More Thoughts On Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

 

 
Here are more thoughts and details on our hike along the Inka Trail

Food:  If you are used to backpacking food in the US, this will be a pleasant surprise for you.  We had cooked meals three times a day.  Breakfast was a crepe or pancake, lunches and dinners always started with soup (instant, to which fresh ingredients had been added—the first day was cream of asparagus with fresh asparagus, for example).  And then the main lunch and dinner included rice or pasta, some kind sauce or topping for the rice or pasta, some grilled meat or chicken, veggies, and some kind of dessert.  One of our party was a vegetarian, and she always had a choice of items on the table.  Admittedly, some of our party were affected by the altitude, and appetites were not always huge, but we had PLENTY of food throughout the hike.  And anything we didn’t eat was added to the rations of the porters, which they happily included in their menu.  And every meal included instant juice, many different kinds of  tea, cocoa, etc.

Water:  This was a concern for us.  There is no question that the water along the trail is not safe.  In many cases, our toilet facilities were literally right next to the streams sometimes even seeming to drain directly into them.    Our guide had suggested that many people have trouble with Micro-pur tablets, and suffer almost as much from the side effects.  He recommended that we simply buy water along the trail from the locals--which worked perfectly for days 1, 2 and 4.  On day three there were simply no local supplies.  So on that day our cook boiled a liter of water for us each to take on the trail. And he provided soup and water at lunch. But we like to drink more water than that….and it left us feeling dehydrated on day three.  By the time we got to the camp at Winay Wayna, I bought four full liters of water plus two sodas for our group of four.  There must be a better way to handle this third day, and if we did this again, we would take extra water for this day--even buying it the day before.  

On the other hand, hiking in the cloud forest is less dehydrating than in the Sierra.  I could not imagine hiking ten miles in the Sierra at 10,000-12,000 feet on only one liter of water!

 

Porters:  Amazing,  simply amazing.  They carried about 50 pounds each (a limit established by the government) and were fast, strong, and unfailingly friendly and polite.  I will never forget these guys flying past me on the downhills, literally scampering down the steps with huge packs on their backs.  I could keep close to them going uphill (I was carrying 20 pounds, vs. their fifty!) but going downhill, they blew by me like freight trains.  They always started after we did, so they could knock down the camp, and they always got to the campsite before we did so they could set it up. 
They were also charming, and always had a smile for us.  In fact, our group was often the source of the laughter and horseplay around the camps.  A great group of guys. 

 

Facilities:  This is not a luxury tour.  Toilets are the traditional one-hole squatters, often without much plumbing attached, sometimes with water from the local stream simply running through them.  BYO toilet paper—we became adept at saving our napkins from lunch and dinner—and that paper always goes in a bucket, not down the drain.  These were primitive, often full of local insect life, and the least favorite part of the hike for us all.
Once we arrived at Winay Wayna, the last stop before Machu Picchu, there was a large building with a store, warm showers, and real toilets.  But this area gets so much use that it's hard to keep it clean and functioning.  While we were there, a number of the people suggested they would have preferred the previous stops over Winay Wayna!
 
Campsites: We were a small group, so we often got a smaller campsite, which made us happy. But there aren’t a lot of flat places in these mountains, and so you can expect that the sites are close together.  We were almost always forced to walk through another group’s campsite to get to the toilets.   This would have been less fun, but we usually just headed for bed after dinner—and there is no firewood to be found, let alone campfire rings.  In the end, the campsites are just flat places between the mountains.  Our porters carried camp stools, a table, and the entire kitchen on their backs.  We ate, went to sleep, and then got up and got back on the trail in the morning.
That's our first, and more private campsite, in the photo at left.  We were very satisfied with the quality of the tents...and they were four man tents, for each couple, so we had plently of room for sleeping and storing our stuff. And they were in excellent condition.

