There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu...
By bus from Aguas Calientes (itself only accessible by a single train track).
By a steep hike up from Aguas Calientes.
By a 2 day trek.
By the classic 4 day Inca Trail Trek, including a 4,000 foot climb on day 2 to a high point of 13,822 feet at Dead Woman Pass.
But those seemed to be too mundane for me.
So I put my body to the test and attempted a 7 day trek from Mollepata, past the grand mountain of Salkantay (20,574 feet), over the Incachiriaska Pass (16,289 feet) which translates as Ďthe place where the Inca cools down', descending over 6,000 feet to join the 4 day Inca trail trek right before a horrible 4,000 foot climb to Dead Woman Pass.
Lots of planning, training hikes, second guessing my decision to undertake the most difficult trek of my life (knowing it could be my last trek if something went wrong), and preparing to go WAY over the height of my previous highest peak scaled (Mt Whitney at 14,508 feet two years ago).
Unlike some of my other big treks that I did solo (having to carry all my gear and food myself), this trip I was on a guided trek. Partly because of the difficulty of getting permits for the Inca trail and Machu Picchu and also since I knew this trek would push me to my limits and beyond.
So I didn't have to carry more than a day pack and had the luxury of a larger tent and a real cook making real, non-dehydrated meals for me.
Cusco is the doorway to the Sacred Valley, Salkantay, and Machu Picchu.
Flying from Lima to Cusco, I passed over glorious snow capped mountains (including Salkantay) on the way to a very tight landing at Cusco's small airport sitting in the middle of the city.
Before attempting this trek, I spent three and a half days acclimatizing in Cusco Peru (approx 11,000 feet). Previous experience has shown me how crucial it is to get used to higher elevations before tackling the higher peaks. When I did Mt Whitney two years ago, I spent 3-4 days getting used to elevations between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. A year later, I rushed my acclimation and was only able to summit Mt Langley (14,026 feet) before getting sick due to the altitude. Since I spent the good part of 2 weeks at 8,000 to 11,000 feet in the Japan Alps, I was well acclimatized to the high elevation when I climbed Mt Fuji (12,388 feet) for the second time last year.
For the first two days in Cusco, I did show signs of altitude sickness: Headaches and dizziness. Fortunately, these symptoms started to subside after the second day in Cusco.
I even got a chance to take in some culture and sightseeing in Cusco and the Sacred Valley while I was getting used to the altitude.
As a city, Cusco holds a long history. From when it was probably just a small village before becoming the capital of the Inca Empire, with Inca trails spreading out in all directions. Then when the Spanish invaded, conquered, and plundered the Inca Empire, the city was destroyed and rebuilt as a Spanish city. And finally today, a busy modern city trying to retain the best of the past as it moves into the future.
This long history is evident in the remaining Inca walls and ruins inside the city which were destroyed and taken apart to build the Spanish churches and buildings. But just outside the city, the remains of impressive Inca ruins provide a glimpse into the Inca life.
Museums, churches, plazas, street markets, and Inca ruins all were on the list of things to see in those first few days. Some of the ruins were very interesting to explore and I was left wanting more time to see them in more detail.
While my first thought when panning this trip was to take it very easy during my acclimatization time in Cusco. Not doing much touring in Cusco or further out into the Sacred Valley.
Where would the fun be in that?
In general, doing some hiking and activity actually helps acclimatization, so I did a day tour of the Sacred Valley.
After a nice drive with some scenic views of the Sacred Valley, we arrived at the Pisac Ruins. This was a well constructed Inca city on the top of a mountain overlooking the flood prone Sacred Valley. Very sensible. Have to wonder what the Spanish were thinking when they built their city down on the flood plain.
While mostly used for farming, housing, and mummified burials this was a very interning ruin to visit and to imagine what it was like so long ago.
We had a brief stop at the Pisac Market to do some shopping for some typical souvenirs and some unique hand made items.
Then it was down further into the Sacred Valley to visit Ollantaytambo. While the was farming, housing, and burial areas here as well, this Inca city was at a key spot along the valley to help protect the Inca empire against intrusions from he Amazon jungle. It also contained a very important sun temple that used a mountain as a sundial (key features on the mountain marked the winter and summer solstices). They probably built the temple to match the mountainís position instead of the other way around by building the mountain from scratch.
Although some of the Inca engirding feats were quite impressive, so you never know.
