Tag Archives: Inca Trail Trek

Day 4 on the Inca Trail: Sun Gate to Machu Picchu, The Lost City Of The Incas

Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Inca, reached on Day 4 of the Alpaca Expeditions 26-mile Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are awakened at 3 am when the Alpaca Expeditions staff bring hot coffee to our tents. We have everything ready for leaving the Wiñaywayna campsite by 3:15 am (I had packed everything the night before and only kept out what I would be taking on the trail), and set out, our bagged breakfast in hand, wearing our headlamps in the dark for the surprisingly short distance walk to the check-in point for Machu Picchu where we wait until it opens at 5:30 am.

Our guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman wants us to get up so early to be first on line (he claims to have a 98% success rate) and also to get to the Sun Gate as the sun rises, and to Machu Picchu in time for the first rays to illuminate the scene. In fact, there is only a group of six ahead of us and something like 200 behind us, checking our passport against the list of permits granted for the day.

Somehow, I wind up leading our pack of 15 trekkers and I surprise myself at the pace I set for the one-hour hike on this mostly flat portion of the trail to the Sun Gate. I am in the lead until we get to what Lizandro calls the “Gringo killer”- 50 of the steepest steps – more like a rock climbing wall – where you need to use your hands to crawl up like cat.

Lizandro has prepared us for the fact that the sun only comes through the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise on the solstice. But from here, we get our first view of Machu Picchu in the distance (it’s still an hour’s hike away).

One of the many nice aspects of our guides, Lizandro and Georgio, is that they have been patiently  taking individual and group photos of us with our phones and cameras at each of the key spots along the trail, and so we stop at the Sun Gate to take our turn posing for those shots. (Everyone wants to be at this small point for the sunrise, which is why Lizandro wanted us first.)

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And then we continue (downhill!), from the Sun Gate at 8956 ft. elevation, an hour more to Machu Picchu, descending to 7,873 elevation over the course of three miles from the Wiñaywayna campsite. At the same time, the temperature which had been cold at the highest elevations, becomes warm, even balmy, so we are actually sweating (need sunscreen and hat!) at the site.

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail as dawn breaks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This part of the Inca trail gives us views that show how Machu Picchu is positioned – we see the entirety of the Lost City (I can only imagine what it was like before it was excavated) and how it is etched amid the contours of the mountain peaks – which is how it was kept hidden from the Spanish when they invaded in 1538 and for 400 years.

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail as dawn breaks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Literally 10 seconds after I pass a scenic overlook, the sun pokes out. (These views and so much more, are why we take the Inca Trail trek.)

At about 7:40 am, we walk in what seems to be a back entrance into the city, where we are perched on high terraces and the views are the iconic ones of magazines and postcards (and I suspect are not available to the day-trippers who come in from the bottom entrance for the tour). How lucky we are because the sun breaks through, highlighting the structures, for exquisite scenes.

Only 40% of Machu Picchu has been excavated so far, which means that 60% is still underground and hidden from view © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We actually walk down and out of Machu Picchu site to wait for our ticketed time to re-enter (you can only stay 2 ½ hours and can only come in with a guide). While we wait, we have to use the bathroom before we reenter and check bigger backpacks and hiking poles.

We made it! Karen, Sarah and Eric at Machu Picchu at the end of the Alpaca Expeditions four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek (photo by Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman)

Our scheduled time to enter Machu Picchu to begin our 2 hour private guided tour with Lizandro is 8:30 am, who leads us on Circuit #4 (there are four different circuits to control crowds) to the highlights: the terraces, Sun Temple, Royal Mausoleum, Palace, Plaza, Sacred Rock.

Machu means “old, ancient, big). Picchu means peak , so Machu Picchu actually means “Ancient Mountain,” but that was not its indigenous name.

Lizandro tells us that it was built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, the 9th Incan king but its first emperor, who was the “Alexander the Great” of the Inca, the Empire Builder. Beginning in 1438, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui began a far-reaching expansion that brought much of the modern-day territory of Peru under the ruling Inca family control. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo  and Machu Picchu. He built Machu Picchu up in the mountains, instead of the valley, to be closer to sun, to connect the sky and the earth in one place, as well as for protection.  “Mountains were gods that protected the villages and the animals,” he relates. Almost all of the construction faces east to catch the sunrise – the Inca rulers claimed to be the children of Inti, the Sun God.

The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest. But Bingham is credited with bringing Machu Picchu to the attention of the world. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the next 100 years, the Empire ultimately expanded to what are today six South American countries, connected by 25,000 miles of roads, suspension bridges and trails, and controlling a population as many as 18 million.

