As I said before, the train was not running the day before. At four in the morning, my guide picks me up at my hostel on the 6th. I had booked with Orange Nation who is now merging with Sam Travels Peru. Dayvit (pronounced David) gets me situated into a car and tells me he has bad news. The other couple, who was going with me, canceled due to weather. This eliminates all possibility of a four day trek because they cannot hire porters for just one person. More on the porters later. I had three options: cancel and get my money back. Ride the train and see Machu Picchu that day and ride back or trek the short Inca trail one day and stay in the town of Agua Calientes below Machu Picchu that night and then return to Machu Picchu the next day for the guided tour and Machu Picchu mountain. I choose the third option, which meant I had a completely private tour, just me and Dayvit.
The ride to a cute little town, Ollantaytambo, was about an hour and a half. Dayvit and I talked most of the way, half Spanish and half English. This little town is so cute that when I come back to Cusco someday, I want to take some extra time to stay in this little town. In Ollantaytambo, is the train station. Only two private companies make the journey to Machu Picchu along with a local train we were obviously in the fancy train. Here is the other thing, I am obsessed with trains and didn’t think I was going to ride one until the way back, so this was an extra bonus. The train takes you along a path of wall to wall mountains. There are windows in the roof of the train so you can see up. Snowed glaciers tower above everything else. It is the most pristine scenery. I am constantly amazed by how beautiful the department of Cusco is. I simply sat and stared out the window for the entire hour and a half. All of a sudden, the train slows and intercom tells us that passengers who are hiking the Inca trail need to get off. This was our stop. One giant step down from the train and a few meters up was the entrance.
There were two other groups from two different companies that got off with me. But I had the personal guide, which meant personal photographer and personal historian. I could ask any question I wanted and I love to ask questions.
We crossed the suspension bridge that led to the trailhead, I could see why the river could get dangerous. It was roaring while we were there. I couldn’t imagine it higher. At the trailhead,we slathered on the sunscreen because it was a perfectly sunny day. I felt a little sorry for the couple who canceled because of weather. Dayvit said it was the most perfect day he had seen all rainy season. Machu Picchu was going to be crystal clear. Their loss, my gain.
To start the trek, you have to show a passport and ticket. The company had taken care of everything based on my decision. We were set to go. From the very beginning we came upon an Incan ruin. I had already seen so many, but they still take me by surprise. There is something powerful about archeological sites and the energy they hold. The rocks tell a story. I don’t remember the name of the site, but I do remember that it was the house for the runners. In Incan times, runners were required to take messages from all over the empire. They basically sprinted for 10-15k and then passed on their bags to the next runner. Imagine a message traveling from Ecuador to Cusco because Cusco was the center of the empire. These runners were how the king knew everything. Just touching the walls, I felt the energy of the men who ran the trails. I was ready to carry on.
The path follows the curve of the mountain. There are no safety rails, and the stairs are uneven and endless at times. The next three hours is steep incline. But, the views are amazing and the Urubamba river is our constant. Because we were just the two of us, we raced ahead of the others. Soon it was just me and Dayvit on the trail which made it even more special. We learned about each other’s families, education, jobs. We talked about memories. I told him about my cancer adventure and he told me about his son. At times our voices and heads were shaded by the vegetation. Other times the sun beat down on us and we silently trekked saving our energy. Stair after stair, we climbed. All the while, a big ruin was in the distance calling to us.
We saw hummingbirds and snakes and lizards and bugs. We saw several types of orchids, some of which only come out in the wet season. Dayvit told me about the flora and fauna of the land. We literally were changing from highland to jungle over the course of the trek. It started to remind me of Costa Rica or Brazil. I started to reflect how my happiest memories were on jungle treks. We stopped about every 30-45 minutes for some water and maybe a snack. On one stop we met a porter from the Alpaca Expedition company, who I was going to go with because of their humane treatment of their porters. But they didn’t have room for me, so I picked Orange Nation because it is a completely local company and I like small businesses. Now is my time to rant a little bit.
This Porter was shorter than me, obviously in better shape, and probably around 21. And the pained look on his face carrying his bag was too much for me. So I asked how much it weighed. 30 kilos. For my US friends, that is 66 pounds. What does this mean: first, these men have to carry all of the stuff of the travelers – sleeping bags, tents, clothes, food, shower, you name it. All of this is on the backs of men. Second, they don’t get paid much and do rely on tips to survive. Having been a waitress, I know foreigners and tips don’t always work out. Third, these trails are dangerous and rocky and steep. These men carry other people’s shit, quickly, so that they can be at the campsite before the travelers and have everything set and ready. Oh, and there are regulations saying they can only carry 25 kilos, which means someone overpacked to make this man carry 30 kilos.So, if you are doing the Inca trail hike for four days, please tip well, leave most of your shit back at the hostel (you can be smelly at Machu Picchu. It will not mind) and remember that these are humans carrying your stuff so that you can have a better experience. Treat them with complete and utter kindness and appreciation. Because I promise they don’t make the 800 dollars you just spent on a four day trek. They probably will never be able to accumulate 800 dollars to spend on a walk. These men are hunched over with your stuff AND their personal items. Just be aware of that and choose your company wisely. Seeing that Porter made me quite angry. So I walked in silence for a bit.
