Fifty yards remained. As our guide, Fredy, gathered us around for one last talk on our trek to Machu Picchu, I found myself verklempt. It had been an absolutely incredible three days. We had seen some of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen and it also hadn’t been easy. We had hiked almost 28 miles over three mountain passes and there was one point on the assent of the second pass that I didn’t know how I was going to continue. My feet were so chewed up and I could feel a toenail coming off, but it’s amazing what you can do when you have no choice.
As we stood fifty yards away from the Sun Gate and our first view of Machu Picchu, I was overcome with gratitude. When Fredy had finished our last “family meeting”, I walked to the Sun Gate alone in my thoughts with tears streaming down my face. Gratitude is a very powerful and wonderful thing.
The Inca story is fascinating and incredible and ultimately, very sad. Their culture thrived for hundreds of years in the mountains around Cusco, until the Spanish Conquistadors came in the search of riches. And riches they found. The Incas had gold, a lot of it. It’s a story all too familiar in the annals of history, and while the Spanish destroyed the cities they found, they didn’t find them all.
Machu Picchu had been known to locals for a long time, but Hiram Bingham is the man credited with its discovery in 1911. It had been completely reclaimed by vegetation, so was virtually invisible. It was also perfectly preserved.
At the group meeting the night before we were to leave, I felt a little nervous. We are strong hikers, but we were the oldest by a lot, save one couple who didn’t seem to fit in. They were pretty “fancy”, and the next morning we found out that they dropped out and wouldn’t be hiking with us. We were now the oldest.
We’re at a point in life where comfort is paramount and we have nothing to prove. I wanted this trip to be one we enjoyed and not one we endured, so I bought the two “extras” that would help ensure this; upgraded air mattresses and extra porters to carry all our stuff. While the rest of our group had these huge backpacks filled with all their belongings, we had our day packs with water, snacks and raincoats. It was a solid decision and one I highly recommend.
At Kilometer 82, the trailhead, we met our porters and chef. I cannot tell you how incredible these guys are! They carry 20 kg (44 lbs) in giant duffel bags that look as big as they are. In the past, porters had been treated horribly, but now there are regulations on their working conditions, weight limits, etc. and their welfare is taken very seriously. As they took off, we gave them a big round of applause not fully appreciating at this point, just how amazing they are.
As we began the journey of a lifetime, the sun was shining and we were all in great spirits. Fredy said that it had been raining for the last three weeks and he couldn’t believe our beautiful weather. Incredibly, it didn’t rain once in the three days we hiked.
We settled into our rhythm. Fredy would lead and we’d follow with our second guide, Roland, bringing up the rear with the last hiker. We’d come to ruins and sit around Fredy hanging on his every word, fascinated by the stories he told us. We were all so interested and asked a lot of questions. At one point he thanked us for being so interested in his culture and for listening so well. He said that some groups he leads aren’t interested, talk while he’s talking and don’t pay attention. I can’t understand that.
After hiking in the morning, we would come to our lunch spot. The porters would stop what they were doing and clap as we entered camp. It was a great morale booster. The eating tent would be all ready for us and our big family would eat the most delicious gourmet food! I am not kidding, the food was insane. Our napkins would be folded into shapes and designs, each one different for every meal. It was the Inca Trail version of cruise towel animals, and a fun touch.
After lunch we would head back out and this is where the porter situation got crazy. They would stay behind, tear down the lunch site, wash the dishes, and pack everything up. We always had to stay on the “mountain side” of the trail because the porters would catch up to us and run past, many of them wearing sandals(!), with their giant packs. By the time we reached the camp spot for the night, the porters had already set up all of our tents and sleeping pads, the food tent was ready for Tea Time, and we each had a bowl of warm water and soap to clean up with. We’d enjoy Tea Time (tea and snacks), while they prepared dinner. It felt like they were magic. I’m not kidding.
