Day 2 on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Dual Challenges of Dead Woman´s Pass, Runcuraccay

Eric and Sarah celebrate having reached Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is the day I have been dreading for weeks. This is the day of reckoning. Dead Woman’s Pass.

Everyone  – and not just my about to turn 71-year old self, some 25 to 40 years older than the other 14 in our pack – it seems had the same anxiety over Day 2, which is the longest, most challenging day, when we will hike for four hours up to 13,829 ft over what I hope is not presciently named Dead Woman’s Pass (the name comes from its shape, not an event).

In fact, the climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass is only the first four hours of the full day’s hike, followed by two hours down, then rest and lunch. But then (and this is what could have done me in), another hike up another mountain, to Runcuraccay Pass at 13,020 ft albeit not quite as high, but steeper, 1,378 ft in elevation, more like a stadium staircase times 100 that I had imagined the whole way up to Dead Woman’s Pass would be, and then a steeper (1,220 ft), challenging decline to our campsite at Choquicocha. Indeed, it is the Runcuraccay Pass that proves the more fearsome, as I soon discover, but actually unfolds to some of the most dramatic and interesting views and sites of the entire four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek. In all, we will hike a total of 10 miles, which includes a mile’s worth of up and downs.

One of my fears is that I won’t make it into camp before dark (there are 12 hours of daylight) so I keep my headlamp handy in my day pack.

(I used Day 1, the second hardest of the four day-hike, as a test, fully well expecting that our guide would politely tap me on the shoulder and suggest I walk back down the way I came, which also was my strategy if I decided the trek was too hard. But he didn’t. And I didn’t. But pressed on.)

Our Alpaca Expeditions group up at 5 am for breakfast before tackling the most challenging day on the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu: hiking over Dead Woman’s Pass at an altitude of 13,779 ft. above sealevel, followed by Runkuracay Pass at 13,020 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s 5 am when we are wakened in our tents with basins of hot water and soap and hot coca tea (to help with the altitude).

Breakfast is sensational, providing excellent energy food (porridge is especially good). Indeed, breakfast typically offers some combination of scrambled eggs or omelette, pancakes, porridge, cereal, fruit salad, toast, orange juice, milk, tea, coffee, hot chocolate. We are always supplied enough drinking water – tap water that is boiled for us.

Alpaca Expeditions’ Green Machine team of porters cheer us on as we leave for Day 2 on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we leave camp at just about 6 am with the first light, the porters line up and applaud for us, giving us that extra boost of encouragement.

As we get higher, Lizandro stops to tell us little stories – a clever ploy so that we rest and acclimate to the higher altitude (in fact, I hear that older people such as myself do better with the altitude precisely because we go slower and stop more often).

Hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At another point, he distributes coca leaves and instructs us how to stuff it into a cheek and let the liquid blend with saliva to get its benefit of countering altitude sickness. Then, at another stop, he distributes a kind of plant oil (like eucalyptus) and shows us how to clap three times, then breath in the vapor, which opens up our air passages so we can breathe better.

Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro gives us an oil and shows us how to inhale it to breathe more efficiently as we climb the last stage to Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Before the last ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, there is a rest stop at Llulluchampampa (the best public restrooms on the trail!) and a stand where locals sell snacks and such. There are llamas with a baby grazing and hummingbirds. We see snow on the peaks.

Llama graze along the Inca Trail at Llulluchapampa, happy at an altitude of 12460 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
A rest stop and snack stand at Llulluchapampa, before the final ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Actually, I make it up to Dead Woman’s Pass by 9:15 am – coming in not at the end of the pack as I expected, but more towards the middle, Eric tells me. Everyone cheers. I honestly don’t remember feeling pain or discomfort, though I know I stopped several times along the way.

A rest break at Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, at 13020 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Group photo! Our Alpaca Expeditions pack celebrates reaching Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, at 13020 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On reaching the pass, we stop for a short break to enjoy the views and take photos (our guide, Lizandro, patiently takes each of our photos and a group photo), and we each indulge in the self-satisfaction of the accomplishment before setting off again to descend to Pacaymayu Valley, Hidden River. It’s another hour and a half down the side of the valley – to our lunch spot.

