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Inca Trail / Camino Inca, Day 1

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Have you ever had the feeling of being called to a place, not knowing why or when or how but just an understanding that at some point in time you need to be there?  And not questioning this, just working to make it happen?

That’s how it was for me and Machupicchu.  For a long time now I have known that I needed to go there.  And at some point along the way I heard about the Inca Trail route to Machupicchu and knew I needed to take that journey.  Machupicchu was the one place I wanted to see in all of South America, and the central focus of our 2 month trip around this continent.  In January, I researched trekking companies, picked one (Enigma), quickly read the description of the 4-day hike and quickly forgot what it entailed.  All I knew was that we were to meet with our guide the day before the start of the trail and that we’d get to Machupicchu early on the last day.  It’s funny to me, looking back on it – for whatever reason I didn’t feel the need to be overly prepared about what the hike entailed.  It was tough, and high, and long, but going into the trek I just trusted in the company I’d picked and in the security of a decision made somewhere deep inside.  That I had to get to Machupicchu and I had to walk there.

To read more, and see pictures from Day 1, click on the link below!

Seth and I were the first ones picked up from our hotel on day 1, Wednesday, at about 3:50am.  We were met by our guide Fredy and a porter.  They escorted us to our private bus and off we went, making 3 more stops in Cusco to pick up the rest of our group: 4 from Poland, 3 from Romania, and a Spanish man and his US fiance.  After a brief greeting, Fredy told us all to get some sleep during the 2-hr drive to the trailhead.

One hour into the bumpy windy ride down from Cusco to the Sacred Valley, the bus stopped. Fredy hopped out. There was a huge landslide in the road.  “Okay family” – he always addressed us this way – “There is a landslide.  We have to turn around and take another road, a very bumpy dirt road, to the valley.  We will be delayed one hour. We have no other choice.”  He didn’t let us sleep any more – “This road has beautiful views that you normally would not see,” and the views were mandatory.  This was my first glimpse of the snow-covered Peruvian Andes, and the Urubamba river carving through the Sacred Valley – vast and beautiful… but mostly I felt disoriented and hoping for more sleep.

First views of the Sacred Valley

After a very long, very bumpy ride down, through narrow village roads, across crazy one lane paths where we’d have to back up next to the river bank to let another truck pass, before I knew it the bus had stopped and Fredy announced we were at the start of the trail.  We weighed all our bags – we had hired an extra porter to help with our gear and needed to make sure we were under the weight limit of 18 kilos – and reshuffled to our personal backpacks as needed.   We ate our snacks, made clothing adjustments, went through the first government checkpoint – the trail is strictly managed and you must be pre-registered to hike it – and then we were off!

The porters prepping our gear at the start of the trail

Camino Inca trail head!

The first steps on the trail

Day 1 was the hardest day for me.  It was very long, longer than many groups normally hike. Fredy had structured our hike such that we’d hike longer and higher the first day, so that on the 2nd day, going over the 2 high mountain passes wouldn’t be as difficult.  I think he also wanted to get us away from the other groups, which I personally appreciated.  That said, it was hard.  But incredible.

The trail first meanders through tiny villages and little farms.  All along the first couple hours are stands where you can buy water, coke, gatorade, juice, or fruit.  This was also the realm of cute Inca Trail animals: baby donkeys, horses, cows, puppies, kittens, sheep, chickens – I’d had no idea we’d start the trail with so many creatures watching us pass.

Snack Shack on the Inca Trail

Animals of the Inca Trail

Our first climb took us up to a spectacular view of the Urubamba river valley.  Green and mountains all around.  “Well, family, are you happy to be here?”  Fredy asked.  As we breathlessly uttered “Yes!” Fredy pulled out a pipe and made a musical “offering” to Pachamama, mother earth.   I took in the 360 degree view and my body cried out “Yes, this is it, this is exactly where I should be at this moment in time, this is right, this is it.”

First big vista on the trail

Urubamba River & Incan site seen from the trail

Incan site seen from the trail - a military fort

We climbed, and climbed, and climbed some more.  Fredy in front, and our second guide, Alvin, in the back.  Pulling energy from our small snacks of several hours before (I think we were supposed to have had a full breakfast, but due to the landslide delay  we just got snack bags of granola bars and fruit), I kept thinking “Lunch has to be soon, maybe over this hill…” but it was literally hours (maybe 4 or 5?) before we finally hit our first lunch site.

I didn’t know what to expect.  I was totally surprised and impressed.  At the lunch site – which was a campsite area next to a farm – our team of porters had set out sleeping pads for everyone to lay down and rest.  They passed out cups of sweet fruit juice, and prepared bowls of hot water and soap so we could wash our hands.

