Backpacking Machu Picchu, Capital of the Incas

20 miles through the Cloud Forest amidst the company of hummingbirds, fellow adventurers, and Ketchwa guides.

My adventure to Machu Picchu began by helping a beautiful Scandinavian woman dislodge her Osprey backpack from the overhead bin as our plane touched down in Peru. Standing like packed sardines in the center aisle waiting to exit the plane, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to pass the five uncomfortable minutes with a friendly chat, especially if she too were hiking to the ancient Incan city.

“I tried an Osprey pack myself earlier this year when I hiked the Grand Canyon, but the top of the frame kept digging into my shoulders with every step for all fifteen miles.”

She spun around, her rich blonde hair and delicate frame formed an aura about her, but her ocean blue eyes and stoic demeanor commanded my attention, “You must have had a large pack! This is just a daypack, so it’s smaller and doesn’t need a frame. Thirty years ago I would have worn a bag as big as yours, but made from the finest fibers in the Netherlands.”

Her poignant words were balanced with a warm tone, a Dutch delight I was learning firsthand through my work as a Global Marketing Manager. Straightforward, pragmatic, and authentic – the European way.

“The retailer at REI told me: different packs, different backs. You hiking with that to Machu Picchu as well?”

“No, I’m only passing through. I’m on my home from Mongolia.”

“Mongolia!? You’re far from home, and Peru isn’t exactly a connecting flight.”

“No, it isn’t! I was with an expedition trying and unfortunately failing to photograph snow leopards for six months, in the mountains between China and Mongolia.”

“Aw no,” I replied with a sunken heart as the line started to saunter toward the exit. “The Snow Leopard seems so elusive. I can’t imagine those mountains having much in the way of leisure activities, much less for half a year! I’ve claimed this mystical beast as my spirit animals many moons ago, and for good reason. They’re cunning, sure-footed, and defiant against all authority.”

She laughed, clearly a woman with a similar disposition who shared the same respect for the divine beast. “Marjolein,” she said, introducing yourself. “Good luck on your adventure to Machu Picchu, it’s a good one,” she assured me as we went our separate ways.

And with a farewell as brief as our introduction, we parted ways – she rucking her pack to the next terminal, I rucking my pack to Cusco. Peru and my conquest to Machu Picchu would be my first non-business related international travel, and already I could sense the ensuing thrill of adventure after meeting a European in South America.

Day 1 – Arrival to the ancient capital of the Incas

A Valencia Travel representative met me at my gate and gave me all the information I needed to relax and enjoy the beauty of Cusco, Peru’s last bastion before the hike up to Machu Picchu.

When hiking into the mountains, a good rule of thumb is to acclimate to the higher elevation by spending one day per every 5,000 feet in difference of sea level, to allow our red blood cells to adjust to the decrease in oxygen. I was coming from Milwaukee where the elevation peaks at 617 feet; Cusco rests within the Andes Mountains at an intimidating 11,152 feet.

On this first day we were simply encouraged to explore the ancient capital of the Incas ourselves. Armed with a few good ideas, I left my pack at the hotel and set out for Regocijo Square, Cusco’s historical epicenter. After watching a small parade and jovial social demonstration in the San Pedro market, I made my way to Qoricancha – the Temple of the Sun.

The construction of the temple itself was testament to the immense power the Inca yielded over the region. Built entirely of similarly sized stones without the slightest imperfections as opposed to any stone block lying about, the temple’s foundation is a metaphor for the Inca’s cultural power – the capacity to mobilize large-scale labor forces. Pachacuti, Cusco’s 15th century ruler, brought reforms to the region and built an Empire out of its hamlet origins. Starting with Qoricancha, he decorated its walls in sheets of gold, enriched its courtyard with golden edifices, and honored the deceased Incan kings with golden scepters, golden headdresses, and golden tombs.

Unfortunately, like so much of the rich indigenous history of Latin America, Qoricancha was mostly destroyed by Conquistadors. The Spanish colonists stripped the temple of its wealth and built the Church of Santo Domingo atop the Temple’s ruins. But in a righteous twist of irony, major earthquakes severely damaged the church over the centuries, but due to the Incan’s superior interlocking stone architecture, the foundation of Qoricancha remained.

