In the footsteps of the Incas

| July 12, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Dave Kroeger and Don Duffield

Day 1: Starting the Inca Trail

The scene was surreal: 37 hikers seated around a 12-metre long breakfast table that had been speedily erected by our guides on the plush moist grass of the Piscacuchu campsite. The mighty Urubamba River’s waters violently rushed past within 10 meters of us, snaking between the precipitous cloud-covered mountainsides of the Sacred Valley. The excitable chatter of our Quechan-speaking porters as they loaded up our duffel bags into large waterproof bags that were then hauled onto the shoulders of their short, broad-chested bodies, was suddenly drowned out by the piercing sound of the steam whistle of the steam train on its way to Machu Picchu as it chugged past us.

With breakfast over, we were ushered to the Inca Trail entry point where passports and access permits needed to be produced before we were allowed through. The first 11km of the trail were gently undulating and the scenery, magnificent beyond description. The first of the major archaeological sites that we came to was the site of Llactapata. The characteristic terraces of Inca architecture were clearly visible from our vantage point high up above the site. Crossing a few streams along the way we finally came to Wayllabamba, our lunch stop, where our porters had set up our dining tent.

After a superb lunch the terrain became very steep as we climbed 750m in altitude over the next 5 km. We arrived at our camp, Llulluchapampa at 3750 metres above mean sea level (amsl), in the dark. Altitude was beginning to have an effect on some of the group, but tea, supper and a good night’s rest revitalised us all.

Day 2: Experiencing “Andean flat”

We were woken at 05:00 to a mountain wonderland; the scenery was breath-taking! After a warm breakfast we hiked to the top of Abra Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200 amsl). This stretch was only about 2 km, but the gradient of the path and the altitude made the going extremely slow and tough. Reaching the highest point on the Inca Trail revealed the majesty of the precipitous valley we had ascended.

The descent to Pacaymayo (3600 amsl) where we would rest for lunch led us along beautifully constructed winding stone roadways in a cloudy valley. After lunch, as we hiked on to the top of Abra Runkurakay (3950 amsl), the second highest pass on the Inca Trail, we were caught in a heavy shower that lasted for just over an hour. The descent to our overnight camp of Chaquicocha (3500 amsl) took us past a beautiful archaeological site, Sayacmarca, hanging precariously from a very high and steep mountainside overlooking the campsite. The ancient stones of the site were thickly covered in a maze of brightly coloured lichens. While in total we had only covered 10km on this day, the varied topography of the terrain – referred to by our guides jokingly as “Andean flat” – had taken its toll on us. Our campsite was a welcome sight. By early evening the clouds had disappeared making the temperature plummet. The absence of chemical and light pollution together with the thin air unveiled the Milky Way Galaxy in all its glory.

Day 3: Facing the “Gringo killer”

We were again woken at 05:00. The full majesty of the Andes now revealed itself to us. Where our previous campsite was in a valley where we had a limited view of two Andean peaks we were now camped on the side of a mountain overlooking a panorama of glaciated “monster” mountain peaks forming part of a cordillera – a sub-range of the Andes.

As we moved up to the third and final pass en route, Abra Phuyupatamarca (3670 amsl), we passed through two Inca tunnels carved out of the mountain side. After visiting the Phuyupatamarca archaeological site we descended the “Gringo Killer”, effectively a 2 500 step staircase which is known to decimate the knees and quadriceps of non-Andean hikers. As we descended into the cloud forest the lush vegetation together with the low lying clouds created a mystical feel. It was as if we had been transported back in time to the Jurassic Age when dinosaurs abounded.

Just before we reached our overnight camp, Winay Wayna (2700 amsl), we rested at an Inca site with immense terraces which serve as a testimony to the engineering genius of the Incas. At Winay Wayna camp we could shower. Most of us relished the opportunity even though the water temperature was close to freezing, having been channelled straight from one of the mountain streams. The excitement levels were again rising, and everyone was eager to get a good night’s rest before our final 6km push to Machu Picchu early the next morning.

Day 4: A magnificent climax to the Inca Trail

The morning wake-up call came at 03:00. By 04:10 we were packed and headed to the second control checkpoint where permits and passports again needed to be produced to gain access to Machu Picchu. We arrived at the checkpoint about 5 minutes later and waited for another 75 minutes before the control checkpoint was opened at 05:30. With every hiking group eager to get to Machu Picchu, we found ourselves amongst about another 200 hikers all racing to get to the Sun Gate, where we would be afforded our first view of Machu Picchu.

Ironically when we reached the Sun Gate the clouds were covering Machu Picchu (2400 amsl). While others eagerly moved on, our group decided to wait to see if the weather cleared. After 1½ hours we too could wait no longer, and with our guides eagerly encouraging us, we pressed on down to the ancient citadel.

As we reached Machu Picchu the clouds lifted and we were blessed with the most amazing view of the immense citadel we had all come to see. Walking through the immaculately constructed stone complex carpeted by thick green grass and surrounded by the towering Andean peaks and serpentine rivers we were all overawed by the beauty, magic and grandeur of this once “lost city”. For the past 3 ½ days we had the privilege of walking in the footsteps of the great Incas along their amazing highway etched as a monument to their greatness in the majestic canvas of the second highest and longest mountain range on Earth. A humbling experience indeed!

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