Seth enjoys a beverage at our first lunch break

Washing hands next to our dining tent

After a grateful break, Fredy announced that lunch was ready and we piled into the dining tent.  The seats we all chose that first meal became our default places for the rest of the trip.  At each place setting was a festively folded napkin and steel dining ware. And then the meal started:  an appetizer of avacado slices with a lovely sauce on top, followed by a feast of sauteed fish, rice, salad, and more.  I couldn’t believe how good it all was.

Enjoying our appetizer inside the dining tent. Notice the festive napkins!

After lunch, more climbing.  Many of the other groups who also started this day were going to camp where we had lunch.  But our final destination was still several more hours up the mountain.  We passed a sign about the trail; Fredy rushed us past.  “It just says that the nice undulating part is over and now the steep part begins,” he summarized for us.  “Undulating” is one of his favorite words – and it became one of mine.  He was honest about when we were going to hit steep climbs or tough descents, but “undulating” was always a pleasant section.

Camino Inca trail sign

During this climb we got our first glimpse of “Abra Warmiwanusca,” translated as Dead Woman’s pass.  See the photo – do you see the woman?  In the valley between the two big mountains: her head and nose on the right, her chest just below her chin?  The pass was our goal for the next morning, and the highest on the trail. Hard to believe we were going to walk to that very distant place!

Dead Woman's Pass

We passed through a forest of trees covered in bromelliads, then into an Andean cloud forest, a beautiful tree paradise next to a waterfall.  We had to stop to let a lady with a small pack of llamas run by. Up and up and up on the steep Incan stairs.  For this part of the trail, Seth and I somehow ended up with our own space; some of our group ahead, and some behind, but we had a bit of peace to walk at our own pace and be as quiet as we liked.

Trees covered in bromelliads

Make way for Llamas!

Inca trail through Andean cloud forest

Just when I thought I could climb no more, we reached our first campsite.  High up, with maybe just one other group at another distant spot, it felt like we really were off on our own expedition in the middle of a mountain range, far away from civilization. And we were.

I wish I’d taken a picture of this first camp, called Llulluchapampa, but I was worried about making my camera batteries last for 4 days so didn’t take any.  Mostly what I remember is that it was really, really beautiful and really, really cold.  It was 3750 m / 12,303 ft high.  I’ve never been that high before, let alone slept at that level!  Even with our sleeping bags and tent, it was still a very chilly night, and the altitude was pretty tough for some members of our group (to help combat altitude sickness, the guides would administer an “Oxyshot” of oxygen to anyone not feeling well).

After another fine meal, Fredy told everyone who wanted to stay up about Incan mythology – their beliefs and an overview of their history.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Fredy is a history professor, and a native of the sacred valley, and a natural outdoorsman; we were so lucky to have him as our guide.  He could weave stories from the past in the most lyrical manner, and then tie them to moments from the present, and is one of those gifted teachers who make you acutely interested in whatever subject is at hand.  I wish I could do justice to his teachings and retell them to you.  But it would be unfair.  The brief, unpoetic version is that he taught us about the Incan symbols of past: the snake, close to the ground (and therefore close to Pachamama, again, mother earth); the present, the puma (so important to the Incas, that the city of Cusco was designed in the shape of the puma); and the future, the condor.  He described the rise and fall of the Incan empire, the context in which the Spanish found them in the early to mid 1500’s, and the purpose of these trails, of which we were only traveling a tiny fraction.

That night, a wildcat visited me in my dreams.

stay tuned for days 2-4!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, May 19, 2011 7:01 am

    Kristen, this is making me want to go there myself! I can’t wait to hear about the rest of the hike, and Machupicchu!

    • Kristen permalink*
      Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:36 am

      Sarah, Machupicchu is a MUST VISIT place! By the way, I’ve been enjoying reading Choppy’s updates!

  2. Gina Bradley permalink
    Thursday, May 19, 2011 7:17 am

    Kristen!
    I’ve finally caught up with you again and am so jealous and happy for you all at the same time. You’ve taken me away from the little hamlet of Westlake Village to places exotic and far away :))) What an incredible experience you’re having. Enjoy every second of it! Can’t wait to read more.

    And you’re writing, by the way, is brilliant!

    • Kristen permalink*
      Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:35 am

      Thank you, Gina! Glad you are enjoying it! When I have time I try to catch your daughter’s Africa stories, too – another great voice taking me to a very distant land! Hope all’s well with you and that you’re having some fantastic bike adventures back in California!

  3. Thursday, May 19, 2011 9:21 am

    Wow – so refreshing and fun to live vicariously through you guys! I can’t wait to read more!

  4. Jen permalink
    Thursday, May 19, 2011 10:05 am

    more, more, more! (please)

  5. Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:58 pm

    I am quite happy to experience it vicariously. Thank you for the photo of the smoochy-face kittens. Can’t wait for more pix. And I totally get what you are saying about being called to a place… it was the same for us when we went to Guatemala to see Tikal.
    ~S 🙂

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