I had the chance to see the sun set behind the mountains from a nice vantage point to finish the day.
Great scenery, great history, great day.
The next day would just be me doing some light touring and souvenir shopping in Cusco before the long trek began.
Trek Day 1
Originally, a second person was supposed to join me on the 7-day Salkantay to Machu Picchu trek, but he got sick and was unfortunately unable to start the trek with me.
While I was the only amateur hiker on the trek, the guide, chef, and two horsemen handling the horses carrying the gear kind of seemed like overkill for just one person. But it did help that I didnít have to carry all that gear or worry about food and water.
So after a long ride from Cusco to Mollepata, I set off on my 7 day trek across the Peruvian Andes. We started from 10,367 feet at the trailhead at Marqoqasa and immediately had to climb a fairly steep trail up to around 12,000 feet in the first couple of miles of the dayís 5 mile hike.
The rest of the day was spent around this altitude as I made my way up and around the mountain ridge I was hiking over to the first nightís campsite at 12,057 feet. I believe it was called Cruzpata. Mostly it was just a rest stop, cattle grazing area, and the last (fully working) flush western toilet I would see for the next 6 days.
It did have a great view of the glacier capped mountain of Humantay as the sun sank below the mountain ridges. A short hike for the day, but since it started out so steep, it was good not to overdo it for the first day.
Trek Day 2
A nice morning gave way to a long hike (ending up being around 8 miles for day 2), but much less steep than the prior dayís start. The trail wound itself along a valley with a small river flowing through it. Just one of the many tributaries that eventually fed into the mighty Amazon River.
I made my way through small community called Checchicancha, when I treated myself to a cold Coca-cola. Not completely beyond civilization yet, apparently.
Further on, I saw the mighty Salkantay mountain for the first time from the trail (I had seen it from the airplane on the way into Cusco and also along the road while driving to Mollepata).
We went though a large valley sandwiched between Salkantay and Humantay called Sorapampa. A pleasant place, if a little too built up with lodges, campgrounds, and roads for my tastes. Iím glad I didnít have to stay in this area overnight.
Salkantay loomed ever closer and I started to get an idea of what Iíd have to climb the next day. It always disturbs me when approaching a big climb when you canít see the trail you would need to negotiate. This trek was no exception.
This is where the two main Salkantay Trek trails diverge.
One goes to the north, over a 15,000 foot pass, and then follows the river gorge and train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Typically that is a 5 day trek.
The other goes to the south, climbing to over 16,000 feet before descending 6,000 feet before it joins the classic 4 day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu at Wayllabamba. 7 days, with the last 3 on the classic Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu.
The problem with the northern route is that Iíd have to hike (or take the train) to Rio Vilcanota and do the full 4 day Inca Trail from there. Granted I could get some rest in a real bed before continuing, but 9 days on the trail seemed like it would be too much.
And from what I found out during my research, the south was more visually spectacular, didnít need to hike along the train tracks, and also combined both the Salkantay trek and the last 3 days of the classic Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu.
There was that 16,000+ foot Incachiriaska Pass to conquer.
Whatís an extra thousand feet?
But despite my concerns about going that high (1,500 feet higher than my prior high point on this planet we call home), I decided the 7 day Salkantay to Machu Picchu trek was my best choice.
So thatís why at Sorapampa I headed south towards a grand challenge and spectacular views. Almost the entire afternoon had more and more amazing views of Salkantay and the surrounding mountains.
After 8 miles of hiking, this day ended just shy of 14,800 feet with the second nightís camp having a stunning view of Salkantay. And more cows. Wouldnít think they would have cows grazing at 14,800 feet, but they did.
Tia twas a major difference between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Peruvian Andes: They had vegetation much higher. The vegetation start to thin out after between about 10,000 and 11,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with almost nothing over 12,000 feet usually.
There werenít any trees at 14,800 feet, but there was a carpet of green vegetation everywhere. IT wasnít until about 15,500 feet that the vegetation was down to just the occasional grass patch or small brush.
Not only was the 2nd nightís camp a higher elevation than Mt Whitney, I was pleasantly surprised that I had no problem eating, drinking, or sleeping at such a high altitude. Having only spent about 3 hours at the summit of Mt Whitney before I started to feel some dizziness and headaches, I was worried about spending a whole night at such a high elevation.
