The Final Chapter- Machu Picchu, Steps to Summit

Day 3 - Sayamarca (I think)
Day 3 – Sayacmarca (I think)

As I closed last time we were at campsite 2 (Pacamayo), removed from all cell service, in the view of the tall peaks of the Andes.  The next day, Day 3, was the longest, but most beautiful, day of the hike. In the morning, after a typical early start, we stopped at various Incan ruins. The one that stuck out the most was a religious site where mummified bodies were taken after they had been dead for several years. The bodies, which were mummified into terribly contorted shapes, were transported along the stone trail to this location, where they were placed into very small niches. After various rituals involving special water were performed, the mummies were returned to their homes and placed in holes on the sides of the nearby mountains.

It was either there or at the second pass (I believe Dead Woman’s Pass was considered the first pass) that we hiked up a peak and each placed a stone from below on a cairn as an offering to Pachamama – Mother Earth. The so-called “Inca Cross” actually represents the Incan belief in the need to bridge the gap between earth and sky, and man to the gods. Perhaps not so different.

Above the clouds on the third pass of the Inca Trail
Above the clouds on the third pass of the Inca Trail

After lunch we reached the heights of the third pass. Surrounded by snow capped mountains and looking through vistas of mountain ranges. We descended into heath and very quickly down into the “cloud jungle.” As we journeyed lower and lower there were more wild begonias and blooming orchids.

Descending from the third pass
Descending from the third pass

At a certain point on the descent, our guide, Juan, took us to a small structure, manned by a single lady. It was a local “pub,” according to Juan, where the local corn beer, “chicha,” was made. The small, low-ceilinged room was filled with wood benches, and the proprietress looked as if she’d had one too many. We all passed around a cup of chichi – it reminded me a lot of the “shebeens” in South Africa – the local drinking establishments.

Toward late afternoon the trail split and you could take a 20 minute detour to another ruin. The husband and I declined, but by then the two daughters were well ahead, not having found my tendency to hang back and study the flowers a particularly desirable quality in a hiking companion. We didn’t know if they had chosen the detour, and suddenly I became convinced they had taken a wrong turn and were lost somewhere in the wilds of the cloud jungle…I sprinted the last downhill hour (developing a rapid descent technique that has served me well on other hikes), only, of course, to find them safe and sound at the third campsite, Winay Wayna. They had staked out the best tent site; the husband and I were relegated to the one by the particularly awful “bathrooms.”

That night was our last camping night – we were to arise at 3:40 a.m. the next morning to hike the remaining five miles to Machu Picchu itself in the hopes of seeing the “Sun Gate” at sunrise. Dinner was quite elaborate, featuring a rice cake shaped like – I think it was a chicken! The tipping ceremony also took place that night. But at that point, the complexion of the entire trip changed.

As you’ll recall, daughter number 2 was the one left cold and shivering on the way to Dead Woman’s Pass. That apparently caught up with her and she couldn’t eat dinner – the cook’s very kind offer of a special celery tea made her feel even worse given her extreme dislike of celery in any form. In any event, at 12:30 a.m., a little voice (or as little as the voice of a nineteen year old is) called at our tent door, “Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom.” I found myself taking her on a midnight excursion to what passed for a bathroom; she was burning with fever, so I moved into daughter number 1’s spot in their tent, and daughter number 1 moved into my tent with the husband. We were the only people up in the campsite shuffling back and forth between tents in the early morning hours, and lord knows what our companions thought we were up to. That’s when I discovered my older daughter apparently sleeps in the equivalent of a squirrel nest, surrounded by so many possessions it was impossible to straighten my legs! I finally got the sick daughter to sleep and dozed off myself for a couple of hours before we started on the final leg of the hike.

Sunrise over the Andes - on the way to Machu Picchu. Day 4.
Sunrise over the Andes – on the way to Machu Picchu. Day 4.

The daughter now known as the Sick Daughter was a trooper though! She made the hike without complaining and although we missed sunrise, the view of the mysterious ruins, the elegance of the structures, and the incredible geometry of the carved stones was overwhelming. I was struck by the lack of ornamentation. Not one curlicue, not a single mark that served anything other than a functional purpose. Instead of decoration, perfectly cut stones, brilliant in simplicity — yet forming a place the purpose of which is still not fully understood.

The approach from the trail, I think, is very different than if you have taken the train to the site. There’s a drama to reaching it after four days of intense hiking that a train simply can’t mimic.

Sick Daughter unfortunately spent the half day we toured Machu Picchu in the shadow of one of those perfectly formed stone walls, together with another of our hiking companions who had similarly been taken ill.