After a full days’ stroll visiting a few more archaeological sites like Sacsayhuaman, Q’engo, Pucapucara, and Tambomachay, it was time to rest for our short field trip to Urubamba Valley the following the day. Sitting on the steps of the Catedral Basílica de la Virgen de la Asunción, I watched the sun dip behind the mountains as a band of motorcyclists rumbled into the square; a final reminder of modernity amidst this ancient plaza.

Motorcycle Gang in Cusco, Peru

A Peruvian motorcycle gang amidst an ancient city made quite an interesting contrast.

Day 2 – Urubamba Valley and the colorful Pisac Market

The following morning, after addressing a few administrative concerns in the lobby of El Mariscal Cusco, our beautiful budget-friendly hotel, we boarded a bus destined for Pisac Market. Just two hours and 12mi (31km) through Urubamba Valley, Pisac is located at the entrance of the Sacred Valley at an altitude of 9,700ft. (2,970m), where we were given the opportunity to test our bartering skills with the local craftswomen.

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A local artisan demonstrating how they create the rich colors in their dyes by crushing together various local resources.

Around lunch time, we were offered to satiate our appetites with the local delicacy – guinea pigs. For those who wish to go as organic as possible, we were even shown the fare caged up right behind us. Fortunately, I brought plenty of almonds and other snacks, so with all the gratuity I could muster, I declined the friendly offer and chose to spare one of the beautiful critters. However, for Peruvians and particularly those in Pisac, the guinea pig is an essential component to their diet. Travelling offers so many rich opportunities to compare and contrast ways of life. Although here in the US many families have turned domesticated guinea pigs into pets, elsewhere families require them as an essential source of sustenance. Neither good nor bad, right nor wrong – just different.

Following Pisac we drove to Ollantaytambo, the oldest continuously occupied town on the American continent. The narrow streets of Ollantaytambo, along with their canals, have not changed much from the time of the Incan Empire. They evoke their ancestral inheritance and give you a feeling of what it would be like to live during this time.

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Overlooking Ollantaytambo

Within Ollantaytambo was our final visit of the day, Chinchero Market, where locals believe to be the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. Large crowds of locals are drawn to its colorful Sunday market, which we were told was much less “touristy” than the market at Pisac.

After a full day of visiting Cusco’s sister cities, we returned to Plaza de Armas in Cusco, forewarned to prepare our minds and bodies for the first of several hikes the following morning.

Day 3 – The Inca trail adventure to Machu Picchu begins

We roused at the ripe hour of 4:00am and boarded the bus to Piskacucho, also known as Kilometer 82, the start of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

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Every expedition starts with a good group photo!

The first day of hiking was an easy 7 miles/12 kilometers of relatively flat terrain. Still within the grasp of civilization, we passed a few occupied houses, but most were abandoned. After a few hours, we reached enough elevation to spot the incredible Incan fortress, Huillca Raccay, and the even more incredible Patallacta.

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Patallacta in all its glory

After a good six hours of hiking, we reached our first campsite in the small village of Wayllabamba, at an elevation of 3,000m/9,842ft. Our reward for this first “warm-up hike” was a gorgeous view of W’akay Willca, a gigantic 5,860m/19,225ft mountain of the Andes.

Day 4 – The trial of the Trail! Over and through 2 passes

I awoke to the sound of birds singing to the morning and humans groaning at their sore muscles. It became immediately apparent that many folks in my group were far less experienced hikers, and that today would be a much more precipitous hike through the mountains. Perfectly fine, it would give me the opportunity to sidetrack a little bit and truly bask in the ancient beauty of these mountains.

Today’s itinerary was to hike 9 miles (31km) through the Urubamba mountain range that divides the jungle and the Andes. After breakfast, we started our first steep ascent towards the highest pass, Abra de Warrmihuañusca. An astounding 13779ft (4200m) in elevation, the sense of achievement having ascended this goliath was felt across every member of our group.

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Abra de Warrmihuañusca, also known as “Dead Woman’s Pass”…perhaps for reasons I’m glad I didn’t ask

After a tranquil serenade from hummingbirds, we descended to cross the second of the day’s two passes – Runkuragay. To appease the botanists of the group, we also meandered through an incredible variety of native plants and trees such as the Polylepis or Q’ueuña trees, which grow in the whimsical cloud forest.

