Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is on many of people’s bucket lists. Machu Picchu is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, constructed by the Incas around 1450 A.D. Besides Machu Picchu the Incas also built an elaborate road network across Peru and the surrounding countries connecting temples, waysides, and lookout towers. Technically there are Inca trails scattered all over Peru but “The Inca Trail” is actually the path that Harem Bingham followed back from Machu Picchu after “discovering” the ruins in 1911. Today 70 percent of the Inca Trail is the original Inca masonry. In late September Poppins, Porter, and I set out to check this famous trail off our bucket list.
Hiking the Inca Trail surprisingly required few necessities and little experience. All one needs to complete the Inca Trail is motivation and some auxiliary cash. The Inca Trail is famous, unique, picturesque, and (in terms of famous treks) insanely short. The entire trail is only 26 miles long. All these characteristics factor into the trail being extremely popular for “tourist” trekkers – a popularity the Peruvian tourism bureau has noticed. Numbers on the trail are now strictly regulated and permits to hike can only be purchased through Peruvian travel agencies. At least 2,000 people are hiking the trail on any given day during the peak season. Besides regulating numbers, trekkers MUST be accompanied by a Peruvian certified guide (which the travel agencies are happy to provide) and everyone MUST camp in designated campsites. Besides the huge payday, these regulations are in place to ensure the diverse ecosystems and archaeological sites along the trail are protected.
Along the 26 mile trail a hiker will experience three distinct ecosystems. Day one on the trail consists of dry sparse mountains, a few Inca ruins to be viewed from afar, and sporadic small homesteads. Basically a nature walk, day one was interesting yet short and easy. Day two has the “cloud forest” at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. Day two also holds the most difficult portion of the trail known as “Dead Woman’s Pass”- basically a harsh reality check for those who live close to sea level. I told Poppins “I might be dying…” no less than 12 times on day two. Day three consists of the jungle but we will get to that in a future article. Altitude is our current foe.
We had encountered altitude earlier in Peru and knew it was much harder to hike above 10,000 feet due to the lack of oxygen. Just hike it slow and you will be fine. That’s not what Poppins and I did. We were hiking in a 12 person group and since other people were around, we of course turned it into an unspoken race with our fellow travelers. Porter was having none of our foolishness and hiked her own hike (because she was the smart one). Poppins and I resorted to our old AT pace and it felt good being back in our stride until we hit “Dead Woman’s Pass.” The pass is the highest ascent on the entire trail at 13,800 feet. A half mile from the crest of the pass Poppins and I were gasping for air so badly that we would count off 20 steps aloud and then take a 30 second break. We repeated this process until we reached the top, which took a vexingly long time. Eventually we crested the pass. At the top I felt that the pass should be renamed “Puffing Woman’s Pass” or “Cursing Woman’s Pass” but I guess those aren’t as interesting for the hikers.
Eventually everyone else made their way to the top of the pass, fatigued yet motivated because the hardest part of the trail was now behind us and we were drawing closer to Machu Picchu. Everyone descended the pass into a campsite tucked away in the mountains surrounded by rolling rivers of clouds. We were all cold, wet, tired, yet felt accomplished. Our guide, Freddie, told us the next day was going to be the most beautiful and we all fell asleep feeling like we were about to be rewarded for all our hard work.
P.S.It is called “Dead Woman’s Pass” because it looks like a female figure in the supine position and it is probably the way most trekkers feel upon reaching the top.