I hate people who are not serious about their meals. -- Oscar Wilde

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hiking the Inca Trail: total respect for Indiana Jones

Om Nomz Hero Note to Self: For short people, the Incas built some steep steps

It’s a Thursday morning and it is dark. I am standing with countless others in the dark waiting for the final check point to be opened. We woke up around 3:30 that morning and I haven’t showered the last 4 days. I smell like hobo minus the smell of urine. I am hungry. I throw on my headlamp and take out my knife and at 4:40am in the middle of the Andes, I start peeling an apple with my fold up K-Bar by headlamp. I love every minute of it.

I do not know what I was looking for or even what random events transpired that I decided trekking the Inca Trail solo would be a great idea yet, it was by far the coolest experiences that I will forever remember. The sights on the trail were breath taking and to think that people for hundreds of years ago built and walked these steps was a concept and idea I am still struggling to grasp. Seeing Machu Picchu, empty right after the sunrise is an undescribable moment. 
 Pictures and tales of adventure after the jump!
Here is the run down: the Inca Trail is a 43km about 26 mile trek that ends at Machu Picchu. For 4 days and 3 nights you camp outside and walk through the Scared Valley and see sights that you can only get to by foot. The highest elevation that you go is 4200m which is Dead Woman’s Pass. Going on the trek is not something that you can do at random because you need a pass and the Peruvian government only allows 500 people up the trail a day and you are required guide in order to go. I am going to shamelessly promote the one trekking group I went with which was Peru Treks. They are a local trekking company and I was extremely well taken care of by them. Not only that but the porters were taken well care off and treated a lot better than the other porters I saw carrying stuff for the other companies. I have the highest respect for porters and some of the best people I have ever met. Did I mention how fast these guys were? Porters are constantly passing by you and walking as if they were taking a power walk around the block and going up and down with ease. Few had hiking shoes, some of them were rocking sandals or just sneakers. They completely amazed me. The porters were not only great but our cook made Iron Chefs look like the teenagers working at Micky Ds. 

 Rice, fried salmon, and vegetables, it isn't El Bulli but this was good food done well

For just having a propane burner our cook Abu, he turned out some amazing food to a point I thought I got fat from hiking because I ate so well. We had hot meals all the time and for lunch and dinner we always started off with soup and sometimes even got a dessert. He made things ranging from pancakes, orange chicken, fried fish, lomo saltado, warm chicken salad, mash potatoes; Chufa fried rice and even made a pizza. The truly most impressive feat was he made a cake up here. Never mind the elevation, he did it all over a propane burner…and he also decorated it! Oh and we had tea times twice where he popped fresh popcorn and made empanadas once. If you decide to go do the Inca Trail, I give the Om Nomz Hero nod and thumbs up of approval to Peru Treks. 


The first day we are picked up from our hotels and driven to Ollantaytambo. I guess I was lucky so I was the first one picked up at about 5:40am. The ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is about a hour and a half which I spent the majority of the time passed out. At Ollantaytambo, you buy your last minute stuff like toilet paper, water and walking sticks then take a quick drive to the first check point and to marker 82km which is the start point for the trek. The first day of hiking is not bad at all and for me was deceptively simple. There are no major uphill climbs and the weather was fairly nice and we got lucky and took the long way to the first campsite and checked out some Inca terraces and climbed up an old outpost.

The second day was the most challenging day and where I learned to absolutely hate stairs. It started off a bit more difficult with a couple of more stairs and hilly path. We hiked a good 2 hours before taking a break at what they called the fake summit. After the fake summit it was straight up a Lep Zepplien song and I thought I was climing to heaven. Now, many are thinking, stairs are nothing. I take the stairs to the 3rd floor of my office every morning. These were not nicely built steps of level footing and equal elevation. The steps were jagged and went from ramp-like to steep-as-hell. Sometimes there were not real steps and it was just elevated ground with rocks. Now this is not really much of a challenge in general, but adding in the altitude is the kicker. Altitude affects everyone differently and I thought I was acclimated to the altitude but I realized I was wrong. I had an headache the whole time climbing up to Dead Woman’s Pass. My headache got worse as I got closer to the top. I also was a proud retard and decided, I do not need a porter to carry my stuff! I am going to hump my own pack on this trail. I weigh my pack afterwards and realized I was carrying an additional 15 kgs and that was minus the 2.5 liters I tried to have on me at all times. This slowed me down a bit. But me being awesome, I powered through and made it to the top.


The air was thin, I had a killer headache and I was cold but I felt like Rocky when he beats the crap out of the Russian. Although it was not sunny and it was on and off drizzle and misty, the view itself was inspiring and reminded me of the painting, Wanderer above the Sea Fog by Caspar Friedrich of the man on top of the mountain, minus the overcoat and cane with a view like no other. At the top we took the group picture and we did a whole offering type of thing to Pacha Mama (mother earth). 