Beginning the descent from Dead Woman’s Pass 13,020 ft. to Pacaymayu at 11,700 ft. on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get in at 11:15 am to the cheers of the porters and fellow trekkers, where I find mats have been laid out for us to rest, but Mary Kate (who is part of the group of six women who are friends or friends of friends or friends of friends of friends of Caroline), is leading yoga stretches.

Mary Kate leads our Alpaca Expeditions trekkers in yoga stretches © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We enjoy a snack and then a fantastic and welcome lunch served in the dining tent (delectable chicken salad appetizer; Sara Lawa soup which is a kind of egg-drop soup made with corn flour, eggs, ginger) and I am struck by how really excellent the food is, I mean as good as the finest restaurant in Peru. Alpaca Expeditions boasts the best chefs in the mountains, and I am inclined to agree.

Alpaca Expeditions sets out basin of warm water and soap before lunch in the dining tent © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chef Mario seems to use spices, flavors, textures (hot soups, energizing carbs, reinforcing proteins) that are medicinal or at least appropriate to the activity, whether to hike, rest, sleep or wake. All the food is prepared from fresh ingredients purchased in the Cusco local market and carried up for us by the porters, then prepared by the chef (no canned or rehydrated food) who also caters to vegetarians, lactose intolerant and food allergies with heaping platters.

Lunch typically includes a delicious soup (like corn or mushroom) and some combination of chicken and rice, sausage, fried fish, ceviche, steak, beans, fried rice, french fries, boiled potatoes, vegetables, salad.

Tea time snack when we make it into camp for lunch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is such a lot of food but it is not just for us – the porters and staff eat the same food as we do (which, we learn, was not always the case for the trekking companies and a feature of Alpaca Expeditions that we really appreciate).

 After this delightful lunch, the realization sets in: this is only the half-way mark of this challenging day. We actually have another mountain to climb and descend.

Alpaca Expeditions porters hike up to Runkuracay Pass on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In fact, the two-hour climb up the next mountain to Runcuraccay Pass is steeper though shorter and really what I had envisioned (and feared) the Dead Woman’s Pass would be like and altogether more challenging.

We stop at a small Inca site (Runcu Raccay) and see two huge waterfalls cascading down the opposite side of the valley.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide, Lizandro, explain that while the Inca did not have written language, they communicated with quipu – a system of colored strings and knots – that so far have not been deciphered © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After the second pass, it’s another hour of a steep downhill hike to reach the magnificent Inca site, Sayacmarca (an otherwise inaccessible village).

The second half of the Day 2 Inca Trail trek proves the more challenging, but also the most scenic © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This part of the trek has actually been the hardest. Eric and Sarah, who had just 10 days before hiked Rainbow Mountain, a 6.2-mile out-and-back trail near Pitumarca, Cusco, where they hiked 1,627 ft  in elevation up to 16,000 feet (and suffered altitude sickness), are skipping up and down these peaks like a mountain goat. I’m a tortoise, taking my sweet time, going slow and steady, stopping for the views.

Eric and Sarah, on the “grand finale” of a six-month travel odyssey, having already hiked Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, literally skip up and down the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The descent from Runkuracay Pass proves the more challenging © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail disappears as a thin line hugging the mountainside, the people are mere dots of color, and then, in the distance, this amazing and improbable fortress, Sayacmarca, appears. This is an astonishing view as we descend (it is steep), with the mountain mist – even more astonishing because you are not prepared for it as you are for Machu Picchu. And to realize that this construction was basically to protect Machu Picchu. (Here, though, as Lizandro warned, we encounter the meanest mosquitoes.)

