Monday, April 18, 2011

A chance to hike the famous Inca Trail!

I recently found out that I am to hike the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu in April 2011! Being an avid hiker in years gone by, this was definitely up there on my list of treks but a place I never thought my feet would travel. And so it happens that I am lucky enough to be sent by Holbrook Travel to do a trail inspection for an upcoming Road Scholar program.

OK, getting ready and doing a little homework, I find plenty of info about hiking the trail. The popular section of the trail to Machu Picchu takes 4 days and 3 nights, beginning at Km82 below the town of Ollantaytambo. (there is also a 2 day hike starting at Km104). I am arriving to Cusco 2 days early to acclimatize to the 11k elevation and hopefully give my lungs and legs a little practice for what I am about to put them through. I will visit some nearby ruins each day in preparation. Day 2 of the hike, the most difficult section, features a gain of almost 4,000 ft. hiking from 7:00am to lunchtime.
This is the part I'm worried about for being the flat lander that I am, I know it will be difficult, no matter how much I prepare. I've gotta quit hittin' the snooze and get out there in the am for some more exercise!
more homework and more info later.....

Plaza de Armas Cusco


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Trail itinerary

Day 1: Lima

Depart U.S./Arrivals in Lima, Peru

Arrivals at the Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima.
Over night at the Ramada Airport Costa del Sol Hotel
Day 2: Sacred Valley
Flight to Cusco and Coach to the Sacred Valley/Field trip to Ollantaytambo Ruins