The Sun Gate was built as a check point to enter Machu Picchu, but positioned so that on December 22, the summer solstice, the sun beam would come through gate; and on June 21, it comes through the other window.  

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Machu Picchu is built in two sections – an urban sector has some 200 units of which 172 were homes, and the rest were temples, and a sun dial.

There would have been 700-800 people living here full time – 60% were nobles, the rest were farmers and workers.

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend the scale of the construction, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How did they build Machu Picchu without slaves, without animals to carry, without a wheel, iron tools, or written language? Consider that China’s Great Wall and the Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor, draft animals, a wheel, iron tools and written language.

What they had was a culture and a labor system based on principles: Ani – reciprocity – one for all, all for one; Minka – community benefit – vulnerable – collectivity (how the Peruvians got through Covid despite a poor health care system); and Mita – paying taxes by work, labor (not cash) to benefit the whole.

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It took 50-60 years to build Machu Picchu for Pachacuti, the first Incan Emperor,  who ruled from 1432-1472, but it was never finished. I can’t help but wonder how many men were impressed to build this enormous complex of structures in that amount of time.

When the Spanish invaded in 1538, Machu Picchu was abandoned before it was finished and the Incan forces fell back to arm Vilcabamba, the Inca’s last stronghold. “They promised to come back but didn’t,” Lizandro says.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman relates the background to Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Inca © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is mindboggling to contemplate that as complex a construction as what we see, the scale, and the fact that more than 60% is still unexcavated, under 400 years of overgrowth.

The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest.

“He set up tents at base, met a local to ask where Vilcabamba might be. The man didn’t know, but on July 24 1911, with machete in hand, Bingham had a big surprise: the sight of Machu Picchu took his breath away. Two families were living here, cultivating the terraces two years before Bingham arrived. They were running away from paying taxes to the government.” [Off the grid?]

Only 40% of Machu Picchu has been excavated so far, which means that 60% is still underground and hidden from view © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bingham returned for a second, then a third expedition. He uncovered eight Inca trails (the Inca destroyed many of the trails to prevent the Spanish from reaching Machu Picchu) and took away artifacts, he claimed, for two years. “More than 100 years later, Yale still has the artifacts and is requiring Peru to build a museum to hold artifacts near Machu Picchu. But Peru wants it by the river. In 2015, the United States sent 11 percent of the artifacts back – but not all were real, some were replicas that they returned. The Peru government wants all of it back.”

The photos Bingham published brought international attention to Machu Picchu, the “Lost City of the Inca” – and tourists. The first tourist following the Inca trail came in 1954 and this Incan Citadel has become the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. The site was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Machu Picchu, reached on Day 4 of the Alpaca Expeditions 26-mile Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We trekkers follow Circuit 4 (there are four circuits, to spread out the crowds): starting at the Main Gate (where we must present our passports and permit), to the Sun Temple, House of the Inka, the water foundation; Granitic Chaos; Sacred Plaza; Intiwatana Pyramid; Sacred Rock; Three Gates; Water Mirrors; and Condor Temple.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman points to the astonishing construction of Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We climb the steep stone steps and come to the Sun Temple. It was built as a royal tomb to contain the mummified remains of the king.  Lizandro points to how a temple would have the highest quality building stones and most precise placement and its architecture emphasizes the “harmony between people and nature. They always incorporate the natural bedrock. The windows are aligned for summer and winter solstice – a solar observatory. There are three steps – the Inca triology. The mummified body was placed in the tomb in fetal position.” There are no mummies left in the tomb, but there would have been mummies of the 12 Inca kings (others were buried). On the day of Ayamaki, the mummies would have been paraded from the mausoleum.

The Royal Tomb at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lizandro notes that the word ‘jerky” – the dehydrated meat snack – comes from the indigenous Quechua word, “jakky charky” (related to mummification).

We come to the Royal Inca Palace, where we can see that instead of windows (too cold), there would have been shelves for idols. “Bingham got here in time to see some.”

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How would they have set the weighty keystone in place? With ramps, aloe vera to make it slick, he says. The enormous stone building blocks, weighing tons, are trapezoid shape and set at a slight incline angle, for stability against earthquakes. Indeed, Peru suffered two big earthquakes – in 1650 and 1950 – when the colonial buildings collapsed, the great cathedral in Cuzco collapsed, but these structures remained (in fact, the 1950 earthquake in Cuzco unearthed Incan structures). We see under one massive block a roller-shaped stone – a precursor to the wheel.

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps. The straight lines and perfect angles, the precision, the sheer size and bulk of the stones, and how this entire city is nestled on a plateau amid these sheer mountain peaks.

