In the first day of Inca trail, we reached km 82 of trail pretty much at the same time as the other tourists and porters. There were some big groups: 20 – 30 tourists. There were also smaller groups like ours (6-10). Large groups had also lots of porters and some had nice uniforms.
The large groups managed a bit easier the load distribution for porters. They also started earlier the trail. I was a bit disappointed at that point by our wait time at the gate but later in the trip I liked it more in a smaller group. All the porters literally started the trail running. The tourists tended to stuck together. The first day was slightly longer and harder than expected, with ups and downs. Use the toilets in villages for 35 cents (1 soles), they are way cleaner than the next days. Do not carry much water. Buy bottles from villagers. They are shy, decent persons and the price is fair. Let them carry the water for you with mules instead of carrying yourself. Plus this is the only way for locals to get any benefits from the daily hordes of tourists through their small villages. The Trail fee you pay ends in government coffers, then it is used mostly on the coast cities. You will also be able to buy hats, gloves and candies from them.
We passed ruins and the guide provided the historical and context explanation for each of them. All teams stopped in the same place for a hot lunch. Only when the last tourist in the group finishes the launch the porters can dismantle the tent, tables and start running again for the afternoon leg of the trip. We reached the sleeping camp around 4pm (because we spent serious amounts of time watching the various hummingbird species). The trail has multiple places to camp but all trail operators seem to choose the same villages to set camps. The view is quite funny. The big groups have rows and rows of identical tents. Night comes early in countries close to equator. By 8pm we were all asleep.
Everybody is told the second day is the hardest. There is up and up and more up. By the time one stops for lunch the tourist groups are split in fast ones and slow ones. The views are still great with deer sightings and birds but no Inca ruins. Buy water at lunch as this is the last opportunity.
The Dead Woman Pass psychologically feels like a summit. I have reached in the past 6300m peaks, crossing glaciers, climbing rock or ice to get there. There were 2-4 persons on each rope with no need for words. But here on Inca Trail you have 499 humans with you on the same path. Half of them (the porters) carry a truckload of stuff on their backs. The other half (the tourists) carries close to nothing but complains with the frequency of a machine gun. They have no air to breathe but somehow keep talking. You either need to improvise a motivational speech for your peers or receive one from them. There seems to be no middle way. I guess the weight you carry makes all the difference in the world. By the time you reach the 4200m pass you will understand the pros that pack light, remove labels from cloths and make holes in the tooth brush. Even the porters walk instead of run and take lots of breaks on the side of the path. But the truth is that everybody gets there. It is just a matter of when. We touched the snow in the pass and saw a condor. We did the typical summit ritual: eat chocolate, drink water, take pictures, layer more clothes on etc, then moved on. The rest of the day is going down, flowers and waterfalls. The sleeping camp is crowded. Tents are now sitting denser in sand terraces around a spring.
Third day has the best views and it is the longest one. It starts with going up for the second pass. Nice old Inca observation tower, lagunas, singing crickets and chirping frogs. Looking back, you can see the horizon taking the profile of a woman. This is why it was called Dead Woman Pass. After the second pass, the vegetation changes to cloud forest.
Gardeners will likely have their eyes popped out. There are orchids and other flowers everywhere. Trees are covered in musk, and most plants do not need roots. There is water in the air and everywhere. Leafs and grass turn any color you imagine. You squish them and you start a small spring. There are Inca fortresses on the way, aqueducts and natural tunnels. You are walking in a storybook. Medieval knights, princesses, wizards or dragons will not be out of place here. After lunch you cross the third pass. By this time you should realize you are coping much better with the distance and effort. The previous days were just a prelude.
The cobbled stairs down are tiring. Porters start running down again and many tourists get the same rhythm to trade brute effort for balancing. You walk on the side of the mountain and you don’t notice anymore the abyss on your right. Signs of recent civilization reappear: there is a hydro generator down the valley and transmission lines. The princesses and wizards fade away. Before reaching the sleeping camp there is a small museum where you can see the animals specific to the site. Worth seeing if you come from a different climate. The camping sites are carved on the side of the mountain. Now this one is really dense. No matter you paid 2000$ or 320$ for your Inka Trail you get the same tight real estate. If you are in a big group you get applauses when you reach the dining tent. All sounds great at 4pm but it gets boring by 6pm and embarrassing by 8pm. If you were a fool to carry multiple sets of clothes you run out of them anyway. By this time you most likely smell and advertise yourself to mosquitoes 1 mile away. There are showers that provide temporary relief. This is the evening to tip the porters and take pictures with them.
4th day is the strangest one. Everybody wakes up at 3:30am to let porters pack the tents and leave with the first train in the valley. Then you wait in a huge line at the gate because it only opens at 5:30am. You see determined Japanese that decided to wake up at 2am to be the first at the gate. When the gate opens at 5:30am the human nature overrides fairness and politeness. Everybody runs in the dark of the dawn – like leaf cutting ants marching in the same direction. You did all this effort to see the biggest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. You feel you would not have a seat at the great opening. You panic and force yourself to keep up. It’s only tourists and guides by now and it looks like a race in the dark. By 6am the Japanese will have to stop and hit the forest for nature calls. Everybody goes past them merciless. They have postponed it too much to keep their place in the line. Now they pay the price. By 6:15am there is light. You panic you will miss the great sunrise at the SunGate. You speed up and undress in the same time. By 6:30am most tourists sit at SunGate looking at their watches and feeling like idiots – there is one more hour until the sunrise. Reasoning comes back – it is a waiting game.
Now all the focus switches on the fog. Will it disappear by sunrise? In our case it did not. Will the sun and wind be strong enough to push the fog and allow us to see the majestic site bellow? From time to time the fog gets thinner and reveals some details of the lost city. All cameras stand ready, chocolate is eaten and the clothes are layered again to compensate for sitting and waiting. Then groups loose their patience and start walking down. They disappear in the fog. The tourists with the biggest camera lens are the last. No, wait, the Japanese are the last to give up. You have to start going down because you want to see Machu Pichu before 10am when 3000 people in shorts and sandals show up by train.
Machu Pichu – you get there and first impression is confusing. It is majestic all right but there is something wrong. Something you did not see in the pictures or commercials. There is this huge visual pollution in the way:
People. Lots of them everywhere. You realize these are the persons that took the evening train, slept at the base of the mountain and went up with the morning. They are easy to recognize: they have clean clothes and no smell of their own. They breathe heavy and seem to use their intellect to prepare for and attack each step. In contrast, you feel like a bird by now, a smelly one from the morning race but gliding effortless over any steps and direction. Then you get used to life in a crowd and the Lost City hits you. It is not the huge rocks in apparently random patterns. It is not the lamas and alpacas that graze the terraces with an imperial insolence. It is the whole picture that speaks volume. A great city built by dreaming humans on a clouded peak, surrounded by abysses and other peaks that chose to get in or out of the fog at random times to surprise you. By 10am, when first chewing gum invaders show up in sandals, you are already in a trance. When the guide starts the Hiram story and the explanation of the place, the people fade again. You recognize the horizon in various stones spread in the city. You see powerful leaders and wizards, you see Quechua trading goods from mountains for ocean things, Aymara from Titicaca trading with their peers from the jungle and finally all Incas having colorful festivals in the big central plaza, ceremonies at the fountains and caves. Only then you realize that hiking for 4 days passing trade posts and fortresses is the only reasonable entrance in this different world. If you look around with your 21st century eyes you hear the morning racers having the same comments: the Argentinians, the Germans, the Dutch, Belgians, the Americans.
The old Japanese have misty eyes. They got it too.