Trekking the Inca Trail was both physically and mentally challenging, and the four day hiking experience definitely involved some roughing it. Was it worth the effort? Here's how it all went down ...and up ... and down ... and up.
Day 1: uphill all the way
Before setting out we gathered at a staging area with a few other groups. There was an air of excited anticipation as guides shouted instructions, hikers layered up and porters inspected and adjusted their loads. Our guide Wilbert doled out snacks for the trail (granola bars and fruit), a sweet surprise that became a daily ritual.
We started our ascent of the exposed mountain slopes on switchbacked trails, the thin atmosphere providing little protection from the sun's hot glare. I had to stop often to wipe the sweat from my brow, catch my breath and give my pounding heart a rest.
Gorgeous views of the Andes appeared around every bend, thankfully taking my mind off the physical at times. After rounding one curve in the path, we encountered a large flock of blindingly bright green parrots yammering away as they flapped around in the sky. It was just the spark of joy I needed to put a spring back in my step.
I was most grateful when lunchtime finally arrived. Our porters and cooks had bounded ahead of us with such speed that they'd had time to set up camp -- a long table and folding camp stools under an open-sided tent. By the time we arrived, they were well into the meal preparations, and they greeted us with tea.
The meal was much more elaborate than expected -- soup, rice, fried chicken and cooked veggies. It was a surprisingly well-orchestrated production, all the more impressive knowing that absolutely everything had been carried up by the porters. That included propane tanks, tents, furniture, and of course the food. All of it (including garbage) would be carried out by them as well.
The afternoon hike was more grueling uphill work. We lost one group member to altitude sickness -- she had to ride out on a mule accompanied by one of our porters. While it was tempting to ask for a mule of my own, I slogged on, slow but steady.
Even though I was technically with a group, I ended up walking mostly on my own. We each walked at our own pace, and I was either too slow or too fast for the others. I arrived at the night camp around 5 pm to the cheers and claps of the speedier ones who were already there. I wasn't dead last, but far from first.
The porters brought each of us a tub of warm water and a bar of soap for washing up. Beyond that the bathroom facilities were primitive at best -- simple squat toilets and no sinks, showers or running water. On the positive side, the cook and assistants served up another delicious hot meal.
Day 2: snow, stairs and stumbles
The porters woke us at 5 am with a tentside delivery of more tubs of water for washing, along with steaming plastic mugs of coca tea.
What is coca tea? The leaves come from the same plant used to produce cocaine, but in their natural, unaltered state they have only mild stimulant properties, perhaps similar to caffeine. The leaves are well known in the region to be an effective treatment for altitude sickness, and they're absolutely legal in Peru. In fact the tourist shops in Cuzco had been full of all kinds of coca products -- from the leaves themselves to coca-infused beverages, granola bars, soaps and more.
This would be the big trekking day - 10 hours of hiking and a traverse through highest pass on the trail (the altitude at Dead Woman's Pass is over 14,000 feet). My legs and shoulders were already tired from the day before, and I had not slept more than a couple of hours in the chilly tent. I knew it would be a rough day.
The trail alternated between steep stone steps and uneven rocky pathways, often very narrow with a sheer drop down one side. It was cold, rainy, and windy - completely opposite from the sun and heat of the previous day.
My rain poncho blew around wildly, making it hard to see where I was stepping. My breath was so laboured that I had to stop every few minutes. I could see other bright ponchos on the curves ahead, but it looked like the uphill climb would never end. I had to set little goals for myself -- 25 more steps and I'll stop to catch my breath; just to the next bend and I'll stuff a fresh wad of coca leaves in my cheek.
The porters too relied on coca leaves to ease their journey. During the day one of them stopped me and gestured to his cheek with a pleading look in his eyes. I took out my bag of leaves and held it open for him. He reached in and promptly relieved me of half of my supply!
He held the leaves in both hands, lifting them first to the sky, then to earth, then from side to side before rolling them up and shoving them in his cheek. He then adjusted his load, flashed me a smile and bounded away ahead of me. Providing this small amount of sustenance was the least I could do in return for the huge burden he was literally shouldering for me.