 Group picture....now lets get down from this damn Pass, I got a headache

The morning of our climb we were told to carry a rock (as if I needed the extra weight) and when we all made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, we would pile them up thanking Pacha Mama for letting us climb her mountain and not destroying us with rain. As per our guide’s instructions we awkwardly constructed a little pile of rocks with coca leaves in between each rock and generously pour some rum all over our mini structure and proceeded to take a shot. The rest of the bottle mysteriously disappeared after that…

 little offering to Pacha Mama, thanks for not killing me

I was happy to get down from the Pass so I could rid this killer headache yet going down was going to be a bit of a challenge as well. Usually going down is a pretty easy feat, because according to physics, you are only really doing “work” when you are going up. Well, going down was how do I say it eloquently? Oh yes, a “bitch”. Lets just say, this did a number on my knees. Nonetheless, I pushed on (or down) and made it to the campsite were I slept quite soundly to the echoes of the surrounding waterfalls. 
Long way up...

After doing all that climbing, day three was a lot easier. We had to do 2 passes that day before we reached the campsite. That translates to going uphill 2x and going downhill 2x. Again, both of the passes were a bit of a challenge but I was able to negotiate these with much greater ease because they were not as high up and the altitude did not have a chance to rattle my brain.

The last part of the hike that day before we got to the campsite was all downhill and was about a 2 hour hike. Freddy our guide told us it was about 2,000 steps down and since I can not count that high, I took his word for it. However he told us that before the campsite, there would be a fork in the road. To the right and down, would be the campsite. However, to the left would be an extra half hour hike to another set of Inca ruins and then about an extra 20 minutes from there to the campsite. I forgot about it and about an hour and a half later, I finally reached that fork in the road. I was tired and sore but being forced to memorize the Robert Frost poem, I went the road less taken and took the long route. I was glad I did, the Inca ruins was a huge terrace that they used for farming and the view from there was magnificent and you could see the mountains and the river running through it. So kids, when presented the chance, take a page…well poem from Robert Frost and take that road less travelled. 

So now for the Tarantino moment, which I know finally get back to the beginning of the story or account where I am standing pre-dusk, peeling an apple in the middle of the Andes Mountains. There were other groups with us are we trekked to the Sun Gate which sits above Machu Picchu and when the sun rises, the Sun’s ray hits in between the Sun gate and shines on Machu Picchu. So naturally everyone wanted to be there to see the sunrise there. We hiked at a furious pace and there was some guy, which we named “Red Poncho Dude” that was running and trying to pass everyone and pushy. This is quite dangerous because it was a one-way-one-lane kind of path and being pushed off the path was a long way down and I was not curious in seeing how far up we were. “Red Poncho Dude” does not know how lucky he was that he only passed me once, because if he ran pass me and pushed me again, he would learn what the side of the mountain tastes like. We got to the top, made it to the Sun Gate and then….well nothing because it was far to misty that day. So thanks for endangering everyone on that path that day “Red Poncho Guy”, nobody likes you and you ran up for nothing to see the mist. Dick. 

 Pissh, I dumb Spaniards, I don't know why it was so hard to find this place, took me only 4 days
From there we hiked down to the valley and to what we all came here for and signaled the end of the hike: Machu Picchu. It was great because we arrived early in the morning before the buses even started running to the site from the near by city of Agua Calientes. The mist was burning off and the sun was coming out making the site purely picturesque and could easily be a Windows background photo. After we did decompressed and did the tour and given time to wander the site I found a rock that was fairly close to the top and sat there for a good half hour like I was posing for a christian rock album cover, just taking in the site and reflecting on what I had just accomplished the past week.

Inca Trail and Machu Picchu: DONE

Tips for hiking the trail:
  1. HIRE A PORTER- I cannot stress this point enough. Unless you are dumb like I am and stupid enough to want to “challenge yourself, do yourself a favor and hire a porter. There is no shame or makes you any less manly if you hire one. Think of it as stimulating and supporting the local economy. Although I was able to do it without one, I do wish that I planned ahead and hired a porter.
  2. Get a trekking pole or walking stick- I almost did not get one but I gave in at the last minute and glad I did. Does not have to be the fancy metal, collapsible ones, I used a wooden one that cost like 3 US dollars. It helps going downhill and saves your knees
  3. End of March and April are good times to go. Although it is the tail end of the wet season, it means that the vegetation is still nice and green and the weather is quite nice and does not jump from hot to freezing cold.
  4. Get acclimated to the altitude. Show up to Cusco a couple of days earlier, or minimum 2 days. Altitude affects everyone different.
  5. Drink lots of water. It is easy to forget or just not notice yourself getting dehydrated due to the high altitude. Dehydration and high altitude = bad combination.
  6. Be somewhat fit. You do not need to be marathon fit but if you can run about a mile or 2 with out dying and need mouth to mouth you should be fine. I run on a daily basis and I am glad that I did, less stress on you and you get to enjoy the trail and the sights more instead of sucking wind.
  7. Plan ahead, you cannot show up and be like, I want to hike! You can only hike the trail with a guide or group or good luck getting pass the check points. Peru Treks is the company I very much so recommend but there are others like SAS or GAP that do it as well.

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