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a large open area, like a field, which would have been used for festivals, activities, an amphitheater. And in the middle, is what would have been a sundial. In 1978, the then president invited the Spanish King and Queen to visit, and their helicopter landing in the field, broke the sundial. (I find it ironic that the Spanish were still destroying Incan heritage.)

In this small plaza, Lizandro points out a huge section of bedrock cut to mimic the shape of the mountain behind – mountains were considered sacred.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman points to the precision of the placement of the stone boulders for the temple at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He explains a bit of the Incan society hierarchy – the Inca were the royal family and nobles – perhaps 20,000 who ruled over a population of dozens of different tribes totaling as many as 18 million across much of South America. Professionals could become nobles (rise to that privileged class) because of their expertise, skill and function. Teenagers could show a talent and go into a profession.

Can’t help but thinking of architect Antoni Gaudi’s style at Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We sit around for a bit of a rest, and Lizandro explains some of the contemporary politics. Apparently, in the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori [a fixture in Peru’s politics from 1990 to 2003] wanted to privatize Machu Picchu – selling it off to Chilean investors, drawing an outcry of protests from the people. “The president did well his first five years – investing in industrial farming – but after he was reelected, he sold off or privatized without people knowing.” Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, wound up being investigated for corruption. He tried to flee to Japan and was captured enroute in Santiago with eight suitcases of cash. He was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.”

Lizandro says the Peruvian constitution (which I subsequently read has been rewritten and set aside multiple times since the country’s independence, while the government has undergone a series of coups back and forth from dictatorship to democracy, socialism to capitalism) favors foreign companies (they don’t pay tax). Because 50 percent of Peru’s population lives in Lima, he tells us, the people who live in rural areas, in the mountains, have little say.

The view of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayna Picchu © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Several of our group have obtained permits in advance to climb Huayna Picchu – that famous nub of a mountain, like an overlord, in the iconic Machu Picchu images – and Sarah has obtained one, while the rest of us continue touring Machu Picchu with Lizandro.

The steep stone trail to the top of Huayna Picchu © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Sarah reports back that the 45-minute hike is extremely arduous – much harder than the Inca Trail hike – almost straight up to a tiny perch at the top, at 8,835 ft., 850 ft. higher than Machu Picchu, where everyone has to take turns for the photo, but you get a famous view of Machu Picchu. The trail was built by the Inca who also built temples and terraces at the top.  “I would definitely recommend it to fitter hikers looking for one last challenge. It’s not super long and being able to see the scale of Machu Picchu from above was really impressive.”

Sarah with other members of our Alpaca Expeditions trek celebrate reaching the Huayna Picchu summit.

We finally come back down to the entrance/exit to Machu Picchu and Lizandro hands us a ticket for the bus that takes us down an extremely winding road to the village of Aguas Calientes. We meet for a last lunch together in a local restaurant – kind of a celebratory meal ( optional and not included). Lizandro gives us our train ticket, departing Aguas Calientes 3:20 pm (you need to take seriously the notice to be on the platform at least 30 minutes ahead of time, which is when the train loads) to Ollantaytambo.

The train is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the two-hour trip (which for some reason takes us much longer). At Ollantaytambo, we are met by the Alpaca Expeditions bus for the two-hour drive back to Cuzco and drop off back at our hotel.

The train from Aguas Calientes is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the relaxing two-hour trip to Ollantaytambo © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Candidly, I had been so obsessed about getting passed Day 2, Machu Picchu was more of an end-goal of a quest than the prime attraction – being here means I had gotten over the Dead Woman’s Pass, completed the 26 miles, going as high as nearly 14,000 feet – much as it would have been for the pilgrims who undertook this journey of a lifetime. It is personal.

For me, it is not just a trip of a lifetime but a now or never proposition.

I am not the only one celebrating an important milestone. Indeed, this is the sort of bucket-list trip that warrants a milestone – Peter timed reaching Machu Picchu for his 35th birthday; a couple had just gotten engaged at the start of the hike; another 30-something couple (he’s Italian, she’s Dutch) is on their honeymoon .That’s how special this trek is, embodying physical, spiritual – just as it did for the Inca, a triumph of will and willpower. A test of character then as now.

Eric and Sarah relax on the train after our four-day trek and two-hour tour of Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You are at the same time amazed by the ability of these people to construct these sites at all, but then wonder at the level of control exerted, the role of religion in maintaining that control and how authoritarians throughout human history use religion (the divine right). No surprise: the Inca kings claimed to be the son of the Sun God, Inti. And yet, you can’t help but marvel at the accomplishment of that government capable of building the 25,000 miles of roads, in producing the amount of food to sustain the population, and unifying a population of 18 million into a society.

