Saturday, February 02, 2013

How to travel to Machu Picchu like the Incas did back in the 1500s

The Greatest Hike in the World
No one exactly knew what purpose Machu Picchu served the Incas. Some claimed it was a vacation home for the ruling elites while others say it was a mountain fort built to hide all the Inca virgins away from the Spanish. We may never know the true purpose of this magnificent Inca city that was left intact and undiscovered by the Spanish. But what we do know is that the Incas, as one of the greatest civilizations of ancient times, were very adapt at building roads, just like the Romans. However, unlike the Romans, the Incas didn't have horses, which eventually led to their ultimate demise when they met the Spanish. But in the meantime, they built a great road system connecting the Inca capital, Cuzco, to Machu Picchu, which remains until today and is now called the Inca Trail. 
Machu Picchu
Seeing Macchu Picchu is probably the number one thing to do when visiting South America. Although after having done this, I feel that the best part about visiting Machu Picchu is to actually hike the Inca Trail, what is now deemed as one of the greatest hikes in the world. After several days of hard hike, seeing Machu Picchu was the icing on the cake. The feeling of accomplishment when you climb over the last mountaintop, dirty, exhausted, and then lay your first gaze upon Machu Picchu can not be replicated by gingerly stepping off a train plateform while texting on your smartphone. 
First glimpse
Quiet proud of making it this far
I was told that the Incas used to travel from Cuzco to Macchu Pichu in under a day, probably on barefoot no less. Luckily, for us weakened homo sapiens today, the Inca trail is scheduled as a intense 4 day hike. 
The journey starts from Cuzco

My Experience
The trail itself is only 43km long. The distance is not difficult. The altitude was the hard part. The trail peaks at 4200km above sea level (ominously named "Dead Women's Pass") and bottoms out at 2400km. There were parts where it felt like my head would just split open from the pounding migraine if i just took another step. But granted, we completely ignored the advice to arrive in Cusco at least 2 - 3 days in advance to acclimate to the altitude , which was a huge mistake. 
At 4200 meter above sea level. Head was pounding at this point from altitude sickness
The hike is definitely not for those who can't live without 5 star accommodations. We barely had any creature comforts. For four days, we went without showering and slept in the wilderness, under our tents, in our sleeping bags, with most of our clothe on. Of course at that point, everyone reeked equally bad so no one really complained and it was also way too cold sometimes to even wash your hands, never-mind getting undressed. Nevertheless, we brought lots of wetwipes so I thought the lack of shower was manageable.  

Waking up above the clouds. Not bad
The lack of personal hygiene aside, we were actually fed like kings on the trail. The tour company that we went with had a cook who hiked the trail with us and made the best food I had in Peru, and there were lots of it. So despite hiking over rough terrain for 6-10 hours a day, I actually gained a bit of weight at the end of the hike. 

The food was incredible
Fashion wise, it was comical since all the guys all wore the same tan colored transformable pant-shorts. And since the weather varied greatly intra-day depending on our elevation, all the guys spent a large part of the day furiously ripping off the pants to convert to shorts only to zipping it back on later as we accent higher in elevation.

I was in a group with my buddy Nick and two MBAs and the oldest members of the tour group was a couple in their mid 60s which goes to show that anyone with a mediocre level of fitness can do the hike. 
Our crew at the start of the hike
Besides the amazing scenery that we saw enroute, we also met several friendly llamas along the way. There was a portion of the hike where the llamas were just grazing at the foot of the mountain, shrouded in thin wisps of clouds, from the distance they looked gigantic and quiet mystical, or maybe it was just the thinning oxygen playing tricks on my brain. Anyways, later on, I was able to greet them a little bit more intimately. 
Llama from far away
Llama up close
Trying to pick a fight
The hardest hike was on the second day when we did 11 hours of hard hiking. But it was no easy feat on the last day either when we had to wake up at 330am to line up for the opening of the gates of Machu Picchu. It was the second most amazing sight I have ever seen, next to Bagan in Myanmar.  Seeing Macchu Picchu bright and early in the morning without the big tour groups coming in from buses and trains is worth while in itself. 

Waiting for the gate to open
How I did it 
The tour company that I went with is called Llamapath. They were professional and efficient. Highly recommended -

It is important to book the Inca Trail a couple month ahead of time. Peru only allows certain amount of tourists per day to travel the trail. So check the government website for the availability on your date -

Things you absolutely need to pack:
  • Big roll of toilet paper
  • Head torch
  • Hiking shoes (absolutely no vibrams)
  • Walking sticks (def get these if you value your knees) *can be rented
  • poncho 
  • layers and layers of clothing (temp changes wildly)
  • gloves (I didn't use mine but good to have)
  • Hand sanitizer 
  • microfiber tower
  • Sleeping bag lining (although our sleeping bags were extremely clean)
  • Spare battery for camera! (there are no charging stations along the way...)
  • Or spare camera (I brought two)
The Llamapath Porters
A lot of respect for the porters. Those packs were not light.

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