Not that I was completely unaffected by the altitude, but I avoided the worse symptoms of altitude sickness that might have ended my trek way too early.
Trek Day 3
Having survived (more or less) the night at 14,800 feet, the next day was the strenuous climb to the Incachiriaska Pass (16,289 feet). Only about 1,500 more feet to climb and given 3 hours to do it, but at that altitude every step was a new experience in pain, exhaustion, and wondering what the heck I was thinking climbing this impossible pass. Fortunately. the lack of oxygen to my brain
kept me from being rational enough to quit and head back down to where I started or using the horse that the guide service provided for emergencies.
So at about 9am on May 20th after only a little over 2 hours of hiking the deceptively shortóbut steepó1.5 miles to the pass, I reached the highest point on this planet that I have ever reached: Incachiriaska Pass at 16,289 feet!!!
Spectacular view and I actually was in good enough condition to enjoy it!!
After celebrating, taking a bunch of photos, and leaving a offering to Salkantay under a small rock cairn (a quartz rock from the valley, a piece of food, and a personal note) it was time to leave the heavens and descend to where mere mortals sometimes venture.
From the pass there was a long downward decent towards where Iíd join the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I donít know which was worse: The climb or the decent, but day three was a VERY exhausting day for me.
With mountains dwarfing me on all sides except for the direction I was heading, the hike followed an Inca canal for most of the day. Still some remnants of the Inca stonework could be seen along the way, but seeing the straight line of the canal from above made it obvious that it wasnít natural river.
Covered almost 9 miles for day 3, but the first mile and half climb was the worseÖ mostly.
We camped at a small farm along the river and my weary body got some much needed rest. Third night of cows. Thank goodness for ear plugs and fortunately my nose stopped working the day before.
Trek Day 4
This turned out to be a very short day as far as hiking went. A little less than 6 miles, all downhill to about 10,000 feet. I saw the ruins of Paucaracancha, another well positioned Inca outpost at the intersection of three Inca trails. The Incas always seem to pick the most scenic spots to build their cities.
Supposedly, I saw a Andian Condor (the largest flying bird in South America or the world depending on how you measure, plus who and where you ask
). But it was just a dot circling a far away mountain peak, so itís hard to be sure. Didnít even get a chance to try to take a picture.
Then it was a welcomed rest for lunch, a chance to do a little laundry, and say goodbye to our horsemen and horses. Horses are not allowed on the Inca trail from this point. Iím proud to say that I never ended up making use of the horses (beyond letting them carry the food and gear, of course) and completed the first 4 days using my own two legs. They were real sore legs at that point, of course, but they were mine.
I had planned just to reuse a few pairs of socks, underwear, and t-shirts, but the chance to do actual laundry and with the skies nice and sunny to dry the laundry led me to make a bad choice to wash some of my dirty clothes. Had the sun stayed out, I would have probably been okay. But the afternoon brought some light mountain rains. Nothing too heavy that day, but enough that what I washed wasnít going to dry that day. Fortunately, I did have some dry clothes still (as well as some items I planned to use at the end of the trek in Aquas Calientes), but it would mean reusing things a couple times more than originally planned. With intermittent rain for the remaining days, I never really did get this laundry to dry out fully.
After lunch, it was a quick hike down to the camp for the night at Wayllabamba. Almost no cows, but there were a few in the area so I still had cows around for the 4th night.
At this point, the other hiker had recovered from his illness and joined us for what is normally the second day of the classic Inca Trek to Machu Picchu. After that high climb to 16,289 feet, the rest would be easy, right?
I donít know if it was the decent from 16,000 feet to about 10,000 feet, the stress from the long hike, or something else, but I began getting dizzy in the evening and had some trouble keeping my dinner in my stomach. I settled into my tent, making sure to keep hydrated with water and Gatorade, plus some energy chews to help refill my stomach.
Could have been de-acclimatizationtation sickness after being so high for the last three days or something else, but this could have ended my Trek then and there.
There was a western toilet at this campsite, but you had to fill the tank with a bucket of water from the nearby canal in order to flush it. Maybe thatís how the Incas did it.
Trek Day 5
I awoke feeling better and only feeling a little dizzy if I moved around too fast. So after carefully eating very simple and bland foods for breakfast and some coca tea, I felt I could continue on the trek towards Machu Picchu.