You appreciate the social structure that produced these extraordinary mountain villages in a society that did not have slaves nor currency, did not have the wheel or beasts of burden, did not have compass, ruler, alphabet or written language.

Most astonishing, these structures were built within 20, 40 or 60 years’ time – apparently, each chief would select a project to be completed within his own lifetime.

Photos do not do justice, you have to stand next to the rock walls, trace how the boulders link to perfectly together, see the curve at the edge, the inclined angle (for stability against earthquake) with such exquisite precision, hoist yourself up the steep stone steps, look beyond to the distance these boulders would have had to be transported from their quarry.

You stand perched on these terraced structures built into the side of a mountain and simply cannot fathom what it took to build.

All these thoughts come to me as I step, climb, step, climb the trail.

Our Alpaca Expeditions group, at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At each site, Lizandro tells us more of the story of the Inca and the society they created – but unlike the sturdy bedrock that these sites were built on, the Inca’s hold on the people was really not that strong because it was not a bond. At a certain point, their hold was by force. “The Inca weren’t very nice people,” he says softly.

What was unexpected was to come away with an understanding of the limits of authoritarian control. Indeed, the Inca ruled for less than 400 years, but the empire existed only for a century before it was toppled, too weak and lacking support of the people, to withstand the Spanish invaders. There are lessons for day.  And as we learn, Peru is still going through these cycles of economic struggle, political ping-pong between dictatorship and democracy, socialism and capitalism, since becoming independent from Spain in 1821. The more things change, the more they stay the same, may well be the lasting lesson.

Alpaca Expeditions offers many ways to get to experience Machu Picchu – the trek is its own experience, and when you think about it, is very inexpensive (from $650); it’s not even that difficult or expensive an airfare to reach (at this stage, you fly through Lima or Quito to Cuzco, but a new international airport is being built closer to Cuzco). The tour company also offers many different programs – like the Sacred Valley excursions – to different areas.

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/

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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© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Day 1 on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: A Test

Crossing the bridge to set out on the Inca Trail on Day 1 of the four-day, 26-mile Alpaca Expeditions trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

For me, the first day of the four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu is a test – like throwing down the gauntlet. It is the second hardest (Day 2 is the day I have been dreading), when we will hike 8.7 miles, and climbing 1,866 feet to an altitude of 10,829 feet where our campsite will be. My strategy is that if I find it too difficult, I will simply walk back the way I came, rather than continue on to Day 2.

The day actually begins the evening before, when our group meets at 6 pm (we arrive late from our Sacred Valley day tour) at the Alpaca Expeditions offices for an orientation and to pick up the duffle bags (we are limited to 7 kg which includes the sleeping bag, so only about 4 kg of stuff), as well as a rain cover for our day packs, a rain poncho and hiking poles that we have rented (we will leave the rest of our luggage at the hotel or can store it with Alpaca). A team of porters will carry not only our duffels (they carry 3!), but the camping gear (tents, sleeping bags and mats), a dining tent and stools, cooking stuff, our food, and even a private potty tent.

Alpaca Expeditions’ Porters House provides a place for the porters to stay between expeditions, and is where trekkers have breakfast before setting out on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our adventure starts with a pick up at our hotel, Amaru Inca, in Cuzco’s historic district at 4 am. We pick up the other participants at various locations (didn’t realize we could have overnighted at Ollantaytambo!) and are taken to Piskachucho, Porters House, where we enjoy a marvelous and energizing breakfast. This is a bunkhouse where the porters – who come from mountain villages hours away – stay between expeditions.

We stop off for a bathroom break at a fantastic shop where I purchase a treasure: the most marvelous alpaca wool knee-high socks for $4 which I adore to keep me comfy cozy on the cold nights in the tent.

Alpaca Expeditions guides Lizandro and Giorgio give us a bit of an orientation and pep talk at the museum at the entrance to Machu Picchu national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive to Km 82, and go through the first Inca Trail checkpoint to begin trek (we have to present our passport and be checked off against the list of permits, which are limited to 200 trekkers a day, which is why you have to book this trip sometimes months in advance). Machu Picchu became a national sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. There is a small museum there and our lead guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, uses this opportunity to gather us all together to reintroduce ourselves (after the orientation meeting the night before), and give us a little intro and pep talk.

Our Alpaca Expeditions group sets out on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are a group of 15: a couple on their honeymoon (he from Italy, she from Netherlands), a couple from New York (actually he comes from my hometown and she from Miami) who just got engaged; a couple from Norway living in Guyana; a couple (she from New Zealand, he from Ukraine) doing remote work in Lima; a group of six ladies organized by one who actually did not know each other until the trip, but were friends or friends of friends, who come from NY, Kentucky, California; Eric and Sarah who are finishing up six-month travel odyssey with this grand finale, and me. Every one is well traveled and adventurous (also between 25 and 35 years younger than me. On the trail, I find a family taking a private tour where the parents are in their mid-60s, so I think I am the oldest trekker on the trail at this point.)