The trail became wetter and wetter as we really got into the thick of the jungle. I was now concentrating so hard on not slipping. We were so close to the next ruin, but needed to stop first at the waterfall. I love a good waterfall and ended up cupping the refreshing water into my hands and wetting my face and hair.
Another ten minutes and we were at the bottom of Winay Wayne, named after the orchid that translates to forever young. When the ruin was discovered, it was covered in the orchid so it now takes its name. This place is impressive and it’s also funny because it was built in order to build Machu Picchu. This was the home of the builders as they made Machu Picchu. In some cases, its even more beautiful because it is all up close, whereas Machu Picchu is limited. In the upper part are houses with the windows and roofing structures still intact. The views from the windows are incredible. Then there is the terraces from the farming. Each level holds a different type of crop. They were expert farmers and knew how to use the elevation and flow of water to grow varieties. Finally, there is the temple of the rainbow because this area is notorious for Rainbow sightings. All of the temples worship something visible on earth (sun, mood, Rainbow, condor, mountains, river). I really like this idea of worshiping that which gives to you. Now the human offerings, not so much, but I’ll give a little drink to Mother Earth before drinking to thank her for the gift of water, absolutely. I must warn that you come in at the very bottom of the ruin and need to get to the very top. This means stairs. Lots and lots of tiny, uneven stairs. It’s a lot after hours of hiking other stairs.
Lunchtime was spent at Winay Wayna and it is a lot – quinoa and chicken salad, fruits, chocolate bars, water. It was a heavy lunch and a relief to eat the weight away. This was also our first opportunity for a bathroom or should I say a hole in the ground to squat over. But it did the trick. Our lunch spot is the last stop for the main Inca trail hikers. All of the porters were there setting up tents and cooking, which put the sour taste in my mouth again. But I put it out of my mind and focused on the sun gate.
Because this part is where you meet up with the main Inca trail, the trail is no longer dirt but original Inca stone. It kind of hurts your feet and I can only imagine hiking on it for four solid days, the hike is not steep until the very end. It’s actually a nice little stroll with slight ups and downs. I good way to digest food before the final hike to the sun gate. We started the hike at 8:45. At approximately 2:15 I reached the stairs known as the gringo killers, which to me were not half as bad as the Winay wayna stairs. Then ten more minutes and there were the final stairs to the sun gate.
Dayvit ran ahead of me. There was literally no energy left in my legs. I was turtle speed up the stairs. Finally, I made it through the gate and there sits Machu Picchu, perfectly clear. I burst into tears. Maybe it was the strain of the hike or the realization of what I had to go through to get here. Maybe it was the magic of the energy. I don’t know, but this is the second time I reached the top and cried, so hopefully this will not become a habit. Dayvit wrapped me in a big hug and told me a story. It was about a woman who had done the main Inca trail. She was a little taciturn and kept to herself the whole trek. She would stay in the back and cry. When they finally reached the sun gate, she told the group that she had booked the tickets to do this trek six months ago. Four mouths later, her husband passed away. She cautioned her group to be grateful they have the opportunity to be where they were because a lot of people don’t get the option. This was her husband’s dream and she was doing it. This made me cry harder of course. So Dayvit hugged me again and told me that he gave endless tours a year but it’s only the special ones who cry at the glory of being in that moment who he remembers. So I guess the cancer girl story will be told to the next crier. The legacy continues.
After our endless picture, we headed into Machu Picchu, which is another twenty minute downhill on big rocks. At the entrance to the city, I gave my offering of three coca leaves. I blew into the wind three times and made my honest wish.
Not only was the day absolutely perfect, but there was also no one in Machu Picchu. My pictures look like I have the place to myself! Once again, I thought about the couple who canceled. At the beginning, during our briefing, Dayvit told us to b positive. I have been nothing but positive this trip. I guess they just didn’t have enough trust in the pacha mama.
I slept the entire bus ride down the mountain to Aguas Calientes. Then I got to my hotel and took the longest, hottest shower of my life. Once again I was so grateful for the cancelation and how things had worked out. I was sleeping in a real bed with endless pillows and wifi!
For dinner, I met Dayvit in the lobby. “You are not going to believe this,” he told me. “The couple wants to join us tomorrow.” I started to laugh. It didn’t really matter. The best part of the trip had already happened the exact way it needed to happen. “Dayvit,” I asked. “Can I buy you a drink tonight?” And we spent dinner laughing, telling stories, sharing pictures of our lives, and drinking pisco sours.