View down onto Machu Picchu
View down onto Machu Picchu
Carved stones at Machu Picchu
Carved stones at Machu Picchu

About noon we took a bus (!) down to the small village of Aguas Callientes, where we stayed until the night train and van ride back to Cusco. After four days of hiking in the wilds, it was a shock to see cars, streets, and shops. Our guide was friends with the owners of a restaurant, which, like so many Peruvian structures, had an unfinished second floor that was still open to the main street. They let Sick Daughter stay up there on an air mattress; as I warned, if she rolled she was going to topple out of the building and into the street. In the meantime, the rest of us went to the mineral baths. As we had no swim gear we rented bathing suits – we did pick a place where we could see the washing machines! Quite civilized – and such a change from where we had been. You could order Pisco sours and drink them in the hot tubs.

The trip back to Cusco was an amalgamation of bad travel experiences. Bullet points: (1) On the way to the train station, all the power in the village went out, and hundreds of people were rushing in the dark, carrying heavy backpacks (at least those of us who had hiked). (2) Our hiking companions had decided illegally to bring beer onto the train – and the bag in which it was stored broke, causing beer cans to roll all through the dark train station, to the great concern of our guide. (3) No one sat in their assigned seats on the train, meaning that I could hardly find a place to sit with my feverish and clearly ill daughter.

The train didn’t actually go to Cusco but to another location, about a two or three hour van ride away from the city and our hotel. The roads were long and windy and steep and high and we had been up since pre-dawn, hiked miles at altitude, toured Machu Picchu and soaked in hot springs. At a certain point we stopped because Sick Daughter needed to go to the bathroom – I got out with her. As we stood there in the pitch blackness, we suddenly heard rustling in the underbrush and something started to lunge out toward us….we both screamed and scurried back to the van as fast as we could. To this day, I’m convinced we nearly fell victim to a mountain lion.

Finally, we made it back to Cusco and the sophistication of the Hotel Marquesas.

It’s hard to sum up the Inca Trail – not a summit of height, but certainly a summit of sorts. And next week – finally a real summit. A week from today we’ll be hiking Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

Machu Picchu – Trail or Trial – Part Two

First campsite - Wayllabamba
First campsite – Wayllabamba

Inca Trail part two. I have realized that this experience was at least a trilogy, so part 3 will follow. Today’s installment – the “village” part of the hike, followed by “Challenge Day” and the Dead Woman’s Pass.

We met our fellow hikers at about 5:30 a.m. in front of the Hotel Marquesas in Cusco. We had briefly encountered each other the previous day during an introductory briefing session at the trekking company’s office. We were a diverse lot – our family of four, newlyweds from Boston exploring Peru, an English couple traveling around the world for a year, accompanied on this leg of the journey by a sister, a couple of salesmen from Texas, a doctor and his wife, also from Texas, and one man from California and another from Germany. Fifteen in all – it was a large and unwieldy group.

After what seemed like a very long bus ride, we stopped for breakfast in the small town of Oyelltambo. The restaurant was most notable for highly elaborate rabbit cages in its garden. It was very early in the morning but I think I am remembering this correctly.

We journeyed on to Kilometer 82 – the official beginning of the trail (or trial, depending on your perspective). We were struck by how agricultural it all was. Women on donkeys carrying bushels of herbs; local people selling water or other items at about every rest stop. The mountains on either side of the trail were green, capped with snow. And flowers everywhere. I hadn’t realized before that begonias grew in the wild. Views of the ruins of Llactapata – a settlement of 100 or so buildings that would have housed soldiers and others traveling the trail. Our trekking company did not scrimp on food. Trout for lunch. Apparently inspired by lunch, our guide then had to explain to one of our fellow hikers that the “no hunting” restrictions also meant “no fishing” with the fishing line he had brought from Texas.

Permits for the Inca Trail are strictly controlled and only a couple of hundred people can enter the trail on any given day. You also have to go with a trekking company – no independent forays along the hundreds of years old stone path.

The first campsite, Wayllabamba, 3000 m, was in the heart of the agricultural area; in fact, local people were selling all different beers and drinks from aluminum containers. Dinner was a highlight – chicken with flaming bananas! But even with the semi-village feel of the campground, the remoteness kicked in with the southern hemisphere of evening stars – visible without any city lights. This was our first time camping with our daughters. Since we hadn’t reinvented ourselves as climbers until age 50, they had never experienced this growing up. But they were good sports and settled into their own tent well – although quite greatful we had made them bring long underwear.


The next day, day 2, I finally started to feel I had found my hiking rhythm. That day we reached the highest pass in the trail – Dead Woman’s Pass – at 4200 m. It was overcast and drizzly and suddenly the layers of clothes that had seemed too warm in Cusco felt right.