Crossing the river to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What we call the Inca Trail was part of an immense network built Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s. These roads linked the main cities of the empire with Cusco, the capital, and Machu Picchu. During the time of the Inca, the trail was the only way to get to Machu Picchu.

Sarah and Eric at the start of the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, the “grand finale” to their six-month odyssey © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our guide, Lizandro, tells us about the animals we may encounter: puma and condor (not surprisingly, they are also sacred animals that appear in architecture), speckle bear (a herbivore), and birds like fly catcher and hummingbirds (32 species).

Setting out on the Inca Trail on Day 1 of the four-day, 26-mile Alpaca Expeditions trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We head out and cross a bridge over a rushing river after scouts tell us the trail has been reopened. It had been closed down for a month after a rock slide killed two porters. We are the first group of trekkers on the trail – which saves about an hour.

Lizandro stops to point out an insect on cactus – cochinillia – which the Inca used for dying textile. The prickly pear on a cactus, he says, should be eaten before sundown or it will cause an upset stomach. He points to a kind of bean which is made into a powder as a base for aspirin.

Lizandro explains the properties of green agave so important to Incan society © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The green agave was used to make string, while ichu grass was woven into rope, strong enough to haul the massive building stones and build suspension bridges (an Incan invention). Part of the bridge’s strength and reliability came from the fact that each cable was replaced every year by local villagers as part of their mit’a – their public service obligation.

Incan society innovated suspension bridges, which villagers replaced each year as part of their mit’a public service obligation to the state © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the Inca did not use currency, nor, apparently, have slave labor; their society was organized on a system of Anyi (reciprocity, like barter); Minka (communities work together) and Mita (a labor tax, where every man was obligated to do two to three months of service to the government or serve in the military each year). By combining their political authority with religious authority, the people who were impressed to build temples and palaces did it out of devotion.

The first morning’s hike takes us through a few mountain villages – now set up to sell drinks, snacks and items to the hikers, I’m thinking, much as they would have to the pilgrims 600 years ago.

The Inca Trail takes us through mountain villages © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the last village we encounter before ascending into mountain wilderness, Lizandro tells us this is actually the village where he grew up, and where 96 families still live. From the age of 5, he was leading a pack horse on the trail. There was no school in his community, so his parents sent him to live with an uncle for three years, until his parents couldn’t afford to send him. He met a chef and began as a porter at age 18 (one of the youngest) and spent two years as a porter and then a chef before becoming a guide, which is how he learned English; our other guide, Georgio, lives in the Sacred Valley and joined Alpaca Expeditions this year.

The first 2 hours of the trek are relatively easy – a warm up – as we make our way to our first Inca site where there is also a stunning overlook.

Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike (each time, giving us time to rest and refresh and acclimate to the altitude and recover energy to progress).

Overview of an Incan village © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coming to our first Incan site on the trail, Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This site would have housed travelers and soldiers who manned the nearby “hill fort” of Willkaragay, and a shrine with rounded walls known as Pulpituyuq that had religious and ceremonial functions. Patallacta was burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, the last Incan emperor, who destroyed a number of settlements along the Inca road system during his retreat from Cuzco in 1536, to block pursuit from the Spanish conquistadors. This is one reason why the Spanish never discovered the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The culture that built these weren’t the only civilization,” Lizandro tells us. The peoples who lived here were one of the oldest cultures in the hemisphere: the Caral civilization of Peru is the oldest known civilization in the Americas, dating back to 3200 BCE, who built pyramids before the Egyptians.

Pre-Incans like the Paracas performed skull surgery 2000 years ago. I learn that Inca was one of the first cultures that could do surgery; surgeons in ancient Peru commonly and successfully removed small portions of patients’ skulls to treat head injuries; the surgical procedure—known as trepanation —was most often performed on adult men, likely to treat injuries suffered during combat.

Besides the Paracas, there were the Nasca who were responsible for those mysterious lines etched into plains that could only be seen from high up in the shapes of monkey and toucan even though these animals didn’t live here (sometimes I think we imagine what the shapes represent); Chimu, believed to be the first civilization to practice human sacrifice (500 skeletons were found in one tomb near Lima); Tiajuanacas who were the first culture to domesticate animals – llama used to carry goods, alpaca for their fur and meat, and vincuna, all three in the family of camels.

