Hiking to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail remains the highlight of my year traveling. It’s that amazing. Standing 4,200 meters high on the mountains, looking out over the peaks of the Andes, and knowing that I hiked to get there, filled me with joy and awe. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I won’t lie, though — it took some work but it was totally worth it.
They broke us in easy on the first day with a gentle start along a wide path that passed through the Sacred Valley. Described as “Inca Flat,” the trail starts alongside the Urubamba River and meanders through the trees and scrub brush, slowly gaining altitude.
Our guide, Marco, stopped us at various points along the way to tell us the history of the trail, the ruins along the trail, and also the Incan people and their struggle to survive. Marco was passionate about his ancestors’ story, and as time went on, we realized that he was not just telling us stories that come from guidebooks but that his knowledge was much deeper. He had spent time at university studying and also in the mountains with the Incan descendants and so had a unique perspective on the area.
We awake at 5am to the sounds of hustle and bustle outside. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, a porter appeared with hot tea and another brought a bowl of hot water and soap for me to wash up with. I drank my tea, washed up, and packed up the few things I was responsible for (the porters dismantle and carry everything except your personal belongings).
It was cold as we set out on the days hike – frost clung to the sides of the trail and I could see my breath with every labored exhalation. We were already feeling the altitude and still had more than a thousand meters ahead of us. We quickly climbed above the tree line and were rewarded with the stunning views of mountains and valleys that would be our companion for the rest of the day.
The climb to Dead Woman’s Pass was relentless. Up and up and up and up along the ancient Inca pathway made up of enormous stone steps. My heart was beating wildly, my lungs were tight and seemingly too small for the task, and my legs felt like cement as I tried to lift them over and over again up onto the next step.
Then it was down the other side – a 600-meter drop along a beautiful stone pathway cutting down into the valley below. If I thought this was going to be the easy part, I was wrong. Controlling those floppy, leadened legs was an exercise in concentration. The afternoon saw us climb another 400 meters before dropping into another valley that was more jungle than scrub. We crossed the valley to find our campsite overlooking a set of astrological ruins. Fog set in just as the light faded, lending an eerie feel to the landscape but also providing some insulating warmth. After 16 kilometers of hiking through two passes, it didn’t take much of the special “rum tea” to send us all off to a restful night’s sleep.
As much as Day 2 was about climbing, Day 3 was about descent — overall we dropped almost 800 meters. I’m not sure which is more difficult, but I know that my legs were more sore after a day of going down than they were after Day 2. This is where the walking stick I had been carrying all along really proved its worth! We dropped backed down through the tree line, entering into jungle-like scenery, where we could start to understand how Machu Picchu was hidden by jungle for so many years.
We shared camp that night as other groups joined up at the campsite before entering the site. We enjoyed much-needed showers and beer before a late dinner and early bedtime. Tomorrow would take us to the Sun Gate and our first glimpses of the lost city.
Reaching the Sun Gate was amazing. Looking through it to the sight of Machu Picchu below made all the difficulties of the trek disappear. Sitting on a plateau below, the site looked just as beautiful and mysterious as I had expected.
Wandering around Machu Picchu for the rest of the day, I was left in awe as to how the ancient Incans could have built such a formidable city with no modern machinery. The ingenuity and precision was astounding and the level of detail amazing. The buildings and stonework are stunning displays of form, function, and astounding astronomical and geographic knowledge. Stones are placed, or carved, to match exactly with the sun’s winter and summer solstice positions or to line up along the ordinal geographic lines. Seeing a rock carved into the shape of the Incan Cross and then shown how the points match up with a compass, I was amazed at the knowledge that the Incans must have had. The whole city and the mountain backdrop took my breath away.
Gillian believes that we are all only one giant step from making our dreams come true. She and her partner Jason left home in 2009 for a one-year trip around the world. She writes about their experiences and adventures at One-Giant-Step.com.