 

Costs:  We paid about $400 a person for this hike---and that included the porters, the guide, the bus to Aguas Calientes, the entrance to Machu Picchu, the train back to Ollantaytambo, and the bus from there to Cusco.  So between four of us we paid $1600 for the whole shebang.  We also tipped our porters and guide generously—about $30 per porter and another $60 for the guide.  Once you  start taking out the costs for the various elements, the people didn’t get paid very much for their four days of work!
You can pay more, and some certainly did, but we didn't really see a difference in what they ate or did on the trail--although some paid to have an extra porter carry their personal pack.  And you can also find tours for less money--but in general, once you get below about $375-400 per person, the lower fees come out of the porters' pockets.  That wasn't very attractive for us. 
By the way, you can rent just about anything in Cusco for this trip--sleeping bags, ponchos, hiking poles, packs, etc. There are many, many shops in Cusco set up for this, and the prices are not horrific.  M rented some very nice hiking poles for the four days for a total of $16.  That's $4 a day. 
Locals: No matter what we did and where we went, the local inhabtants of this part of Peru were Invariably helpful and polite. Taxi drivers were helpful and thoughtful.  Directions were always given with a smile.  True, we speak fluent Spanish, but we had many occasions to see non-Spanish speakers get the same kind of courtesy--often in the limited English of the locals. 
And yes, many of them had something to sell.  I joked that you could sit on a bench in Cusco and eventually meet the entire population of the city, as one by one they approached you to sell you something.  But they always had a smile, and didn't really pester you--only make the offer.  We found the whole city charming, and would go back in a heartbeat!
 

Humidity! This trail is on the Amazon side of the Andes.  And Cusco is on the Pacific side.  Cusco is MUCH drier than the Inka trail, and we really noticed the difference--not only in the vegetation, but even in the air we breathed.  We found ourselves less dehydrated along the trail, because the air we were breathing, even at 13,000 feet, was full of humidity. Quite an interesting experience, and not at all unpleasant!  I am sure that during the warmer season this humidity is less fun...

 

Trekking: This was a new experience for us--having someone else do most of the heavy lifting and carrying.  It was a damn good thing that we didn't have to carry full packs up some of these trails, but it also meant that we lost a lot of the freedom and independence that we love about hiking in the Sierra Nevada.  Every stop, from lunch to dinner, was programmed ahead of time, and the campsites were shared with large numbers of other groups. For this trail, I don't think there is another way to do it, but it was still an adjustment for us. And there were times, as in the photo at left, when it got pretty crowded. 
Yes, it was lovely to have someone cook for us, and to be greeted each morning with a hot cup of coca tea in the tent.  But it was like any other large group in the mountains---the more people there are, the less intimate the experience.  We don't begrudge the porters the opportunity to make a living this way.  But in the future, we may look for other ways to explore the Andes without a full support team.

 

The Train: The only way to get to Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu, for that matter) is either by hiking there or by train.  And the train is an adventure!  This is a narrow gauge railroad through the precipitous canyon of the River Urubamba.  It's run by PeruRail, and staffed with stewardesses who provide drinks and snacks as if you were on an airplane.
But this is no bullet train. The tracks are very narrow, and the train rocks back and forth with great vigor.  Two years ago, a massive slide closed the whole railroad for two months, and washed the tracks into the river.  The train creeps along at about ten to fifteen miles an hour, and it takes a full 90 minutes or more to run the 27 miles to the bus at Ollantaytambo.  This is where the train ends, and everyone gets off to take a bus back to Cusco.  Thus providing employment for both bus drivers and train employees.   From there it's another two hours and 40 miles back to Cusco over twisty mountain roads. 
All part of the adventure of exploring the Andes in Peru!

 

Books:  We read a bunch of books about Peru before we went.  We started with some of the travel guides, and found most of them helpful but not complete.  After all, most of them gave a page or two to the Inka Trail, and another page or two about Machu Picchu.  We wanted more.  We read Hyram Bingham's book about discovering Machu Picchu---and learned as much about the romantic imagination of old Hyram as we did about the Incas.  But there were a few books we really loved.  
For the archeology and culture of the Andes, Hugh Thomson's books are simply wonderful.  We started with The White Rock, which is the story of his first dig in Peru--quite near Machu Picchu.  But even better is his A Sacred Landscape--the story of the key archeological sites throughout Peru, and the cultures who made them and the people who discovered them.   That may sound a bit dry, but Hugh Thompson manages to tell a great story, include moments of lovely dry humor, and weave it all into something that is as readable as a good novel as he travels from site to site.  This isn't just one of our favorite books about Peru---it's one of the best books we've read in the last few years! 
Finally, you should really read something by Nobel prize winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. We liked his take on the crime story, and read two good ones: Death in the Andes was our favorite, and tells the story of a small town that makes the area come to life.  It also gives great background on the history of the Sendero Luminoso and its role in rural Peru.    And Who Killed Palomino Molero  is a similar guide to the class issues is modern day Peru.  Finally,  the book that might have won him the Nobel Prize is Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. It's a lovely tale, great fun, and made us immediately want to read the response by Julia herself.