The biggest problem is this part of the Inca Trail started with an almost 4,000 foot climb to Dead Woman Pass at 13,348 feet. By itself, this wouldnít be a big deal for me. But having to reclimb up that 4,000 feet after the big climb to Incachiriaska Pass and 6,000 foot decent from it was almost the end of me. OhÖ to add insult to injury it rained very hard that day as well. Softly in the morning during the climb, but then that darn old woman really let us have it in the afternoon on the way down from the pass.
But despite all this, I made it up to Dead Woman Pass! That was the last of the major climbs of this trip, so I would enjoy mostly going downhill after this. Not really, the miles just keep adding to your exhaustion as you do a long trek like this regardless if you are ascending or descending. But with the end goal in sight, you do your best to push through it.
So with one last look at the valley I had conquered behind me, I turned my attention to thankfully a short hike down to the 5th nightís campground at Pacaymayu. That day, I hiked about the same 6 miles that I hiked the previous day, but MUCH, MUCH steeper for most of the day (up and down).
The rains kind of dampened the climb down (literally), but after a while I had some clear skies to look around at the valley and waterfalls round me and stretch our sore legs before dinner. No cows at this campground!!
It was a little cramped at this campground and there are more people on the trail now that we joined the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (no surprise there).
With my dizziness behind me, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of reaching Machu Picchu at that point. Mostly since it was going to be mostly downhill and aborting there would be just as hard as going forward, if not harder.
In other words, no turning back now.
Trek Day 6
Feeling much better than the previous morning, I set out for the final campsite before reaching Machu Picchu. The day started out with a 1,000 foot climb followed by a 3,000 foot decent.
Since this was the primary Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu, there were many Inca Ruins along the way to explore during the hike. They served a large number of uses, mostly to support Machu Picchu and those traveling to it. Farm terraces, temples, accommodation for pilgrims, and defenses to keep unwanted people away. Since Machu Picchu was made to be inaccessible from the other three sides, this was the only way to the lost city of the Incas (until the bus road was built, of course
After the first climb, we explored the Runkuraqay Ruins, reached Sayacmarca overlooking the Aobamba Valley, explored Puyapatamarca Ruins, and passed through a couple of natural caves which the Incas made use of and built the Inca Trail thru them.
As we neared our final campsite at Winay Wayna, we explored the Intipata Ruins, which was mostly farming terraces to feed those in Machu Picchu.
Before eating and turning in for the night, I explored the last of the ruins along the trail: Winay Wayna. Like me, this was the last stop for the pilgrims going to Machu Picchu where they could purify themselves with a cold shower. The campsite also had cold showers, but I had grown used to my smell so I decided to pass on it.
Being the last stop before Machu Picchu, the campsite was VERY crowded with tents crammed almost on every piece of horizontal grond and not much to write home about.
Not quite 9 miles hiked this day, but itís hard to care about the aches and pain the previous 6 days put on my body when you were so close to your goal. Even the occasional light rain didnít seem to bother me.
Trek Day 7
I was up very early to get in line for the gate to Machu Picchu. Not an Inca gate, a metal gate to keep trekkers and tourists from going into the protected Machu Picchu site overnight.
Once the gate opened, I put on my headlamp and made my way in the dark before the morning glow from he east started to shine some light on the trail. About a hour later I reached the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu unfolded before my eyes.
Not much sun, unfortunately, but even under overcast skies Machu Picchu lived up to itís reputation to take your breath away. And this time I couldnít blame the lack of oxygen for that since it was at a mere 8,000 feet.
Not quite 50 miles altogether to reach Machu Picchu. And worth every agonizing moment.
Machu Picchu seemed a lot bigger than I thought it was. The photos you see of it (my photos and all the other photos) donít quite do the scale of the area justice. Tucked away unseen on a ridge between two mountain peaks (Machu Picchu Mountain and Wayna Picchu Mountain), it seemed to defy logic that it could be built there using the ancient techniques of the Incas. I donít blame them for building it there, it was a beautiful area and one I wouldnít mind spending more time in.
It was a glorious sight and I spent most of the day exploring the ruins with the other trekker and our guide filling us in on the history of Machu Picchu and the Incas. And taking a few more pictures.
So nothing more to do after all that, right?