Those tiny dots of color are members of our Alpaca Expeditions pack on the Inca Trail toward Sayacamaka, the “inaccessible village” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 1941, an archeaologist came upon Sayacamaka, which was completely buried under the overgrowth and named it “inaccessible village.” The site is strategic – on top of mountain, surrounded by valleys, and protected. We see what would have been a watch tower. These structures were used for resting places, like a hostel, for the pilgrims, nobles and travelers, spaced 20-25 km apart, they could be reached in a day’s hike and knew there would be food and drink ready, Lizandro tells us.

Sayacamaka, which was completely buried under the overgrowth and named by archaeologist “inaccessible village” emerges out of the mist along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Incans would build a temple just for storing idols (gold), but worshipped in open area – more important than temple, because they were in contact with nature, which was the essence of their religion.

Some 16 small rooms have been excavated – the ones with windows were storage rooms; homes did not have windows (too cold). There were no farming terraces here; food came from other places, supplied by other community people.

Sayacamaka, which was completely buried under the overgrowth and named by archaeologist “inaccessible village” emerges out of the mist along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a huge rock in the middle of house that was natural, part of mountain, in the same shape as mountain. “The Inca made a replica to be closer to mountain (it was considered a god).”

Sayacamaka is one of the most intriguing and dramatic sites along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How did they get the building stones there? Lizandro points to where a quarry would have been on the other side of the mountain, that would have been brought up the steep trail using only human power. How many would have built the village, and over what period of time, I wonder.

They also engineered canals to bring drinking water – we see three small, square constructions that served as water fountains.

Peru’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Environment is responsible for these sites; rangers protect. While they excavate and can restore, they cannot rebuild any of the structures.

Sayacamaka is one of the most intriguing and dramatic sites along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 1915, the archeologist Hiram Bingham, who is most responsible for uncovering Machu Picchu, 1915 found 8 of these Incan trails – portions have been revived. One of the trails led to Vilcambaba, the last refuge of the Inca. In 1538, these sites along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu were abandoned by order of Manco Inca, the last Incan king to protect them from the invading Spaniards.

After exploring Sayacamaka, it’s only 20 minutes further to our second campsite, Chaquicocha (Dry Lake) at 11,808 ft. altitude, as the sun sets over the Vilcabamba mountain range. 

Chaquicocha campsite is described as a recently restored Inca settlement at the gateway to the jungle, nestled between two eco-systems – high ground and cloud forest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We reach the Chaquicoche campsite at around 6:30 pm, just as darkness descends, having met the toughest challenge of the trip (and my life).

The Chaquicocha campsite is described as a recently restored Inca settlement at the gateway to the jungle, nestled between two eco-systems – high ground and cloud forest. It has one of the most picturesque settings with a fantastic view of the night sky to observe the stars, except it is cloudy tonight. It is also quite cold, and I am so happy with my $4 purchase of knee-high alpaca wool socks.

Chaquicocha campsite is described as a recently restored Inca settlement at the gateway to the jungle, nestled between two eco-systems – high ground and cloud forest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Happy Hour” ( tea time) before dinner consists of popcorn, fried wontons, tea, coffee, followed by another superb dinner (the menu might consist of some combination of stuffed chicken, vegetable tortillas, pizza, spaghetti, pork cutlet, sauteed vegetables, salad).

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

Next: Day 3 on the Inca Trail

See also:

VISIT TO PERU’S SACRED VALLEY IS BEST WAY TO PREPARE FOR INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU

INCAN SITES OF PISAC, OLLANTAYTAMBO IN PERU’S SACRED VALLEY ARE PREVIEW TO MACHU PICCHU

ALPACA EXPEDITIONS’ INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU IS PERSONAL TEST OF MIND OVER MATTER

DAY 1 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: A TEST

DAY 2 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: DUAL CHALLENGES OF DEAD WOMAN´S PASS, RUNCURACCAY

DAY 3 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: TOWN IN THE CLOUDS, TERRACES OF THE SUN & FOREVER YOUNG

DAY 4 ON THE INCA TRAIL: SUN GATE TO MACHU PICCHU, THE LOST CITY OF THE INCAS

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