At the end of the second day of the Inca Trail, my body was tired (we’d hiked from 3000 metres above sea level, up to 4200 and then back down to 3600 in the space of a day), my mind accomplished (together with Cara I’d been the first in our group to make it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass), and my heart excited about the day that lay ahead.
In spite of the fact that the night had been bitterly cold, and my thoughts were swimming with ghostly tales from the evening before (yeah, thanks Juan!), I’d slept incredibly well. I was also pleased to discover that the cloud had rolled through, leaving behind a perfect winter morning with some beautifully clear skies above us.
After a welcome mug of hot coca tea and a filling breakfast of hot porridge, fresh fruit and pancakes, we set forth into the half-light of the approaching dawn.
The morning began with an 200 metre ascent to the first of several Incan ruins we would visit today. Runkuracay is an ovoid-shaped building more commonly known as the Egg Hut, and overlooks the Pacamayo valley, offering superb views down on to the Warmiwañusca pass. For this reason it was likely built as a lookout point or Inca tambo – somewhere the chasquis messengers could rest themselves and their animals. We took a leaf out of their book, and grabbed a short break in order to rehydrate ourselves and take a few photographs.
Above Runkuracay the path continued to climb up to the peak of the second pass, Abra de Runkuracay – 4000 metres above sea level. Fortunately we made frequent stops at viewpoints along the way in order to admire the incredible vistas that lay below us. These were also perfect opportunities to utilise the super wide angle lens on our Go Pro.
From Abra de Runkuracay it was all downhill, and whilst descents don’t bother me (I seem to be blessed with fairly resilient joints as far as hiking goes although 7 consecutive days in the saddle did begin to take its toll on my knees), I much prefer the uphill stretches. I love the sense of anticipation and excitement you experience as you near the top of the climb and the stunning panoramas with which you are undoubtedly rewarded.
The descent was gentle to begin with, allowing us to slow our pace a little and to move our focus away from the path ahead. In doing so we we able to fully enjoy the beautiful vistas and lush plant life along the trail.
Whilst our first Incan ruin of the day had been a fairly small structure, Sayacmarca sprawled across the mountainside ahead of us, a series of narrow stone steps linking it to the path upon which we walked.
Its function remains a bit of a mystery to historians (a tambo has been ruled out due to nearby Concha Marca, there’s not enough agricultural land for it to be a farming outpost, and the stonework is not impressive enough for it to be a religious centre) but archeologists have managed to date its construction back to the 15th century.
A combination of its labyrinthine construction and elevated position, and the beautiful blue skies we were rewarded with throughout our visit made this my favourite of the Incan sites we explored that day. I loved it so much that I failed to notice I was the only member of our group still wandering through its grounds.
I’m a bugger for for getting swept away in my own little adventures and losing track of anything and everything that happens to be going on around me, so I take my hat off to Juan and Ronan for waiting patiently by the entrance for me to return, and for not grumbling when I finally did.
We continued to descend along the uneven stone track beneath our feet, passing masses of flourishing bamboo plants and lush vegetation at either side, until we reached our lunch spot – which also happened to be home to a selection of curious llamas.
I wasn’t quite brave enough to attempt the whole llama selfie myself (although being charged by a llama may have made for an interesting story!), so all credit to José for pulling off this rather magnificent shot.
During the short time we’d been stopped for lunch (only a fraction of which was actually spent eating lunch; the rest was chasing the perfect llama photograph), the cloud had rolled in once again, forcing us to layer up as we continued our descent.
We passed through some magnificent cloud forests full of hanging mosses, tree ferns and flowers, including an impressive Inca tunnel carved into the rock.
The path then started to climb again, up to 3700 metres, and would have offered us some stunning views of the snow-capped peaks of Salkantay (6180 metres) and Veronica (5750 metres) had there not been so much cloud around.
The cloud did however make for a rather atmospheric shot of our third Incan ruin, Phuyupatamarca, whose name (very appropriately) means ‘ Town in the Clouds’.
Access to Phuyupatamarca is down a steep flight of stone steps, and was only the start of a long section of the trail more commonly known as the ‘Gringo Killer’. The stairs were uneven and stupidly steep in places – not to mention wobbly. For someone who doesn’t have the best balance in the world, if any part of the trail was going to kill me, it would undoubtedly be this one.
