LCG, Part VIII: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

Mis amigos,

I recently set out with fourteen other internationals on the Inca Trail: a four day hiking excursion along an original Incan route that culminates at the fabled Machu Picchu. The trail goes from ~8,000 ft. to ~14,000 ft., and passes through at least three distinct environments with varied and breathtaking scenery. There are ruins along the trail, which no one has ever heard or cared about, although they get increasingly impressive as you draw closer to the destination. The consensus amongst our group was that Machu Picchu better be incredible if it is to put everything else to shame and anonymity. Spoiler alert: it is.

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The ruins of Intipata, or one of the places that no one has ever heard or cared about.

Quick history lesson: the Incans were the last of the indigenous cultures to rule South America. We care about them today because they coalesced all the greatest achievements of the continental cultures that came before them into a very impressive product and were slaughtered by the Spaniards. They had been in the middle of a civil war when the Spanish arrived with their smallpox, and thus were too disorganized to stand a fighting a chance. They spoke Quechua, which was not written at the time, and so it wasn’t hard to demolish their culture and rewrite history. Cusco was their capital, and their ruins are still scattered throughout the country. Machu Picchu was a development of ~1,100 people and the best preserved and most impressive of these ruins, a wonder of the ancient world, and a destination of (a capped) 2,500 tourists every day.

The sky above the ruins of Sayaqmarka.
The sky above the ruins of Sayaqmarka.


Of our crew, there were four Frenchmen, two Italians, two New Zealanders, two Canadians, two Argentinians, one Brazilian, one Mexican, and yours truly. I was the youngest and the only one who had come alone/ wasn’t traveling. The average age was somewhere in the mid-thirties, and there were a considerable number of married couples. Here’s a fun fact: when people gather from all around the world to travel together, you know what language they speak? English. Spanish speakers were in the minority, though with the contribution of the two Candians, there was an exclusive amount of French going on. Stupid French. An unexpectedly awesome part of the trip was having all of these worldly perspectives together was the dialogues we had on our many hours of walking.

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Our crew, with yours truly stag and proud on the right.

We were accompanied by fifteen porters (sherpas) and three guides. You can see us with the porters in one of the attached pictures. The guides stayed with us all trip and collectively spoke English, French, and Spanish. Our porters were a collection of locals ranging from twenty-three to fifty-eight. These monsters carried all of our camping equipment, food, and (for a price) any baggage that was too heavy for us puny internationals to carry. They also make this trip six or seven times a month. If I can still hike the trail once at fifty-eight, I will consider my physical fitness/ life a success.

Life on the trail is simple. The porters always hike ahead of the group, and prepare meals (which were excellent), campsites, and do all of the cleaning. I was not expecting this treatment and more than impressed with the care these guys took care of us. All we had to do was walk, rest, eat, sleep, and repeat, and remember to enjoy the walk and the sights (a useful reminder anytime, no?). This wasn’t hard. I’m not going to attempt to make our first three days of hiking exciting for you in text, so just take my word for it. We made friends with each other and the wilderness and gradually learned more about the history of the Incans and the region with each passed ruin. The three best things that happened to our stomachs/ moral (these are the same thing on the trail) were the soups that came before lunch and dinner, a cake that they made for us the last night, and hot chocolate that came in Hulk and Iron Man containers. NB: hot chocolate is even better when it comes from super heroes.

The trail: just as beautiful as the ruins.
The trail: just as beautiful as the ruins.

On our last day of hiking, we rose at 3:30am to get in line for a check point that opened at 5:30am. The morning was dark, cold, and foggy, and when we finally set out you couldn’t really see much. By the time we arrived at the Sun Gate, the first place where you can see Machu Picchu buried in the mountains, the clouds were lying low and you couldn’t see anything. Wait, wait, our wise guides told us, and so we threw down our packs and did as we were told. Over the next half hour, as more groups trickled in, the sun began to rise over the mountain range behind us and slowly scatter the fog before us. As the valley slowly cleared, the sun warming our backs, Machu Picchu appeared before our eyes: as enormous and magnificent as the legend. And as the weary travelers stood side by side, everyone started to cheer, their international tongues seamlessly blending into a single voice that cascaded down the valley and rang off the mountains.

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Dawn at the Sun Gate coming to scatter the clouds.

When I think back to this trip, that is the moment that I will never forget, though Machu Picchu itself was equally wonderful. Nestled in the midst of the most beautiful valley I have ever seen, I could try to paint a picture with my words here, but it’s really something you have to see for yourself (rest easy: the destination is also accessible by train). We had a two-hour tour and then wandered around as far as our depleted bodies could take us, before heading down the base town of Aguas Calientes (“hot waters”), eating all the food we could handle, and then the New Zealanders and yours truly soaked ourselves in the natural hot springs that the town derives its name from. Refreshed, we caught a train then a van back to Cusco and then went our separate ways.

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Machu Picchu.

If you’re in Peru and you’ve got the time, the Inca Trail comes with my highest recommendation.

Survival Tip of the Week: The best solution for the endless plates of white rice that accompany nearly every meal? Butter.