WellÖ there was this little mountain called Wayna Picchu to the east of Machu Picchu. I had arranged for permit to climb it and visit Machu Picchu for a second day. After spending 7 days hiking to Machu Picchu, it seemed like a single day of exploring it wasnít going to be enough. And in retrospect, it wasnít.
Of course, there was no guarantee that Iíd be in any condition to climb it. If I tried to climb it that first day, Iím pretty sure I would have given up. From below it looked like a very imposing climb and there were some very steep looking sections I could see little dots climbing up.
So with 7 days of trekking through the Peruvian Andes behind me, I welcomed the bus ride down to Aguas Calientes were I had a last meal with the other trekker and guide and said our good byes.
A charming little village at the base of the mountains holding Machu Picchu.
But after the past 7 days of trekking this was a welcome stopover to get some good food, a hot shower, and a real bed to rest in before going back up to Machu Picchu for some more exploring and to climb Wayna Picchu. Did do some shopping for t-shirts and souvenirs. Surprisingly, I didnít buy as much souvenirs as I thought I would. Did end up with 9 t-shirts from his trip though.
Oh and use a real toilet, but best not to go into details on that.
Trek Day 8 (bus time!)
Even though I felt a lot better in the morning I wasnít going to climb the 1,300 feet back up to Machu Picchu from Aquas Calientes, so I cheated and took the bus. I think I earned a little cheating after the previous 7 days of trekking using only my own two feet.
The day before, the climb up Wayna Picchu looked pretty daunting and I was pretty worried about making it, but it actually wasnít that bad of a hike to the top of Wayna Picchu. Amazing what some good meals, a hot shower, and a real bed can do to reinvigorate a sore body.
There were definitely some very steep parts near the top, which the Incaís thankfully built steps into the mountain to reach. Very steep and very rewarding.
Glorious views and a very nice way to celebrate my long trek.
Ironically, besides the named passes I climbed and crawled over, this was the first named 'summit' I reached during this trek.
Feeling pretty good after that climb, I continued along the loop trail around the mountain to the Temple of the Moon and left another offering there.
On the way back to Machu Picchu, I decided to climb the the smaller Huchuy Picchu mountain to see Machu Picchu one last time from above.
This climb and trail kind of reminded me of my trek through the Japan Alps the previous year. There were several wooden ladders to climb down and a rope to pull myself up some rocks (as opposed to steel leaders and chains in the Japan Alps). Not nearly as many of these sections as in the Japan Alps, but a very similar feeling.
Then I explored Machu Picchu for a few more hours before heading back down to Aguas Calientes and catching a train back to Cusco. Sadly, the rains had come back and there wasnít much to see from the train as it made itís way back through the Sacred Valley.
If you add the hiking around Machu Picchu and the loop around Wayna Picchu, I hiked over 60 miles during this trip.
Tiring, exhausting, andÖ worth every minute of it.
I did have to dodge some rain storms (light mostly, except for that one VERY heavy downpour on day 5) along the final 4 days, but overall it was a great trip. I accomplished all my goals and saw some amazing sights. Canít get too much better than that.
And about a week after my return to sea level, I had 2-3 days of dizziness. Besides being exhausted from the trek, I have to believe that was my body trying to get used to life at such a ridiculously low altitude. I should have just climbed Mt Whitney when I was used to the high altitudes.
Onward and upward!!
With this successful trek behind me, I'm feeling better about my planned 7-day Onion Valley to Mt Whitney hike, although having to carry all my gear will be an adjustment after this guided trek.
Long term, my goal to go up Kilimanjaro is looking more doable. It's only a little over 3,000 feet over Incachiriaska Pass, so no problem!
Hereís a FlickrCollection with all my Peru pictures:https://www.flickr.com/photos/wanderingjim/collections/72157684662512466/
The albums at the top are the BEST pictures for the various locations and trek days. It wasnít easy to narrow down the pictures to just those.
Then the following albums have the highlights of all the photos. A little easier to pick these out and I think they give a good overview of all the sights I saw and my accomplishments during my 2 weeks in Peru. They include the pictures from the ĎBESTí albums as well.
Then the rest of the albums contain all the non-blurry and non-crappy pictures that I took during my 2 weeks in Peru. They include all the pictures from the ĎBESTí and Ďhighlightsí albums as well. These are mostly meant for a safe, offline backup for me, but you can enjoy too if you have a few days free.
Still have some movies to clean up and go over. Stay tuned.