg muscle and lung function while Eddy played the recorder for the hikers still ascending the mountain.
We all reveled in our accomplishment for a while, high fiving and taking pictures. Then we began our plunge into the valley on the other side of the pass to our lunch spot nestled next to a waterfall.
After lunch, we got ready to scale another pass. Steeply up the next segment of the trail we climbed. A quick stop at another ruin of a round structure with a little square house, past a lagoon, up some more stairs, and we arrived at a clearing at the top of the next pass.
There was nowhere to go but down from here, which is where we went to the ruin of an Incan compound on a bluff with sublime Andean views. Eddy made us guess the purpose of the building. I was convinced it was a mansion, due to the endless maze of luxurious-seeming rooms.
Nope. According to Eddy, it was actually a sort of hotel for Incan royalty to stay at on their way to and from Machu Picchu. Apparently I do not have a knack for guessing the use of Incan structures.
I was more than willing to be a guest of the hotel for the night, but alas, we had to get to our camp for dinner. We proceeded downward to our campsite through the darkening mist and enjoyed another meal of fine Peruvian cuisine.
We awoke the next morning to another friendly tent shake and coca tea. Our last full day of hiking started upward with glacier views as we trekked above a cloud forest. Through an Incan tunnel carved into the mountain rock, we surmounted our last pass and headed back down the misty mountainside.
We were inside the clouds when we made it to Phuyupatamarka, a multi-tiered ruin with fountains running down the side and a staircase rising to the top level where Eddy showed us holes in the rock that correspond to the stars in the Southern Cross constellation. Just one example of countless that show the Incas’ astronomical (as in, regarding the stars) intellect.
Onward down into the dense vegetation covered with misty fog, it was a precarious descent on narrow trail and slippery stairs plummeting through the damp forest to a ruin of agricultural terraces called Intipata.
Just a short march downhill was our camp, where we spent the afternoon resting, napping, and taking advantage of Eddy’s connections so we could take a hot shower! What a luxury to be clean and warm.
Before night set in, we ponchoed up in case the ominous sky produced the rain it threatened. Hiking smack dab in the rainy season, we had been extremely fortunate with the weather so far, our tents getting pelted with rain at night but us remaining dry during the day.
Clad in our colorful plastic bags with arms, we followed Eddy to the nearby Wiñaywayna ruins of houses and agricultural terraces. Inside one of the houses, at Eddy’s command, we stood in a circle holding hands with our eyes closed. Eddy waved condor feathers at each of us, one by one, while we thought about things that are important to us.
Then we each got to put three coca leaves in the center of a heart drawn in the dirt and make a wish. Three is a sacred number in Incan mythology and is connected to the three worlds and their representative animals – the Underworld and the snake, the Current World and the puma, and the Upper World and the condor – and declarations and rules for living – “I Live, I Work, I Love” and “Don’t Lie, Don’t Steal, Don’t Be Lazy.”
When our coca leaves were in place for the fulfillment of our wishes, we added to the heart a border of pebbles, a circle of flower buds, and a sprinkling of kernels of corn. Then we all hugged. It was a moving ritual and an entrancing connection to the Incan spiritual world.
Feeling at peace, we drifted around the little Incan village in the dark, absorbing the tranquility of this ancient site in the middle of the Andes until it was time to go back to camp for dinner.
I wasn’t sleepy at all after dinner. But, with a 3:30am wakeup call for our last drive to Machu Picchu tomorrow, I forced myself to crawl into my sleeping bag. Now if only I can shut my mind off from the excitement of being so close to Machu Picchu!