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.