These civilizations and cultures all preceded the Inca but the Inca, a ruling family that imbued themselves with divine authority, were the first to conquer the Andes and establish such a vast empire. The Inca reigned from 1150 to 1533, but the history is mostly lost – eradicated by the Spanish – because the Inca did not develop a written language (that is that they know of).

Coming to our first Incan site on the trail, Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How did they build such big monuments and conquer the Andes?

According to myth, Lizandro relates, around 1100, the first Incan king and queen emerged from Lake Titicaca floating islands, traveled north looking for good soil and came to Cuzco Valley which was already inhabited; the couple transformed the land – built homes, established religion (the sun god, Inti, being the most important, and the Incan king anointed himself the son of the sun), conquered the tribes around Cuzco and made Cuzco the center of their universe and the spiritual center of the Andes. Then they discovered (and conquered) the Sacred Valley – sacred because of the production of corn.

Overview of an ancient Incan village © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the next 350 years or so, the Inca expanded their empire, built a road system (known as the Royal Road in Quechua) was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America. It stretched to Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile and was at least 25,000 miles long. It was also a communications system, similar to the Roman Empire – they connected the three regions, the coast, Andes and rainforest.

Most of the Incan sites we see were built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, who was the “Alexander the Great” of the Inca. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. These Incan sites we encounter along the Incan Trail were built specifically as resting places for pilgrims and travelers headed to Machu Picchu, for religious purpose and for protection of Machu Picchu.

They would send messages by relay runners who carried quipu – messages based on strings and knots (they did not have written alphabet). The runners – who might announce the impending arrival of a noble – could make it to Machu Picchu in four hours (we take four days).

Lunch at Hatunchaca before we enter the wilderness© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From Patallacta it’s another 2-hour hike to Hatunchaca, a kind of way station, where we have lunch, actually served in a small building (avocado salad, a sensational pumpkin soup  – the soups are so welcome, comfort food – garlic bread; trout (outstanding), rice, roasted potato, corn.

We meet villagers during the day’s hike on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next hour (for me, more like 1 hr 20 min) is all uphill, making me all the more anxious for Day 2 hike, which will be the real challenge. I am imagining that tomorrow will be this times 10 – four hours of this just to get to Dead Woman’s Pass.

On this last stretch, we pass through two small communities where we can buy an energy drink, snacks, or essential items like batteries.

At Wayllabamba (9842 ft elevation it begins to mist and we delight in seeing a rainbow (auspicious? Some indigenous people worshipped the rainbow, associated with fertility), but then it thunders and rains © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to a ranger station at Wayllabamba (9,842 ft elevation) where it begins to mist and we delight in seeing a rainbow (auspicious? Some indigenous people worshipped the rainbow, associated with fertility), then drizzle, then thunder, and as we get into camp, at 4:30 pm, it is a real downpour but we get cozy inside our tents at the Ayapata campsite (10,829 ft elevation) where the sleeping bag (winter grade) and mat and our duffels are already placed (whew!).

We settle into our tents and relax. Then it’s tea time! with snacks (popcorn!), and by 7:30 pm a marvelous dinner.

Our tents are all set up when we get to the Ayapata campsite for our first night © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The rain clears out and the stars are amazing.

Lizandro points out the constellations so important to the Inca. For the Incan culture, the Milky Way was believed to be a river, Mayu, the source of all water on earth. For the Inca, earth and sky are connected, sacred, alive and parts of one whole. The sky had special, even religious significance in managing this civilization and organizing daily life. Astronomy was key to agriculture and food production was tied to religion. The Incas could identify the solstices, equinoxes, the changes of season in order to better identify the time of sowing and harvesting. We see how the Incan sites were constructed to connect to the solstice – even Machu Picchu site was constructed around the stars. In the magnificent Southern Hemisphere sky, away from all the artificial lighting, you can appreciate the wonder the sky evoked.

We hiked 8.7 miles this day, and climbed from an altitude of 8,923 ft to 10,829, to the Ayapata campsite, the hike helping us to acclimate and get used to the Inca Trail. I’m feeling fine after today’s hike – at first feeling sensory deprived because I did not bring a book with me (too much weight) so I look over old tweets. I fall asleep anxious about what Day 2 will bring.

The stars come out at Ayapata campsite, so we can appreciate the constellations that inspired such wonder and awe in the Inca © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies 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 2: Conquering Dead Woman’s Pass

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

__________________

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Alpaca Expeditions’ Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu is Personal Test of Mind Over Matter

Our Alpaca Expeditions group strikes a celebratory pose after reaching Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the four-day classic Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The day after we crossed over Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,829 feet above sea level on the Inca Trail and the day before reaching Machu Picchu – the destination of this Alpaca Expeditions four-day/three-night trek –  I celebrated my 71st birthday. I say this because I am not a habitual hiker or climber, am reasonably but not especially fit and live at sea level.  So I was really, really anxious for weeks about whether or not Dead Woman’s Pass, named for its shape, would take on new meaning.