Breakfast at the hotel restaurant and morning flight to Cusco.
Arrive in Cusco and transfer by coach to the Sacred Valley with a visit to Ollantaytambo ruins.
Ollantaytambo is a town with original buildings of Inca construction where the
Inca retreated to make their last stand in the highlands against the Spanish.
Running water still flows through the town in aqueducts and the terraces above the
town still are farmed.
Lunch at a local restaurant in the town of Ollantaytambo.
Transfer to the hotel and check-in with afternoon time at leisure.
Lecture: A Brief Introduction to Peru, the Inca, and the Sacred Valley.
Dinner at the hotel restaurant.
Day 3: Sacred Valley - Moray Inca Ruins/Salinas Salt Pans
Breakfast at the hotel restaurant followed by a trip to Moray, an ancient site of large circular terraces built
by the Inca as an outdoor agricultural research station.
As you walk around the terraces they decrease in size to a central point making this hike a wonderful opportunity to acclimate in preparation for the Inca Trail.
Then there is an excursion to the Salt Pans of Salinas for a brief demonstration
of the salt extraction process.
Walk down to the Urubamba River and the small town of Salinas for a visit.
Lunch at a local restaurant and return to the hotel.
Dinner at the hotel.
Day 4: Sacred Valley - Pisac Market 
Breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then depart for the town of Pisac.
Enjoy an incredible acclimatizing walk through the Pisac ruins and then down to the town.
Return to the hotel for some free time before dinner.
After dinner your leader will conduct a final briefing session on the Inca Trail in preparation for the big hike.
Day 5: Inca Trail - Hike to Patallaqta Ruins and Huayllabamba
After Breakfast at the hotel restaurant, depart for Ollantaytambo, KM82, where we will meet our porters and have a final pit stop.
We hike to the official control point to the start of the Inca Trail. Original, valid passports must be
ready to be presented to the officials.
We then cross a footbridge over the Urubamba River and start your hike!
After an hour and a half or so you arrive at the Patallaqta viewpoint. These classic Inca ruins at the intersection of three valleys with wonderful photo opportunities.
Consult your group leader if you feel unwell and are apprehensive about the Inca Trail hikes.
Option #1:Take part in the first day of the hike and see how you feel. If you decide not to continue,
provisions will be made to transfer you to Cusco. However, if you wish to stay, you will need to complete
the hikes all the way through to Machu Picchu.
Option #2: If you decide not to attempt any hikes,
provisions will be made to transfer you back to Cusco. **Note: going back to Cusco will be at your own expense**
Day 6: Inca Trail - Huayllabamba to Pacaymayo
Early morning wake-up call with a hot beverage and breakfast at the camp.
The first portion of your hike this morning will take approximately 1:30 minutes.
The first stop will be at Ayapata for the opportunity to rest, use the local toilet
facilities, and/or rehydrate.
Continue walking on ascending stairs for 2:30 minutes.
Lunch at Llulluchapampa in the valley.
After lunch, begin your 2 hour walk to Abra Warmiwañuska at an elevation of approximately 13,776 ft.
This is the toughest and highest pass of the trek.
Descend to the second campsite at Pacaymayo at 11,580 ft for tea time and relaxation.
Day 7: Inca Trail - Pacaymayo to Phuyupatamarka
Again the porters will greet you tent side with an early morning wake-up call with a hot beverage.
Breakfast at camp before you begin the approximately 1 hour hike to the Runkuracay archaeological site
overlooking the Pacaymayo Valley. 
After an exploration of the site, you will hike to the Runkurakay Pass, 12,960 ft, the second pass on the trail. After reaching the pass, continue downhill for approximately 1 hour before arriving at the narrow staircase that will take you into Sayacmarca, "Inaccessible Town".
The ruins of Sayacmarca are the remnants of a fortress or travelers' lodge used by
the Inca. Sayacmarca was built on a narrow mountain ridge with only one
entrance, probably planned as a means of defense. The thatched roofs are long
gone, but an observatory, small plaza, ritual baths, housing complex, and other
constructions remain. The lack of agricultural terraces and farmland point to a
dependence on outside suppliers. In its heyday, Sayacmarca is thought to have housed as many as 200 people.
Leave the ruins and hike for another 20 minutes before breaking for lunch.
Lunch stop at Chaquicocha.
Then after lunch, continue walking for another 1:45 minutes to the last campsite at Phuyupatamarka, 10,695 ft. Once at the camp, reward your day's efforts with a tea break and free time before
Day 8: Machu Picchu - Phuyupatamarka, Wiñay Wayna & Intipunku Ruins
Your final early wake-up call to witness the spectacular sunrise from the viewing platform at Phuyupatamarka. Hot beverages will be provided before your final breakfast at camp is served.
Later that morning, begin walking to the archaeological ruins, located approximately
15 minutes from the camp.
The ruins of Phuyupatamarka (Cloud Level Town) include many terraces and a
series of ceremonial baths. A large platform on the highest part of the site once
served as an open-air temple, the Temple of the Sun.
Continue walking for another 3:30 hours and arrive at Wiñay Wayna in time  lunch.
After lunch resume hiking this final stretch of the Inca Trail that will take
approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes to complete.
This will bring you to the Intipunku, or "Sun Gate" and you will begin the descent into Machu Picchu, just as the late afternoon shadows appear on the citadel.
After a quick walk through the ruins, board the bus to Aguas Calientes and transfer to your hotel for a shower, dinner and celebration.
Day 9: Cusco -
Machu Picchu Ruins/Train to Ollantaytambo & Bus to Cusco
Early breakfast at the hotel and then board a bus to the Machu Picchu ruins.
Spend the morning in both guided and individual exploration, visiting the most fascinating features of this astounding and mysterious Inca settlement. Some might want to take the optional hike to the
summit of Wayna Picchu for an amazing overview of the site, while others may
want to investigate Machu Picchu's many hidden architectural treasures.
Board the bus and return to Aguas Calientes town.
Arrive in Aguas Calientes and walk to lunch at a local restaurant.
Transfer to the Aguas Calientes train station for your train ride back to Ollantaytambo Station.
Once at Ollantaytambo, board the bus to Cusco.
Day 10: Cusco -
Sacsayhuaman Ruins/Cusco City Orientation/Music Presentation
After breakfast at the hotel you will have a field trip to the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman.
Return to Cusco for a walking orientation of the city.
Lunch will be at local restaurant in Cusco's main square and then you will have the afternoon at leisure to explore Cusco on your own.
Early evening presentation on traditional Inca instruments and music.
The Farewell dinner will be at a local restaurant with local entertainment.
Day 11: Lima -
Lima City Orientation
Breakfast at the hotel before you transfer to the airport to board flight to Lima.
Arrive in Lima and transfer to downtown area for lunch.
Orientation to downtown Lima including the Cathedral and San Francisco Church.
Transfer to the hotel and check-in.
Time at leisure to rest, explore Lima, or finish packing.
Day 12: Departures - Return Flights to the U.S.
Breakfast at the hotel dependent on flight times.
Some participants will have departed the night before.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"It's Inca, not Inka!"

When my husband first looked at the blog he announced, "You've spelled Inka wrong!", "It's Inca, not Inka!"

I knew that Inka was the more politically correct spelling but I didn't know much more than that about the spelling so I looked around a bit for some information. I found some info on wikipedia site with reference to Bruce Mannheim, The Language of the Inka since the European Invasion, University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas,1991.

In recent years, the spelling of place names in Peru and Bolivia has been revised among Quechua and Aymara speakers. A standardized alphabet for Quechua was adopted by the Peruvian government in 1975.
These changes are considered to be part of a general process of spelling standardization and reassertion of the right of these native languages to their own spelling system appropriate for their sound systems, which are very different from that of Spanish. This goes along with a growth of pride in the Andean heritage of these countries and a move to recover the prestige of their indigenous languages. These spelling changes are part of the official alphabets for Quechua and Aymara in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

So, I'm stickin' with Inka and off I go this afternoon! More later after arrival to Lima!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Things to Bring

OK, it's time to start thinking about packing; waterproof jacket and pants, yes, it's going to rain (but this time of year will surely be very green!) 
North Face gortex jacket, waterproof pants.
***This year I invested in a Marmot and I love this rain jacket!!! It is lightweight with pitzips, inner mesh pockets, gasket covered zippers and a bill on the hood that extends out over your face a bit, love that!
Water proof hiking boots; I've chosen Merrell, low profile, waterproof hiking boots. I tried on so many Trail shoes, Cross Trainers and hiking shoes but when I put these babies on they felt like they were made for my feet! In the shape of my feet! It was an amazing difference from anything I tried and I knew at once these were the ones for me. A lot of people might choose a higher shoe and one that supports your ankle. I have high top hiking boots and I wanted to go with lower ones for more flexibility. We'll see if I made the right choice but they are definitely comfy! Of course, I've broken them in first and they feel just great.
Socks - very important! For years I've used Smartwool that my husband turned me on to. They are amazingly warm, non scratchy wool socks that really hold up but they are pricey! Got some for Christmas, perfect! also purchased some Thorlo hiking socks. Just make sure you have one pair for each day. your feet will love the fresh, new socks each day!
Loose fitting hiking pants, wicking shirts, T-shirts, fleece, hat and gloves, long underwear to sleep in or something warm, plenty of underwear and of course, sunglasses. Oh, and don't forget a water bottle or two.

The next thing to concentrate on is my DOPP kit or survival kit or whatever you want to call it with all of the necessary things you'll need for basic bodily comfort and care.
I've included a picture below of most things I'll bring. A bit about what I chose and why;

After many years of hiking and camping I always bring along Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap. That's what it's called! I'm a huge fan and have been using this stuff since I was in my 20's. It's Pure Castile biodegradable soap made with organic oils and 100% vegan. My favorite flavor is Hemp Peppermint (it makes your skin tingle!) but it also comes in Lavender, Almond and a few others. Any hiker/camper worth his conservation minded salt knows about Dr. B's. You can even brush your teeth with it although I've never tried but I do wash my hair with it and even the camp dishes. It's concentrated, a little goes a long way!

Sunscreen - Neutrogena Sunblock Lotion - Sensitive Skin lotion. This stuff is great! I spent a week in the Galapagos, outside all day and never got burned! The Sensitive brand doesn't give you bumps or irritation and is kind to your face. I highly recommend it!

Bug spray - I'm not a big fan of Deet. I like Natrapel made with Picaridin.  I live in Florida and in the summer in my backyard I feel like the main course in a West Nile buffet line! This stuff works for me and doesn't smell too bad either. 

Wipes and hand sanitizer - any kind of towelettes or wipes you can bring will work in this category and then follow with hand sanitizer. 

Here's where the headlamp comes in - ever try to use the restroom with a flashlight? think about it! plus, you'll have hands free around the camp when the sun goes down.

Then the usual suspects -
Toothpaste (I like Tom's of Maine).
Sunscreen for your lips; I like Coppertone Water BABIES sunscreen stick 55 SPF. I use it all year when I'm outside.
Q-tips, band-aids, vitamins, aspirin, Imodium, CIPRO?

Deodorant,... or not. You are gonna sweat and then likely land at the campsite and be wet. There are hot water "Catwash" bowls put out for each individual hiker before each meal by the porters along with some biodegradable soap to wash up. Those wicking shirts for sports/running are great for hiking.

***Some may consider water purifying tablets but you will not need them. The porters boil glacial melt water from nearby streams and purify the water with tablets. It tastes really good and is very safe, not to worry. 

Notice the turquoise towel underneath the products? That's a PACK TOWL made by ThermaRest (they make inflatable camping mats). You always need a towel but who wants to carry a heavy wet towel after clean up? And you don't have time to let it dry. This will be one of your best purchases for camping, backpacking or hiking. This thing can absorb an amazing amount of water. Then just wring it out and it keeps going! And dries in no time hanging it on your tent or your pack.

I'm sure I've forgotten something but I have few days to think about it. Remember to bring plenty of zip-lock plastic bags and enough for your trash. You know the credo, "Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints".

More later......

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

One week to go!!!

Today is Good Friday and I have one week before I return to Peru for the first Road Scholar "Hiking the Inca Trail" program.
I will be shadowing the very first group of brave hikers to tackle this trek of a lifetime with Road Scholar and I am so excited for them all after experiencing just how incredible a trip this is! 
I have covered a description of the trail for the most part in this blog but there is so much more to the program that I will document after this first Road Scholar trip.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Back to Cusco

6 April

Yesterday we toured Machu Picchu and Eddie, our guide, gave us a 2 hour walking tour at the site. There are still many things unknown about MP and yet to be discovered. Just last year explorers discovered new sites at Huayna Picchu, a mountain also considered sacred by the Inca, across from MP and are continuing to excavate at this site.

We arrived about 8 as the morning offered nothing but a heavy downpour and our plans of a sunrise at the site were changed. The rain lets up a bit as we take our walking tour around the grounds. It's incredibly green up at the site.... the llamas must love it! More about the site later.
After the tour we took the bus down to Aguas Calientes and checked out.

We then went for lunch at Pueblo Viejo in Aguas Calientes which has delicious authentic Peruvian food! There is a grill in the middle of the restaurant used for cooking the meat and when you walk in it feels and smells like you're entering someones' home. That incredible smoky smell of a grill! nothing like it! Their buffet is outstanding and they offer wine and beer, as well. You can enjoy the sights on the street while you wait and talk about the trek. We were then treated to an excellent Andean music performance by a local band called Amaru Pumaq Kuntur!

Afterwards, we walk through the town to the railway station for a 2 hour ride back to Ollanta and then a 2 hour van ride back to Cusco. Once the train gets going we are flanked by the raging Urubamba River and people can't help but stare and take pictures, commenting on it's force. It is the end of the rainy season but the rain doesn't want to quit.... 

The Peru Rail Vistadome train is very comfortable and they do serve drinks and snacks on the way. The scenery is pretty fine as you leave Aguas Calientes and the mountain walls slowly open to a widening valley. Lush, bromeliad covered walls give way to higher, drier mountains and beautiful scenery. There are agricultural ruins along the way visible on the hillsides and you find yourself daydreaming of the things you've just seen and learned about and wondering how many years it took to build all these incredible sites. 
We arrive to Cusco;
This is where we said goodbye to Eddie, our guide who had taken such good care of us for 5 days now. Sure we had porters who set up and took down our camp, cooked for us and made sure we were most comfortable but Eddie was our cheerleader, our inspiration and knew this trail like the back of his hand. He had run this trail as a marathon in years gone by and even led races for groups! None of us, even those of us who run, could imagine running these steps as a marathon, EVER! There were walkways so narrow and high it just boggles the mind that anyone could run these mountains, over steps of stone! 
Eddie kept us on track and paced us for arrival to our designated campsites. He gave us site lectures as we came to each spectacular ruin, told stories and kept us laughing.
You don`t have many goodbyes like this on a trek.......

More about the trail later.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Made it!!!

Well, we were the last group to enter Machu Picchu sanctuary through the Intipunku on this day. After a couple of quick pics, we caught the last bus down to Aguas Calientes. I doubt I shall ever see MP again so beautiful and majestic! Everyone was gone but the llamas and we walked down the paths to the exit, silently. After four beautiful days and thousands of steps, it was a site to behold!
We entered the Sun Gate about 45 minutes before and trudged through the light rain. The stone walkways were high and wide and seem to hang off of the mountains with steep drops over the edge. We were cold, wet and sore from so many miles but smiling. The feeling of accomplishing your goal is so powerful! We walked through the last offical gate at MP and celebrated with a hug. We will return in the morning for sunrise and our tour of the complex. And now? a hot shower, dinner and bed! 

Woo hoo! We made it!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Day 4 - Phuyupatamarca to Machu Picchu

We wake about 5:00am, no doubt for the excitement of the day. Lucio reminds us that the sun is about to rise and we scramble up to the lookout, Coca tea in hand. Ah, the hot Coca tea!!! I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s cold up here and in the low 40’s on the high passes. And during our summer months, June, July and August, the temps are even colder. There isn’t much in the way of precipitation and that makes it a popular time to go. Also, school is out and these months sell out way in advance if you decide to do this on your own.
I’ve added a temperature chart below that features the different months and the rainfall, as well. I should also add that the trail is closed in Feb. for the rainy season and for maintenance.

                                 J      F     M     A    M     J     J     A    S     O    N    D

Av. Max Temp C          68    70    70   72   70   70   70   70   72   72   73   72
Av. Min Temp C           45    45    45   40   36   34   30   34   40   43   43   45

Wet days / month       18    13    11    8     3     2     2     2    7    8    12   16

The day is sunny and warms up quickly as we make our way back down to breakfast. This morning we will dine al fresco for our last breakfast on the trail. In the distance we can see another group of porters coming in to make camp for a meal. Eddie tells us they will make their final camp at Wiñay Wayna and then get up in the middle of the night for their final hike to Machu Picchu for the sunrise. We all agree we much prefer the pace of the 5 day 4 night and camping at this incredible site for our last night on the trail.

After breakfast we have the ceremony to thank the chef and the porters for their services and to give them their tips. From here on out we will only have the chef and 2 porters with us for the hike into Machu Picchu. The rest of the porters will go down an alternate trail to catch the local train back to Ollantaytambo and home. You can hear the excitement in their voices as they are talking and laughing while packing up the site, eager to get home.

We say goodbye, take off and now we descend the more tropical side of the mountain range. We hike down to Phuyupatamarka and it is clouded in but beautiful, none the less. This archaeological site also features the sacred cascading baths found at other sites once used long ago by the nobles.

We hike down steep steps that wind down the mountain side and are covered from above with masses of thick growth. The steps can only be negotiated by walking sideways, they are so steep and it is wet so we've got to take it slowly. Flowers and orchids start appearing in huge numbers and soon we are the orchid paparazzi as someone put it, snapping away, picture after picture before Eddie brings it to our attention that we must stay on schedule. But they are just beautiful and in every shape and size!

We hike for 3 and a half hours, through the ever changing cloud forest breaking for a rest and snack. We come to the second tunnel before reaching the Intipata and it is just as fantastic as the previous tunnel and just as steep! At this point in the forest we are at about 9,300 ft. 

An Inca stairway partially cut from living granite finally delivers us to Wiñay Wayna, the largest and most impressive site before Machu Picchu which was discovered in 1941. Built on the steepest hillsides, with many buildings, terraces and sacred fountains, this site is concave and is meant for sun worship. The sacred ritual baths are still flowing today as they are in all of the sites. It's raining so we decide to go for lunch and come back to the ruins after. We move on to the next campsite beyond Wiñay Wayna. There is a building here built for research workers that is now used as a dining area. You can also get a welcome cold beer here!!! The building has bathrooms and there are tent sites nearby. We break for lunch and a beer and we also say goodbye to Quintin, our chef and Julian, who has served us so graciously for the past few days. I've never camped in such a manner and it was quite fine to be met each morning with tea and served our meals high up in Andes. I can't say enough about their services on the trail. They were all fantastic! Soon after, we travel back for a site lecture at Wiñay Wayna archaeological site.

One of the most special orchids on the trail, Wakani Orchid, Masdevalia veitchiana, in Quechua means "you will weep", from an ancient Inca story

Elleanthus Capitatus Orchid

And one of my favorites, Wiñay Wayna, "Forever Young", Epidendrum secundum, can be seen at Machu Picchu easily, as well as at Wiñay Wayna archaeological site and along the trail.

We move now from Wiñay Wayna and continue on the trail as we descend more in elevation and hike for approximately 1 hr and 45 minutes. The ancient stairways are hanging off the steep sides of the mountain and orchids continue to pop up everywhere along the trail. We notice Eddie no longer mentions them as we hike so that we won't stop and we can stay on schedule. I think he's figured us out by now. It is raining a bit and clouds move around us as we hike slowly down to the site.

We finally arrive to the Intipunku and the steps to this sacred and ancient gateway are so steep we laugh as we almost climb on all fours to the top. As we reach the gateway I am so excited and I know that I am experiencing something that I will never forget! It's breathtaking and we are all smiling at this magnificent site, Machu Picchu!!! We made it, and what a trek it has been!
I am nearly moved to tears and stand off to the side to regroup. There are few places where reality exceeds your expectations and I have to say this is truly one of them....

A couple of group pictures and we are on our way. The park is empty and the only living things we see are the llamas munching away in the rain!
We still have 45 minutes to hike down from the stone threshold of Intipunku, "The Sun Gate", go through the ruins and get to the exit gate. We walk in total silence and reflect the last few days hiking and sites.

As we near the exit I notice eveyone looking back, again and again at the site of Machu Picchu devoid of any humans! and I realize that I may never see this again....

Out of the park we are all smiles as we wait for the last bus to arrive that will take us down to Aguas Calientes and we celebrate with a hug! 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Day 3 of the Trail - Pacamayo to Phuyupatamarca

This morning we wake to cool temperatures and a welcome cup of hot Coca tea, compliments of the porters as they arrive to each tent. I like this tea ok but I'm ready for some of the thick, strong coffee that I know will be on the breakfast table, it's cold up here! 

All night the frogs were singing, happy for the rain. It was very soothing and everyone said they slept like babies after our big climb over Warmiwañusca. Our campsite is perched on the side of the mountain and the view down to the valley and surrounding area is outstanding as we have breakfast up in the clouds.
This morning our guide has arranged for an introduction of the porters. He asks them to tell us about themselves, where they are from, if they are married, how many children they have and how many times they have been on the Trail. With pride they step forward one by one and speak about their lives, joking and watching each other talk. One of the porters is almost 60 amazingly and one as young as 22.

A word here about our operator and the porters; the porters are all very well provided for while working on the trail and are given fleece jackets, shirts and hats, as well as shoes. Some of them do not wish to wear the shoes provided, as you can see, but wish to continue to wear the standard rubber sandals that the locals wear in the area. They are also provided with packs that have built in padded waist braces and padded shoulder straps. Provided with excellent food on the trail as well as shelter, your porters are well paid and well taken care of. A portion of the fee paid to our operators also goes to a foundation supporting the porters in the Machu Picchu area. If you chose a company to hike the trail, and all hikers must use porters on this section of the Inka Trail, please be sure to use a company that practices responsible employment/treatment for its' porters.

We finish breakfast and get ourselves ready for the next hike up the steep mountain side to Runkurakay. In the picture below, if you follow the trail of hikers up the trail to the center of the mountain you can barely make out the ruins where we will make our next stop. Above this is the second highest pass on the trail at 13,113 ft. We begin hiking and the trail is tough! I should have had one more cup of java!

Once to the ruins we stop for a lecture and a welcome rest and the ruins are beautiful! This ruin was a tambo or temporary storehouse for llamas/animals and supplies. A refueling station of sorts for the Inca couriers. This small, round construction is not typical of the Inca construction. 
Looking back, we can also see the pass of Warmiwañuska in the distance, as well as, the campsite and the waterfalls. The scale and enormity of the view is absolutely breathtaking as we huff and puff our way up to the site!

