We made it! We had just completed the first day’s hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. We walked into camp and we were shown to our tents. Hot water and towels were brought to us by our chaskis, the incredible porters who carried supplies along the trail. We zipped up our tent door and quickly got out of our trail clothes. We took a quick sponge bath and put on our evening clothes. We had a few minutes to set up our sleeping bags and stretch out before afternoon tea at 5:30 p.m.
After a quick rest we made our way to the dining tent for afternoon tea. We were swapping stories with our new friends when Claudio came in to give us our evening briefing. He said that tomorrow would be our most difficult day of the four day trek. It was the day that I had dreaded. My knee had already started to swell and that was after a relatively easy day on the trail. The throbbing in my knee reminded me that my pack was heavier than I was accustomed to.
It didn’t help when Cladio told us that the steps leading down from “Dead Woman’s Pass” were nicknamed “The Gringo Killers.” After the pass we would have lunch and then we would have a shorter climb to a second mountain pass. To make up for the difficult day ahead, Claudio surprised us by saying that we would not have to set an alarm clock the next day. Instead, we would be served “room service” of coffee, tea or hot chocolate in our tent at 5:00 a.m.! After that, we were to pack up and enjoy breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and we would be on the trail by 6:00.
Before we had time to complain about our early departure, our appetizer course was brought into the tent. We enjoyed another wonderful three course dinner. I was still full from lunch and the snacks we had just eaten!
We enjoyed learning about our hiking companions over dinner and enjoyed swapping stories. We learned that Mike and Melissa practiced acro-yoga in their spare time. Abby told us that she was a yoga instructor when she wasn’t working and that she and Justin, who played baseball at Georgetown, now live in San Francisco. Monica and Ryan are newlyweds also live in San Francisco and enjoy traveling. Todd told about his hectic life as a practicing physician in Michigan. Marie mentioned that she lives in Austin and enjoys traveling when she is not working in the advertising business. Katy was a professional surfer and met Nettie in college. Nettie entertained all of us with his amazing photos and stories of adventure from his year and a half of world travel.
After another amazing dinner I could hardly move, and it was only partly from my knee. We washed up and climbed into our cozy sleeping bags. It was barely 8 pm. We had our air mattresses on top of a pad that our chaskis had placed in our tent. We were very comfortable. I put in ear plugs and pulled down my silk eye mask. I had no problem falling asleep despite the early hour.
We woke up around 4:30 am when we heard our Chaski’s rummaging around the campsite preparing for our day. I am sure that they were the last to get to bed and they were already hard at work. I was ready to get an early start. I did not want to hike in the dark or go down the biggest pass in an afternoon rain.
When I opened the tent flap I was greeted by the sun just hitting the Urubamba mountain range that divides the jungle and the Andes. During the night the clouds had lifted and we awoke to a breathtaking view the beautiful snow-capped peak of 'W'akay Willca' (5860m/19225ft), known in books as Veronica.
Another amenity that only a camper could enjoy was a bathroom which was set up within it’s own private tent. It was the first time I had been hiking/camping and didn’t have to find a bush or a tree. I was quickly becoming spoiled by our chaskis and glamping!
Ol and I were the only ones up. We chose to have a cup of coca tea and began to pack up our things. My knee was back to it’s original size, but I was worried about the mountain passes ahead and didn’t want to slow down our group.
Claudio asked if I wanted to lighten my pack and I took him up on it. He brought me a bag and I quickly loaded it with my sleeping bag, my air mattress, and my night clothes. It didn’t seem like a lot of weight, but even just two extra pounds taken off my knee could be the difference in me making it to Machu Picchu. We were all told to bring about 400 Peruvian Soles for emergencies, drinks, tips, etc. I decided that this was my emergency. I would rather pay a chaski to carry some of my weight than to pay a villager to carry me out on a horse!
We had another great breakfast. The menu included tea, hot chocolate, coffee, granola, yogurt, fruit, porrige, pancakes, and toast. Our guides then told us to hydrate and to load up on snacks for the trail. They handed out water, candies, nuts, sandwiches, and raisins. We were not going to go hungry on this trail!