This is a good time to talk about something that is as part of the Peruvian culture as apple pie is to Americans. Coca. When we arrived in Cusco, there was a big welcome basket full of leaves. “Three Free Leaves per Person” it said in English. Of course I took my welcome gift and immediately put them in my cheek. I learned later that when you begin to feel tingling, it’s time to take them out.
“Popping leaves like candy” isn’t a term, but this is the only way I can describe the amount of coca Fredy and our porters used. The porters would run by with big wads in their cheeks. Fredy ticked off the benefits on his fingers one night. “Magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin A, calcium. It prevents altitude sickness, you get energy, you don’t feel hungry and you don’t need to sleep.” Having had several cups of coca tea by this time, I asked, “Would I fail a drug test right now?” He smiled slyly and said, “Yep.” When in Rome…
There is one spot on the trail that has an outdoor “store”. It is run by older Quechua (indigenous Andean) women. They have a few tables and small shelves set up with a variety of snacks and drinks (Inka Kola is a popular soft drink) including rum. We decided as a group to buy a couple of 750s of rum, one for our group and one for the porters. That night we presented the rum to the porters and chef and in return, the chef made us the most delicious tea for Hot Toddies. As the entire 750 was poured into the pitcher, I thought I would never be able to drink it. Much to my surprise, it was delicious and we spent a fun night in the eating tent telling stories, laughing, and getting a good buzz on.
You may be wondering what the bathroom situation is like on the Inca Trail. Let me preface this by saying that I am not a complainer. I believe in soaking up other cultures (hence my commitment to coca) and experiencing as much as I can, but I honestly hope I have checked this off my “done that” list for good.
The bathrooms are permanent buildings with stalls…so far, so good. But once you push open that stall door, prepare yourself. There is a ceramic hole in the ground with foot pads. And the smell is overwhelming. After a long day of hiking up and down mountains, your quads are already shot so it’s no small feat to successfully balance yourself over the hole. They do “flush”, so anything that has missed the hole is washed down, but the water comes out with such force that some overflows onto the floor. You don’t even want to think about what you’re standing in. I know this is a bit graphic, but I wish someone had told me that if you position yourself perfectly over the hole for a “nothing but net” shot, you will get splash back. I almost died. You have to bring your own toilet paper and none of it can go in the hole. A few stalls had trash cans, but most had a pile of dirty toilet paper in the corner. My friend, Mike told me that he had been warned of all this and had brought air freshener. He would douse the stall in flowery goodness before entering and give it a booster if needed while inside; Pure genius.
Along with air freshener, add bug repellent to the essential list, and the more DEET, the better. There are these tiny little gnat looking things that appear harmless, but if you don’t use bug spray they will eat you alive. I covered myself with spray each day, but one day rolled my hiking pants up in the heat and forgot to spray my legs. That night I had all these welts with a small scab in the middle. They bite and draw blood, but the interesting thing is that they don’t start itching for several days. This can be avoided by being diligent about using repellent.
One more thing that I would highly recommend is using hiking poles. I typically don’t use them on hikes at home, but I found them invaluable on the Inca Trail. There is so much elevation gain and loss, gain and loss, that spreading out the impact throughout your whole body rather than your legs taking the entire brunt, lessens the soreness tremendously. Training beforehand will help you enjoy this experience, but don’t overdo it as your trip gets closer! We found out that the older couple who bailed on the hike had attempted a 12 miler the weekend before and the guy had blown out his knee.
As I walked the last fifty yards to the Sun Gate with tears streaming down my face, I was overcome with gratitude. Gratitude for having done it; for the wonderful group of people we shared this experience with, strangers who had become, as Fredy called us, familia; for Fredy, who had taught us so much about the Incas and his stories about the power of believing in yourself; for our porters who fed us and provided our home base each day; for Brett, who works so hard for me and our boys and whose hard work enables us to have these adventures; and for my mom, who I had lost 13 years ago to the day, who taught me to really live life, and that nothing worthwhile is ever easy.