To give us plenty of time to acclimate to the high elevation (11,152 feet), we arrived in Cuzco a few days before our four day/three night Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. We spent the days exploring the city, running errands and stocking up on coca leaf brownies and toffees. The day before the trek, we celebrated one month on the road with an iced coffee from Starbucks overlooking the Plaza de Armas. There are many trails that lead to Machu Picchu but the Inca Trail was considered a sacred pilgrimage traveled by only the most important Incans. Due to the popularity of the trail, only 200 trekking permits are allotted each day making the experience somewhat exclusive.
The Inca Trail is considered one of the hardest treks to complete and you must go with an organized group as it is prohibited to trek the trail independently. The morning of our departure we loaded into a private bus at 5 a.m. with 16 other passengers (from the U.S., Ireland, France and England).The trek starts at Ollantaytambo, one of the last remaining Incan villages located in the Sacred Valley, an hour and a half outside of Cuzco. The first day, we trekked an easy 12 km (which took about 6-7 hours) through mountainous landscapes, a few Incan villages and several Incan ruins. It was surreal to be hiking after many months of looking forward to the trek!The second day brought us through a cloud forest and up “Dead Woman’s Pass,” a steep section of the trail leading to the highest point of elevation on the trek (13,818 feet). This is considered the hardest day for many hikers. In total, we hiked about 16km (7-8 hours) but were rewarded with amazing scenery along the way. The third day is what they consider “the unforgettable day” and for good reason – it was the most scenic and beautiful day on the trek. It was also the easiest (10km). We woke up in the morning to gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and followed the winding trail through natural tunnels, down 2,000 cobblestone stairs and through mountain passes. We stopped at a few Inca ruins that could give Machu Picchu a good run for its money and had the views all to ourselves.The last day was a gradual two hour hike to a short stretch of stairs that the guides refer to as “the gringo killer.” The stairs are so steep that some hikers need to climb them with their hands. Once you reach the top, you’ve made it to the Sun Gate where you catch your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Chris and I were so excited that we practically ran for these two hours. We didn’t even realize we were standing at the top of the Sun Gate because it was so cloudy, we couldn’t see anything. Thankfully, the clouds quickly burned off and there it was in all of its glory – Machu Picchu! After snapping a dozen photos, we followed the trail to the main entrance of the ruins. Our guide told us we were going to take one group photo at a lookout point just before the main entrance. He told us to stick together because hoards of people would start to arrive (a total of 3,000 tourists come to Machu Picchu each day) and we needed to get checked in together as one group. Naturally, this is when Chris and I get separated from our group and aimlessly wander into Machu Picchu by ourselves without our tickets. We walked around for about 45 minutes snapping photos while getting lost in the city ruins. Finally, one of our guides found us and lead us out of Machu Picchu, only to have us stand in line with the rest of our group to re-enter Machu Picchu – ha!We spent the next few hours learning about the sacred city and exploring the ruins. What is most impressive is how advanced the Incans were in agriculture, astronomy and most obviously…civil engineering. Pictures don’t even do it justice – it was amazing! What is better than visiting the sacred Incan city of Machu Picchu? Seeing it twice. Our trek included a return trip to Machu Picchu and access to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain that sits behind the city, the very next day. Unfortunately, I had to trek to Huayna Picchu solo because Chris had a touch of food poisoning from our lunch in Aguas Caliente the day before. He slept on the terraces of Machu Picchu for four hours while I climbed to Huayna Picchu. There is a large temple built into the mountainside on the other side of Huayna Picchu mountain that is a well kept secret. Only 400 people are allowed access to climb Huayna Picchu each day and I only saw four people on my two hour hike to the Temple of the Moon. WOW! Hiking Machu Picchu has always been at the top of our bucket list and it did not disappoint! A HUGE thank you to Nate and Jan Cantrell for the amazing wedding present – it was an experience we will never forget! Unfortunately, we didn’t visit the hot springs in Aguas Caliente because Chris was still feeling a bit under the weather. Frances, Pam, Jan and Alison, we promise to put your honeyfund to good use during another leg of our trip!