Ol and I were the first to start the trek. Rene wanted to join us but I told him that we would be fine. We wanted him to enjoy his breakfast. The trail immediately started a steep climb along a raging creek with small waterfalls. The stone irregular steps varied in height and width. The views were stunning.
The trail on this side of this pass was arid. It was hard to believe that at the end of the day we would be hiking through the jungle. As we slowly climbed, the flora changed. We saw a lot of the same flowers and plants that we saw in the Andes during our hikes in Colombia and Ecuador. The morning light was beautiful and we were soon joined by song birds.
I stopped regularly to catch my breath and was always on the lookout for a rock that looked particularly comfortable. It was probably the earliest Ol and I have ever been on any trail. Early for us is around 8 a.m. We estimated that it would take us about 4 hours to reach the top of the pass and we wanted to be able to keep up with the younger hikers in our group. Ol went ahead of me because I know that I am annoying to hike behind, because I hike just like I ski. I use the whole mountain. I hike slow and steady and though it takes more steps I zig zag up the trail. That is what works for me.
Along the way we were surprised to pass two ladies who were actually going slower that we were. We learned they were sisters from Canada. We had passed them the day before, but today they seemed to be struggling. We decided to offer a few words of encouragement. I shared my side to side technique and explained why it worked. They were attempting to go straight up the stairs and were quickly tiring. Unfortunately, the Incas did not bother to incorporate switchbacks into their trail. Ol mentioned that they should have added zip lines on the downhill portions! We told them we would see them on top and went on our way.
The first group of hikers passed us just as we were getting to our first rest area for the morning. Below, we could see alpacas and llamas down in a small valley. We were soon passed by an older native woman in a colorful dress, with a large bin strapped to her back. There were a large variety of drinks sticking out her wrap. I could hardly breathe as she ran past me with the heavy load on her back.
We soon passed a few of the hikers that had passed us. It seems that hikers fall into two camps; slow and steady, or a brisk pace with long breaks. We soon came to another site with Incan ruins and a camp sign. The lady with the drinks was unloading her pack. Ol and I bought a gatorade from her and explored the ruins. As soon as we had taken off our backpacks, our group caught up with us.
Rene brought us sandwiches which we gave to a couple chaskis when Rene wasn’t looking. We were at the half way point for the first pass and I was feeling great. I had to keep moving or I would turn into the tin man and stiffen up. I slipped on my pack and left everyone to enjoy their break. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. It was sunny and cool and we were now hiking above the whispy clouds that were floating below us. Ol stayed behind to chat with the group but soon caught up with me and we continued our climb.
Even though I had a good head start we were soon passed by the same group of hikers we had leap frogged all morning. A young guy from Vancouver was hiking with his adorable daughter. The hike was a surprise for her 9th birthday. Every time we passed each other she was usually telling a story, laughing, skipping and even did a few cartwheels. If I could just get a little of her energy.
The mountain pass eventually came into view. Ol and about half of our group were sitting on rocks taking a break and enjoying the view. Everyone gave me an encouraging cheer to help me make the last few steps up the pass. The view was amazing. We took off our backpacks and had a nice break as we waited for the rest of the group. I was surprised that a few of our fellow hikers were struggling. High altitude affects everyone differently. It doesn’t matter the shape one is in. I was excited that I still felt great and our hardest pass was now behind us.
When everyone made it to the top we took group photos to mark the accomplishment. Ol surprised me when he took out his Ole Miss flag. I was getting cold and stiff so I knew it was time for me to get going. Despite my hiking poles, downhill is difficult on my knees, and the stairs down looked a little treacherous. I put on my pack and started the steep descent. The stairs in places were narrow, steep and uneven. I was becoming a master of the slow and careful hike, so I started my sideways descent.
I could only look on with amazement when the chaskis in purple, red, and our blue jerseys came sprinting past me. With their backs loaded, the chaski’s ran down the stairs, hopping from step to step. I couldn’t run that fast on flat ground without a pack. As they went by each would tell me to “vamos”, or “come on.” They seemed to know that I was the one who needed encouragement.
