Eating birthday cake at 12,000 feet on the Inca Trail

Shortly after arriving in Cuzco, we navigated our way to the Pachamama Explorers office for our Inca Trail trek briefing. (Without much sense of the lay of the land just yet, we walked past the office once and had to find an internet cafe to confirm the address. Proud to say that we did in fact make it and were not too late. Yay for small victories!) All we kept thinking was, “Wow…this is really happening.” Following our (somewhat) informative briefing and (kind of) meeting our fellow group members, we left the office to mentally prepare and pack up for our early start the next morning.

Getting air at the beginning of the Inka Trail

Meeting our guide in the San Blas plaza nearby our hostel at 6am, we set off to collect the rest of the group. Once we had all members in total, everyone boarded a bus and we were off. There was no turning back now. A short three hours later we were at Kilometer 82, the start of the Inca Trail. Fending off the vendors who were prowling around trying to convince everyone they needed extra tips for their trekking poles and other little knick-knacks, we all made it to the official check in point. The control officers checked and double checked the information on our permits and our passports to ensure everyone was legit. (They are very strict about keeping the number of trekkers to a minimum so as not to degrade the shape of the trail of the ruins.) Phew…passed that test with flying colors. Now we were really beginning. This was the real deal. See you in four days Civilization!

Before I go too much further, let me introduce you to our Inca Trail family.

At the Starting Gate

Jimmy: Our head guide. Hilarious, intelligent, and an overall stellar guide who loves to joke (highly relying on sarcasm), but deeply cares about the history of the Incas.

Sal: Our assistant guide. Soft spoken, friendly and always encouraging. He is in his second year of the rigorous three year training program to become an official Inca Trail/Machu Picchu guide.

Team Canada: Corey, Gidon, and David. Three Canadians always up for a card game, good conversation, or a laugh. Sort of like a jolly three musketeers.

Team Scotland: Fiona and Ross. Engaged to be married in 2014, they are currently living in the Carribean where Ross works on a supply ship. They are incredibly sweet people who always had a smile on their faces and were ready to try anything.

Team OR/CAL: Jackie, Kerby, Hallie, Casey, and Justin. Let me explain…because it took us a while to figure out all of the relations here. Jackie is the mom of Kerby, Hallie, and Casey. Justin is married to Casey. Justin and Casey currently live in California while Jackie and company live in Portland, OR. That said, they are a comical bunch who were always keeping to group entertained whether poking fun at each other or with a funny story from work, travel, or just general life. A never ending source of fun who are lucky to be able to experience so many awesome travels together!

As you can see, we really lucked out with a terrific group!

Barbara crossing the first bridge

Anyways, back to the trail. The hike started off with a good solid incline that got everyone’s hearts pumping, especially considering the high altitude the Inca Trail resides in. After that first little kick though, we had a fairly easy, undulating (Jimmy’s new favorite English word) hike to lunch. A filling three course meal and we were all fueled up to hit the trail for another couple of hours. (Side note: I will never quite understand how the chef was able to whip up such tasty, 3-course meals for 14 people on a single burner, propane-fueled stone. Simply amazing! An absolute miracle worker!)

Barbara in a window

Everyone had what Ron and I refer to as “lunch legs” (basically, slow-going legs that don’t want to do much work now that all the blood is working on digesting the food you just ate) now that we had full bellies. Luckily, it wasn’t too long before we came to the first of the Inca Trail’s many ruins, Llaqtapata. It was so cool! Jimmy filled us in on a little of the history of the site and we were free to roam about. Walking through the ruins, I couldn’t help but imagine the ancient Inca’s strolling down the same alleys just going about their daily business. It was fascinating to think about these people not just living, but really thriving in this remote, mountain environment. So awesome. I’m not even sure I know a word to describe how interesting we all found it.

Approaching our campsite for the night, we walked through the village of Wayllabamba which is the last community on the trail before Aguas Caliente outside of Machu Picchu. On our way through town, we somehow attracted the attention of a sheep very much in heat. Well, not so much “us” as Gidon. Just minding his own business, Gidon noticed that he was being closely followed by said sheep. Seconds later the sheep mounted Gidon’s leg and tried to get down to business. This happened again and again. The more Gidon tried to get away, the more the sheep advanced and the harder the rest of the group laughed. As soon as the sheep began to divert its attention to other members of the group, we soon discovered that it is far funnier when it is not coming after you. Lesson learned. Finally free of our hopeful sheep friend, we made it to camp. That night our campsite was really unique. We were camping in a local’s backyard essentially! It was extremely private and truly felt like we were alone on the trail. It was spectacular! We had what was to become our nightly routine of happy hour (consisting of tea and hot chocolate with popcorn), dinner, and our briefing for the next day before we all quickly crawled into our tents and zonked out for the night.

Lots of steps

Having heard rain drops in the middle of the night, we were all pleasantly surprised to awake to clear skies. Bonus: It was my birthday! And how better to celebrate another year than with a steady, steep, all day climb up hill?! This was suppose to be our very toughest day as we hiked to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass topping out at just under 14,000 feet. Right out of the gate, we were hit with a steep slope. From there it got continuously steeper and turned from graded trail to impressive, yet very challenging Incan steps built right into the mountainside. Those Incan’s must have been gluttons for punishment is all I can figure 🙂 Lots of energy snacks and one set of ruins later we made it to the top of the pass well under the estimated time which always feels great! (Even if you know the guides far exaggerate the estimated time to make you feel fit and strong.) We all hung out on top and gawked out our surroundings. We were in the Andes and it was outstanding! Waterfalls, sheer mountainsides, rugged peaks…this place has it all!