It rained on and off the whole way, the grey punctuated by the yellow orchids we saw every now and then. The up was ok, if steep, but the down hard on the knees. By now hiking on the carved square stones of the trail – some replacements, but some the same the Incas hiked on those hundreds of years ago on missions no one, to this day, totally understands. There was no written tradition.

Yellow orchids - michi michi
Yellow orchids – michi michi


Of course, as we were accompanied on this hike by the daughters  I had to assume both my mother and hiker persona – not always compatible. In fact, the maternal one is also known as Mommy the Packhorse and as usual I ended up carrying many of the layers that belonged to the two girls. A lesson to be learned: the younger one decided to prance well ahead of the rest of the family on the steep approach to Dead Woman’s Pass, leaving her rain gear and warm jacket with her sainted mother. We found her 45 minutes or so later shivering and cold as the rain and wind picked up.

Dead Woman's Pass
Dead Woman’s Pass

The tree line was about 10,000 feet. Dead Woman’s Pass, at close to 14,000 feet, was cold, rainy, and very windy. Only a few hundred of feet below it was much warmer. Still, our camp site that night – Pacamayo, 3600 m, was very cold. Gone were the villagers. We were in a non cell phone service area, completely disconnected, and with only the grey shades of the ancient Incas for company.

To come – day 3 and 4: the placing of rocks on a cairn, Incan funereal rites, daughter number 2 gets really sick, sunrise (almost) over Machu Picchu, and the van ride back and the attack of the mysterious wild animal. Stories to come.

The Inca Trail – Pre-Trail or Pre-Trial – Part One


Our trek along the Inca Trail in May 2012 started off as a natural follow up to Kilimanjaro in 2011. Granted, it wasn’t a summit per se, but it certainly was a well-known hike, seemingly had a degree of challenge, and besides, we were able to convince our daughters, then 19 and 21, to accompany us. But what we didn’t realize was that the trip would be as much of a cultural experience as it was a climb. Many mountains are remote and you are more exposed to the insular world of the mountaineer and whatever wildlife lives above the tree line than you are to any local residents. But Machu Picchu surprised with the many, many people we saw every mile of the way – from the beer hut on day 2 or so to the women riding donkeys with bushels of cut herbs on their backs.

The trip began rather inauspiciously – for some reason the husband and two girls thought that Mexican food and margaritas at the Orlando airport was an appropriate way to kick off a trip to Peru. Not so, and all I can say is they suffered quite a bit for it, while my salad and wine seemed to agree quite nicely, thank you very much. We flew on Copa Air – the Panamanian airline, and like most non US airlines, it was quite pleasant – although we had bad weather in Panama City and landed with quite a bump. Ran to the next gate and just made our flight to Lima, where we landed about midnight. But you would never have known it was the wee hours of the morning from the hustle and bustle of the Lima Airport. It might as well have been late afternoon on a Saturday of holiday weekend. All the shops open, people dining.

Had to recheck our bags at the LAN counter – our airline for for the trip to Cusco – and got to the gate about 2 a.m. Together with a number of other intrepid travelers, we each found a section of seats to crash on for a few hours, backpacks within touching distance. We arrived in Cusco in early morning, and could feel the change from sea level to 11,000 feet. We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Marquesas – a 16th century residence converted to hotel. A courtyard in the center; walls about a foot or more thick. The husband and I had a balcony overlooking the street from which we could see the cathedral. The girls had an interior room that felt like a cave. Because we had arrived so early, the rooms weren’t ready and we were immediately offered – and accepted – coca tea – which does in fact help with sudden altitude change.

Hotel Marquesas, Cusco
Hotel Marquesas, Cusco

Travel hint. Only bring new bills to Peru. Currency exchanges will not accept anything with creases or tears. And they are serious about it. Sight seeing was the order of business for the first day or so. The cathedral’s wonderful painting of the Last Supper where a guinea pig substitutes for the bread embodied for me the peculiar marriage of local and foreign cultures. And the food! For lunch I had potatoes in a red pepper cream sauce. (Peru has, I believe, more varieties of potatoes than anywhere else in  the world.) Dinner – chicken stuffed with goat cheese and elderberry sauce; local trout; poached pears with cinnamon ice cream. And you can’t forget the pisco sours – like a gin fizz made with a brandy.

We spent the next day on a bus tour of the Sacred Valley. Although it was supposed to be for both Spanish and English speakers, we seemed to be the only English speakers and it was remarkable how ten minutes of Spanish could turn into about two sentences of English.  Nonetheless, the ruins were remarkable, the Andes amazing, and we were struck by the authenticity of the people and places we were driving through.


That night the four of us did a mini gear check, getting ready for a van to pick up us up at  5:30 am to drive to the fabled Kilometer 82 – the start of the trail. Next post – the start of the hike.