Soon Ol and our entire group passed me and quickly became specks in the distance. Claudio joined me and reminded me that we were well ahead of schedule. I was doing great. Our group made it over the pass 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Claudio encouraged me to just hike my hike.
When the trail eventually flattened out I made good time, but on steep narrow stairs I was slow and cautious. After a few hours of going downhill, Claudio pointed out more ruins and said that this would be our campsite for lunch. I was the last to enter camp. Ol took my pack and Rene greeted me with a cup of fresh squeezed juice. Everyone seemed happy to have Dead Woman’s Pass behind us.
Michael, who was in the best shape of anyone in our group had a terrible headache from the altitude. Even though we had descended a few several thousand feet, he was still showing signs of altitude sickness. Claudio sat him down and administered oxygen to alleviate the symptoms. After another wonderful lunch, I again was the first to set off. After the rest I began to stiffen up and my knee was starting its afternoon grumblings. The swelling made it difficult to bend and that made the steps particularly difficult.
After lunch, the trail immediately began another steep ascent. This pass would only take two hours. My muscles were thankful for the change in direction. Uphill is much easier for me. The second pass was not bad and I was still feeling great. We stopped stopped at the top and waited for everyone. We took more photos to mark the second highest pass and then we began the climb down for another few hours.
It was a repeat of the first pass. I leave first, and soon everyone is running past me. Everyone else seems to love the downhills. Once again Claudio joined me. As we went down it felt like we were in a different country. The Peruvian jungle was lush and beautiful. There was moss on the trees, orchids, and the lush dark dense canopy of tropical trees and plants. I felt like we were in Jurassic Park with giant plants surrounding us. The trail finally descended to an overlook where we could see beautiful Incan ruins down in a valley below and a large clifftop Incan fortress and temple above. Our campsite for the evening was in the view of both ruin sites.
The view was worth the hike. When Claudio and I made it to the base of the fortress ruins, backpacks were lining the narrow staircase. Everyone in our group had taken off their backpacks and hiked up to the Incan fortress and temple. I would have no trouble going up, but I knew that I couldn’t make it down safely. The stairs were only a few inches wide and almost vertical. I decided to pass. Claudio and Rene both looked disappointed. They tried to assure me that they would help me down. I knew that I couldn’t bend my knee. I would be satisfied to look at Ol’s photos.
As everyone else climbed up, I made my way to camp by myself. It was my favorite part of the day. I was completely alone and enveloped by the silence of the jungle. I crossed a rickety bridge, passed a few caves, and then walked alone through the Incan ruins. It was eerily beautiful. I imagined that I might run across a black jaguar, puma, or some other dangerous exotic animal. It was easy to visualize the Incan rulers adorned in their flowing colorful robes and gold pieces among the stone remnants of this ancient civilzation.
This portion of the trail was so flat with an occasional small up or down and I was practically skipping along, ok maybe I was worried about the mythical jaguar. The 6,000 stairs of earlier in the day was a distant memory. Daylight was fading quickly. Just as I was getting worried, I walked up a small hill to a plateau. Stunning snow capped mountains surrounded me and I could see the campsite with four separate groups of chaskis.
As I passed the first group of chaski’s setting up their camp, I noticed a look of surprise on their faces. I was the first hiker from any camp to reach the campsite. The chaskis began to chatter and soon the first group of chaskis were all standing, clapping, and whistling. This drew attention of the other camps. I continued toward our camp. All of the chaskis lined the trail as I basked in the final five minute walk into camp with all of the chaski’s cheering me on. I felt like an olympic athlete!
The welcome from these hard working and generous men was so warm and heartfelt that I started to tear up. However, I could only laugh when our chaskis finally saw me. They ran up to me, took my pack, and gave me high fives. The welcome to camp definitely made up for not climbing the ruins.
I was escorted to my tent and provided with hot water and tea. I took off my boots, thanked my body for carrying me through this amazing day and collapsed inside the tent.