However, before starting out, we still needed a few provisions and hiking supplies which we obtained in Cusco a few days before the hike.
On our supply list were trekking poles, light fleeces and ibuprofen. We highly recommend the latter. Staying ahead of the aches and pains is a must on this 25 mile, 4 day, rigorous trek. The trekking poles are essential as well. The upward paths and especially the downward trails can wreak havoc on the knees. Trekking poles will take some the pressure off your legs along the trail. The granite "Incan escalators", as our guide referred to the stony Incan steps, were super challenging mainly due to their uneven width and height. Our legs never got adjusted to them because the terrain changed so rapidly, along with the unpredictable weather conditions.
Be prepared for four seasons on the hike, especially during the time we went (end of October) which is considered the start of rainy season. We experienced cold, wind, rain, heat, and humidity during our four day adventure. It is recommended to bring sunscreen with SPF 30+ protection. We didn't realize how intense the sun would feel at that altitude and were happy that we were protected with sunscreen, lightweight scarves, and hats.
A variety of layers works best for traveling in Peru. We bought cheap rain ponchos, wore long sleeves and moisture-wicking fabrics whenever possible. All of this can be found in stores or markets in Cusco, so you don't have to haul everything you need with you on the plane to Peru. Remember to politely bargain for a discount when shopping. Most vendors will discount items at least 10%.
There are many trekking companies to choose from if hiking the Inca Trail. We decided to go with one called Inca Trail Reservations, after some internet research. The cost was in our range and the Trip Advisor reviews for this company were very good. If you plan on hiking the Inca Trail, make sure you purchase your permits 4-6 months in advance. They sell out with lightening speed since only 500 people are allowed on the trail each day. This includes porters which will make up half of that alloted number.
If you can't get your Inca Trail permit but still want to hike, look up the 5 Day Salkantay Trek. This is an alternative route to the Inca Trail and you can make reservations on arrival in Cusco. It will take a different path that is less crowded, and is not considered to be the original Inca Trail, but hikers still finish at Machu Picchu and we hear that the views are even more spectacular than the classic Inca Trail, so that's a plus.
After an early morning pickup at our hotel in Cusco, we headed about two hours to Ollantaytambo. This was the last place for hikers to obtain cheap supplies. There are places to buy things during the first day of the trek, but the prices increased dramatically the higher we went on the trail. (Tip: If we had to do it again, we would have stayed in Ollantaytambo a night or two and had the tour pick us up in this town rather than start from Cusco. It is a very interesting backpacker environment with lots of great restaurants and amazing Inca ruins within walking distance.) We then drove to kilometer marker 82 where the entrance to the trail began. Our porters packed our stuff (oh, SO MUCH STUFF!) while the park rangers checked our passports and permits. After only a half hour, we were all admitted to the trail and everyone, in a festive mood, started off laughing and chatting together.
The trail is pretty gentle on the first day. There is a little undulation of gentle rise and fall, and only one major climb. This gave us a little taste of things to come, but the views were amazing as we followed the valley.
The rain was intermittent this first day, and it began right at the start of our hike, but thankfully there were no heavy downpours. Everyone in our group constantly battled with finding/using/changing the appropriate attire. Some had rain jackets, some had ponchos, many had both. Most of the time it got too hot with the poncho on. It felt like we were a walking green house. So, when the rain let up we usually chose to get a little wet to keep cool, rather than raise our body temperature trying to keep dry.
All this concern with our rain gear quickly diminished as we got our first glimpses of some spectacular Inca ruins.
Tip: Make sure you bring comfortable clothes and shoes for camp. You will want to be relaxed and get out of your dirty trail clothes. Bring flip flops or slides to walk around camp. This will enhance your mood, let your feet rest, and make you feel almost human again. Wet wipes are essential, so bring lots of them! If not, there are cold showers on the trail if you want to brave the frigid, mountain spring water. Bring plenty of Peruvian sol coins along too, as most restrooms will charge you 1 sol. Bathroom facilities along the trail are rudimentary at best and downright disgusting at their worst. There are no toilet seats or toilet paper and you will get lots of practice "hovering" over a hole using thigh muscles that are already in shock from the long hike. Fun times....
After tea time, we all chatted, arranged our gear in our individual tents and waited for the call to supper. The food along the trail was super high quality in freshness, flavor, and presentation. It was always hearty and there were lots of comfort foods to keep us happy. We all ate more than we usually do, mostly due to the calories we expended on the trail. As a huge surprise from the chef, on our last night before Machu Picchu, somehow he baked us a fully decorated three layer cake using only a portable propane stove. We couldn't believe our eyes! This special treat was very much appreciated by all of us.
The morning was pretty chilly but we soon shed all those extra layers we started out wearing. When the sun was out it got very hot, very quickly. I was down to shorts/t-shirt after less than 10 minutes on the trail.
This was an amazing, picturesque section of the trail with beautiful views of the Andes Mountains as we traversed through tropical rain forests and high altitude plains.
After crossing through a ranger check point, Juan Carlos told us where our first rest stop was located ahead and then recommended that we each proceed at our own comfortable pace. We made sure we had plenty of water and snacks within arm's reach before we headed onward and upward.
The key to success on the trail up to Dead Woman's Pass is to take your time, stop as often as you need to, and keep well hydrated.
At this point, everyone was deep into his/her own frame of mind. Lori and I were lucky that we were able to lean on each other (physically and mentally) when we needed a little extra boost of encouragement. Lori was in tears at one point as she dealt with the grueling challenge of what felt like a never-ending climb. I encouraged her to take it a step at a time and stop often to regulate her breathing.
Although there were some prominent low moments during this leg of the hike, there were also instances of humor along the way. We passed one middle aged lady who was obviously dealing with her own personal relationship with the trail, because she kept muttering to herself, "Damn Incas!" We laughed out loud and gave her a quick word of encouragement before we proceeded onward.
Click on a picture for a caption and larger image. The story continues below this gallery of pictures.
Everyone put tomorrow on the "back burner" of their minds and enjoyed the success we each accomplished today. We had a great lunch followed by some much needed rest and even a complimentary leg massage from our guide, Juan Carlos. Ahhhhhhh, blissful!
The next morning (like every morning on the trail) our porters woke us up with a nice hot cup of coca tea and a warm water wash basin brought to us at our tent. Little perks like this does wonders for the morale. It's also a key way that the porters get us up and going so that they can pack up all of our equipment and run ahead of us to set up the final campsite on the trail ahead.
As we started our climb out of the valley, many of us were not too happy with our guide. Jokingly the group talked about him lying to us and fabricating the truth about the actual difficulty level of the trail. I have to admit that there was a little truth in jest. The initial climb was quite difficult and very steep in some places.
Juan Carlos explained the history of the site and how runners long ago would bring messages from Cusco to Machu Picchu and other cities so they stayed in these rest houses along the way.
With great relief we congratulated each other on making it to the top. Now we would have yet another knee-pounding descent to the fortress at Sayamarca, or the "inaccessible town".
We had to be very careful in places during this descent. We used our trekking poles as much as possible for stability. In some places we had to sidestep down because the Inca steps are so close together and steep. This area of the trail was sarcastically referred to by our guide as "the Gringo killer". We all survived it!
To be continued.....