While we had completed the hardest day of the trek on day two with umpteen feet of elevation gain and descent, day three would be our longest hike with approximately 9-10 miles (15km) of trekking, depending on which measurement system you use. Fun fact – people are not great at km to miles conversion and our Garmins just weren’t great at tracking either. Justin and I both have the exact same watch, yet somehow managed to end up with wildly different distances hiked each day… #crushedit.
Our watches inability to give us similar distances notwithstanding, this 10ish miles included at least a 1000 feet of ascent and descent through mountain passes, and jungle. So, all in all it was a pretty long day of moving. Originally, our guide, Santiago, told us we would get to our campsite around 5 pm, but that was before he saw us hike. Being the glutton for punishment that I am, we pushed that arrival time up to a cool 1 pm… several hours before the last group would arrive.
As you might imagine, this lead to us having quite a bit of down time. And while this is a great thing for recovery between days of hiking, it was not a great thing for my feet :(. One of the biggest mistakes we made on the trek was forgetting bug spray in our packs in Cusco and we paid the piper for that mistake… at least I did. My ankles were already covered in bites as was part of my upper body, but the worst would come on day four.
So while I know you are dying to see all the feet pics, and let’s be real, I could make a fortune selling pics of these bad boys, the trek was really about the other sites (you’re welcome for the sneak preview above 😆). These include plenty of mountains, a magnum glacier (who knew!?), some bamboo (sadly no pandas), and plenty of Incan cities/terraces. One such terrace was right around the corner (figuratively speaking) from our campsite, and though Jeiny lead us the wrong way originally, I was able to save the day by leading us the correct direction due to my impeccable listening skills (Narrators voice: he did not have any listening skills).
The hiking and sights on day three were quite amazing, but I think our chef really takes the cake (ba dum cha) for today, as he somehow managed to bake us an entire cake for the last night of our trek. How he did that with just a propane tank, I will never know… But as a compliment to his skill, I made sure to eat half of it myself because who could allow something that magical to go to waste?!
Day four, the ultimate day of our trek, began even earlier than most with a jarring 4 am wakeup call followed by us waiting at the checkpoint for an hour until they allowed us to hike onwards toward Machu Picchu. Nobody told us that the checkpoint folks ran on Tica time, but we learned this the old fashioned way when the gate that was supposed to open at 5 am didn’t open until 5:30 am. Now this wouldn’t typically be a big deal, but the idea of getting here early is to make it to the Sun Gate, which overlooks Machu Picchu, by sunrise.
The hike is supposed to take about 90 minutes for the average hiker, but Santiago told us we could do it in 70 minutes. Either way, when sunrise is around 6:15, the math of a 5:30 departure was not in our favor. Shame on him for his doubting us though because we did it in 45 minutes 😀 And I am glad we did because the sunrise over the mountains and Machu Picchu was incredible… as was a fellow trekker’s out-of-the-blue comment of “Puta Madre!” as we all made it up one of the insanely steep staircases leading to the gate. If you don’t speak Spanish, google that phrase and see why it made us all chuckle 🙂
From the Sun Gate to the city was a fairly short downhill walk, but we took it even slower to kill time before entering the city, since the tour of Machu Picchu would only take so long and our train wasn’t until 3:30 pm. After dilly dallying, we entered the city at 7:30 am. Unfortunately, we had to wear masks while in the city but I am not going to lie, I loved having come here during the pandemic. The Inca Trail allows 500 hikers a day to enter it and Machu Picchu typically sees 5-8k people a day, most of those arriving via train to avoid the hiking. On the day we started the trail, there were 63 people and Machu Picchu is only seeing about a 1200 people a day now. This made for quite a stark difference in the experience we had vs what you might have if you had come before the pandemic or plan to come after.
Our tour through Machu Picchu took us about two hours and was absolutely stunning. The pictures you see of this place truly don’t do it justice. The coolest thing we learned though – Machu Picchu wasn’t actually built by the Inca! The differing styles of masonry and carbon dating the lichen growing in various parts of the city put the oldest parts at about 2000 years old. As such, the Inca could not have been the original builders. Expansion of their empire through the Andes, must have lead them to find the city and adapt it to their lifestyle over time. To date, nobody has been able to trace back who the original building society was!
After the tour, we boarded a bus down to Agues Calientes, where we would catch a train back to Cusco. Santiago had already picked our lunch spot out and had really talked it up. Lucky for all of us, the food lived up, the views were on the point, and we made the alcohol flow!
Until that point, Santiago had been pretty quiet and aloof, but once we got a few drinks in him he finally opened up. Him and Jeiny bonded over their love of mountain and ice climbing while Krista and I made fun of them. We spent the next few hours trading stories and laughing until he had to board his train. Unfortunately, ours was an hour later, and then got delayed several more hours due to strikes. After what some might call a bender, and we call a casual Tuesday, we stumbled onto our train. Unluckily for us, due to the delay caused by strikes, the train was stopping well short of Cusco. It was a rude awakening to hear that we were going to have to take a 2.5 hour bus ride from where the train stopped to get to Cusco… welcome to travel in South America!
We did finally make it back to Cusco, albeit several hours later than we should have. Fortunately, we had decided to book a room at Hilton Garden Inn to have a hot shower and comfortable beds after several days of cold showers and sleeping bags. It was incredibly spacious, well located, and exactly what we needed after our trekking.
But what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t circle back to what you all read this far for… my feet ;)! Somehow, someway I managed to up my rookie number of bug bites by a magnitude of 10 while in Aguas Calientes. My feet and ankles were riddled with bites and had swollen to the size of a ballon! Heck, even as I write this three days later my feet still look like a disaster.
Words and pictures won’t do the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu justice, so I’d recommend seeing it for yourself.. and learning from our biggest mistake, forgetting the bug spray! Following our more intelligent footsteps – you should book the trek through ITEP travel (ask for Santiago!) The company was super accommodating, had great deals, and worked with us every step of the way. Santiago is an incredible guide who speaks multiple languages and knows a ton about Machu Picchu, hiking/climbing, and Peru in general!