Soon it started to drizzle just a bit. Considering that we still had a ways to hike downhill before reaching camp we got on our way. The rain only lasted a few minutes and I’m pretty sure I heard a collective sigh of relief. Seeing as we were hiking the Inca Trail in rainy season we were extremely lucky to have avoided any serious rain thus far having gotten away with only light sprinkles lasting a maximum of 30 minutes. Phew…dodged another rainy bullet! The downhill hike was incredibly steep and the rain had only made everything slicker, but slowly and surely we made it to camp. That night our campsite was perched part way down a gorgeous valley. To our backs was the steep face we hiked down accessorized with countless cascading waterfalls. To our front was the seemingly bottomless valley, lush from all the rain, and the shadowy mirage of the peaks in the distance. Breathtaking to say the least.

Match Candle

As if the day had not been fantastic enough, that night at happy hour, our chef presented me with a birthday cake! And this was not your average box cake mix either. This was the real deal. An orange cake with terrific frosting complete with little pink flower decorations, my name, and everything! It was beautiful! Sometimes I have trouble baking at only 5,000-ish feet of elevation at home with a full kitchen set up and here he is creating a cake from scratch at 12,000 feet while camping after hiking all day long and only having been informed it was my birthday that morning. My only explanation is that he is a wizard. It was absolutely amazing! I cannot think of any better way to ring in a quarter of a century on this Earth than by hiking this century old trail. It is not a birthday I will soon forget. That I can promise.

We all awoke having slept extremely well thanks to the birthday cake from the night before (there is no way it had anything to to with the massive physical exertion we put out climbing to the top of that hefty pass) ready for action. Jimmy billed day three to us as the most beautiful day so needless to say we were all chomping at the bit to get going that morning. Shortly after we departed we came to our first set of ruins for the day. We were at Runkurakay, a ruin perched high in the valley overlooking everything in sight. Unfortunately for us, the views were obstructed by heavy cloud cover. As Jimmy began to relay our morning history lesson, the sky began to spit a little. Soon enough, the light drizzle turned into full blown rain. A short walk around these impressive ruins and we walking again to try and stay warm. It was a shame to have had to cut that site visit a little short, but everyone was getting really chilled and we still had quite a ways to go before reaching our lunch at the top of the second pass so there was not too much choice in the matter. A morning hike that was supposed to be filled with beautiful panoramic views and enjoyment of the rainforests we were passing through was instead replaced with goosebumps and mist. I kept trying to remind myself that this was all part of the package since it was in fact rainy season and we were lucky to have stayed primarily dry for the two days prior, but it was still really cold.

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We made it to lunch and hunkered down in the tent overjoyed at the soup we were served for our first course. With food everyone’s spirits lifted, but with the rain looming outside everyone seemed to be eating a little slower than usual trying to prolong the time in the shelter. No one believed me, but I was certain the rain would let up. It had to. All this time, no weather pattern had seemed to stick for more than a few hours. Sun, drizzle, clouds, etc. It was all very temporary here in the high country of the Andes. Even if I didn’t completely believe it myself, I tried my best to will the rain to stop. Well, you are welcome group because lo and behold…just as we were finishing up the raindrops got smaller and lighter, the sky brighter and less menacing. It worked! And that, my friends, is the power of positive thinking! (Or just dumb luck. But either way, I will take it!)

As we continued our hike, the weather got better and better. Soon our chills were replaced with sweat and we were all stripping off our rain gear and extra layers in exchange for shorts and t-shirts. What a difference an hour can make. To make it even better, not only had the rain stopped, but the cloud layer we had been hiking in all day burned off and we were rewarded with stunning vistas every which way we looked. It was phenomenal! Now these were the Andes we were all expecting. Massively impressive!

Finally a clearer view of the Andes

After exploring our second ruin of the day, Sayaqmarka, much more thoroughly than the first we were given the choice to finish the day’s hike one of two ways. There was a shorter, more direct trail straight to camp or there was a longer route that took us past a set of hillside Inca terraces. Ron and I both chose to take the longer trail through the terraces. I mean, who knows when we will be back here, if ever. When in Rome, right? (Plus, the fact that it was no longer raining made that decision much, much easier 🙂 ) Holy smokes, was the longer hike worth it! We arrived at the terraces and our jaws just dropped. The terraces were so steep and so green, so mind boggling and so overwhelming. We wandered about for a bit and then just stopped and sat, soaking it all up. We stared out at the mountains in the distance in silence and just took the time to admire their magnificence. All I kept thinking was, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow we see Machu Picchu. This is all so surreal!”

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Camp that night was the best yet. Talk about a serious view. Yowsers! (Thankfully we made it down there before the group who took the direct route down and bypassed the terraces ate all the happy hour popcorn.) With the clear skies we were able to stare at the mountains until the sun set and they were gone from sight. From there is was the now normal nighttime routine and early to bed because 3:30am comes early. However, not much sleep was to be had when you know Machu Picchu awaits you.

Here’s a huge gallery!  We covered a lot in 3 days, so check it out:

 

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