The day of our Inca Trail trip had finally arrived. The first day began in the Sacred Valley about 40 minutes outside of Ollantaytambo where there is a checkpoint at which you present your ticket and your passport. This may sound a little odd, but the Inca Trail is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so only 500 trekkers are allowed on it on any given day. You have to register well in advance to trek and are required to have a licensed guide with you. For a developing country, the whole affair seems unusually well organized.
The first day of the trip starts at only 9000 ft in altitude (so it is lower in elevation when compared to Cuzco) and follows the Urubamba river. We trekked for approximately six hours with some short breaks before settling into camp for the night. In terms of difficulty, the first day—while strenuous in a few areas—is relatively easy. Certainly, this is partly because the trail itself isn´t terribly difficult (yet), but I believe it is also due to the excitement and anticipation that anyone would feel when embarking on such a journey. With the mist-shrouded mountains on either side of us and the Urubamba below, it´s an amazing feeling to be thus surrounded by nature in all of its glory.
We were forewarned by our guide that the second day of the trek would be brutal, but I had no idea it would be as hard as it was. We left camp at 6:30 in the morning and trekked with only a few short breaks until 1:00 in the afternoon. While 6.5 hours of trekking may not sound terrible, it was made difficult by the fact that 75% of the trail that day was uphill—culminating at Dead Woman´s Pass, which is 14,000 feet above sea level—so you had both the physical exertion and the altitude to contend with. This made the trek all the more grueling and the trail to Dead Woman´s Pass went on with a relentlessness that taunted me at each turn. I spent most of that day concentrating on setting one foot in front of the other and chanting a silent mantra to keep my legs moving. But when we finally reached Dead Woman´s Pass, the feeling was exhilerating. After hours of trekking uphill on that craggy Inca Trail, it felt as though we were on top of the world.
Day three was the longest stretch of all (nine hours), though not nearly as grueling as day two. The day started with three more hours of uphill trekking (a real test of endurance after the previous day), but then the trail leveled out and began a dramatic decline into the valley below. Though it was a tremendously long trek before we made camp that evening, it was also a rewarding one. We stopped at several Inca ruins along the way to break up the monotony of the journey and our spirits were high with the knowledge that we were nearing the end of the trail. We ended the day with a feast and a celebration with our porters and guides.
On day four—the final day—we woke up at 3:30 am to begin the last stretch of our journey, which was only a two-hour trek from our camp to Machu Picchu. The knowledge that we were so close to our destination made some of us (me included) practically jog those last two hours. When we reached Intipunku, the last viewpoint on the trail and a trekker´s first sight of Machu Picchu, I had an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, excitement, and awe that spurred me on for that final bit of trail. At this point, our group had broken up due to our different paces, so I trekked the last stretch alone.
I cannot explain what it´s like to view Machu Picchu for the first time. Though I´ve seen many Inca ruins on this trip, none of them compare to this 15th-century citadel which, because it was undiscovered by Spanish conquistadores, is the best preserved of them all. When I finally reached the end of the trail and Machu Picchu opened up in front of me—this time in all of its glory and not just as a vision from a distance—I was emotionally overcome at the sight of the pristine, tranquil ruins. It was a sight I had waited years to see, that we had trekked for four days to reach, and yet even with all of that anticipation, the vision of it before me did not leave me wanting. It was far greater than I had imagined and went beyond my ability to process it intellectually.
I spent some time wandering around Machu Picchu on my own before seeking out my group. We explored the ruins with our guide and then some of us decided to climb Wayna Picchu, the steep peak that rises high above the ruins and is often part of any photograph of Machu Picchu. I am not sure what possessed me to spend two more hours hiking and climbing, but I did. When I reached the pinnacle, I discovered that it is made up of mammoth granite boulders that lie at precarious angles—with not an inch of level earth on which to stand. Although the view of Machu Picchu from the vantage point of Wayna Picchu´s summit is well worth the effort, the lack of level earth and the persistent reality of a dizzying drop motivated me to descend shortly after I arrived…but not without some sense of satisfaction at having reached the peak despite my exhaustion.
And that was day four—the last and most memorable day of an extraordinary journey. It was a good day.