And while age would normally be a private matter, I say this because if I could do it, anyone who is determined (it is mostly about mind over matter) can do it too.

Early morning breakfast before we head out to conquer the Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of the four-day Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But my success (and yes, I do considerate it a major life accomplishment, if only to overcome fear and go outside my comfort zone to take on the challenge) has a lot to do with how well Alpaca Expeditions runs this trip –all that our guides do to make the trek as comfortable and enjoyable as possible; how the porters (who are carrying our gear) all line up to applaud and cheer us when we come in from the hike; the quality of the camping and trekking equipment; the incredible food, snacks and teas (tea time!) that chef Mario serves that are not only the quality of a fine restaurant but seem perfect for the task; providing basins of hot water and soap and delivering hot coca tea as our wake up call. (The private porto-potty tent, and an actual “sanitation engineer” assigned to keep it functioning, is also extremely appreciated.)

Alpaca Expeditions’ “Green Machine” team of porters cheer us as we set out on Day 2 for Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hike itself – 26 miles with some fairly steep ups and downs – is actually considered moderate difficulty, along a trail of stones, albeit some high (especially for someone like me with short legs), some narrow, and some that can be slick.

Imagining the people who laid these stone steps, carved the trail, and the pilgrims who used it to trek to Machu Picchu 600 years ago © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

The main problem comes from the altitude. And my great fear that inhabits my mind with each step as I try to prepare myself by walking up and down the steepest hill in my neighborhood for an hour (fortunately, it is on my corner) is Day 2, when we climb not one but two mountain passes – the first to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13779 ft., which will take four hours, and the second, Runkuracay, at 13020 ft, a distance of 10 miles that involves 10 hours of hiking. I calculate the amount of sunlight in the day and am concerned it will take me 12 hours and I won’t get into camp before dark. I console myself by giving myself an escape plan: I figure that if I have difficulty on Day 1 (the second toughest day) when the hike is  8.7 miles taking 7 hours to get to the campsite at 10,827 feet elevation, I can decide to simply walk back to the start. (I believe the tour operator also has this as a plan; in fact, we ask what happens if somebody is injured along the way and we are told that the porters, who carry huge loads, would carry the person on their back.) It is also a comfort to know the guides carry satellite phones which they can use for an emergency. I also pack my headlamp in my daypack.

The view from Dead Woman’s Pass. Altitude was the major concern in doing the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. Otherwise, the hike is considered “moderate.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And I prepare myself for altitude sickness – not having any alcohol before the trek, taking Sorojchi pills (mainly aspirin and caffeine, sold over the counter in Cuzco) and drinking plenty of water (which works!). I also have Ibuprofin with me.

Trekking among the peaks of the Andes along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, cleverly stops at opportune times to talk to us about plants, insects (used for medicine as well as for dyes, cactus for rope for bridges and to haul stones), the tribal people who still inhabit the mountain villages where he grew up, the Incan sites along the trail, the history, culture and legacy of the Inca Empire. This not only enhances the experience as our imagination fills the images of what we see, but (cleverly) gives us time to rest and acclimate to the higher and higher altitudes, get back our legs and our fortitude, and get revitalized for the next stage.

And on Day 2, Lizandro takes out a bag of coca leaves and shows us how to pack it into a cheek and let the juice mix with saliva to help avert altitude sickness, and before we are about to ascend the stage to Dead Woman’s Pass, he whips out a vial of an oil, like eucalyptus, which he puts into our palms, tells us to clap three times, then inhale the vapors to open our nasal passages and make our breathing more efficient. That works too.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro gives us an oil that helps us breathe more efficiently as we climb the last stage to Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But we also go at our own pace – our guide, Georgio, typically stays in the back of the pack – so we can stop as often as we need, and admire the view, take a photo, take some extra breaths.

I am surprised the trek is not as much about the landscape, scenery, or nature– the views of the pointed peaks with clouds and mist are beautiful, to be sure – as it is a conversation with the people who built the trail, laid the stones that line the entire trail, built the fortresses, enclaves, resting places for pilgrims and nobility on their way to Machu Picchu.

Alpaca Expeditions “Green Machine” team of porters haul up our duffels and camping gear © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You feel a oneness with the pilgrims, as you walk in their footsteps. It all becomes a matter of personal challenge and self-discipline, mind over matter, just as it would have been for the pilgrims 600 years ago when these sites were built. Each step engages you with the human dimension in time, space and substance.