Continuing past the impressive ruins of Phuyupatamarca, we started to descend into the what can only be described as the Inca Trail rainforest. Vines hung down from tall trees, mosses grew in abundance, and moisture lingered in the warm air.
And still we continued to descend…
My legs were feeling pretty tired by this stage that I longed for a sighting of our final Incan ruin, Intipata, up ahead. We’d been given strict instructions by Juan not to turn off the path, however when one of the guides in another trekking group we passed suggested a short cut, I was sorely tempted.
By the time we reached Intipata the daylight was fading – along with our energy and enthusiasm. But we had to keep going in order to make it to our final campsite at Wiñay Wayna before nightfall.
Wiñay Wayna sits at 2700 metres above sea level, and whilst the campsite was barely big enough to accommodate us all and the cleanliness of bathrooms left a lot to be desired, the final meal we all shared together totally blew me away.
On top of the vast array of thoughtfully composed and beautifully presented vegetarian and meat dishes we were served at Wiñay Wayna, our cook had baked (and decorated) a cake for us! He deserved every sol of the tip we presented him with after the meal.
The fourth day of our Inca Trail trek began in the middle of the night. Our wake up calls came at 3am, and by 3:30am we were trudging through the woods in the pitch dark, our head torches providing the only source of light with which to guide our way.
It was only a short walk to the control station, where we would sit in line for the best part of two hours whilst we waited for the gates to open. This would have been an incredibly boring activity had it not been for José and his ukulele, and one of the guys in another of the trekking groups who’d actually bought a stereo, some kick-ass tunes and some light poi.
Up until this point the trail had been – for the most part – beautifully quiet. There had been another couple of trekking groups with whom we’d shared lunch spots and campsites, but we rarely saw them anywhere else on the trail.
The final morning was a different story entirely. The gentle 150 metre descent follows a narrow trail that contours a mountainside and drops into some beautiful cloud forest. It’s the kind of scenery that looks especially stunning in the pre-dawn light – for the few fleeting seconds that you are actually able to stop and appreciate it.
The race to Intipunku (the Sun Gate) was my least favourite part of the trek, because that’s exactly what it felt like – a race. Yes it was lovely to witness the first of the sun’s rays lighting up the tops of the immense Incan city, but I didn’t appreciate being herded like cattle in order to get there.
There is no doubt that Machu Picchu is an incredible feat of both construction and engineering, and thoroughly deserves its place as one of the 7 New Wonders of the World.
However, the sheer number of people at the site (Machu Picchu sees 2500 visitors per day; this number would be much higher had a restriction not been set in 2011) made it difficult for me to enjoy the experience of being there – certainly from a photographer’s point of view, at least.
Whilst I appreciate this is to be expected at any major tourist attraction (and all the more so at the most visited site in South America), it was a bit of a shock to the system after days of camping in the remote Andes mountains.
Fortunately Machu Picchu is built on such an immense scale that even in spite of the crowds it’s still possible to find those isolated corners where you can perch on a centuries-old stone wall, gather your thoughts and stare wistfully at the majestic Andean mountain peaks.
It’s backdrops like this that help the site to retain its air of grandeur and mystery.
I felt a twinge of sadness as we left the grounds of this magnificent Incan city, because it signified the end of what had been a truly unforgettable journey.
Whilst the final destination had been no less impressive than I had imagined it to be, it was the 4-day journey through some of nature’s most diverse and beautiful landscapes that held the memories I will cherish the most.
I will never forget the incredible feeling of being the (joint) first in our group to make it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, or the wonderful meals and camaraderie we all shared.
I will always remember the freezing cold nights at the campsites listening to ghost stories and drinking hot coca tea, or lying in my tent at night being serenaded by José on his ukelele, and looking up at a sky filled with an endless expanse of stars.
This is my Inca Trail experience. What’s yours?
If you’d like to know how it all began, you can read the first instalment of my 4-day Inca Trail trek here.
Alternatively I’ve written a lengthy post about the logistics of the trek (when to go, how far in advance you need to book, choosing a trekking company, packing lists, costs, acclimatising to the altitude and what to expect) over at Backpack South America.