By the time I reached the pass, the rain had turned to light snow. I posed for a quick photo, donned my fleece gloves, readjusted the poncho, and started the downhill. The excruciating part was that it wasn't necessarily any easier than the uphill. Easier on the lungs, but harder on the knees. Plus the rain made the jagged, steep terrain even more treacherous than normal.
There were no guard rails anywhere on the trail, so total concentration was needed to avoid plummeting to my death. I was grateful for the walking stick I'd been convinced to rent -- it saved my behind more than once. By the time I reached camp that evening, I was totally spent. I could barely stay awake for dinner.
Day 3: 'Minor' ruins and mysterious music
Bodies aching even more than the previous day, we set off for just a half day of hiking this time. Much of the trail was forested, and there were pretty orchids and other blossoms growing on the cliff-sides along the path.
It was mostly downhill on steep stone steps, a bit less treacherous than the day before since it was a dry sunny day. It was still oh-so-painful for overworked muscles and blistered feet.
We got a few breaks to admire various Inca ruins along the way. Grey stones arranged in cascading geometric patterns against terraced green mountainsides - stunning.
As I hiked with Yvette (my British tent-mate for the trip), we could make out the faint sound of a pan flute. It became louder as we continued, a beautiful accompaniment to take our minds off our muscles. We vowed to give the musician a well-earned tip if we found him or her.
And finally we did. Rounding a bend, we discovered it was our very own guide Wilbert! He took great amusement in surprising us.
We arrived at camp in the early afternoon. This camp was bigger and more crowded than the others, being the closest one to the ruins. A very welcome feature of this camp was the hot showers - hooray! And, of course, the beer vendor was also popular. We took the rest of the day to rest and relax.
Day 4: Machu Picchu sunrise (of sorts)
Up at 4 am for a hasty breakfast, then into line at the gate to the last leg of the trail. A couple of other groups beat us to the punch, so we knew we wouldn't be first. I suspected it wouldn't matter anyway, as we were ensconced in heavy cloud fog. It was still dark, so each hiker donned a flashlight or headlamp, creating bouncing beacons of light through the mist.
When the gates opened, the 80 minute sprint was on. Good thing Wilbert warned us about the frenzy. 'Stay to the left by the wall,' he said, 'otherwise you might get knocked off the cliff by people trying to pass you.'
It was rather ridiculous really, this race to see the sunrise, and our group had a few good laughs about it. Despite the speedy pace, most trekkers were eerily silent. The loudest noises were our own heavy breathing and the chirps and singing of unseen frogs and birds encouraging us along the way.
Sure enough, even after we climbed the last extremely steep set of stairs to the Sun Gate in a tangled free-for-all of anxious arms and legs, we were still enshrouded by cloud. There was no sunrise-viewing to be had.
The fog eventually did lift a little, but the ruins were partially covered by cloud for most of the morning. Our guide said this was highly unusual and apologized for the lack of splashy sunrise, but I actually enjoyed the mysterious effect.
Machu Picchu was absolutely gorgeous, and it was mind-blowing to think about the construction of an entire city clinging impossibly to mountainsides. No wonder the Inca lived here relatively undisturbed for a few hundred years -- who would have the energy to bother staging a raid on such a hard-to-reach place?
After our tour of the ruins, we wandered around the site. We took a short hike to see some caves and waterfalls tucked into a cliff around back of the main site. And we just sat for a while, appreciating the the world wonder before us.
Post-trek treat: Aguas Calientes
Eventually a few of us took the bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the mountain. We were intent on enjoying its namesake hot springs. With helpful directions from a local shopkeeper, we eventually found our way.
Inside, we found pools of different temperatures and depths, all with sand or gravel floors. What a welcome treat for aching legs! Oh, and the poolside delivery of nicely chilled mojitos made it all the more enjoyable. "Salud!" we said, and toasted our Inca Trail accomplishments.