At the end of the second day of the Inca Trail, I felt a massive relief that the hard part was over and that it would be non-stop fun all the time from there on out — and hoped I wasn’t fooling myself.
Turns out, I wasn’t. Day three would be my favorite day of the Inca Trail.
We woke up on Day Three to the most beautifully clear skies we’d seen thus far — in fact, we wouldn’t see a drop of rain all day. Finally free of our ponchos, we were able to slow down and enjoy the beautiful vistas and lush plant life along the trail — and most importantly, photograph it.
It was an easy day compared to what we’d been through the previous two. The total hiking time was less than six hours, and though we started the morning with a mild incline we soon started a knee-pounding ascent that would bring us from 11,800 feet to 8,792. Throughout the day we’d also pass three spectacular Incan ruins.
The first ruin was Phuyupatamarca, an impressively intact site and, in my opinion, by far the most beautiful we had seen thus far. Though I’m willing to admit that it may have been the blue skies getting the better of me.
I didn’t quite realize yet the best part of the day — each site would be more spectacular than the last. We could see Intipata as we approached, giving us ample motivation to push past the soreness in our joints. As we grew closer, we noticed signs of civilization — a cell phone tower, some railroad tracks, and the teeny tiny roofs of buildings in the valley deep below.
Being towards the back, our mini group found the speedier members of the team napping on the grassy terraces when we arrived. We were now so close to our final campsite that we could see it; an unbelievable feeling of victory.
We arrived in time for a late lunch and an afternoon of lazing around the campsite. In the dining tent we all vowed not to nap — thirty minutes later, our little tent village was lights out. We rallied for a short sunset walk over to one more Inca site — Wiñay Huayna, Quechua for forever young. As soon as we arrived I couldn’t believe I had almost skipped it in favor of one more hit of the snooze button — for me, it was the most intricate, intact and fascinating site of the entire four days.
Our guide explained that this site had been a kind of Incan laboratory, where different agricultural methods and materials were tested throughout the endless terraces. Today, it is frequented by photogenic llamas and tired Inca Trail hikers. With just one other group on the site in addition to our own, it was a truly peaceful visit. It wouldn’t be until the next day, when we reached the circus that is Machu Picchu, that I would truly appreciate this moment for all that it was worth.
The fourth day of the Inca Trail doesn’t start during the day — it starts in the middle of the night. The knocks came at our tent at 3:00am, at which time we sleepily packed up our things, scarfed down breakfast, and then sleepwalked towards the control station, where we would sit in line until the gate opened at 5:00am.
When planning this trip I had read many reports of how unpleasantly overcrowded the Inca Trail was. I don’t know if it was our trekking company, the season, or just luck, but I had not felt that to be true for the first three days. On this morning, however — I felt like I was part of a flashmob. I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole race to the control gate and the sounds of what seemed to be hundreds of people rustling and complaining and jollily chanting at four in the morning, and so using my backpack as a pillow I tried unsuccessfully to drift back to sleep.
Little did I know that was just the beginning. Our group was the second in line and as we set off at 5:00am our guide warned us to be careful — this was a narrow path with a steep dropoff, and every year people injured themselves in a pointless hour-long race to Machu Picchu. Still, my mini-group and I set off at a much faster pace than we had been going, hyper-aware of the restless crowds behind us.
I soon realized that I was miserable. The scenery on this part of the trail is stunning, especially in the pre-dawn light. But don’t you dare stop for five minutes to enjoy it lest a moisture-wicking mosquit0-repellent zip-off pant wearing European cobble you with their walking stick in order to be the first one to the Sun Gate. At one point I heard our guide raise his voice for the first time on the entire trek to admonish a pair of eager-beavers trying to dangerously pass us on a set of narrow, slippery, guardrail-less steps. It was without question the most unpleasant part of the Inca Trail for me.
But I had the last laugh because when I arrived at the Sun Gate, having been aggressively passed by at least a dozen hikers, we were met not with a sunrise view over the famous Incan city but rather a thick wall of white fog. Ha ha, jokes on them! Okay, I guess the joke was on me as well. It kind of sucked.
Eventually we gave up on seeing the iconic Sun Gate view and continued the additional hour-long descent to the site. When we arrived, we could barely see a single stone — the fog was thick as ever. After four days of work, it was fairly anticlimactic and spirits were about as high as a bunch of deflated balloons. Eventually, though, the fog began to lift, and we cheered with each increasing millimeter of visibility.
After days of camping in the remote Andes mountains, it was somewhat shocking to see so many signs of civilization. And the crowds! Day-trippers became visibly irritated by the time it took us to take a group photo, which really amused me. I think there should be an official rule at Machu Picchu: If you appear to have showered within the past four days, you must yield a respectable amount of photo time and space to those who have used bushes as bathrooms for the previous 96 hours.
Of course I always dreamed of seeing Machu Picchu the way it appears on postcards — I have never quite considered it would be blanketed in a stubborn fog when I arrived. Normally quite the Negative Nancy, I was actually surprised to find that I didn’t seem as bothered as the rest of the group by the weather. I think that I was so relieved that the physical challenges were over, and so proud of myself for having survived them, that there was pretty much nothing that could get me down.
The collective mood of the group started to lift again as we discussed what overpriced delicacies we would have for lunch, and how long we each expected our first hot showers to last. We didn’t stay at the site as long as I had expected, probably owing to the weather. When we left at noon, the skies were just opening up as raindrops began to fall.
I hiked the Inca Trail, following in the footsteps of one of the most fascinating ancient civilizations to ever walk this planet. Along the way I faced physical and mental challenges, witnessed scenes of unreal beauty, made some fantastic new friends, and was almost charged by a llama. There isn’t a thing — bad weather included — that could take that away.
Note: I will do an entire post on logistics, costs, tips and practical information about the Inca Trail and Llama Path. Stay tuned!