And I can’t help thinking about the people who actually built all of this.

Lizandro stops at Incan sites along the trail to tell us about the history and culture of the Inca, which also gives us time to rest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our voyage in the Galapagos, where we had just traveled, was about natural selection, survival of the fittest and the ecosystems in the natural world. Here, trekking on the Inca Trail, going from site to site, we learn about the human ecology. I can only wonder as I plod up these trails, what was involved to hoist those multi-ton boulders and set them in place to build these structures, the amount of food production that must have been required to sustain a population with the numbers of laborers and soldiers to build, expand and secure the Empire, and the sheer amount of calories to create and sustain all of this, without the benefit of draft animals, the wheel, iron tools, written language.

So much surprises me about the Inca Trail trek, but most of all was the number of Inca sites – resting places along the pilgrimage route, defensive forts built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s in support of Machu Picchu his greatest project– that we encounter. Like Machu Picchu, they were rescued from the overgrowth after 400 years being abandoned to Nature. How meticulously they were restored (not rebuilt) by the government– so that we could better appreciate the society, the culture and the history in their context.

The view of the Patallacta from above on the Inca Trail near Willkaraqay on the first morning of the four-day trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

They were built to accommodate people making a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. This is once in a lifetime for me, as well, or as I tell myself, “now or never” as the window of opportunity closes for me. So seize the day, which is my motto.

You read about these sites, see photographs of it (indeed, the photos archeologist Hiram Bingham published of Machu Picchu, “The Lost City of the Inca”, is what inspired the excavations and spurred this multi-million dollar tourism industry that supports preservation and conservation). But it is only when you are physically here, climbing the steep stone steps, seeing how they are built into these mountains, the scale and the precision with which they were built 600 years ago, feeling the stone, that you can understand and can appreciate.

Lizandro says, “Okay, team.” Giorgio calls us “Family” and in no time, we are, as we set out on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The story unfolds as we haul ourselves up the heights, over mountain passes and down onto plateaus.

Lizandro says, “Okay, team.” Giorgio calls us “Family” and we are off and in no time at all, we are as we set out on the Inca Trail.

Tips to prepare: Comfortable hiking boots are essential. Since so much of the four-day, 26-mile hike involves steep stone steps, I wanted a light boot with good grip and as comfortable as possible (hard for my hard-to-fit feet, I went through several different brands). I broke them in (and tested them) on my daily “workout” going up/down the steepest hill in my neighborhood.

After several trials and errors, I am exceedingly happy with the Altra lone peak all-weather mid (Wide)  hiking boots I bought at REI just before came – as comfortable as sneakers, but great grip, ankle support. I broke them in (and tested them) on my daily “workout” going up/down the steepest hill in my neighborhood.

Our tents are set up and ready for us when we come into camp. Alpaca Expeditions’ excellent camping equipment (even a private porto-potty tent) make the Inca Trail trek as comfortable as possible © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hiking poles are essential (if you don’t bring your own, you can rent from Alpaca Expeditions). They provide the tents but you rent the sleeping bag, mat (really recommended). Bring power bank to recharge phone and camera batteries (no place to plug in for four days; bring extra, charged batteries for camera). Bring a light, compact camera, like a point-and-shoot, to hike with so you don’t carry any extra weight (I packed my Nikon Z5 in the duffel and hiked with it the last day into Machu Picchu).

Comfortable hiking boots and hiking poles are essential for the Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bring two water bottles (they provide boiled drinking water to fill). Bring layers and hats for cold and warm weather; expect rain or mist (you trek through the Cloud Forest). The first two nights camping are likely to be cold – the sleeping bags are excellent quality winter grade but I was thrilled with my the warm knee-high alpaca wool socks I bought for $4 at the shop just before starting the hike). A headlamp is a must. I   loved the Black Diamond Astro 300 lumens from REI)

Bring altitude sickness medicine (there is a prescription medicine, but I was happy with the Sorojchi Pills you can purchase over-the-counter in Cuzco), also people bring coca leaves or candy; have ibuprofen on hand.

Definitely do what you can to prepare yourself physically (and mentally). As I was walking up/down the hill for an hour, I was contemplating doing this for 9 more hours and it wasn’t a pleasant thought. I resigned myself to feeling very uncomfortable for 12 hours, and that in itself was comforting.

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance. This is roughly made up of 200 tourists and 300 porters, guides and support staff. There’s also a limit to the number of visitors allowed to enter the site of Machu Picchu – capped at 5000 people per day.

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

Next: Setting Out 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

__________________

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures