Thursday, April 7, 2011

Day 1 - Inka Trail - Piskakucho to Huayllabamba

Today is the big day as we begin the famous trail to Machu Picchu this morning, and it can't happen fast enough for me! I'll admit, I didn't sleep very well last night, I was so excited.

On a previous trip to Peru in Oct. of 2010, I was standing with a group in the Machu Picchu sanctuary listening to the guide talk about the Intipunku, the Sun Gate, as the place where hikers enter the park at the end of the trek, I imagined myself coming through that gate one day. Perhaps years later this dream might come true for me but here I was!
It doesn't seem real to me yet. OK, maybe I have some romantic ideas about this whole thing anyway. Camping in high elevations..... ruins along the way..... fantastic Andean plant life and orchids everywhere..... no shower for 3 days? No problem!

After 2 or 3 times of packing and unpacking, I just go with the last bunch of things I've decided on in my duffel (18 lbs) and I know it will not be enough. I'm so excited I really don't care and would have traveled in the same clothes for 4 days to do this hike! really!!!
I would bring one more complete change of lightweight clothes for the last day in my backpack were I to do it again because of obvious reasons. This is tough and you are going to sweat, a lot! Rain gear is a must, you never know in the Andes and you are in a cloud forest. One of the best things I did bring though was a down vest that kept my core warm and dry and mashed down to nothing in packing. And my shoes, of course, the single most important thing to get right, were waterproof and comfortable.

We transfer from the Sacred Valley to the town of Ollantaytambo, where we have breakfast before arriving to the trail head. The town is bustling in the early morning as other porters are waiting for their groups to arrive. Vendors are setting up for business and the smell of breakfast is in the air. This is also an excellent place to get last minute supplies, snacks, memorable photos.

There is an incredible fortress in this town that served as a stronghold for the Manco Inca Yupanqui in the final days of the Spanish conquest. This impressive archaeological site can be visited if you stay in Ollantaytambo a day before the  trek or after. It is incredibly beautiful and not to be missed! Full of history and an amazing architectural feat of the Inca. It is also located in a town of original dwellings of ancient Inca times, still inhabited today. 

After breakfast we drive about 30 minutes to the staging area for the trail. Everywhere there are fields full of deep red quiñoa, fava beans and potatoes, waiting to be harvested. It is green and lush in this last week of March and flowers are abundant in the yards and gardens.
The porters arrive with all of the supplies and begin to methodically fill their satchels, talking quietly and working swiftly. The chef is in charge and he directs the men with smiles as they work. You can see they have done this many times as the supplies disappear quickly into the bags. I am happy to see eggs being loaded into plastic camping egg cases. Yippee, no powdered eggs on this trip!  
They weigh each bag as they will have to pass strict rules for porters at the control gate, limiting their packs to a restricted weight. They are allowed to carry 20kg or 55lbs, including 4kg for personal items. Each porter is weighed at the start of the trail and then again at Huallyabamba at the start of the second day. This regulation was introduced in 2002 and is strictly enforced. Companies that are caught overloading their porters receive fines and risk losing their permits or licenses.
Many of the porters come from the Patacancha community and have been porters on the trail for many, many years.

Our guide Eddie gives us the "Let's go!" and we begin the walk down the road along the river to the entry gate at KM 82 to show our passports and get our tickets. As we descend, the roar of the Urubamba River gets louder and louder, churning wildly.

A word here about your passport; at the entrance/checkpoint, if you show up with a passport that says something different than what you applied with, you are not getting a ticket...period! Everything needs to be in order, including your name, number and expiration date of your passport.
Give careful consideration to this matter when giving your information for this trip.                                                                                                                                                           

We cross the bridge about 10:30 and off we go! Everyone can't help but look back several times as we climb a small incline and move up away from the river. The unknown lies ahead but nothing could be more exciting!

We slowly climb and the trail takes us to a lookout point where we stop for a short briefing about our hiking schedule. There are flowers everywhere on the trail and the Urubamba Canyon is lush, green and vibrant! As we hike Eddie identifies some of the plants and what they are used for.
The trail evens out and it's flat and easy hiking for awhile. There are small houses along the way and villagers along the trail transporting animals and goods.