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Runkuraqay pass, with I believe the Vilcanota River below

By the time we reached camp in the evening, I was struck by an untimely spell of dysentery, which I likely came from a creek I used to fill my water bladder earlier in the day. Even after purifying it with a gravity filter, somehow the virus made it through to my water supply. At this point we were two days, twenty miles into the Andes. I had two options: continue forward under immense pain and the increasingly heavy weight of my thirty-pound pack, or call in a helicopter that would require 2 days and $10,000. Naturally, I chose the former. It wasn’t until months after my trip to Peru that I appreciated the situation for what it was – an opportunity to build my mental fortitude. Of course, things could have ended very poorly, but they didn’t. I now knock this experience as a significant point of growth in my life – rarely is the opportunity afforded to see what you’re made of in a near life-or-death situation.

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My two guides who’ve earned my everlasting gratitude for their support as I forced myself through illness and the Andes

I skipped dinner that night, forced water into my stomach, and passed out immediately upon entering camp. The next day I was fortunate to only have wobbly legs from malnourishment.

Day 5 – The Town in the Clouds

The third day was spectacular. With only 6 miles of hiking, we were given ample opportunity to enjoy the journey.

We began with a gentle climb to visit the archaeological site of Phuyupatamarca, the Town in the Clouds. From here, the views of the mountains, canyons, and surrounding were remarkable. After hiking through the cloud forest and past the ancient mountain city of Wiñay Wayna, we arrived at the agricultural Inca site of Intipata, where modernity continues to flourish.

After the day’s labor, the men throughout the tightly-knit Intipata region would gather together for a game of soccer. I remember being filled with a sense of wonder that despite being so isolated and dispersed amongst the many miles of farm fields, soccer was still central to their local culture.

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Intipata nestled in the background. Herds of wild horses and llamas were scattered across the landscape.

We set up camp that night knowing we would catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu the following morning. Enthusiasm spread through the camp as quickly as the dysentery at the thought of catching the sunrise over Machu Picchu the following morning. Whether it was the illness or anticipation, I struggled to sleep knowing that tomorrow was the climax of our journey.

Day 6 – Machu Picchu in its Glory!

Finally, the day of reckoning!

Our guides were wise to plan the bulk of our miles early on so we could appreciate the splendor of our destination. With only 3 miles of hiking on this final day, we were all prepared to greet the ancient city with rejuvenated hearts.

We left camp early to get to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate – our first dramatic view of Machu Picchu – before sunrise. Unfortunately, the entirety of our journey was covered in rain, so it would have been uncharacteristic for the city to present itself in the warm glow of the sun.

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Machu Picchu was designed to be hidden from Conquistadors, so it’s only appropriate for us to be greeted in the same fashion.

If I was feeling better, I would have climbed the massive peak behind it, Huayna Picchu, without hesitation. I can only imagine the stunning view of the city below.

We meandered about the city in our own directions, exploring the magnificent site while also inhaling the fresh breath of accomplishment. The stones felt like history preserved through time. I reminded myself that this city was built to be a safe haven from the encroaching Conquistadors, intentionally hidden deep within the Andes with the explicit purpose to never be discovered. As a person of Native origins here in the US, I paid my respects to the ancestors of this remarkable city before descending to the buses bound for Aguas Calientes.

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A rare glimpse of Machu Picchu covered only partially by cloud.

Like Cusco, Aguas Calientes is a perimeter town for Machu Picchu. Many tourists forego the 30+ miles of backpacking up the Inca Trail in favor of a bus ride from Aguas Calientes. I won’t argue against people unfit for the climb wanting to witness the city themselves; however, taking a bus to the city foregoes the powerful sense of accomplishment one feels at witnessing the sun rise above the city from the Sun Gate after 4 days of 30+ strenuous miles.

Arguably more sensational than Cusco, Aguas Calientes offers beautiful markets, extravagant hotels, and delicious restaurants. Since my trip to Machu Picchu, I’ve longed to return to Aguas Calientes solely to explore this quaint little town.

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail – this journey through the Andes pushed me above and beyond my physical and mental limits. My second multi-day backpacking trip to this point, the Inca Trail carved a distinct lust for adventure deep into my bones. Although my adventure may have come to an end, my journey across majestic landscapes has only just begun.