We continue on and reach the pass at almost 10:00am after a 20 minute hike. It's raining a bit, cold and windy as we make the pass and the snow capped peaks of the Pumasillo Range come into view. We are now at 12,960 ft. As we descend into the high paramo we pass by two Andean lakes and the trail is flanked by tall bunchgrasses and more flowers. We see a few ducks in the lakes and many black and orange Tanangers along the way. Flocks of parrots cackle as they dash about and we even see a few hummingbirds! But one of the best parts about hiking at this time of year is the beautiful lush growth of the rainy season and the very few hikers on the trail. In fact, other than seeing them across the last campsite, we have not seen many hikers at all.

We hike for 1 hour to Sayacmarca archaeological site, which means Inaccessable Town, consisting of a huge complex of houses and plazas perched on the side of the mountain overlooking the Aobamba Valley. As we hike the steep stairway to the site of this incredible feat of engineering we are in awe!

We are literally hanging off the side of the mountain up in the clouds on this set of ruins, covered in moss and flowers.

After a lecture we leave Sayacmarca and hike for 30 minutes and we notice that the trail becomes more dense with foliage and the sides of the trail are covered with great mats of tiny bromeliads and fantastic looking miniature plants under the brush and trees. We arrive to Chacquicocha for lunch and a well deserved rest stop.

I should mention that there are toilets here for use and they are manned and cleaned often but pretty primitive. There is a thatched roof stone building that is tiled inside and contains toilet stalls but no seated toilets, you have to stand. Wash sinks are located at the entrance/exit and it is still a welcome sight.

We hike a good distance away from this site to a high bluff in the area and lunch is set up for us and waiting.

A feast of bread, tomatos, cucumbers, cheese and Quinoa soup await us. Our main course is pasta with tuna, vegetables and a hard boiled egg. Coca tea and honey is also served and we are happy for the sustenance as it's been a hard hike this morning.
We gather ourselves together to start hiking again and we're clouded in up on this massive plateau, as they move rapidly around us. The trail transforms into a massive buttressed path hanging off of the mountain and constructed of granite paving stones. We are in cloud forest now and the vegetation is becoming very wild looking and suddenly there are orchids and great masses of bromeliads in the trees. Then, we come to our first tunnel, carved from the living rock and it seems we are walking into the side of the mountain like some great chapter from a Harry Potter book!

The trail continues through cloud forest and soon we see Giant ferns, bamboo stands and plenty of orchids. After hiking almost 2 hours, and making the third pass of the days' hike, we camp near a rock pinnacle topped with Inca viewing platforms and they overlook the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful on the trail!

Our campsite is in a protected alcove on top of this gorgeous peak but below an outlook facing the ruins. We have the views of both the snow capped peaks of Salcantay, the Vilcabamba mountain range and a stunning view down the valley towards the Amazon region. It doesn't get much better than this!

Our operators utilize the 5 day - 4 night schedule for the Inca Trail and this affords a bit of a slower pace to enjoy the sites and also avoid having to wake up in the middle of the night to hike out on Day 4 of the trail to Machu Picchu to arrive for sunrise. This makes for a hectic pace. The 5 day 4 night has us arriving to MP in the late afternoon, overnighting in Aguas Calientes and then a sunrise visit to MP on the 5th morning for a full tour of the site.

We sit up on the lookout and take pictures of the ruins and the 360 degree view that is astounding and we know this is a trek that we will never forget! We have tea and a snack back down at the campsite before dinner but the sun is setting and of course, we have to take some group pictures. There are clouds moving in and out and this is without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been! I am here up in the Andes on my way to Machu Picchu and it's better than any fantastic dream I could imagine!

Back down to the campsite again and we are warm in the dining tent as we tell stories and talk about the day's hike. Hot wine is served and we toast the day before our dinner. What a great bunch of people I am with to experience this amazing place! Thanks Franco for taking this one! It isn't long until we're tired and ready to hit the sleeping bags..... Machu Picchu, here we come!