A little later we turn to see our porters coming up the trail to pass us! The trail starts to climb a bit but they are unfazed as they blaze right past us!
This is where we learn about some important words, derecho and izquierda.
Derecho is spanish for right and izquierda is spanish for left. If you happen to notice the porters coming up behind you it is polite to yell one of these directions so that everyone gets over for the porters, they are carrying heavy packs! Just be sure to always step aside on the high side of the trail or against a wall and never on the open side of the trail for obvious reasons.

We pass more small huts and houses and a couple of chicha stands before we stop for a break and at this point we have been hiking for an hour and a half. We come to Llaqtapata (or Patallaqta, both are correct) on the Cusichaca side river and have a small site lecture about the ruins.

We continue on and this is where the trail starts to climb a bit. As we move away from the ruins the trail winds and huge rock walls appear covered with beautiful bromeliads in many shapes, sizes and colors! We stop at Satapunku for a snack about noon and then continue on until we reach the first pass at 1:10pm. If the skies are clear you may see the famous mountain Veronica from here but we are not so lucky. However, the views are breathtaking as clouds are moving in and out of the valley and we imagine what is to come.
We hike on to our lunch spot, Tarayoc, so named for the Tara plant whose beans are used in a tea for stomach aches and also as a dye for wool. Imagine our delight to see the dining tent set up and the table set for our arrival!

What a site for a lunch stop!
but it just gets better!

Stuffed avocado & papas rellenas!
After bread, cheese and fresh vegetables for appetizers, lunch arrives and is outstanding and we are all amazed at the dishes that come out of the cook tent! Works of art and art that tastes incredible! Stuffed avocado with papas rellenas; mashed potatoes stuffed with cheese and fried, yummy! The salad is chicken salad but also a dish is adapted for a vegetarian in our group and contained freshly chopped vegetables.

After this luxurious lunch and pampering by Julian, our head waiter, and the incredible cooks, it was time to get going again. Fill up your water jug and put on your pack and hopefully, you didn't eat too much! It's hard not to, the food is so good!
Powdered Gatorade is available, btw to add to your water. Coffee and coca tea for breakfast and iced orange tea are also offered.

We begin hiking again and hike for approx 1 hour and 45 minutes to our first campsite at Huayabamba, 9,777 ft.
This campsite marks the last place where people inhabit the trail and animals can be brought onto the trail. It also marks the place where up to this point, the guide reserves the right to send an unqualified, injured or sick hiker back out of the Inka Trail park to the entrance. 
The reason this is worth mentioning is that this is the last day that a person can be transported out on an mule or horse and if there is an injury after this point the hiker would have to be carried by the porters if they were not able to walk on their own. The other very important reason is that if the hiker is sent back it is at their own expense.

Huayabamba ruins

We arrive to a lush valley surrounded by snow covered mountains peaks as the sun is beginning to set. There are small houses and children playing and there in a cleared meadow are our tents, set up and ready with our bags beside the door waiting for us. We can hear the rush of a glacial stream nearby and it looks like a great place to relax!

Toilet tent

Toilet tent

A word here about the campsite and conveniences. The toilet tents are set up at each camp by the porters. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer are provided. There will be a mens' and womens' tent set up for the groups, as well.

A great feeling of accomplishment is felt by all as the first days' hike has been completed and the porters clap as we enter the camp. We relax and wash up with hot water and biodegradable soap provided by our amazing caretakers. Now I don't mean to keep bringing up the food but this night we had trout fried in Quiñoa, mashed potatoes and vegetables, preceded by an incredible tomato soup and finished with bananas flambe! Bourdain would be impressed!
It was a pretty warm evening in this beautiful valley and we sit and talk for awhile before heading off to our tents. I am too excited to sleep but drift in and out as it rains extremely hard through the night. Our tents do the trick though and keep us dry.

A word here about the tents and equipment;
Our operator uses new REI equipment, including 1.75 mats, REI Halo bag, sex specific +10F 750 downfilled, 2 man tent for the singles and 3 man tent for the doubles, including fly. This gives plenty of room to move around and also for your duffel. Sleep tight!


  1. Salkantay trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.

  2. Yes, an excellent hike and I went with Mountain Lodges of Peru in 2014, it was fantastic!!!